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No, Austin Rivers Isn’t Really Struggling

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Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Upon reading a recent article from Ben Alamar of ESPN Stats & Info, which centered on the idea that Austin Rivers has been struggling this season, fans of the Clippers were left scratching their heads. This is simply not what we’re seeing on the court. Our eyes have told us that he’s finishing his layups and playing solid defense—so where did this article come from, and could we have been wrong about Austin’s play?

The Argument

Let’s first revisit the article’s main points (the bold titles were added by me):

3-point Shooting: Rivers is a guard who ranks ninth on his own team in 3-point shooting percentage, among players averaging at least one 3-point attempt a game. (Center Marreese Speights is currently hitting 3s at a higher rate.)

Passing: He does not pass the ball well (his assist rate of 13.6 percent ranks 80th in the league)

Steals: He ranks eighth on the Clippers in steals per 100 possessions

BPM: [He] is the only player on the team to log more than 100 minutes with a negative box plus-minus rating on both offense and defense.

RPM: In real plus-minus, Rivers ranks 60th among just the point guards

The writer goes on to admit that they “have not measured all aspects of what a player can contribute to his team.” Fair enough, but then he immediately closes the book on Austin, saying “we’ve measured a lot and there is simply no evidence that Rivers has earned a prominent role on a team that wants to challenge for a championship.”

What?

The Counter-Argument

While none of the points identified in the article are incorrect, the simple fact that these were the points compiled indicates that the writer has no clue about the context in which the Clippers intended to use Austin Rivers this year. He seems to be under the impression that Austin Rivers is playing the role of point guard/playmaker for the Clippers, but as covered by Broderick Turner and Dan Woike during training camp, Austin’s role is much closer to wing-defender/slasher. With this in mind, let’s take another look at the facts, broken down into offensive and defensive arguments:

Offense

3-point Shooting: Rivers is not and has never been a strong three-point shooter. It’s just not a key facet to his game. The comparison to “Center Marreese Speights” is laughable at best, since I think the writer is trying to imply that a 6’4” guard should be better at shooting the long-ball than his center. Shooting threes is what Mo Speights does. It’s what he did in Golden State, and it’s what he’s doing for the Clippers. Context.

Passing: Arguing that Austin is a bad fit for the Clippers because he’s not a big playmaker doesn’t make much sense when the team has far better playmakers in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Austin’s role isn’t to be a playmaker, it’s to be a defender and scorer who attacks downhill. And when did assist percentage become such an important statistic when measuring offensive value? Here are a few wings that are well-respected on the offensive end, who have similar or worse assist percentages than Austin:

  • Victor Oladipo, 12.4%
  • Dwyane Wade, 15.7%
  • Devin Booker, 11.9%
  • Jae Crower, 10.6%
  • Wilson Chandler 10.4%
  • Klay Thompson, 9.2%
  • Danny Green, 13.9%

So we know that Austin isn’t creating shots much for other Clippers, and we also know that that’s perfectly fine for a wing-player who plays alongside better playmakers. And we already know Austin isn’t one of the better shooters, in either catch-and-shoot (34%) or pull-up (31%) situations.

But there are a couple of areas where Austin really shines, and unsurprisingly they both fit the “wing-defender/slasher” narrative much better than the “point guard/playmaker” narrative.

Drives: Drives, as defined by stats.nba.com, cover any touch 20+ feet from the hoop where the player dribbles within 10 feet of the hoop, excluding fast breaks. Austin Rivers drives to the hoop by far the most of any Clipper, at 3.3 attempts per game (no one else averages more than 2 drives per game), where he converts 50% of them. Seems solid, right? Let’s put those figures into perspective and line him up next to some of the league’s best wings:

  • LeBron James, 3.9 attempts at 51.9%
  • Jimmy Butler, 3.5 attempts at 58.5%
  • Gordon Hayward, 3.3 attempts at 52.8%
  • Andrew Wiggins, 3.4 attempts at 38.2%
  • Devin Booker, 3.6 attempts at 38.7%

As Ralph and Mike have so frequently brought up, Austin is doing just fine at driving to the hoop and finishing this season.

But taking this even further, if you adjust the figures for minutes per game (minimum 100 minutes played and 30 shot attempts when driving), Austin is actually 12th in the NBA with 5.4 shot attempts per 36 minutes. And of those ahead of him, only 4 are more efficient on their drives (Derrick Rose, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan, and Kyrie Irving). And as expected, he has improved significantly over last year, when he was ranked 45th in the league by this same measure.

Well folks, I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t just researched it, but it appears Austin’s ability to finish when driving to the basket is elite, in both frequency and efficiency.

Scoring as the ball-handler: Another area where Austin excels is in scoring in situations where he is the ball-handler. According to stats.nba.com, Austin has the 14th highest FG% in the NBA of 46.5% for players scoring as the ball-handler (minimum 40+ shot attempts). Some impressive names who are below Austin when it comes to scoring as the ball-handler:

  • Russell Westbrook, 43.1%
  • James Harden, 45.0%
  • LeBron James, 40.8%
  • Chris Paul, 41.3%
  • Kyle Lowry, 41.5%

Now, obviously these guys all take far more shots than Austin (there are 60 players who’ve taken more shots as the ball-handler), but only 13 have been scoring more efficiently as the ball-handler, including the likes of Eric Bledsoe, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, Kawhi Leonard, and Derrick Rose, among others.

Still, Rivers is having a down season offensively, and it’s apparent in the simplest of metrics, such as True Shooting Percentage (49% down from 52% last year), rebounds per 36 (2.5 down from 3.2 last year), and points per 36 (12.2 down from 14.6 last year).

But the fact that Austin has become something of a specialist for the Clippers in two distinct areas immediately shows his value and potential on offense. He’s still not an elite scorer by any means, but he’s far from the lost cause the ESPN article makes him out to be.

Defense

Defensively, it’s difficult to gauge a player’s defensive impact simply by reviewing raw statistics like steals/blocks. Yes, Austin’s steal-rate leaves him near the bottom of the league, but there’s so much more to defense than what shows up in the box score.

From a team-defense perspective, Austin is part of one of the top defensive 5-man groups in the NBA. The bench lineup of Felton, Crawford, Rivers, Johnson, and Speights has been one of the best bench lineups in the league. And their calling card has been defense, for which they sport an impressive 89.9 defensive rating, per stats.nba.com, good for 2nd best in the NBA (minimum 100 minutes played) among all lineups. And this same bench group is also 5th in the NBA for point differential per 36 minutes, behind only the starting units for the Clippers, the Cavaliers, the Spurs, and the Warriors (minimum 100 minutes played).

These types of elite rankings don’t occur if Austin is a sieve on defense, as it’s suggested in the ESPN article, particularly when the lineup already includes Jamal Crawford who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly Kawhi Leonard on defense.

RPM/BPM: So what about ESPN’s real plus-minus and box plus-minus stats? Why does Austin come out so unfavorably? Well, as described here, these metrics are box-score-stats. That is, they rely fully on data gathered from the box score, and not any sort of player-tracking data. Austin’s calling card has become his defense, and these types of single-number box-score-stats do a terrible job of evaluating an individual player’s defense. They’re not meaningless, of course, but I wouldn’t put much faith in them in trying to evaluate his defense.

Defensive FG% Differential: Now, I wouldn’t argue that Austin is an elite stopper just yet. He’s putting in a lot of effort on that end of the court, and it shows, but he’s far from elite right now. One useful metric to evaluate defense is defensive FG% differential. That is, how much a player can hold an opponent below the opponent’s season average FG%. Austin is currently holding opponents 1.3% below their usual FG% when he guards them. That’s not bad, and it’s slightly better than the league average (of the 210 players who’ve defended 100+ shots). Elite is Luc Mbah a Moute, who is holding players to 8.4% below their usual FG%, good for 5th in the NBA. But the ESPN article makes Austin out to be a negative on defense, which is simply not true, as anyone who’s watched him can tell you.

Reflection

Look, Austin Rivers probably isn’t going to become the Clippers’ next star, and that’s not the point of this article. But he’s far from the bust that this ESPN article makes him out to be, and had the writer chose to dig a little deeper, rather than to cherry pick statistics that fit the click-baity “Austin Rivers is just on the Clippers because of his dad” narrative, he’d have seen that.

So is Austin Rivers actually struggling? In some areas, sure. But he’s excelling in others, and he’s ultimately NOT a problem for the Clippers. And ultimately, in a market where players receive salaries in the hundreds of millions, an $11 million contract for a 24-year-old that’s become a solid defender and can attack the basket off-the-dribble is still a great bargain.