Name: Austin Rivers
Years in NBA: 6
15.1 points, 4.0 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per game (42.4% FG and 37.8 % 3PT) in 33.7 minutes per game (61 games played, 59 starts)
2017-2018 Salary: $11,825,000
Future Contract Status: Austin Rivers will be entering the final year of his three-year, $35,475,000 contract with the Los Angeles Clippers come fall. He has a player option this summer, so if he opts out he will be an unrestricted free agent.
Rivers arguably had the best season of his career in 2017-18, despite missing 21 games due to a concussion and right Achilles tendon injury. In 61 games played, Rivers averaged 15.1 points, 4.0 assists, and 2.4 rebounds, all career highs. He started 59 times and averaged a meaningful 33.7 minutes per game for the Clippers.
One notable exception to Rivers’ almost across-the-board improvements was his field goal percentage. Rivers shot just 42.4% from the field, his lowest in three seasons. Otherwise, however, he appeared to make great gains in his development.
Although he can sometimes be streaky on offense, Rivers had a number of very solid games for Los Angeles this season. He scored 20+ points on 12 occasions, and 30+ points three times, including back to back games against the Houston Rockets (36 points) and Memphis Grizzlies (38 points) in December.
Of course, Rivers’ contributions to the (relative / surprising / limited) success of the Clippers this season was tempered by ongoing claims of nepotism (yawn….), and rumors that he played a major role in fan-favorite Chris Paul’s decision not to return to the franchise. Although neither player confirmed the rumors, bad blood was evident when Paul and the Rockets visited Staples Center on January 15th for a much-anticipated re-match. Rivers, who was sidelined and sporting an ankle boot during the game, talked so much trash from the bench that Rockets Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green —followed by Paul and James Harden— attempted to enter the Clippers’ locker room post-game to confront him. Luckily, nothing came of the incident except 2-game suspensions for Ariza and Green.
Recently, the full story was revealed.... (Sorry. Had to. It’s funny.)
Rivers’ biggest strength is his seemingly unwavering confidence. Described by others in the league as “irrationally confident”, Rivers is one of a handful of players who can miss 15 shots in a row and not think twice about chucking up number 16. Often Rivers’ bravado and icy veins worked to the Clippers’ advantage. In a number of games Rivers flipped a switch in the final frame, resulting in a Clippers’ victory. Some highlights:
- On December 23rd Rivers led a short-handled Clipper squad to victory over the Houston Rockets. Rivers scored 30 of his career-high 36 points in the second half of the match-up, 14 in the fourth quarter.
- Rivers ignited the Clippers in a late game rally to overcome an eight-point deficit and defeat the Brooklyn Nets at the Staples Center on March 4th. Rivers scored a team-leading 27 points on 10-for-15 shooting in the contest. Fourteen of those points came in the fourth quarter.
- Rivers sparked a 13-0 Clippers run with seven points, a steal and an assist to overcome a five-point fourth quarter deficit and defeat the Milwaukee Bucks on March 27th. Rivers had just three points through three quarters in the contest but scored 10 in the fourth.
- On April 3rd, Rivers played a major role in the Clippers comeback win against the San Antonio Spurs, spoiling the Spurs’ 18-season streak of hitting 50 wins. Rivers hit a big 3-pointer with less than 30 seconds on the clock to secure the win for the Clippers who at one point trailed the Spurs by 19. Rivers finished the game with 18 points and five assists.
Rivers’ defensive abilities are also worth a mention. He averaged 1.2 steals per game for the season and consistently improved his lateral quickness and ability to stay in front of opponents. With the early loss of Patrick Beverley, unavailability of mid-season pick-up Avery Bradley, and questionable guarding abilities of Milos Teodosic and Lou Williams, Rivers’ played a critical role as a defender in the Clippers’ backcourt, often covering more than his share of assignments.
Rivers’ weaknesses include a tendency to hold on to the ball too long, dribbling in place, and overuse of isolation moves. Although he has an admittedly wicked cross-over and has improved his ability to finish at the rim, Rivers is not a Harden or Russell Westbrook. He cannot, night after night, carry a team on his own. His ball-dominant approach is noticeably problematic at times.
Additionally, Rivers can be overly-aggressive and mistake-prone in his quest to score. Illustrating this point, Rivers averaged 1.8 turnovers per game in 2017-18, a career high.
As one of the Clippers’ primary options on offense, and one that thrives on penetration and contact, Rivers desperately needs to improve his shot percentage from the charity stripe. This season Rivers shot 64.2% from the line, which is simply unacceptable.
Finally, Rivers lacks the court vision and facilitation skills required to be a true point guard. He should be used sparingly in that position moving forward, if at all. He fares much better off the ball in the shooting guard position.
Future with the Clippers: Rivers has one more year on his current contract and then becomes an unrestricted free agent. Interestingly, his father, Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers, is reportedly finalizing multi-year extension of his current contract, which also ends next year.
Although the younger Rivers has frequently been the subject of trade rumors, if Doc stays on as head coach through a rebuild, I believe Austin will too. And frankly, I’m okay with that.