Los Angeles Clippers: In Defense Of Austin Rivers

Nov 14, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers reacts during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Staples Center. The Los Angeles Clippers won 101-96. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 14, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers reacts during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Staples Center. The Los Angeles Clippers won 101-96. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports /

In his fourth season, Austin Rivers is playing the best basketball of his career and quieting his loudest critics.

Overrated. Bust. A beneficiary of nepotism.

Since Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers came to the NBA, these have been the most popular opinions about him.

They’re not completely off-base, but it would be foolish to write Rivers off completely as an NBA player, as many have. If you’re a big NBA fan, which if you’re reading this I can assume you are, you’ve probably seen a tweet about how Rivers doesn’t belong in the NBA. Maybe you’ve been the one saying it or at least thinking that Rivers is only on an NBA roster because of his dad and coach Doc Rivers.

If you haven’t seen them, here are just a few of the many negative opinions on Rivers.

These are just a few of the many tweets sent about Rivers saying he doesn’t belong on an NBA roster that were safe to be printed on a family-friendly website. Jimmy Kimmel would have enough content to fill an entire show if he wanted to do an Austin Rivers edition of his popular Mean Tweets segment, in which celebrities read mean tweets about themselves.

The hate has simply gone too far on Austin Rivers, which is why I’m here to defend him.

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This isn’t a fluff piece. I’m not saying that Rivers is an All-Star, a starter, or has a bright future in the league. All I’m saying is that Rivers does indeed deserve a spot in the NBA and in the Clippers’ rotation. He’s an NBA player and would belong on an NBA roster even if not for his last name. The somewhat popular opinion on Rivers that he’s not worthy of a spot in the league is something that needs to go away because it simply isn’t valid.

We’re all entitled to our opinions, but some are just wrong. Let’s go over the things that we began with, the opinions that he’s overrated, a bust, and just lucky that his dad is an NBA coach.

Overrated is a hard thing to prove. There is no statistical evidence to show how someone is rated and certainly nothing that we can point to as proof that someone is overrated or underrated as it compares to that nonexistent rating.

The idea that Rivers is overrated most likely stems from his high ranking out of Winter Park High School. Rivers was named the Naismith Prep Player of the Year during his senior season of high school, was given five-star (out of a possible five stars) from Scout.com, Rivals.com, 247Sports.com, and ESPN.com.

It’s important to realize that these sites are geared more towards college success than predicting NBA stardom. Rivers had a solid season during his only year at Duke, averaging 15.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. He didn’t light the world on fire as freshman classmate Anthony Davis did, but Rivers was still one of the best first-year players in the country.

Whether Rivers was overrated back then is a fine debate. But in 2016, nobody is treating Rivers like he’s a can’t miss prospect or even a starting-caliber player right now.

Is Rivers a bust?

Probably, the Pelicans obviously expected more out of him when they drafted him tenth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft. Rivers struggled with the Pelicans (then the New Orleans Hornets, but we’ll refer to them as the Pelicans now for clarity’s sake) and eventually found himself out of the rotation. The Pelicans declined to pick up the final year of his rookie deal before trading him to the Celtics in a three-team trade last season, but was sent to Los Angeles to play for his father just days later.

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But was the pick that bad? Consider that the next six players taken after Rivers were Meyers Leonard, Jeremy Lamb, Kendall Marshall, John Henson, Maurice Harkless, and Royce White.

When taking into account who the Pelicans could’ve drafted instead, the pick isn’t that bad. Sure, they’d probably take Henson out of that bunch now, but it’s a forgivable mistake. Austin Rivers over John Henson isn’t quite Michael Jordan over Sam Bowie.

The biggest issue that people seem to have with Rivers is that they think Rivers is only on an NBA team due to nepotism, which is a pretty big reach.

Those detractors are having a harder time justifying their claims this season, especially as of lately due to Rivers finding his shooting stroke.

Rivers is averaging career-highs in points per game (8.3) and field goal percentage (44.0), the two stats that matter most for a shoot-first combo guard.

This is despite Rivers starting the season off on a terrible shooting slump that he has started to recover lately. Over the past month, Rivers has averaged 9.5 points per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from deep, and 92.3 percent on free throws.

Rivers has been able to finish closer to the basket much better this season, making 62.2 percent of his shots within the restricted area this season compared to 55.1 percent last year, per NBA.com/stats. Confidence has always been seen in Rivers’ game, even when maybe he shouldn’t have been so confident, but he has an even better confidence going to the rim this season. Last season, Rivers seemed content with just getting to the rim while this year’s version knows he must finish his drives.

Rivers started the season off ice-cold from deep. Through the team’s first 18 games, Rivers shot a pitiful 22.4 percent on 2.7 three-point attempts per game. In the 17 games since then, Rivers has shot 35 percent on three-pointers. In the seven games that Blake Griffin has missed since December 26th, Rivers has been red-hot, making 47.8 percent of his three-pointers.

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While Rivers was due for an improvement in his shooting, it’s no coincidence that Rivers has thrived since Griffin went out. Rivers is a scorer at heart and has more freedom to take his shots. In addition to having a bit more of the green light to shoot it, he has more space to do so. Since Griffin has went out, Doc Rivers has opted to play more small-ball lineups. These lineups have worked in favor of the younger Rivers’ skill set and for the team, who still have yet to lose since Griffin was sent to the sidelines.

He’s getting closer and closer to being able to take on Jamal Crawford‘s role as a high volume scorer off of the bench.

That Rivers would improve his offensive game was a part of his natural progression, an unforeseen improvement has been seen on the defensive end.

Rivers is holding opponents to 39.9 percent shooting, down from 43.8 percent when they’re not defended by Rivers. Opposing players shoot 3.4 percent worse on three-pointers and 4.6 percent worse on three-pointers when Rivers is tasked with defending them.

Rivers still has a habit of getting lost within the team defense, but his man-to-man defense has been the brightest improvement in his game. He’s not racking up a ton of steals (0.7 per game), but he’s playing defense the right way, staying in front of his man and forcing him to make contested shots.

This is not to say Rivers doesn’t have his flaws. As mentioned, he can get lost defensively from time-to-time when playing off-the-ball and his 1.3 assists per game in 22.1 minutes a night is a pathetic number for someone who can drive to the basket like him.

Rivers is still only 23 years old and as a bench player, more attention should be focused on what he can do and not on what he doesn’t do.

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If Rivers can prove that his recent shooting streak is a sign of things to come, the Clippers will look at trading journeyman Quincy Pondexter for him as a steal of a deal. After many people wrote Austin Rivers off as a lost cause who was collecting NBA paychecks solely because of his famous father, Rivers is starting to prove those doubters wrong and make his dad look like a smart man.