Will a Lack of Rivers Help the Hornets Flow?

Published: March 11, 2013

Austin Rivers has experienced a rough rookie season overall, but how will his absence impact the Hornets (and consequently, their NBA Draft Lottery standing) for the remainder of this season?

For those teams who will be watching the NBA postseason from home, the loss column is arguably more important than the win column at this point in the season. Wins can be valuable for young teams from a chemistry and confidence standpoint, but terms of quantifiable return, it’s the losses that can have a real impact in the form of the NBA draft lottery. Saying as much isn’t an attempt to advocate “tanking”, but instead merely a fact of life within this league.

According to Ian Levy of Hickory High, the Hornets found themselves in an ideal position this season, and his opinion is one with which I completely agree. New Orleans has been able to give their young players crucial minutes in their development process, which in turn has been partially responsible for losses that will inevitably improve the team’s lottery position. For most of the season, the player who has validated this assessment more than any other for New Orleans is rookie guard Austin Rivers. As Levy noted, the Hornets have been outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions with Rivers on the court, but they have only been outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions while he is on the bench, a fairly substantial difference.

Given this data, the question now becomes whether or not the Hornets’ long-term prospects will actually be negatively impacted by losing Rivers for this season’s final month. Or, rather – will the absence of Rivers on the court unintentionally make the Hornets better, and thus cause the team to end up with worse draft lottery odds as a result?

I don’t think that it will, and the reason is pretty simple – Austin Rivers was a better player at the time of his injury than he was earlier this season. In order to more effectively track Rivers’ progress, I split up his on/off court splits into three season segments, which are listed below.


Opening Night through Eric Gordon’s return (29 games)

Hornets: 2.0 points per 100 possessions worse with Austin Rivers on the court

In general, this difference shouldn’t come as a huge surprise; Rivers was a rookie in his first two months, and most rookies will take some time to adjust to the NBA game and overall lifestyle change. Unlike most rookies, Rivers was immediately forced into starter-caliber minute totals due to a lack of significantly better options. In most scenarios throughout this time, Roger Mason Jr. played in place of Rivers; the two played just 56 minutes together in the season’s first 29 games despite both players missing just three games between them and averaging over 19 minutes per game in that period. While Mason was on the court in those two months, the Hornets were 1.7 points per 100 possessions better than when he was on the bench, and to learn that he was a slightly more effective player than Rivers at the start of Austin’s rookie season should hardly come as a shock.


Eric Gordon’s return until the all-star break (24 games)

Hornets: 9.5 points per 100 possessions worse with Rivers on the court

While Gordon hasn’t been the star many were expecting upon returning to the lineup, he is still the most talented shooting guard on the team’s roster by a wide margin and therefore provides a huge boost to the team’s ability while he is on the floor. Combine that fact with Rivers being relegated to playing the majority of his minutes with the second unit, and this huge difference in net rating with and without Austin can be explained fairly easily as well.


All-star break until Rivers’ injury (9 games)

Hornets: 5.1 points per 100 possessions better with Rivers on the court

The notion that the Hornets could be better with Rivers than without him appears very confusing when looking at his numbers for the season as a whole. However, by digging a little deeper, we can see that Rivers has legitimately made the Hornets a better team while on the court since all-star weekend.


What changed?

His average playing time before and after the all-star break have remained pretty constant – just over 23 per game. Before the break, he was averaging 6 1/2 shot attempts per game, with 1 1/2 of them coming from long range. He made just 35% of his shots from the field, and 31.6% of his 3-point attempts, good for an effective FG% of just 38.6%. Add in his measly 55.7% percentage from the free throw line, and we arrive at a true shooting percentage of 41.4%, easily one of the worst in the league. He posted a turnover rate of 12.3% (the average for NBA guards so far this season is 11.6%), with an assist/turnover ratio of just 1.62. There is nothing good to be found in any of those numbers, so it’s no surprise that the Hornets were better when he was riding the pines.

After the all-star break, however, he made noticeable improvements in basically every area of his game apart from his (admittedly horrendous)  free throw shooting. He shot just over 50% from the field, making 3 out of 5.9 attempts per game, including an increase in 3-point percentage as well, making .4 out of 1.1 per game. The resulting eFG% over this nine game period is 54.7%, which is well above the 49.0% league average for guards this season. He cut his turnovers nearly in half, decreasing his turnover rate to a minuscule 6.4%, resulting in a very solid assist/turnover ratio of 3.0. These stats point to a decreased usage rate, which is in fact the case – his USG% pre-ASB was about 17%, compared to about 14% post-ASB. Though this reduction can be interpreted in various ways, I believe it to be an indication of smarter play in this instance. Rivers hasn’t been trying to force as many shots or passes, and it appears as if the game is starting to slow down for him.

An argument can be made that nine games is too small of a sample size to claim that Rivers has improved, but most people who have watched this Hornets team over that span would argue that Austin has indeed taken his game up a notch. While not nearly as quantifiable as offense, his on-ball defense has visibly come miles since his first NBA game. Austin Rivers still has a very long way to go before he can start getting NBA fans (myself included) to believe that he can ever become a starting-caliber player, but his last month was absolutely a step in the right direction. Rivers’ play since the all-star break may not even qualify as “strong” to some, but it has pretty clearly been just as good as those who will be replacing him, and likely even better.


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