Where He Started
Before we look at this year, let’s just go back to our evaluation of Rivers one year ago. Here is the Season in Review piece on Rivers from our own Ryan Schwan at the conclusion of his rookie year. Some highlights include:
He’s below average as an NBA guard in every category. EVERY CATEGORY. And it extends to everything measurable. Most guards in the league need to have something they do well to hang their hat on, but even the two things Rivers does correctly are mitigated by the fact that he can’t make the free throws, and he can’t hit the good shots he manufactures.
Man, that is rough, but it doesn’t stop there.
Even defensively, where some seek to hang their Rivers hat, Austin has not been strong this season. Most metrics show the Hornets defense didn’t really change with him on and off the court, and Synergy Sports ranks him 308th in the league as a defender, allowing .91 points per possession defended. Considering where the team was (29th overall) that is hardly surprising.
Which leads to a conclusion of:
So he was a subpar defender, a subpar rebounder, a subpar passer, a subpar shooter. He earned a 5.9 PER. 5.9! I’ve never seen that from anyone who played more than a few games worth of minutes. Win Shares and Win Score both rate him so poorly that they say he single-handedly cost the Hornets games. That means, by all three metrics, that you could replace him with any good player from a lesser league – D-League, Europe – and do better. A lot better.
Schwan had no personal agenda against Rivers; He was simply recapping a terrible rookie season by a guy who was clearly forced to play too much too soon. Not only did Rivers have numerous weaknesses, but he failed to display many strengths. And worse yet, is that just as he was starting to put up some respectable games, he got injured and was forced to miss the end of the season.
The 2013-14 Season
We first saw Rivers at NBA Summer League, where he looked to have improved his spot up shooting and ability to finish at the rim. He went from a guy who averaged 10 ppg on 21.1% shooting the summer before to a guy who put up 18.6 ppg on 48.6% shooting in the 2013 Summer League. He had added a left hand to his game, and the coaches were all raving about his work ethic and improvements on defense.
But with the additions of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, and Anthony Morrow (along with a healthy Eric Gordon and a veteran in Brian Roberts), Rivers faced some stiff competition for minutes early on. In the first six games, he was essentially a DNP in all but one – a 20 point loss in Orlando that saw Tyreke Evans hobbled and ineffective.
Evans remained hobbled for a while, giving Rivers an opportunity to receive some minutes, but he didn’t start to become a regular part of the rotation until December, when he appeared to have moved past Roberts as the 4th guard on the team. In these two months, however, Rivers was nothing to write home about, putting up just 4 points per game on 37% shooting in 12 minutes.
There was no clear role for Rivers, as the team was constantly playing around with units to see what worked. One thing was clear, though – the ultra aggressive Rivers that we had seen in the Summer League and over that final stretch in 2012-13 was gone and replaced by a guy who looked like he was just trying not to mess up. When you combine the field goal attempts and the assists, Rivers was averaging about 1 of those every three minutes. Not one shot attempt AND one assist; No – I am saying he got one OR the other every three minutes.
The Pelicans were playing at a pace at the time that saw them get an average of about 7 possessions in a three minute span. And on six of those possessions, the point guard on the floor did not log a shot attempt or an assist. Basically, he was dribbling around for a couple of seconds, getting the ball to somebody else, and then just standing around. That was not the plan for Rivers when the Pelicans made him the 10th overall pick in 2012.
But in January, things started to pick up for Rivers. Unfortunately, it took an injury to All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday to give him the opening he needed to get more playing time and be more aggressive. Rivers got a lot of minutes with Tyreke Evans and Anthony Morrow, which allowed him to share ball handling responsibilities and showcase his new spot-up jumper as well. As a result, his numbers went up and his confidence seemed to return as well.
March and April were probably his two best months since coming to New Orleans and his four starts to end the season will give him something to build off of as he heads into the summer. Perhaps more importantly, he goes into the summer completely healthy, so he won’t be limited in any way as he works on his game. There was some good and some bad this season, and we will get into that right now, but after a disastrous rookie season, there is reason to be optimistic again about the former 10th overall pick.
What Went Right
Literally Everything Improved
Field Goal Percentage, Three-Point Percentage, True Shooting Percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage, Free Throw Percentage, Free Throw Rate, Offensive Rebound Percentage, Defensive Rebound Percentage, Assist Percentage, Steal Percentage, Block Percentage, Usage Rate, Offensive Win Shares, and Defensive Win Shares.
Only things that went down were his three-point rate (22% down to 21%) and his turnover rate (which is a good thing!); Other than that, he improved in every category. Perhaps most importantly, his ability to finish at the rim drastically improved. That is important for Rivers because he gets there so often, and with relative ease because of his handles and terrific first step. Last year, Austin had a field goal percentage of 48.8% on attempts within three feet. This year, he was at 53.6%. That is huge for a guy who took nearly 40% of his shots at the rim this season.
Talking to Austin this summer, he said that he was banged up much of last season and didn’t have his explosiveness. He said that in addition to getting healthy, he really worked on adding strength to his base and it showed this year. The really weird thing about last year was that Austin did not have a single dunk according to Basketball Reference. This was a guy who competed in multiple dunk contests in High School, so that was a little odd. This year he only had seven, but the increase in explosiveness was evident. And the stats simply showed increase across the board.
Playing Within Himself
Austin Rivers is starting to understand who he is as a basketball player. He cut his mid-range shot attempts in half because, well, he is not a good mid-range shooter at this point. He also started to make the simple play, rather than force things that weren’t there. Despite playing far more point guard this season (79% at PG compared to just 9% last year), his turnover rate went down and his assists that resulted in a dunk or a close shot went up by over 200% despite playing less minutes than he did last season.
He also learned how to attack while staying in control and giving himself a chance to finish at the rim. Rivers tripled his number of And-1’s this season and nearly doubled the amount of shooting fouls he drew this season (79 compared to 44 last season) while only committing 5 more offensive fouls this year. Rivers still has a ways to go, but it looks like he knows the path he needs to follow to get where he wants to be.
Spot Up Three
Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and Anthony Morrow were all terrific catch-and-shoot three-point shooters – all above 42% on the season. But Austin Rivers was the best of the bunch, as he hit 46.4% of his catch-and-shoot three’s according to NBA.com. Right behind Rivers in terms of where he fits in the league rankings in this category – Marco Belinelli. So, Rivers was terrific spotting up off the ball, and was far more balanced when he released the ball than he was last year.
Amongst players who attempted at least 60 catch-and-shoot threes, only Kyle Korver, Lebron James, and Stephen Curry shot a higher percentage. Read that sentence again. Okay, now pick your mind up off the floor, because it has undoubtably been blown. Seriously, this is an emerging part of Austin’s game, and you gotta imagine that as AD’s post game develops and Evans gets into the lane and creates for others, that Rivers could benefit big time when he is on the court with either of those guys. Or if Gordon moves to the bench and you put him in the pick and roll with Rivers spotting up, that could be a dangerous second unit. The development of this skill has made Rivers infinitely more valuable than he was at this time last year.
Look, I don’t have a bunch of fancy stats for this because defense is hard to capture statistically – especially for this team. The Pelicans’ defensive concept requires guys to help and recover so much that it is nearly impossible to assign praise or blame to a certain guy on each play. So for this one, I am just going to use the eye test. Rivers talks far more than last year and almost never misses a rotation. He also has great quickness and uses his hands well on defense without fouling too much. Combine that with the fact that he has become infinitely better jumping passing lanes and what you have here is the makings of a very good perimeter defender.
What Went Wrong
Free Throw Shooting
Look, if you are a guard whose game is predicated on getting into the lane and drawing fouls, you must make your free throws. There was actually a game this year in Sacramento in which the Kings deployed Hack-A-Shaq on Rivers. Until then, I had never seen that tactic used on a guard before. Of all the guards in the entire league over the last 20 years, he is the only one I ever seen a team foul on purpose in the 3rd quarter of a game.
Rivers was better from the stripe this year, shooting 63.6%, including a stretch in January and February where he went 17-17 over the course of 8 games. But outside of that stretch, Rivers was below 60% on the season from the stripe, and that just kills his efficiency. Plus, you have to wonder if his troubles at the free throw line prevent him for going right into defenders when he gets to the rim. Does he try to make tough shots instead? There is a possibility that an increase in his free throw shooting could actually increase his FG% at the rim as well because we might see the acrobatic, foul avoiding attempts decrease. Two birds with one stone.
Mid-Range, Off the Dribble Jumpers
Austin Rivers made 11 of these all year. Eleven. And five came in the final three games he played. Rivers shot 25% on pull up two point jumpers (defined as ‘Any jump shot outside of 10 feet where one or more dribbles were taken’). And he shot just 12% on pull up three-pointers. Ricky Rubio, somebody who has been called one of the worst shooting perimeter players in NBA history shot 29% and 21% in those two categories. So it’s bad, real bad.
And it doesn’t get much better when he spots up from mid-range. On the season, he is 23% from between 10-16 feet and 28.6% between 16 and 23 feet. That is Tyreke Evans bad. Luckily for Rivers – like Evans – he doesn’t take many shots from there (around 18% total). What might be more disturbing is his shot percentage from 3-10 feet (just 32%). Imagine if he had a consistent little floater like Tony Parker (who usually shoots in the high 40’s to mid-50’s in that range). For Rivers, the mid-range jumper is settling. He can get into the paint, so more than anything he needs to work on that floater.
Playing Against Starters
Looking at Austin’s splits, you see a guy who is terrible in the first and third quarters, but good in the second and 4th quarters. Let’s take a look at the specifics. (Averages are Per-36 mins)
In addition, the Pelicans are a -4.0 when Rivers is on the court in the first and third quarter, while they are a +0.9 when Rivers is on the court in the 2nd and 4th quarters. When Rivers comes in late in the first and third, the other team frequently still has their starters on the court, but when Rivers is on in the 2nd and 4th, it is usually second unit vs. second unit. In those situations, Rivers seems comfortable and he is incredibly efficient. In the 4th quarter, for example, he averages 1.25 points per shot and has a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio – both numbers are by far the best of any quarter. But for Rivers to take that next step, he will have to perform well when the competition is stiff so that Monty can have confidence going to Austin when one of his guards picks up two quick fouls.
As was the case with most Pelicans players, Austin’s numbers took a major dip whenever ‘Da Steamer’ was on the court. Big dips in FG%, 3-pt %, assist rate, and steal rate, while his turnover percentage went up nearly 30%. And it is not like Austin can’t play with bigs, as his numbers with Ajinca were slightly better than his season averages. Same goes for Withey. It was the man lovingly known as ‘The Anchor’ who brought Austin down. But now, with Stiemsma gone, the sky is the limit!
Austin Rivers is scheduled to make $2.44 million next year and they have until October 31st of 2014 to decide on his 4th year option, which is for $3.1 million. With the improvement that Rivers has shown, it is practically a lock that the Pelicans pick up that option if Austin is still on the team. But that is the question – Will Rivers still be on the team at the end of the summer?
The Pelicans effectively have seven guards who deserve ample playing time tied to the Pelicans in one way or another. Holiday, Evans, Gordon, and Rivers are all under contract going into next year, while Brian Roberts and Anthony Morrow are free agents that the team could bring back. Add to that list Pierre Jackson, who figures to be on the Pelicans roster next season if he is not traded this summer.
The point is that the Pelicans are flush with backcourt options and if they get a chance to move one or two guys for a wing player or a big man, they will have to consider it. Rivers is an improving player who is under contract at a cheap price for multiple years, so he might be able to fetch a solid veteran player from a rebuilding team this summer. And if he can, then Dell might look to pounce when you consider that Rivers probably doesn’t get much playing time next season on a fully healthy Pelicans team. If Jrue, Evans, Gordon, and Morrow are healthy, it is hard to imagine that Rivers gets more than 12-14 minutes and a small handful of shot attempts.
If this scenario were to play out, would Rivers have more trade value or less next year? His stats will likely go down and his contract will have gotten shorter at that point. As good as Rivers can become, he is not going to get there without playing time, and playing time is going to be hard to come by with this crowded backcourt. Even if Gordon and Jackson are moved and the Pelicans let Brian Roberts walk, the opportunities for Rivers could be few and far between with Holiday and Evans in front of him.
On the other hand, the Pelicans do not have many assets quite like Rivers. He is young with solid upside on a rookie contract and he plays with a passion that is infectious. He has a toughness and an edge to him that this team sorely needs, both on the court and in the locker room. While there is a chance that Rivers loses value if he doesn’t play much this upcoming season, there is also a chance that trading Rivers now would be selling low. We have seen a huge leap between year one and year two, and with his work ethic, it is not beyond the realm of reason that Rivers continues to improve each and every summer until he reaches his ceiling.
Demps is in a good position here with Rivers. If a good offer presents itself, he can trade a position of strength to improve a position of weakness. If an offer does not come up, then the team can continue to develop Rivers and have a defensive minded, three-point shooter who can get to the rim as a big part of the second unit. And whether we like it or not, injuries are bound to pop up yet again next year (just hopefully not as many), and it is nice to be able to throw in a guy who has started at both guard positions for the team and has two plus years experience in the system.
And if Rivers does stay, has to continue to build on what he did last offseason. Adding strength will help him at the rim and another 9% jump in his free throw shooting will make him respectable from the stripe and will increase his scoring efficiency. And if the Pelicans fail to make a major move featuring one of their three highly paid guards, then Rivers should be playing with either Evans or Gordon practically every minute he is on the floor. This will allow him to share playmaking responsiblities and spot up on the perimeter.
But as much as we love to focus on offense, it is his improvement on the other side of the ball that will determine his playing time and value to New Orleans. He already is a good defender, but if he can take the next step to great, he could be an Avery Bradley-esque defender that can help the Pelicans shut down people on that side of the court. Imagine five minute spurts with Jrue Holiday and Austin Rivers pressuring the ball on the perimeter and then racing back down the other way after a steal or a missed shot. Rivers could become that as early as next year, and if he is, then next years’ Season In Review piece on Rivers will come in late May or June because the Pelicans will be wrecking havoc in the postseason.
For all of our already published Season In Review pieces, click here.