On September 19, 2016, Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers threw out the first pitch at the Los Angeles Dodgers’ home game against the San Francisco Giants. He was booed. Loudly.
— Lakers Nation (@LakersNation) September 21, 2016
That begs the question: why do people love to hate Austin Rivers? Is it his unwavering confidence? The fact that he is the coach’s son? Whatever it is, it’s unwarranted. Let’s take a closer look at Rivers, who is contributing mightily to the Clippers’ success this season.
Clippers Guard Austin Rivers is Underrated
Claims of nepotism have plagued Rivers since he arrived in Los Angeles. He was acquired as part of a three-team deal negotiated by his father, Clippers head coach and GM Doc Rivers, in January 2015. The skepticism surrounding the deal was understandable. After New Orleans picked him 10th overall in the 2012 draft, Rivers struggled in his first three seasons. He had difficulty shooting the ball, especially from three-point range. Averaging just 6.9 points and 2.3 assists in 21.4 minutes per game, Rivers was hardly a hot commodity. His acquisition by Los Angeles was therefore fervently debated, with many fans not believing that he would fill a void in the Clippers’ roster.
Valuable Offensive Contributions
During the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, Rivers’ stats were fairly consistent with his performance in New Orleans. Rivers averaged about 8 points, 2 rebounds, and 2 assists per game. However, his energy and ability were often overshadowed by inconsistency. Last season, Rivers was just as likely to embark on a multi-game skid with little to no offensive output as he was to score 32 points in a game against a top-tier team like the Oklahoma City Thunder. Given Rivers’ ups and downs, many fans were perplexed when the Clippers re-signed him to a three-year deal worth $35.7 million in July 2016. Rivers simply had to step it up this season, and so far, he has.
Off-season work with Sam Cassell and J.J. Redick paid off for Rivers, whose field goal percentage has improved from 41 percent to 44 percent. Rivers’ three-point percentage has also improved significantly, going from 35 percent to 40 percent. Rivers is averaging career-highs of over 12 points and three assists per game. His ability to finish at the rim has been particularly impressive. Rivers has always had good handles, but this season, he has looked an awful lot like Chris Paul, with his controlled weaving in and out of the lane while running the offense.
Rivers’ defensive stats have been consistently solid. According to tracking data provided by NBA.com, Rivers held opponents to 39.5 percent shooting during the 2015-16 season, with a -4.7 percentage point differential, putting him in the ranks of the league’s elite defenders. This season, Rivers has held opponents to 44.5 percent shooting, with a -.7 percentage point differential. These are still great numbers, considering Rivers’ assignments and increased playing time in Paul’s absence. Rivers’ defensive assignments have included some of the league’s most proficient scorers, such as Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gay, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and James Harden.
The “X-Factor” – Rivers’ Mental Toughness
As good as Rivers’ stats look this season, his best attributes are not necessarily reflected in his numbers. His energy and swagger on the court are undeniable. The hustle and grit he’s shown during the playoffs over the last two seasons have been especially memorable. Three games, in particular, are worth mentioning:
Game 4 of the 2015 first-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs:
In this pivotal game, Rivers played 17 minutes, scored 16 points, and delivered big on defense. His inspiring performance received a standing ovation, which is unusual for a reserve player.
Game 3 of the 2015 Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets:
In a highly emotional and career-best playoff game, Rivers scored 15 of his 25 points in the third quarter to lift the Clippers past Houston, 124-99.
Game 6 of last season’s first-round playoff series against Portland.
Disadvantaged by the absences of Paul and Blake Griffin due to injuries, Rivers nearly willed the Clippers to victory with his passionate play. After a first quarter collision with Al-Farouq Aminu caused Rivers to require 11 stitches, he returned to the game, eye swollen shut, to finish with 22 points and 8 assists. His emotional post-game interview was painful to watch.
Rivers is a fighter – no doubt about it.
All things considered, whether Austin Rivers ended up in Los Angeles due to nepotism or divine intervention, it really does not matter. He is a solid player and has proven to be a good fit for the Clippers on both ends of the floor. Talk of trading Rivers to the Knicks or some other franchise should worry Clipper fans, not delight them. He is truly one of the most undervalued players in the NBA.