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NBA PM: Rivers Steps Up on Biggest Stage

Last summer, Austin Rivers’ NBA career was in trouble. Now, he’s playing well on the biggest stage.

Alex Kennedy profile picture
Updated 10 months ago on
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Last summer, Austin Rivers’ NBA career was in trouble. The New Orleans Pelicans shopped him and even considered waiving him using the stretch provision when they needed to clear cap space to complete the Omer Asik trade with the Houston Rockets. Then, the Pelicans decided not to pick up his fourth-year option, letting him walk away as a free agent in the summer of 2015 because they didn’t feel he was worth the $3,110,796 he was set to earn. At that time, several NBA executives speculated that Rivers would eventually end up playing overseas.

After being one of the top high school recruits in the country and playing one year at Duke, Rivers hadn’t lived up to expectations that came with being the No. 10 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Not picking up his fourth-year option was the Pelicans brass acknowledging that the Rivers pick hadn’t worked out and they wanted to move on from him. Earlier this season, this decision seemed like the right one since New Orleans’ biggest issue was their lack of depth yet Rivers still failed to become a significant contributor.

In January, the Pelicans traded Rivers to the Boston Celtics in a three-team deal with the Memphis Grizzlies, which landed Quincy Pondexter in New Orleans. Several days later, before he appeared in a single game with the Celtics, Rivers was traded for a second time. This time, the Celtics, Phoenix Suns and L.A. Clippers agreed to a three-team deal that sent Rivers to Los Angeles. The Clippers had to part ways with 2013 first-rounder Reggie Bullock, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jordan Farmar and a 2017 second-round pick in order to complete the trade and clear the necessary roster space.

Initially, the move was doubted by many people. Outside of the organization, Clippers President of Basketball Operations Doc Rivers was criticized for trading so much for his struggling son. Inside the organization, players wondered if Austin would get preferential treatment, if getting rid of veterans like Douglas-Roberts and Farmar was a mistake and if they could be themselves around their new teammate. Could they question Doc or be critical behind closed doors? No son had played for his father in the NBA before, so players were admittedly hesitant when they first heard of the move. (Coby Karl had a short stint with the Denver Nuggets in 2010, but his father George Karl was on leave due to health issues and Coby never appeared in a game). Soon, the Clippers players realized that Austin would just be another one of the guys.

“When he came here, I think that was kind of the question on everybody’s mind, but it hasn’t even been, like, a thing,” Blake Griffin told reporters. “Their relationship when they’re on the court or when we’re on the court, if you didn’t know any better you would think it was just like a regular coach and player relationship.  He does get on him, but Doc has done that a lot with our backup point guards.  He’s just kind of kept the trend there.”

“I wish you guys could see it from where I’m sitting,” Austin told reporters when asked about his relationship with his father. “Obviously you can’t, but it’s something where I don’t know how to really describe it. Our relationship has just kind of always been that. It’s always been coach‑player. That’s the way it’s always been. He [was] in Boston, I grew up in Orlando. Every time we talk, it’s always basketball. Now when I came here it’s kind of been solidified: [He’s] the coach, I’m the player. He’s hard on me. You ask him. You ask J.J. [Redick], he’s hard on me, but it’s just because he wants the best out of me. … It was just one of those things where we just looked at it as strictly basketball, nothing else. Obviously my mom didn’t; she thinks like a mom. But me and [my dad] just looked at it straight basketball. He wanted me to come over here because he thought I could help, and I wanted to come here because I felt like I could help.”

Any criticism that people had about the trade has largely been silenced – at least temporarily – with Austin’s recent play in the postseason. After putting up his typical numbers during his 41 regular-season games with the Clippers (7.1 points on 42.7 percent shooting along with 1.7 assists), Austin has exceeded all expectations in the playoffs.

He came up big in a crucial Game 4 against the San Antonio Spurs, contributing 16 points off of the bench on 7-8 shooting from the field and helping the Clippers avoid a 1-3 hole.

Then, his big moment came when Chris Paul was forced to miss the first two games of the Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets. Rivers stepped into the starting lineup and finished with 27 points, five assists and four steals over the two games. He continued to play well in Games 3 and 4, contributing 37 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. In Game 3, his 25-point performance was huge for Los Angeles, and he led an 18-0 run that helped the Clippers pull away. For this series, he’s averaging 16 points, three rebounds, 1.5 steals, while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 55.5 percent from three-point range.

He hasn’t been perfect, losing a crucial turnover at the end of Game 2 and taking some questionable shots at times, but he is playing the best basketball of his NBA career and providing the Clippers with some much needed bench scoring to complement Jamal Crawford.

“Austin, man, it’s great to see him playing with that confidence,” Paul said. “At times he second‑guesses himself, [but] I think right now he’s just playing with a lot of confidence and we need that.  He’s coming off the bench, being a big spark to our team – not only on the offensive end, the defensive end too.  He’s playing both ways, and we’re going to need him to continue to do that.”

“It wasn’t that he just was feeling it, it was just that he was aggressive – he got himself into that,” Griffin said of his play during the important 18-0 run. “It wasn’t like he saw a couple go in – he got himself going.  He went downhill and he was aggressive.  Especially in the playoffs, no one could really stay in front of him; his crossover and getting to the rim is tough. When he lets that be his playmaking and he [has] his aggressiveness, and when he’s looking to score, a lot of good things happen because he forces people to help.”

Rivers has credited his improvement and increased confidence to learning from veterans like Paul, Redick, Griffin, Crawford and DeAndre Jordan among others. It’s easy to forget that Austin is just 22 years old, so he still has a lot of learning and developing to do.

“To be on a team with these caliber of players could only benefit me, make me better,” Austin said. “Just to be here playing with these guys and learning from them, it just seems like I learn something new every week from one of these guys like Chris, J.J., Jamal, Blake, D.J. These guys have been here so many times, so just to play with them, you suddenly start to put yourself in their shoes and just start to feel comfortable and then you start to play like you’ve been here your whole life.  That’s what I’m doing now, and I’m just having fun.

“I can’t give enough credit to the coaches and the players I play with. Working with Chris every day and guys like Jamal and J.J. and Blake, honestly, have been so beneficial for me. I’ve just learned a lot, and they’ve taught me just to go play, and just whatever else happens will take care of itself. It just feels like I just get better and better.”

Austin’s play has validated Doc’s decision to trade for him, but the head coach and president of basketball operations insists that he never listened to the criticism or felt concerned.

“Honestly, I don’t hear the noise anyway,” Doc said. “I don’t know what’s been said, I don’t care. We did it for the right reasons. Hearing the fans cheer your son’s name is cool.  Hearing the fans cheer any of your players’ name is really cool.  That usually means something good is happening in the game.  And I know it sounds stark, but that’s really where I am mentally with all this, because I think you have to be. … You have to be locked in. I mean, I would love to enjoy it. You enjoy it a little bit, but not really. I’m so focused on the game.”

While Doc has treated Austin like he would any of his other players, one positive of their relationship is that the father really knows his son well. For example, at one point just before halftime in Game 3, Doc could tell that Austin was feeling extremely confident and aggressive – attempting some shots that his father hadn’t seen in recent years. Doc knew this was an excellent sign and told his assistant coach Sam Cassell as much.

“I felt like, ‘Oh, boy, I haven’t seen him that aggressive and do that in a long time.’ I turned to one of our coaches and I told Sam, ‘Keep him in that mode,’” Doc said. “Because he hadn’t done that, that little step‑back, whatever that thing is, and I liked that you could see his confidence, that he was going to do it. That was a good sign for me.”

Looking back on the last year, Austin is thrilled that everything has worked out for him.

“It’s been a long journey,” Austin said. “I’ve just continued to work through my rookie year, when I was hurt a lot. [I was] up and down the last year, same thing, and I just got right this summer. I just really put a lot of work in, more than I ever have in my life, and I just came into this season with just a lot of confidence through my hard work. … I’m just going to continue to learn from [the veterans] and work hard.”

Truthfully, things couldn’t have gone better, as the Pelicans’ decision not to pick up his fourth-year option means he’ll become an unrestricted free agent at the perfect time – after playing the best basketball of his career on basketball’s biggest stage.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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