Austin Rivers Isn't a Nepotism Case Anymore for Los Angeles ClippersJanuary 28, 2017
LOS ANGELES — Doc Rivers was preparing for the crowning moment of his NBA career. His Boston Celtics had just dropped Game 5 of the 2008 Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers but felt good about where they stood with a 3-2 lead as the series shifted back to TD Garden.
Rivers arranged for his wife, Kristen, and their four children to fly to Massachusetts from their home in Winter Park, Florida. Only one resisted: his second son, Austin.
It's not that Austin didn't want to be there. Rather, the family's then-15-year-old dribbling phenom preferred to ball with his traveling club in the heat of its summer season.
So shortly after the Celtics pounded the Lakers in Game 6, 131-92, and the team's championship parade wound its way to Copley Square, Austin hopped on a plane back to Orlando to rejoin his E1T1 teammates.
"I actually kind of felt that was cool," Doc said. "He'd rather go to an AAU game than go to an NBA championship game. How many kids even think that way?"
Nowadays, Austin Rivers could hardly get away from his dad if he tried. He's into his second full season (third overall) with the Los Angeles Clippers and will be under contract for at least one more—he has a player option for 2018-19—after re-signing for $35 million over three years this past summer.
"This is the most time I've ever spent with him," Austin said.
So far, that time has served him well. Beyond growing closer to Doc, both personally and professionally, Austin has found in L.A. an opportunity to produce and fashioned himself into much more than a nepotism case. With Chris Paul likely out until March after having surgery on his left hand, Doc will need his progeny to help keep the Clippers afloat out West.
"You're still his dad no matter what," the elder Rivers said. "I'm always going to be that. You always are there. But on the floor, coaching-wise, I'm more focused. I think you have the same joy, in a crazy way, because as a coach, you want your guys to improve. You really want your young guys to improve, and he's our young guy."
Austin has come a long way during his two years under Doc's thumb, though not by dint of any on-court father-son bonding. The elder Rivers still doesn't meddle in his son's on-court development, as was the case even before he left his family in Orlando to fill the Celtics' top job in 2004.
"I think I maybe worked out with him twice in my life. I'm talking about my whole life," Austin said. "He would just call and maybe give pointers here and there, like any other father. But he was kind of hands-off. I kind of did everything on my own."
That hasn't hindered his development. Where once Austin struggled to finish close to the rim and shoot from deep, he's now proficient—if not excellent—in both departments.
|Austin Rivers' Field-Goal Percentage at the Rim and from 3|
On the other end, Austin's grown into a feisty attack dog who, along with Luc Mbah a Moute, finds himself sicced on the opponent's most daunting perimeter threat.
"That's where I think he's probably grown the most," Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau said. "I think he's comfortable now. He's gotten used to the league. He knows the league inside and out."
Austin's ascent as a two-way talent could hardly have come at a more critical time for his dad's team. With Paul in and out of the lineup with injuries and Blake Griffin battling back from knee surgery, the Clippers needed another ball-handler to run the offense and create shots for himself.
Enter Austin, who's averaged 17.7 points and 3.9 assists in 34.3 minutes per game since sliding into Doc's starting lineup the day after Christmas.
"He's been unbelievable," Griffin said. "He's been huge for us. He's won us some games."
Rivers knew the job well coming in. When Griffin and Paul succumbed to injuries during Game 4 of L.A.'s first-round playoff matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers last spring, Austin was thrust into a starting role and tasked with keeping the Clippers alive.
He and his teammates fell short, dropping three in a row to lose the series. But Austin's 21 points at the Moda Center in Game 6 nearly helped L.A. stave off elimination. His experience as a starter under pressure helped him find a rhythm he's rekindled over the course of 2016-17.
"When everybody went down, I started...I was super aggressive," he said. "That's why this year, every game I've started, I've been super aggressive. It's worked. You've just got to be yourself."
"His game matches his confidence, if that makes sense, at this point," teammate J.J. Redick said.
Confidence has never been a concern for Austin. Nor has the determination needed to bring his skills into balance with it.
Billy Donovan saw both in spades from an adolescent Rivers during summers at the University of Florida.
"Austin was coming to my camps when he was in sixth grade," said Donovan, now the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. "I've known Austin for a long time. I've always had great respect and admiration for his love for the game. He's a great, great worker, and I'm sure that work ethic is still there."
Thibodeau witnessed it as an assistant on Doc's staff in Boston. The head coach's teenage kid wasn't afraid to challenge any of his dad's players one-on-one—not even Kevin Garnett.
"Garnett used to get a kick out of him," Thibodeau said. "But that was Austin. He didn't carry himself like a kid who was in high school. And then you always knew it was so important to him that he would figure it out, and he has."
Not that Austin didn't have a grasp of the game back then. Marreese Speights, now his teammate in L.A., used to bemoan Austin's scoring explosions against the AAU team he sponsored on the summer circuit in the Sunshine State.
"He got more to his game that a lot of people don't really see," Speight said. "Being on the team with him, I seen a lot of his game. It's grown on me a lot."
His Clippers teammates, in return, have helped him grow. Jamal Crawford has offered words of wisdom as Austin's neighbor, both in the locker room and on the team plane. Last season, Rivers started shooting on game days with Redick, one of the NBA's deadliest (and most routine-oriented) marksmen.
When Austin arrived in L.A. two years ago, Redick counseled him on the finer points of surviving in the NBA.
"When he first got here, I remember talking to him just about figuring ways every night, like how can you make an impact every night," he said. "Now he's sort of figured out, 'All right, I can get in the lane, I can make plays, I can shoot floaters, I can finish at the rim.'"
Redick may have taken a shine to Rivers for their shared Duke roots, but the Clippers didn't do him any favors just because his father was the head coach and president of basketball operations.
"It was never weird," Crawford said. "Obviously, that's his dad, but you don't feel like it's the coach's son. It's just another player."
Austin is more than that for these Clippers.
"He's at that stage where I can say he's like a little brother," Raymond Felton said.
"It's amazing to see, man," DeAndre Jordan said. "He's starting to come into his own."
Defenses are taking notice too. When Austin runs the pick-and-roll, his opponents no longer duck behind the screen for fear he might stick them with his sharpened jump shot. He's facing more traps than ever and a wider variety of defenders from night to night.
"They pretty much know now he can score," Doc said. "He's explosive to the rim. I think that's what they're really trying to take away from him."
At 24, Austin still has room and time to grow. Now that he's slipping into the lane more frequently, he's figuring out how and where to find his teammates, though that remains a work-in-progress.
"He gets himself in trouble at times when he still tries to make [the interior pass] because he does see guys there, but it's still a tough pass, and it's a tough finish once they get it," Doc explained. "Now he's driving and throwing out the threes. We like that a lot."
Other teams seem to appreciate it too. According to the New York Daily News' Frank Isola, the New York Knicks would consider trading Carmelo Anthony to L.A. without bringing back one of the Clippers' Big Three of Paul, Griffin and Jordan in part because they covet Austin, whom they pursued as a free agent this past summer, per the Orange County Register's Dan Woike. He's only improved since then, making him all the more valuable in the eyes of teams eager to talk shop with Doc.
Whether he would be willing to part ways with his son could be the ultimate test of nepotism for Doc. It might also be the only means by which the Clippers can upgrade their roster to keep pace with the West's best.
However long professional ties bind father and son Rivers to one another, when the time comes for them to part, Austin will leave with better relationships with both Doc and the game that once separated them before it brought them together.
"This is the closest we've ever gotten, and I think it'll help us long term," Austin said. "Whether I'm here or he's there and I'm playing for a different team, I definitely think this will help us, even in our family. So I'm very thankful for all of this."
Clippers Insider's Notebook
L.A.'s New All-Star
DeAndre Jordan has spent the past year loading his resume with accolades.
First-team All-NBA. First-team All-Defense. Olympic gold medalist.
Now, he can add All-Star to that list. The Western Conference coaches chose Jordan as one of seven reserves, along with Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, Golden State's Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, Memphis' Marc Gasol, Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins and Utah's Gordon Hayward.
Chances are, Jordan got the nod out of respect for the Clippers' 30-17 record. With Paul out on account of thumb surgery and Griffin having missed just over a month after his own knee procedure, Jordan remained L.A.'s best representative.
Not that he didn't have a strong case to make on his own merits. Jordan's on pace to lead the league in field-goal percentage (69 percent) for the fifth year running and snag his third rebounding crown (14 boards per game) in the last four seasons.
Paul was pleased to see his longtime teammate and fellow State Farm spokesperson selected to play in New Orleans.
In past years, Jordan, one of the game's most prolific finishers at the rim, maintained that he wouldn't test his high-flying talents in the Slam Dunk Contest unless he were a bona fide All-Star. Griffin, for one, hopes to see him follow through.
Jamal Crawford has never been one to shoot a high percentage. He's nonetheless carved out quite a career for himself, becoming the NBA's first three-time Sixth Man of the Year over his 17 seasons while shooting 40.9 percent from the field as a pro.
But even tough-shot-takers have their funks. Crawford's latest came during a seven-game stretch from Jan. 6 to Jan. 21, during which he shot 21.1 percent from the field and hit just 1-of-20 from three.
"To be honest, I think I'm the best defender I've ever seen in my own mind," he said on the Hollywood Hoops podcast. "I think that's what stops me sometimes."
Crawford seemed to cross up his own shadow in the midst of the Clippers' current road trip. He scored 19 points to propel L.A. to a double-digit win in Atlanta and then exploded for a season-high 27 points and six threes off the bench in Philadelphia, albeit while most of the Clippers forgot how to score in defeat.
"If you shoot long enough, you're going to go through it," Crawford said. "It's inevitable. Even the best players that's ever played. It's frustrating to go through it, but you just have to find a way and stay with it."
The Clippers will need Crawford to stave off any more such slumps. They'll play eight of their next 10 games away from Staples Center, with three dates against the Golden State Warriors—all likely without Paul.
Griffin Rusty in Return
The Clippers aren't quite so desperate for playmakers now that Griffin is back in the rotation.
At least, they won't be once he's back up to speed.
The former All-Star looked like a man who'd missed a month while recovering from knee surgery during L.A.'s 121-110 loss to the Joel Embiid-less 76ers on Tuesday. Griffin shot 3-of-11 from the field (6-of-10 at the free-throw line) and racked up more turnovers (six) than assists (five) in just under 30 minutes.
"I thought I was really bad taking care of the ball," he said. "I stayed on one side of the floor too much offensively, not mixing it up and getting everybody else involved. Watching the film, I was even more disappointed I think personally with how I played."
"I always say, the thing that goes away is ball-handling," Doc Rivers said. "You could see that. He fumbled the ball a bunch. That's typical to any guy that comes back, guard or big. He'll be better the next game."
That next game? At Golden State's Oracle Arena on Saturday. The last time these two teams met, Griffin looked sluggish, as though something in his body were slowing him down. Less than two weeks later, he was back under the knife.
Neither Griffin nor Rivers expects a minutes cap for the bruising power forward against the Warriors.
"I feel fine. I feel how I wanted and how I expected," Griffin said. "No setbacks. No limitations."
All quotes obtained firsthand. All stats and salary information via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and listen to his Hollywood Hoops podcast with B/R Lakers lead writer Eric Pincus.