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NBA Saturday: Austin Rivers Hitting on All Cylinders

After struggling early in his career, Austin Rivers has developed into an effective player for the Clippers.

Jesse Blancarte

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There has been a consistent flow of rumors revolving around New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony over the last week. The Knicks have reportedly been engaging multiple teams in trade discussions in an attempt to move Anthony, which is complicated by the fact that he has a no-trade clause and a 15 percent trade-kicker in his contract.

Under normal circumstances, the Clippers would not be a realistic team to engage New York in discussions for Anthony. The Clippers aren’t going to trade Chris Paul, Blake Griffin (who is precluded from being traded to the Knicks under the CBA) or DeAndre Jordan and they don’t have the sort of young talent or trade assets that normally would be required to land a player like Anthony. However, with his no-trade clause, Anthony can veto any deal, which limits the market to teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Clippers.

This means that any potential deal will likely be structured with some combination of players like Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Alan Anderson, J.J. Redick (though reports suggest Redick is not likely to be dealt) and Austin Rivers. In fact, Clippers head coach and president Doc Rivers stated recently that he would include his son, Austin, in a trade if it would improve the team.

“Listen, I would trade anyone,” Coach Rivers said. “You have to be willing to do that … and he would be one of them. And any of them would be one. But I don’t want to trade any of our guys. I like our team.”

There are some issues holding up a deal between the Clippers and Knicks. Jamal Crawford is 36 years old and is owed roughly $28.7 million over the next two seasons (though only $3 million is guaranteed in his final season). The Knicks are reportedly looking for a third team to potentially take on Crawford’s contract. Also, as previously noted, the Clippers don’t have the draft picks or other assets that would easily facilitate a deal for a player of Anthony’s caliber. Additionally, there are still more than three weeks to go before we hit the NBA trade deadline, so the Knicks can simply wait for better offers to appear.

If the Knicks do end up trading Anthony to Los Angeles, they will likely land Rivers in the deal. Rivers has struggled to live up to expectations early in his career, but don’t blindly buy into the perception that he still isn’t a particularly good player. During last year’s playoffs, the Clippers lost Griffin and Paul to season ending injuries. In their absence, Rivers did all that he could to keep his team afloat against the Portland Trail Blazers. Despite suffering a significant injury to his eye, which required stitches and eventually obstructed his vision, Rivers put together an inspiring performance in Game 6 of that series. Nevertheless, the Clippers lost to the Trail Blazers as they were outmatched without Paul and Griffin.

This season, Rivers has built off of his playoff performance and has been playing the best basketball of his NBA career. On the season, Rivers is averaging 11.9 points, two rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, while shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 40.8 percent from three-point range. However, in the four games that Paul has been sidelined with a torn ligament in his thumb, Rivers has hit another level in his game. Throughout this stretch, Rivers is averaging 20.8 points, four assists and 2.3 rebounds per game, while shooting 50 percent from the field and 52 percent from beyond the arc. While this is a small sample size, this level of production isn’t a major surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to Rivers’ improved game this season.

With Paul sidelined, Rivers and Raymond Felton have, for the most part, taken charge of the team’s offense. Rivers isn’t racking up double-digit assists on a nightly basis like Paul can (though he’s done well overall as a facilitator), but he has been aggressive with the ball in his hands. He is attacking the basket frequently, choosing his shots strategically, playing to his strengths and is overall playing an efficient brand of basketball.

The Clippers implement a heavy dose of pick-and-roll action, which Rivers has played particularly well in. Rivers is playing with good change of pace and is effectively using screens to create space in order to attack the basket.

Early in his career, Rivers was always operating at full speed. However, he now has the patience and experience to let plays develop and wait for the right moment to either shoot or kick the ball out to reset the offense. He also has become a better finisher at and around the rim (though he still is streaky in this area of his game). This is especially true when an opposing defender forces him to take a floater from 10 feet or further from the basket.

It’s important to note that Rivers has also been effective at attacking the basket in isolation sets. A lot of players are dependent on a pick set near the paint to get to the basket, but this isn’t the case with Rivers. Rivers has always had a strong crossover and burst off the dribble, but has struggled finishing at the basket. That part of his game is improving, which has made him a bigger threat in these situations.

In addition to improving his overall skillset, Rivers has also become a more cognitive and strategic player. Rather than solely relying on athleticism and crossovers, Rivers is now taking his time and waiting for holes to develop in opposing defenses. He probes the paint with more attention to rotating defenders, teammates cutting to the basket and open shooters on the perimeter. He also has simply been more opportunistic when opposing defenses have a miscommunication, such as in this play against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

While Rivers is playing an overall smarter and strategic brand of basketball, he still forces some bad shots every once in a while. However, it should be noted that while Rivers is taking an inordinate amount of difficult shots, the truth is that these shots are frequently taken toward the end of the shot clock. When the Clippers’ offense stalls, it’s usually Paul who works one last pick-and-roll or takes a step-back jumper in isolation. That task has fallen on Rivers since Paul went down, so it’s understandable why he has been taking more shots like this one recently.

Isolation step-back jumpers are generally considered to be an inefficient means of scoring. However, Rivers has always been a rhythm shooter and has actually made this type of shot an effective part of his arsenal.

Rivers has shot 35 percent from three-point range over his roughly four and a half seasons in the NBA, but is shooting 40.8 percent this season. His shooting mechanics are a bit unorthodox and he will likely always be a streaky shooter overall, but he is clearly shooting the ball confidently right now. He even has become reliable off the ball in catch-and-shoot situations.

Rivers’ improved offensive game comes at an opportune time for the Clippers. With Paul sidelined, Rivers has taken on the challenge of facilitating one of the best offenses in the NBA and has done better than most people would have expected. He also continues to play aggressive and, for the most part, effective defense. He has the size to defend shooting guards and the mobility to stay in front of smaller and quicker guards. Rivers has even been playing at small forward for long stretches and has done a commendable job guarding opposing small forwards. His versatility has been an asset for the Clippers this season, especially with the glut of injuries the team has suffered over the last two months.

If the Knicks ultimately land Rivers in a trade with the Clippers, they will be acquiring a guard that has significantly improved in a relatively short period of time. Rivers may not be a star player, or as valuable as a potential top-three lottery pick, but he is better than most people give him credit for. When you move past the jokes about playing for his father and the early shortcomings in his NBA career, it’s apparent that Rivers is an effective player and would be a nice addition for the Knicks.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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