Published: November 8, 2012
Austin Rivers has been associated with offense from the start, but is his defense his strength at the moment?
Austin Rivers is a poor offensive player. While this is far from our final judgment, it categorically must be our first. The extremely early returns are not good: he is shooting a woeful 20% overall (greatly bolstered by his career day in Chicago, a 4-12 performance), including 0-8 from distance. He has not displayed an ability to finish at the rim or a functional mid-range game. Perhaps his most surprising and heartening stat, 4 assists per 36, is largely offset by a turnover rate of 18.9%. Defenses have already begun to sag, leaving him less and less space to create. Monty Williams has subbed him out in the closing minutes in favor of Roger Mason Jr., making his intentions clear: Rivers is not quite ready to win games yet. Rather, his minutes on the court are akin to on-the-job training; instead of expecting success and punishing failure, failure is the expectation. His flaws and mistakes are only correctable once exposed, and his obviously skewed and historically bad shooting numbers are bound to normalize.
The same normalization is expected for his defense, but perhaps in another light; opponents are scoring a mere .67 ppp against him, and shooting only 23.5%, including 0-8 off of screens. Now it’s clear from using one’s eyeballs that Rivers has had difficulty fighting through screens, but those same eyeballs must also have paid attention to his quick feet and surprisingly effective closeout ability. Questions about how much effort he might display on the defensive end are slowly being put to bed; while he still needs to absorb Monty’s defensive schemes more fully (the move from “thinking” to “autonomy”), Rivers is running almost entirely on effort right now, as his reserve tank of confidence is almost on empty. A large percentage of playing effective defense in the NBA is predicated not on one’s transcendent ability, but in applying oneself fully to the task, or, more simply, effort.
The regression of Rivers’ defensive numbers might be slowed with the return of Eric Gordon, who would presumably guard the stronger of the opponents’ two guards; said Monty, post practice on Tuesday, “He’s starting to pick up our defense. One on one defense, he’s pretty good. He moves his feet really well.” This is an encouraging sign that Rivers will be able to stick at the “1″ (or at least in the hybridized version of today’s NBA), not only offensively, where his passing game is already showing improvement, but defensively, where his lateral movement and agility will serve him well isolated at the top of the key and beyond.
It seems like more than coincidence that Rivers’ best offensive game, Saturday in Chicago, also coincided with the finest defensive performance of his young NBA career. Matched up against Rip Hamilton, Rivers managed to hold the veteran to 2-10 shooting; he was especially impressive in transition, where, on two separate occasions, Hamilton was barreling towards a retreating Rivers one on one only to be heavily contested at the rim, missing both fast-break layup attempts. He even had a chase-down block on the admittedly diminutive Nate Robinson, and paced the team with three steals.
Although the sample sizes are small, and the stats either extremely deflated or conflated as a result, we can detect the faint pulse of a pattern: Rivers is a confidence player. We heard throughout the draft process that this was one of his greatest strengths; without it, it seems to be one of his greatest weaknesses in equal measure. Starting the year on a cold streak, Rivers must find his confidence in some other reservoir. Saturday, he seemed to draw it from his defensive play. The old baseball adage is that a player who makes a great play in the field always seems to come up the next time in the order and get a hit; in football and basketball, (particularly from Monty Williams), we hear that the best offense is a good defense. Perhaps, in the sense of regaining and maintaining the confidence necessary to be fearless (and thus dangerous) on the offensive end, Rivers’ (so far surprisingly effective) defense might just be what he draws on for comfort and confidence. I predict that Rivers’ best offensive games this year will also be some of his best defensive ones as a result.