When the Clippers traded for Austin Rivers, his future on the team was in doubt. With only one year left on his contract worth about 2.4 million, and the fourth and final option year of his contract was declined before he was traded to the Clippers, meaning that his bird rights can't be used to pay him more than his option would have given him--$3.1 million. That wasn't what the issue was when he was brought in, however. The question was whether or not Austin would be worth a minimum deal in the summer--would he play in the NBA again? Would he be good enough to actually be in the rotation, or just a laughingstock, a mascot, the coach's son as the 15th guy on the team?
Well, we all ended up being surprised, to say the least. Rivers wasn't a star during his 41 regular season games, but he was solid, playing active defense, shooting 43% from the field (he shot 39% in his previous 2.5 seasons), and keeping turnovers generally low. Where he really added value, however, was in the postseason, where he started twice in the second round and averaged 17 points per 36 in the 14 games. He shot 44% from the field and a remarkable 37% from deep, proving to be one of the Clippers' most reliable players (and the best bench performer) during the first two rounds. Some of his performances included a 25-point outburst in Game 3 vs Houston, where he made 10 of 13 shots and three from deep. In Game 1, he had 17 points and made 4-6 from three. And, in Game 4 against the Spurs, he made 7-8 from the field. That makes three playoff games where Rivers made a huge impact and helped the team to win a close contest.
It's unclear what Austin's market value is now. We've assumed that the $3.1 million that the Clippers can offer him would be more than enough, but given the high spending of the free agency period, now it can be hard to be so sure. Cory Joseph got 4 years and $30 million--Joseph is better than Rivers, but is he enough better to get 250% of the average annual salary? Could Rivers get an offer of more than $3.1 million from another team after striking out on higher-profile guards? It's not impossible: Austin is only going to turn 23 this summer, and while he's still a flawed backup-level player, he showed some upside in his brief Clippers stint and that could prompt interest from other teams. In fact, reports indicate that it already has:
Clippers free agent Austin Rivers has gotten a lot of calls and is weighing situations - is considering staying with Clips for another year— Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) July 6, 2015
Rivers has gotten nice offers but because of his trust in front office (his Dad and the staff) is considering "gambling on himself"— Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) July 6, 2015
Crux of Rivers decision will come down to what's really out there in terms of final offers and situation— Steve Kyler (@stevekylerNBA) July 6, 2015
Kyler makes it sound as though Austin has already received offers worth more than what the Clippers can pay for him, but Austin is considering taking less to return. It's undeniable he has a good situation here: behind Chris Paul he's sure to keep getting steady minutes, he's playing for a good team with his dad as the coach, and he's fit in better here with the low expectations of a backup than he was in New Orleans with the pressure of a top 10 pick. If he takes a bigger salary to be a stopgap starter or key reserve elsewhere, that pressure will return, potentially stunting his development again.
In terms of "gambling on himself", Austin could potentially take a one year deal with a player option. Next summer, the Clippers would have his full bird rights, and with another full season of steady play and the skyrocketing cap, he could demand a much bigger contract with the Clippers or another team. Also, with Jamal Crawford's name in trade rumors and contract expiring, Rivers could be eyeing a chance to prove himself so he can assume a larger, 6th man-type of role long-term. He's not there yet but his playoff numbers fit the bill (17 points per 36 on 44% FG and 37% three-point). He also brings a defensive and athletic impact that is certainly nice off of the bench.
Darren Collison, the last successful Clippers backup PG, gambled on himself--he took a low-paying deal for one year with a player option, and ended up getting a much larger deal to be a starter with the Sacramento Kings. Eric Bledsoe didn't gamble on himself, but he parlayed his opportunity as Paul's backup into building a name for himself that was too big for his role and resulted in the Clippers being forced to trade him to the Suns, who gave him a 5-year, $70 million deal. The only other guy who's had the role is Jordan Farmar, who gambled on himself with a short contract, but didn't invest in himself by working hard to fit in during his short time with the team, and ended up losing out. Austin Rivers already knows that he fits well with this squad, so he's got to like his chances to turn out like Darren Collison or Eric Bledsoe rather than Jordan Farmar.
If Rivers chooses not to gamble on building his value here with a short-term deal, the Clippers will need to find a replacement through trade or free agency. It's hard to say who they could target; given the current climate of the team's cap situation, they could get a guy in a trade, by using all or part of the MLE, or the min--it all depends on what tools are used where and what moves are made. But, the list is far from inspiring. Jeremy Lin would be a good offensive backup, but he has a shot at some starting gigs. After that, it's a matter of trying to woo guys like Aaron Brooks and Jameer Nelson to come to LA. They're nice players, but it's hard to find someone who has the size and defensive pedigree to contribute at both guard positions like Austin Rivers does.
Re-signing Austin is a surprisingly important step in a successful off-season for the Clippers. He's one of the few opportunities they'll have to add players for more than the league minimum, and he certainly is worth it. Playing him at point guard and Lance Stephenson at shooting guard off of the bench makes for a tall, long, athletic backcourt. Play them at shooting guard and small forward and you have a quick, aggressive wing pairing on both ends of the court. But if the Clippers lose Rivers, and trade Crawford, they'll be left without two of the three players who were even moderately acceptable on last year's bench, and with even more holes to fill with the same limited tools.