Austin Rivers is the perfect Clippers backup


For the Los Angeles Clippers, their offseason to date has been among the most successful in the NBA. They locked up Lance Stephenson nice and early in a low risk, high reward move for the team. Next up was ageless veteran and big game player Paul Pierce. Having produced some playoff heroics for the Washington Wizards last year, the hope will be that the 37 year old can do just that again this coming season.

Next up came another move to acquire proven talent in the form of Josh Smith. Still only 29 years of age, his dumping by the Detroit Pistons and subsequent rebirth in Houston with the Rockets means it finally looks like he’s found his place in this league. He’ll always shoot too many midrange jumpers, but he’s learned to curb that tendency and put the team first.

When you factor in the resigning of DeAndre Jordan after an eleventh hour change of heart and combine that with the rock solid core of superstars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, there’s every reason to be optimistic for next season. Austin Rivers is one guy who will get little attention as this array of stars both in their prime and twilight come together to try and win it all. This is the way it should be, and it’s why this quiet point guard is the perfect backup playmaker for the Clippers.

Look, there’s no point in trying to hit you with various stats to make you see that Rivers belongs on this stacked team, because truthfully they don’t really exist yet. What is important is that in the second half of last season he looked to have finally found his feet in this league. He rounded out the regular season with some nice performances, and had a coming out party of sorts in the game four of the first round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs.

He’s only 22 years old, and his playoff averages (8.4 points and 1.1 assists) were marginally more impressive than during the regular season (7.1 points and 1.7 assists) even if his assists average dropped a little. Defensively, he’s like a rotating door at times, and is likely to never be a game changer on that end of the court. He could absolutely be a better facilitator as well, especially given his position on the court. So why exactly is he the perfect backup point guard for this team then?

Well, he’s a score first kind of guard, and he’s really beginning to find his feet on that end. When he was a member of the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) he had a herky-jerky flow to his offensive game that was reminiscent of a deer in headlights.

It was like he was trying too hard, oftentimes settling for poor shot selections and heaving up no hopers instead of surveying the floor and looking to find his teammates.

May 4, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Los Angeles Clippers guard Austin Rivers (25) dribbles against Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones (6) in the second half in game one of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Los Angeles Clippers won 117 to 101. Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Does that element of his game still exist? At times yes, but he has it under far better control now. He’s getting into the paint more easily, and his finishing once in there has improved as well (he shot a career high 63.4 percent from within three feet this year). Why this is even more important is because the Clippers had a bench last season that ranked in the bottom 10 in the league in scoring. One of either Pierce or Smith will figure to help that number, as both are unlikely to start here.

Jamal Crawford is also meant to be the guy who heats up in a hurry off the pine, but he struggled quite bad last year. Having Rivers and his unassuming, under-appreciated scoring off the bench will be handy when opponents are trying to cover more proven scorers in the Clippers’ second unit. We won’t see the real importance of this until the team is in a tight spot, and Rivers is allowed to have the offense run through him.

Another key reason Rivers is the perfect foil for this team off the bench is because of the kind of guy he is and the position he finds himself in. Paul is the leader of this team, and is clearly loved by teammates. It’s always been this way with him. However, he’s not the most outwardly vocal leader in that he isn’t really a shouter on the court. His way of leading is more to pull guys aside and talk to them, and it is something that works very well.

Why this is important is because, as we saw at times last year, Paul also does this with Rivers. It’s clear he wants his backup to succeed, and learning from the best can only be a good thing. Paul is the most complete floor general in the league, and his position as a starter will likely never be under threat. What this means is Rivers knows his place in this team, to watch Paul and to learn from him, while also chipping in offensively.

Given that his father is the head coach and president of basketball operations of the Clippers, it’s highly unlikely Rivers would ever speak out of turn about his teammates or his role on the team. That would just make him look really bad, especially as it must be tough enough to have to work with somebody who reared him every day. When he was first acquired many felt it was Doc Rivers who was trying to save his son from a tough spot in New Orleans.

Now, however, it’s clear his son has something, and his value to this team looks like it will only increase as time goes by. He’s still nowhere near his peak and is steadily getting better. He’s found a home and absolutely knows what is expected of him. He can never take the starting berth, but this team is so financially hamstrung he’s unlikely to be moved any time soon either. When your dad makes those decisions that can help too.

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That kind of security in this league is so rare and can only breed confidence and an increase in output. So while the various big names on this team will grab all the headlines and be largely responsible for this make or break season with the team, Rivers will work quietly in the background. Entering his fourth year in the league, he finally looks to have settled into what is expected of him. He’s nowhere near his prime either, the best is yet to come.

So when Paul misses time through injury (highly likely) or else needs a breather as the regular season winds down, Rivers will be there. When Crawford, Pierce, Smith, J.J. Redick or Wesley Johnson are having poor shooting nights, Rivers will be there. He’ll do this without making a fuss, and likely post career highs, and nobody will really care. But that’s the beauty of Austin Rivers’ game, and the reason he is the perfect backup on this well constructed contender.

Next: Doc finally proved himself with the Clippers' remarkable rebuild