It was not so long ago that Austin Rivers was considered an enormous NBA draft bust, owner of one of the worst rookie debuts in modern memory. A few strong postseason performances have almost completely changed the narrative.
The Los Angeles Clippers' season ended on a disastrous note, as they watched a 3-1 series lead against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals evaporate in a haze of hesitancy, sloppy defense and missed jump shots. Rivers' strong play was one of the few sweet spots in the sour experience of these playoffs.
Just two-plus years into his career, Rivers flirted with irrelevancy when the New Orleans Pelicans sent him to the Boston Celtics in January. The return for the Pelicans was Quincy Pondexter, a middling three-and-D wing, and a second-round draft pick. The Clippers grabbed him in a second trade three days later before he could play a single game for Boston, and he finished the season trying to find his footing on their bench.
Of course, it's worth mentioning that his GM and coach in Los Angeles also happens to be his father—Doc Rivers.
The move was widely criticized as nepotism run amok. Given the younger Rivers' struggles to that point, the trade certainly implied a father offering his son an opportunity he may not have earned. It had been a long fall for the former 10th pick in the draft.
His statistics are those of a player struggling with scoring efficiency but not offering much to compensate for it. There is also no obvious pattern of growth.
By box plus-minus, a box score-derived estimate of a player's net impact per 100 possessions, Rivers had the 17th-worst debut season ever by a rookie with at least 1,000 minutes played, per Basketball-Reference.com. Although the mixed, meager improvements in his box score statistics reflected growth in his overall impact, it was nothing worth writing home about.
BPM is scaled so that 0.0 represents an average level of performance and minus-2.0 represents replacement level. The fact that his total impact was consistently below minus-2.0 implies that the Clippers or Pelicans could probably have gotten the same quality of performance from an average NBA D-League shooting guard.
The things Rivers struggled with were pretty clear.
He was a shooting guard who didn't shoot particularly well—a career 32.6 three-point percentage in the regular season. He also didn't defend well. His one notably productive skill—dribble penetration—was frequently undermined by indecisiveness and an inability to finish around the basket once he beat his initial defender.
These things were an enormous problem for the Pelicans and probably why they traded him. New Orleans drafted Rivers the same year as Anthony Davis, but the guard didn't really complement the No. 1 overall selection. His poor shooting meant he didn't help space the floor for Davis to work in the low post or at the elbows. Rivers' inconsistent decision-making in the pick-and-roll meant that he wasn't much help in the other area where Davis excels.
In the end, the best thing Rivers could offer the Pelicans offense was middling efficiency on isolation sets. He needed the ball in his hands to maximize his effectiveness, and that maximum wasn't that great to begin with.
Rivers certainly appreciated the removal of some pressure in Los Angeles, telling Rowan Kavner of NBA.com:
You just go out there, you shoot it, be aggressive, look for your shots. That’s how I’ve been my whole life. I haven’t been used to playing this free. I haven’t been this free since I was at Duke or in high school, and people know what I did there. It’s one of those things where when I got here, it feels nice. Now I’m back just playing basketball. Guys are moving the ball and helping each other out.
But functionally, the scenario in Los Angeles was actually fairly similar to New Orleans, which is one of the reasons he didn't take off immediately with the change of scenery.
Although it is a small sample—just 250 minutes across 14 playoff games—Rivers appears to have rectified some of those issues.
In the regular season with the Clippers, Rivers averaged 6.7 drives per 36 minutes (defined as any touch that begins at least 20 feet from the basket and is dribbled to within 10 feet), according to NBA.com. The Clippers averaged 1.03 points per drive by Rivers, including points he scored or off ensuing passes when the defense collapsed. In the playoffs, those numbers jumped to 8.2 drives per 36 minutes and 1.12 points per drive.
During the regular season, Rivers made 31.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers, according to NBA.com. In the playoffs, he knocked home 45.8 percent. We saw a similar trend around the basket, where he made just 55.1 percent of his shots in the regular season and 63.6 percent in the playoffs.
After a huge performance in Game 4 of the Clippers' first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, Bleacher Report's Fred Katz talked about the smarter, more aggressive and more efficient Rivers he had been seeing:
Either the Clippers or Rivers adjusted. Los Angeles still used Rivers as the naturally ball-dominant guard. He's never changing from that—at least not in this series. But instead of aimlessly dribbling around and turning the ball over or putting up bad shots or generally making poor decisions, he used screens and took advantage of the Spurs misplaying them.
Of Rivers' eight field-goal attempts (he made his final seven shots after missing his first, by the by), only two came in isolation, and one of those times was when he was trying to get a quick shot. He showed change in the second half, when he aggressively barreled to the hoop, charged in transition and used different kinds of screens to find space.
He was still a minor character in the Clippers' postseason, and he obviously didn't do anything that changed the team's bottom line. But over two seven-game series, he transformed from a widely confirmed disaster to a key playoff contributor.
To be clear, Rivers did not miraculously become a star this postseason. His playoff BPM was still just minus-1.7, below-average and barely above replacement level. Even at his peak in these two series, he offered very little besides scoring and, even with the improved accuracy around the basket and from the three-point line, his overall efficiency was not great.
Part of this is his shot selection, which tends toward everything between the basket and the three-point line. According to Basketball-Reference.com, 39.1 percent of his shots in the playoffs were two-pointers not near the basket.
All this is to say that the impact of Rivers' playoff performance on his career may be more about perception. A sample of 250 minutes is not enough to say that he has become a dramatically different player. But he had positive moments in huge games and did so by addressing many of the weaknesses that have plagued him since entering the league.
Before trading him, the Pelicans did not pick up Rivers' option for next season, which makes him an unrestricted free agent. What he did in these playoffs has undoubtedly juiced the market for his services. Knowing he can make plays in a big game may ease concerns for teams with playoff aspirations. Watching him, finally, address some of his weaknesses as the pressure rose could convince some teams that his developmental trajectory is finally heading somewhere worthwhile.
Of course, discussion of the free-agent market for Rivers may all be academic. His father, coach and GM (again, all the same person) seems committed to bringing him back, telling Sam Amick of USA Today:
You've got to give (Paul) just some more support, you know? I think bringing (his son) Austin (Rivers) here (in mid-January) helped us. We've got a 22-year-old (in Austin), and now to me we've got to get another guard who's in the middle age group. So now you're growing with Austin and CJ (Wilcox), and we need another defensive guy too.
Given that Doc traded for him midseason, it's reasonable to assume that the Clippers would re-sign Austin regardless of how he played in the playoffs.
No matter what happens with Rivers before next season begins, the perception of him as a useful basketball player has been given new life. It happened almost as quickly as he earned the disaster label as a rookie. What once appeared to be a professional career teetering on the brink is now suddenly back on solid ground.