Do you remember that stretch of games from Alvin Robertson back in November of 1986? He was a third-year shooting guard for the Spurs out of the University of Arkansas already established as being a tough defender. Hell, he’d already been named to the All-Star team in his second season when he set the NBA record for steals-per-game with 3.7. 29 years ago, starting on November 15th, 1986, Robertson came out with seven steals against the Suns, then followed it up with five more games of six steals or more with a streak-high of ten steals against the Clippers on November 22nd.
In the ensuing 29 years, the longest streak of six steals or more that any player amassed was two games. It’s not easy to do. There’s a knack to steals that’s part anticipation, part gamble, part identifying the sucker at the table. I’ve seen Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul take risks that leave backline defenders painfully naked, caught between speeding point guards on the front and soon-to-be alley oop dunking giants on the back, but hey, it’s taking the risk for an easy bucket and being a thief doesn’t always equate with being a great defender, but getting six or more steals several games in a row means you’re doing at least something right.
So it came as a surprise when the Philadelphia 76ers and their 0-18 roster produced some kind of off-kilter heir to Alvin Robertson in this kid Robert Covington. Covington was born back in 1990, a good four years after Robertson was stalking NBA teams and taking the ball from them with unprejudiced kleptomania. And with all the Stocktons, Jordans, and Pauls that have hunted the ball over the years, it’s the 6’9” 24-year-old from Tennessee State that sniffing around at what hard ass Robertson reached all those years ago.
Put the basektballs away when the Alvins and Robert come over
Unfortunately, the depth of NBA.com’s stats database doesn’t allow us to go back and scout out every one of those Robertson steals, but we can look at all of the Covington thefts over these past three games. Covington’s streak started less than a week ago on November, 25th with six steals against the Celtics. It was in a losing effort like all Philadelphia games this year, but his opportunistic instincts were on display. He was beaten by Jae Crowder on a screen, but used his long arms to poke the ball away from behind and force the TO. He capitalized on a full-court press, played help defense, stripped a defensive rebounder, and made himself a nuisance to the Celtics. Reviewing his six steals against Boston wasn’t overly impressive. He made decent plays, but I needed to see more.
Against Houston when Harden dropped 50 with nine TOs, Brett Brown got creative or desperate or something and slid Covington over to the five. In the end it didn’t make a difference, but again, the long SF/PF/C took full advantage of a Houston team (and Harden) that struggles nearly as bad as Philly does when it comes to taking care of the ball. He was directly responsible for at least four of Harden’s nine turnovers while also seizing upon young Clint Capela like the tiger on the savanna feasting on the naïve goat. Tiger Covington kicked some Rocket ass with 28 points and eight steals and broader defensive array than what I saw against Boston. Reading the passer’s eyes (in a couple cases Harden telegraphing passes) and identifying un-sure-handed opponents (Capela) allowed him to take advantage of their mistakes.
Finally, on the 29th of November, the streak continued in what was, based on the tape, his best effort yet. Instead of being the opportunistic poacher I saw against Boston and Houston, Covington swallowed defenders, poking and prodding at the ball with go-go gadget arms. He picked the pocket of sure-handed Mike Conley twice, stripped Jeff Green, and read passing lanes with eyes attached to a head that is on a constant swivel on defense. Six more steals against the Grizz, but he offset those with an ugly eight turnovers.
That’s six, eight, and six steals in consecutive games paired up with four, four, and eight turnovers for a steal-to-turnover rate of 1.3:1 (21 to 16) which is a suspect ratio for a wing.
Covington is no Alvin Robertson. Robertson averaged 2.7 steals/game for his career and we haven’t seen a guy average 2.7 steals/game for a season since CP3 in 2008-09. Covington, like the rest of these Sixers, is nigh impossible to get a true read on because the circumstances deviate so far from what we’re used to analyzing. I don’t have a clue how or what Covington becomes, but his current stretch in 2015-16 is, in its own compartmentalized way, impressive. In nine games he’s appeared in this season, he’s giving Philly 3.6 steals/night while pulling off a streak we haven’t seen in close to 30 years. On December 1st, the Sixers host the Lakers and all their on and off-court mega-circus act. I don’t have a clue what happens in this game, but it’s likely at least one of Philly’s current streaks will come to an end.