Robert Covington’s transformation into Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon has sparked the Houston Rockets’ defensive dominance in the playoffs.
Houston Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon is rightfully considered one of the greatest defenders in the history of the NBA. His resume includes two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, nine All-Defensive teams, the most blocked shots in league history, and the 10th-most steals ever.
Olajuwon was at his absolute peak in 1994 as he won Defensive Player of the Year, MVP, and the NBA championship. Throughout the Rockets’ playoff run, Olajuwon was an absolute terror on the defensive end en route to the franchise’s first championship. Now 26 years later, the Rockets once again find their defense led by a fantastic defensive center. His name, Robert Covington— wait, what?
Robert Covington is not the all-around player Hakeem Olajuwon was, but his defense has been nearly as impressive as The Dream’s was during his famed 1994 playoff run. Before getting into how, I must explain that the era these two played in must be taken into account.
In the 1993-94 season, teams averaged 5.2 blocks and 8.9 steals in 95.1 possessions per game. In 2019-20, teams averaged 4.9 blocks and 7.6 steals in 100.3 possessions per game. This means When Hakeem patrolled the paint, both blocks and steals were far more common on a per-possession basis than they are in today’s game.
Per 100 possessions, teams averaged 5.46 blocks and 9.35 steals in 1994 and 4.88 blocks and 7.57 steals in 2020. What does this mean? Simply put, one steal in 2020 is worth 1.24 steals in 1994, and one block in 2020 is worth 1.12 blocks in 1994. Let’s compare Covington’s defensive output in this year’s playoffs next to Hakeem’s from 1994.
Per 100 Possessions Blocks Steals Defensive Rating
Robert Covington (2020) 1.9 3.8 100
Hakeem Olajuwon (1994) 5.0 2.2 97
Hakeem looks like he was allowed to play defense with a tennis racket the way he blocked shots, but Covington has been Danny Ocean in the bubble. Remember, blocks and steals were more common back in 1994, so what would Covington’s output look like if he had been patrolling the paint back in 1994?https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/09/08/0041900223/226/314387e2-42d7-334f-f72f-28f36f7b4809_1280x720.mp4
In 1993-94 steals occurred 24 percent and blocks 12 percent more frequently than they did in 2019-20. As such, Covington would have been expected to produce 4.7 steals and 2.1 blocks per 100 possessions if he had played in the 1994 playoffs.
So while Hakeem combined for 7.2 blocks plus steals in 1994, Covington would have been right behind him with 6.8 blocks + steals. Hakeem appears to have a slight edge over Covington on the defensive end, but there is one area that surprisingly gives the advantage to Covington.
Covington’s surprising defensive edge over Olajuwon
Through the Rockets’ 1994 playoff run to a championship, Hakeem Olajuwon’s defensive rating per 100 possessions was 97. This postseason, Covington’s has been 100. The lower the defensive rating, the better, but that doesn’t quite tell the full story. Back in 1994, the league average defensive rating per 100 possessions was 106.3, but in 2020 it is 110.6.
Hakeem’s overall defensive rating was lower than Covington’s but compared to his era, it wasn’t nearly as impressive. Covington’s mark of 100 is 9.6 percent better than the league average, while Hakeem’s mark of 97 was only 8.8 percent better. The margin is very thin, but Covington’s defensive rating currently edges Hakeem’s remarkable run from 1994.https://videos.nba.com/nba/pbp/media/2020/09/06/0041900222/420/97e56b03-6041-bf1d-7c39-a55a35195299_1280x720.mp4
Robert Covington started the season as a power forward on a lottery-bound Timberwolves team but is going to finish it as an offense-wrecking center pushing for a championship. His performance this postseason has to be one of the most surprising in history, and he has earned his place to be mentioned beside one of the all-time greats.
As fantastic as Covington has been, he has only done this over 10 games, while Hakeem was able to keep up this level of defensive production over 23 games and through the Western Conference and NBA Finals. The point isn’t to determine who is the better defender.
The point is to appreciate how amazing both played. Hakeem is no doubt watching, with a smile on his face, as Robert Covington continues to play like “The Dream.”