NBA PM: Rivers Excited to Play Small Forward

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Looking at the roster for the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s clear that the small forward position is one of the weakest on the team. With players like Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan locked in as starters, four out of the five positions in the lineup are set.

The small forward spot in the lineup seemingly has no clear starter for the team. Last season, the Clippers plugged a few different players into the position out of necessity. When Griffin was in the lineup, head coach Doc Rivers went with Luc Mbah a Moute; he then used Mbah a Moute and Paul Pierce when Griffin was out the lineup.

While Pierce will certainly be in the Hall of Fame once his illustrious career ends following this season, it’s clear that he isn’t the player that he was when he played with the Boston Celtics. Mbah a Moute is a good defender, but is limited offensively – averaging a career-low 3.1 points in 75 games last season.

The other four positions on the team feature some of the best players in the league, but the three spot is still in need of help. The Clippers were limited this summer in cap space, and mainly just re-signed their pending free agents like Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson and Mbah a Moute.

The starting small forward for this season seems to still be up in the air. Players like Pierce, Wesley Johnson and Mbah a Moute will likely all be counted on to play the position at some point this season. It remains to be seen what type of role rookie forward Brice Johnson will have given recent news that he’ll be out indefinitely with a herniated disk.

One player that the team may experiment with at the small forward position is Rivers. He and his father revealed to reporters over the weekend that he’ll see some time this season at the three. One obvious takeaway from that thought is Austin is primarily a backcourt player and is undersized to be able to guard some of the bigger threes in the league, but it’s an idea they’re going to explore.

“I didn’t initially really even know about it until they started hinting that I got to start lifting a little bit more,” Rivers said. “I was like, ‘What’s going on, man? I’ve been lifting like every day.’ They want me to start guarding threes and they mentioned the idea of me possibly coming out of the gate starting some at the three.

“The reason it’s possible is because there are not really post-up bigs anymore. Unless I’m playing LeBron [James] or [Carmelo Anthony]. Those are the only two where that would be a game where [Mbah a Moute] would have to [guard them] because they’re just too big for me to [guard] because those guys are like twice my size. Other wings don’t post up so it’s not like the 90s where they had all of these heavy-set wings where guards couldn’t really guard them.”

While size puts Rivers at a clear disadvantage against the bigger wings in the league like James, Anthony and Kawhi Leonard, the team sees his quickness as an advantage at the position. Doc told reporters that most threes have an advantage off of the dribble against defenders, but putting a player like Austin at the position gives him the benefit of taking away the dribble and forcing the player to post up. Austin pointed to players like Chandler Parsons and Andre Iguodala as threes that he can guard because they like to face up a lot and shoot three-pointers.

The idea of playing Austin at the three seems to still be fluid at the moment as the opposing matchup will determine who will start at the position. He started for the Clippers at the three last Wednesday against the Toronto Raptors. He was tasked with guarding DeMar DeRozan during the first half of that game and gave up 20 points to DeRozan on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. He joked at practice on Saturday that he felt his first time went well other than the fact that DeRozan had 20 points in the first half. He is currently listed as the probable starter at the three for tonight’s game against the Utah Jazz.

Rivers is coming off of his best season, averaging 8.9 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 67 games. One of his best performances of the season occurred during the playoffs in Game 6 against the Portland Trail Blazers after he scored 21 points, eight assists and six rebounds. He earned the respect of many as he played most of the game with four stitches above his eye after taking an elbow to the face and leaving for a brief stretch of time.

The fact that Rivers is openly embracing the idea of playing another position seems positive for the team. Rivers said that he played some three last season when the team faced Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Playing at the three now will give the team some versatility depending on certain matchups since Rivers has proven that he can play as either guard position as well.

In order to prepare Rivers for the change, he said the team is going to have him play one-on-one against Griffin in practice. While Griffin is a lot bigger and stronger than most threes, practicing with Griffin will give Rivers an idea of what he can expect when defending the position. In addition, the team will have Griffin guard Rivers in practice so he’ll be able to switch onto guards in certain situations.

It remains to be seen exactly how much time Rivers will spend at the position. As Doc mentioned, the matchups will determine where Austin will play in the lineup. Doc understands that he won’t be able to utilize Austin every night at the position, but it will give him some versatility when formulating game plans this season.

This is going to be a big season for the Clippers. Paul and Griffin have the option to become unrestricted free agents next summer and several other players like Redick, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Alan Anderson will be unrestricted free agents as well.

This team has shown before that they can be one of the best teams in the Western Conference when healthy, but they’ve battled some unfortunate injuries over the years that have prevented them from playing their best basketball. This season could be make-or-break for this team and expectations will surely be very high.