Making the Transition: Rivers Off-the-Ball

Published: January 3, 2013

The Early Returns

Coming into the league, Austin Rivers was (justifiably) pigeon-holed as a ball-dominant, “get to the rack” kind of guard who would struggle with his perimeter shooting early in his career. Instead, he has produced a statistical shooting line which almost speaks to the inverse: a higher three point percentage (37%) than total field goal percent (35%). This inverse has also translated into what was presumed as his “strength”; in combined isolation and P&R plays, which make up a total of 63% of his possessions, he is averaging an abysmal .55 PPP (points per possession), placing him near the bottom of the league, and shooting a total of 28% in these possessions. And although the sample size is particularly small, his 14.3 3P% out of isolation (1-7) certainly falls in line with the early season theme: Austin Rivers does not yet have the ability to score as a ball-handler.

While his actual skill-set appears to be suited towards pounding the rock, he simply does not know when to pick and choose the best opportunities to attack the rim, and frequently finds himself awkwardly trying to bully his way to the rim with a defender firmly at his hip. This was particularly evident in the 2nd quarter of the Atlanta Hawks game, where Rivers was followed all the way to the left side of the rim by Zaza Pachulia, throwing up a layup with his right hand, resulting in what has to be one of the easiest blocks of the year for Pachulia. Rivers has been pressing all year, and while the recent return of Eric Gordon will certainly cut into his playing time, he now has the chance to earn quality minutes playing alongside Gordon as opposed to a large quantity of minutes spent in a baptism of fire.

Guards on Guards on Guards

So how does the new rotation shake out? Monty Williams has five guards who have earned significant time this season: Grieves Vasquez, Austin Rivers, Roger Mason Jr., Ryan Roberts, and Xavier Henry. Now we add Eric Gordon, who will obviously earn significant minutes when healthy, bringing the total to six. The starting backcourt will certainly become Grievis Vasquez and Eric Gordon once Gordon’s conditioning returns to normal, and though Gordon is probably the best playmaker on the team, Williams seems intent on having him on the court with one other ball-handler / point guard at all times and not having him initiate the offense as his primary duty; his comments from Tuesday about the team relying too heavily on Gordon being “Superman” speak to this. The first two games of the most recent Gordon era have produced the following timeshares among the bench guards:

Roger Mason Jr. – 49 minutes
Austin Rivers – 29 minutes
Brian Roberts – 13 minutes
Xavier Henry – 9 minutes

According to what seems to be Monty’s plan (have Gordon remain a “2”, despite his obvious playmaking and solid court vision), let’s assume that Gordon must, at all times (at least for the vast majority of the time) be on the court with another “1”. Roger Mason Jr. will certainly spend almost all of his time backing up Gordon exclusively (as well as play in three guard sets, to utilize his three point shooting). Xavier Henry is slowly being phased out entirely (he racked up a DNP on Tuesday), and has spent most of his time at the “3” anyway.

That leaves Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts as guards who will come in for Vasquez as secondary ball-handling options next to Gordon, and with Rivers more than doubling the total minutes of Roberts over the first two games of Gordon’s return, the needle seems to be pointing in the direction of Rivers moving from starting shooting guard to primary back-up point guard, giving him the opportunity to play alongside Gordon, and perhaps with both Gordon and Vasquez in certain three guard sets.

The reduction in minutes will be a reduction of pressure, and with the team’s primary scoring option back, much of the burden that was unduly put upon the rookie’s shoulders is lifted. He will be free to operate more frequently in the role which he has proven to be surprisingly efficient: off of the ball.

Rivers Off-the-Ball

An inability to finish at the rim coupled with a lack of a mid-range game (Rivers often takes 10-12 foot floaters) is the reason Rivers is currently a poor on-the-ball scorer; while he can create shots, he simply cannot make them at a consistent rate.

He has proved, however, that he can be a scorer without the ball in his hands. Spotting off and coming off of screens (which makes up a combined 20% of his possessions), Rivers has scored over 1.1 PPP, shooting 49% from the field in such situations (including 43% from three point range). These numbers have been accomplished without a playmaker on the roster of Gordon’s caliber; Vasquez is a terrific player when it comes to getting the ball to players already in their sets, but he simply doesn’t have the dynamic shot-creating ability of Gordon, who can split the defense and routinely draw defenders off of teammates.

Besides Ryan Anderson, the player who should benefit the most from Gordon’s return is certainly Austin Rivers, provided Williams utilizes the rookie as a potential beneficiary of Gordon’s playmaking (as opposed to simply being a backup 2 guard), and provided that Rivers intently studies the player whose game he should aspire to emulate.

((Russ’ guest posting days are ending, though he may be back once his next adventure ends. Thanks, Russ. You made it hard to try to finish this series as strongly as it started. Leave some thanks to Russ in the comments. — 42))


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