NBA Saturday: Austin Rivers Hitting on All Cylinders

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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.