In Defense of Austin Rivers’ Defense

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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.

12 comments
Josh
Josh

I feel bad for Rivers. People are quickly jumping off his bandwagon. I think he's played okay, and his defense is underrated. Remember that this year is like his sophomore year in college, so it may take longer for him to develop.

Joe P.
Joe P.

I agree with xman; Rivers was never meant to carry such a responsibility, because the Hornets have a "top 5 shooting guard." Rivers or GV are both going to look worse and have defenses key in on them when they have to play with each other or Mason or Roberts. Even though Davis is the future, this team, especially the backcourt, is built around Gordon and his contract. Rivers is supposed to be learning to be a Jarret Jack, Jason Terry, Lou Williams type player, not a PG who has to make shots, plays, and then guard Kobe and Harden.

usufruct
usufruct

Frankly, I don't care about the kid's defense. The main thing I want out of a 2 guard, and the main thing this team needs, is OFFENSE. Anyone who's semi-athletic, e.g., Rivers, can be a defensive player, but we need guards who can score. Like Monty said after last night's debacle, holding the opponent to 80. We're going to hold teams to < 80, but we're going to struggle topping that number without offensively capable guards. I'm no talent scout or coach, but it seems much easier for offensively capable players to learn defense, than the other way around. I hope Rivers proves my assumption wrong.

Michael McNamara
Michael McNamara

Improving his defense is what is going to keep him on the court under Monty and the more he plays, the more he learns what is a good shot vs. what is a bad shot. The one thing that cannot be questioned is that the effort is there and once his body matures and the stuff Monty teaches him sinks in, Rivers could make an impact on the defensive side of the ball. I mean, Monty got Belly to become an above average defender at the position his first year here. With that in mind, I expect to see a solid defender by the end of the season, capable of making game changing defensive plays the way he did in Chicago.

Jo D
Jo D

One big thing that jumps out at me in this article is that you have some misleading stats... Austin holding Rip to 2-10.... was Rivers guarding him on each one of those shots?? Don't think so... You also fail to mention Austins mistake of leaving Foye open multiple times for 3s vs UTAH... thats just my intial viewpoint... if i were to dive into it more im sure i can find other flaws or misleadings... Fact is that only one part of his game is NBA ready... Athleticism.. shooting, vision, shot selection, distribution, defense, strentgh, IQ, awareness are all weaknesses at this point... Harsh Reality But he will get better and he has the time and situation to do so...