When the Clippers acquired Austin Rivers in 2014, everyone understood Doc Rivers was giving his son a chance few other teams would have after a disastrous start to his career. Austin struggled so much in New Orleans that the Hornets declined the fourth-year option on his rookie deal—a rare decision for a 22-year-old who was taken with the tenth overall pick.
It looked like nepotism at its finest, but over the past four seasons in Los Angeles, he’s developed into a solid player for the Clippers, even as the team has transitioned away from the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin era. Last season he career-highs in points, assists, and rebounds per game and shot the best three-point percentage of his career.
To get a better understanding of how Rivers developed in Los Angeles, I talked to Robert Flom of Clips Nation to get a better understanding of what clicked, and what he can bring to the Wizards this season.
When Rivers first came to the Clippers, he looked like a guy on his way out of the league. What clicked in LA that helped him become a serviceable player, and do you think he can keep it up in a new environment?
More than anything else, I think Austin worked on his game. He doesn’t talk about working out all the time, or give off that “gym rat” vibe (like a Victor Oladipo, for example), but he is probably one of the hardest workers in the NBA. Look, he was horrible in his first couple seasons in New Orleans: he was one of the worst players in the NBA. However, since then, he’s focused on improving a few very tangible skills, and that dedication has paid off. Since he’s been a solid player for a couple seasons now, and his improvement has very little to do with previous team situation, I think he should still be the same level of player in Washington.
Rivers’ most obvious improvement is as a three-point shooter. When he entered the NBA he was a low-volume, low-efficiency shooter who was streaky on catch-and-shoot threes and a disaster off the dribble. Last year he hit 37.8 percent of his threes on nearly 6 attempts per game, with many of them being difficult step-backs. He’s perfectly content to play off-ball as well, but his ability to truly create his own shot is night-and-day compared to when he came to the Clippers. This shooting should help him both bolster the Wizards’ offense when Wall and Beal are sitting (they should be staggered anyway but probably won’t) and fit snugly alongside them in smaller lineups. If anything, I’d expect his percentages to go up next year, as he should be taking somewhat easier shots on average.
Do you think Rivers has the chops to be the primary playmaker on a second unit, or should Washington focus on using him as a secondary playmaker off the wing?
I think Rivers can absolutely be the primary playmaker on a second unit. He’s greatly improved at making plays for others over the past season or two, and no longer has blinders on with the ball in his hands. I wouldn’t throw him out with units that are full of limited offensive players: he’s not going to carry a bench squad to a solid offense by himself. But on Washington’s bench, with Satoransky, Kelly Oubre, and even Jeff Green around him? He should be fine with the ball in his hands a significant amount of the time.
I do believe Austin will mostly look at his best in Washington when playing off one (or both) of Wall and Beal as a secondary or tertiary playmaker, but he certainly has the chops to run a reserve offense on his own.
Rivers is a very polarizing player, especially when it comes to his defense. When I watch him, it looks like he competes well and makes an impact, but most of his advanced defensive metrics are very poor. Where do you think the discrepancy lies?
Defense is one of the other areas where Austin made huge steps early in his Clippers’ tenure. His offense was still relatively bad at the time, so he homed in on defense as a way to get playing time on a contending team with limited minutes available. I think his best season as a defender was probably back in 2015-2016, when he had less responsibility on offense, but he was definitely not a bad defensive player last season.
Clippers’ fans have wondered about that same discrepancy between defensive metrics and the “eye-test” for years. If I had to guess, I’d put it down to three things. The first is that I don’t particularly trust defensive metrics. If they all say the same thing about someone I’d give some weight to the numbers, but defense still seems very hard to quantify, and I’m not sure any individual statistic has really done a good job yet. The second is that Austin played many of his minutes earlier in his Clippers’ tenure alongside Jamal Crawford, who is one of the worst players defensively in the NBA (he single-handedly dragged down the Wolves defense last year despite coming off the bench).
Lineups with Austin were therefore likely to be worse defensively, especially since the Clippers’ starters were usually pretty good on that end. Finally, Austin has also spent a fair amount of time in Doc Rivers’ beloved three-guard lineups. And when he did so, even though he’s not exactly large for an off-guard, he mostly defended small forwards. While Austin competed against those guys, he’s just too small to really bother their shots, and they could back him down in the post as well.
Now, I don’t think Austin is a stopper or anything. He’s still prone to lapses off-ball on occasion, and he isn’t super-versatile switching out on the perimeter. But he’s a mostly solid defender who can do a fine job on most guards, and can be placed on bigger players sometimes as long as they aren’t shot creators. I think he will be a significant upgrade on that end over the parade of sieves the Wizards have trotted out as reserve guards over the years.
The Clippers went through two big identity changes when Chris Paul left and then when Blake Griffin left. How did Rivers adapt to those changes and how do you think he’ll adjust to Washington?
I briefly mentioned this above, but Austin Rivers took on a much bigger role last year. His 33.7 minutes played per game were a career high by a wide margin, as were his 13.2 shots attempted. And while his raw field goal percentage fell, his three-point shooting improved even with a higher volume and greater level of difficulty. Similarly, pressed into increased ball-handling duties, Austin performed well, dishing out 4 assists (also a career high by a significant margin) to just 1.8 turnovers. Essentially, he went from a 5th or 6th option on offense (team-wide) to 3rd or 4th, and mostly was able to meet the increased expectations. He’s still not a great playmaker for others, but he’s improved in that regard, and is now comfortable running the offense, even when playing with offensively limited options.
In Washington, Austin will probably revert more to the role he played in previous seasons as a more complementary piece, so I think his adaptation will be very smooth. He should always be playing alongside at least one other ball-handler (Tomas Satoransky and Troy Brown (?) off the bench, or Wall and Beal with the starters), which means he won’t have to create for himself or others as much. It might be a bit of an adjustment after last year, but even then he played plenty alongside Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic, both of whom had the ball in their hands a lot.
If there are worries about Austin losing minutes and shots compared to last season and causing locker room issues, I’d forget about them. While there were teammates uncomfortable with Doc trading for and then coaching Austin, most of his teammates have had positive relationships with him. He’s a cool, chill guy off the court, loves to work on his game, and is a competitor on the hardwood. On the Wizards, away from the nepotism charges that (unfairly) dogged him in LA, I think Austin will shine.
There are some similarities in DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard’s games. How did the Rivers-Jordan dynamic work on the court last season and how do you think that will translate when he has to share the floor with Howard this season?
I wouldn’t say that Austin Rivers and DeAndre Jordan had a fantastic connection last year, or in previous years. Austin definitely got better at throwing lob passes (after being notoriously horrible in early seasons), but he didn’t have nearly the dynamic with DJ that guys like Lou Williams or Milos Teodosic did. However, Austin is naturally a scorer, and DJ’s screens did free Austin up significantly. Austin was frequently able to snake his way to the basket once he got the trailing defender on his hip, setting up his beloved floater. Dwight’s massive shoulders should help do the same for Austin, putting him in prime position to work his way towards the hoop. Additionally, Austin’s step-back three proved a lethal weapon against switches, which happened frequently when DJ set picks at the top of the key. While Dwight has been known to set lazy screens at times, he should still be a nice option for Rivers on the pick and roll.
Many thanks to Robert for answering my questions on Austin Rivers. You can check out the other part of our talk—where I give Robert the low-down on Marcin Gortat and Mike Scott—over at Clips Nation.