This time a year ago, LA Clippers power forward Robert Covington was eager to begin his tenth NBA season out of Tennessee State. The 2018 All-Defensive First Team selection was traded to the Clippers from the Portland Trail Blazers a week before the 2022 NBA trade deadline, and LA was Covington’s fifth city in four seasons. He was already weary of the constant transactions, but he also fit the Clippers seamlessly for the second half of the 2021-22 NBA season as a backup big behind starting forwards Nicolas Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. and next to backup center Isaiah Hartenstein. Covington anticipated a fun 2022-23 season so much that he didn’t even test free agency, choosing to sign a two-year extension in May 2022 that lined his deal up with stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.
Except — nothing about the 2022-23 season was fun for Covington.
Someone was always going to be on the short end of the stick with the surplus of wings that president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank had accumulated. Covington was in head coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation in the first two weeks of the season, partly due to the absence of a center behind starter Ivica Zubac in the wake of Hartenstein’s departure to the New York Knicks. But once Covington left the lineup due to health and safety protocols at the end of October, he never found a consistent stretch of minutes again.
At first, Covington understood the sacrifice he was asked to make. But things made less sense to him as the season went on. Covington was bracing to be traded in February, only for him to remain on the roster with Morris starting and Batum in the second unit. Even when Morris’ struggles persisted into the spring and George and Leonard would suffer season-ending knee injuries, Covington’s opportunities to play were sporadic at best. The result: only three games all season with at least 30 minutes, and only 19 games overall with at least 20 minutes. It was the fewest minutes per game (16.2) Covington played in a season since he was an undrafted rookie with the 2013-14 Houston Rockets.
On this particular August day, Covington played at the invite-only pro pickup runs at UCLA facilitated by Rico Hines, who is now on Nick Nurse’s coaching staff with the Philadelphia 76ers. As trade talks come and go, Covington got to play with younger Clippers teammates such as Terance Mann, KJ Martin, Bones Hyland, Brandon Boston Jr., and rookie Jordan Miller against the likes of Toronto Raptors’ (Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Gradey Dick, Jalen McDaniels), Philadelphia 76ers’ (De’Anthony Melton, Paul Reed, Mo Bamba), and NBA G League Ignite. Also in attendance: Frank and 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey.
There was a time when Covington was worried about trade rumors and extra noise. The Clippers have a roster where the logjam at Covington’s position still exists, and if anything, it may be even more pronounced after the additions of Martin and first-round rookie Kobe Brown.
But Covington and his young teammates played well together, winning five straight games to end the day at UCLA. Covington mixed in his usual game of catch-and-shoot 3s on offense and deflections on defense with some aggressive drives, including a baseline fadeaway that caught Siakam by surprise. It’s all a part of a summer for Covington that has included playing in the Nashville Pro-Am, running camps, and staying in top shape for his age 32 summer.
In a one-on-one with The Athletic in LA, Covington spoke about where his focus is at right now, what he took away from last season, and how he intends to handle the upcoming season.
So you post on your stories a lot. And I’ve seen you working a lot this summer. I saw the one time you put the numbers up on the scale — like 228 or something like that. How do you feel physically right now? How do you feel about your game?
I feel great. People been trying to get me to do a lot, put out a lot. Nah. We’ll see this season. I got a vendetta. It’s a bigger chip on my shoulder. Not playing that much last year really put me in a place — all right. I got to force them. So, come back, do what I got to do. They say this is the mentality of, you know, come back strong, get better. That way, it won’t be none of that. Won’t be no issues of, whatever the case. … It’s the way the year went. It wasn’t how I expected, but I said it’s come back, go to the drawing board, and get better.
One of the things you were really open about when you got to the Clips in the first place was how you kind of got to be prepared for anything in terms of moves and whatnot. And you signed your extension. You had what your expectations were with the team before the way the year went. You’re in another contract year. You’ve been in this place in your career many times before. How do you feel like it’s different this time compared to all the previous times?
It ain’t no difference. Only difference is that I didn’t play last year. I mean, that’s the only difference. I approach every chance, every opportunity like that —it’s no different. So my mentality don’t shift, I don’t get discouraged or anything. I got to do what I do. And I do what I do best. So I’m never going to stray away. Never going to stray away from anything of that nature. I am going to be who I am, and that’s just what it is.
You’ve had a few months away from the end of the season. What do you kind of take away from last season and what kind of feedback did you get?
I didn’t take nothing from last year. Last year didn’t go how I expected, so I didn’t take nothing from it. I just wash it away and start over, a new year. That’s just my mentality of it. … It’s nothing that could be talked about. I mean, I really haven’t had much feedback besides, you know, what I’ve been doing now. I haven’t talked about last year. I’ve put that behind me and focused on right now and moving forward. That’s what it’s all about. Can’t dwell on what happened last year, whatever the case may be. It happened. So I’m just gonna wash, move forward.
How do you get ready for next year outside of the work that you’re putting in? I see you today, when you’re not in LA and everything. How do you kind of say, “I’m going to go in the camp with with the best foot forward?”
I do it every year. I approach every summer. I approach every summer the same way. You know, my work ethic doesn’t change. I don’t go into no situation thinking like, “Oh, I’m going to do something differently.” Like, no. What I do in the season is what I primarily focus on. I do some more ballhandling and stuff like that in the summertime, playing off the ball, playing more pick and rolls on ball, doing a lot of different things. But that’s just pushing myself to a different area, a different limit. So just pushing myself.
Have you gotten a chance to talk to T. Lue?
Do you think that conversation will happen at some point?
If it do, it do. If it don’t, I won’t dwell on it. I focus on control, what I control, and I go out and do my job. Whatever happens, happens. I haven’t talked to T (Lue) since the season ended.
You’ve gotten to play with these young guys. KJ is here now. Jordan Miller, Kobe Brown. Like you got to play with them quite a bit today. What’s your takeaways from the new young guys?
Man. Those guys are going to be special. I like Jordan’s tenacity, his pressure on defense, I like his cutting off ball. I like the plays and reads he made. The other guys came up here and played really well. You know, BB is starting to get better. Bones is getting better. KJ is athletic as hell. He’s gotten so much better. It is great to sit up here and see them dudes sit up here and prosper.
We’re not in camp until Oct. 2. What do you want to do between now and then in terms of enjoying your time in addition to getting ready for the season? Personally and professionally?
I do my work, I go home, be a dad. You know, there’s some things that have been finally put in place with no interruption. You know, I just enjoy spending time with my little girl. And it’s all I focus on. Whenever I have her, that’s what it’s all about. I’m a father first, family man. My daughter is my world. So when basketball is out, once I’m done within those four lines. Basketball is off my mind. I go home and be a dad. When I have my daughter that’s my focus. I go home and be a dad? There’s nothing else.
(Top photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)