Brett Brown: Shutting Down Robert Covington, Jahlil Okafor ‘right Thing to Do'

CLEVELAND -- The season is over for Robert Covington and Jahlil Okafor. 

The news on Okafor was somewhat expected this late in March. Okafor had missed his last four games with right knee soreness and did not join the Sixers on their current two-game road trip. 

Covington's injury, a slight tear of the lateral meniscus in his right knee, happened just this Tuesday. He also remained in Philadelphia while the team reviewed the scan. They are still considering options for treatment and surgery has not been ruled out.

With six games remaining after Friday's matchup against the Cavaliers, timing played into the decision to shut down both players. 

"At this stage of the year, it seems like it's the right thing to do," Brett Brown said before the game. "I know that they're very disappointed about not being here with the team and being able to see this through, but I think it's borderline zero doubt that this is the right thing to do."

Okafor's second year was cut short by a right knee injury just like his rookie campaign. Last March he underwent season-ending surgery to repair a tear in his meniscus. What was expected to be a relatively quick recovery time (four-to-six weeks) lingered into this season. He missed the beginning of training camp and was sidelined for a total of 11 games with right knee soreness before being ruled out. 

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Okafor also missed one game for hamstring tightness, three for gastroenteritis and two for rest.

Injuries weren't the only obstacle for Okafor. He was caught in a logjam on centers, at times finding himself in the starting lineup and others riding the bench. Okafor was so heavily involved in trade talks the Sixers held him out of games and a road trip. 

This season he appeared in 50 games and averaged 11.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 22.7 minutes.

"Jahlil, I feel for personally because he has had such an erratic opportunity from the start of the year to the end of the year," Brown said. "I think he had signs of fantastic play. I think he had signs of disappointment. I think to make any level of judgement is kind of grossly unfair because of the erratic nature of his health and opportunities. 

"There were times he was good-to-go and I chose not to play him when we had our abundance of five men. I think all of us would look at some of those games when he did have opportunity and was able to get his touches, have his opportunities, and he scores."

Covington, on the other hand, locked in the starting small forward role. He thrived on the defensive end and emerged as a team leader in his fourth season. He started off the season struggling from long range and broke out of the slump with more aggressive shots at the basket. 

Covington averaged 12.9 points (33.3 percent from three), 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.9 steals in 31.6 minutes over 67 games. Brown often pointed out the stats that don't appear in the box score, such as deflections, differentials and points allowed. 

He sat one game earlier this month for right knee soreness, three because of a left knee sprain and three more for a right hand contusion.

"Really by all standards (he) had his best year in the NBA," Brown said. "He grew to a level that was respected around the league as a legitimate two-way player. When you look at all the analytics, the abundance of stats that are now available to us, you saw what he does when he's on the floor with us … All over the place you say he's improving and to me becoming one of our poster childs in regards to development."

Covington and Okafor aren't the first members of the Sixers to be hit with knee injuries. Joel Embiid suffered a left knee contusion and later underwent season-ending arthroscopic surgery for a meniscus tear in the same knee. Nerlens Noel also had surgery in October to fix an inflamed plica in his left knee. Nik Stauskas missed one game for left knee soreness and another for a right knee contusion. 

When asked about the multitude of knee injuries this season, Brown replied, "To point at some reason that this has happened would be reaching, I think. But it's just one of those, I think you go through sport, our sport especially of basketball, especially NBA basketball, I think they're quite common."

These injuries now create opportunities for others to develop with less than two weeks remaining.

Justin Anderson will take over Covington's role as starting small forward. He will also back up Dario Saric at power forward as Covington had done. One of the reasons the Sixers acquired Anderson in February was for his versatility. 

"That sucks," Anderson said of Covington's injury. "(I will focus on) being able to try to fit in and do what I do best to help contribute to our team. It's not about trying to recreate the wheel, be a superstar, become something in this last 10-game stretch. It's important to try to gain the trust of my teammates and coaches and doing whatever it takes to win."

Richaun Holmes will continue his rise from backup-to-the-backup to starting center. He is averaging 14.0 points and 6.9 rebounds in that role, including a career-high 25 points against the Hawks on Wednesday.

Shawn Long will be on the receiving end of bench minutes. He has reached double digits in four of his last five games with a double-double in that mix. 

"It was unfortunate what happened to Jahlil," Long said. "My game isn't perfect, there's a lot I can improve on. On the defensive end, I want to be improve there, foot movement ... I look forward to progressing and getting better and growing with the team."

The Sixers have nine players available, including Tiago Splitter who is limited to three-to-four minute segments after missing 13 months of basketball. Sergio Rodriguez is out with a left hamstring strain and will be re-evaluated on Monday. There is a possibility the Sixers could address the shorthanded roster by adding another player for the remainder of the season.

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