The Unforgivable Austin Rivers, Coach's Son
Austin Rivers was a lottery pick not long ago. The reason it feels like a long time ago is that he's been terrible since, and not in a way that's fun to watch.
Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
You will not sympathize with Austin Rivers, for good reasons. His name is Austin: a bad name, a middle class name, a suburban name. It is not a strong name like "Krong" or "Rock." He played at Duke, where he was highly hyped and not very good. He did hit a game winner against UNC, once, and made a satisfying figurehead for one of those sacrificial Duke teams that gets eliminated by a three-bombing SoCon team every few years. His father is an ex-NBA player and famous NBA coach. His father, who is now also a GM, traded a second round pick for him. It seemed like he did it to keep his son out of NBA purgatory. The purgatory bit is what you might sympathize with, maybe, but then there's his dad pulling strings, so nope.
Neither does Austin Rivers display any of the admirable basketball attributes associated with a coach's kid, or a legacy player, or whatever the term is for players like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, sons of Dell and Mychal, who utilized lifetimes of private coaching to develop lethal jump shots. Rivers does not warp the architecture of a game like Steph, at least not in any positive sense. He does not slide into the cracks of a defense's perceptions like Klay. He just pounds the ball into contested long twos and blind drives. Austin must have received the same kind of coaching, but he has no lethal jump shot nor any lethal qualities at all. He is at least very confident, but in a way that is not necessarily helpful.
Austin's signature shot is his floater. Here is Blake Griffin's burlesque of the shot. The floater is a synecdoche for his whole game. Austin convinces himself, for a second, that he can do it. "I live for this" he says, deep in his heart. "I am a point guard, and I am in the NBA." But he does not manage to build the sentence "I am an NBA Point guard" in his heart. He beats his guy off the dribble, or maybe his guy lets himself get beat. There is a pang of doubt. He drives the lane. "I will score" he says, "I can score." There is a help defender. "I need to score. I will score, so I need to score." But the man is there. He sees but one solution to not getting blocked: floater. And so Austin Rivers pushes the ball at the hoop in a big loopy arc. It does not go in. For it was not a teardrop, the arc of nature making a swish, but a handful of sand. The ball appears to weigh a million pounds to Austin.
Perhaps he was fouled! Austin Rivers is a career 64 percent free throw shooter, an abysmal percentage for an NBA guard. He has been taking jump shots his entire life. The terror in his heart lives on the stat sheet. What does he fear? How can mere basketball damage someone's life and reputation such that someone would play and live on eggshells like this?
In a late game, high leverage situation in the playoffs, on national TV, your successful father not 20 feet away, you fear just this moment becoming available on the internet forever. Maybe this will teach Austin that he has nothing left to lose and tear the fear from his bleeding heart. Or it will make the wound that's there even deeper, making him even more Austin Rivers than he already is.
The Clippers, you'll remember, traded for Austin. Here is how the world learned:
Half truths abound, here; it's like reading basketball writing by Donald Rumsfeld. Austin was indeed the 10th overall pick, and he was 22. But a second round pick is not free, and the world has looked at Austin already and seen him struggle to keep up with NBA athletes, his toxic mixture of too confident/too scared playing out over more than 3,000 minutes of pretty much unrelentingly awful NBA play.
And yet here was the NBA's most prominent reporter spelling out a half-assed justification for the move, trying to convince the reader that this deal happened not because of Austin's privilege, but because of his potential. This even though "decent backup point guard" is the most plentifully available position in the whole NBA. Jarrett Jack is always available, for instance. So are the many, many players roughly as good as Jarrett Jack.
On Monday, Austin started at point guard in place of Chris Paul, who was injured pushing a boulder up a mountain in Game 7 of the Clippers' series against the Spurs, his mighty blood leaking from his hamstring. A disaster felt near. Surely, this would be the nadir of basketball's civilization, a sign of the collapse of a mighty empire.
As it turned out, it was, but only because both teams consented to an orgy of foul shooting. Rivers himself was fine. He was a disaster to start, and managed to fall down while dribbling behind his back in transition. Also, as is his tendency, he seemed too scared to confront the problem straight up and take foul shots, too confident in his behind the back dribble as a solution. But as the game went on, the Clippers abandoned running the offense through a guard altogether and operated through Blake Griffin in the high and low posts. It was a parallel Clippers, the team that never traded for Paul's ball dominance and opted to instead rotate around Blake-as-Higher-Usage-Boris Diaw; a piece of me mourned for what isn't. Rivers played cursory minutes, worked off the ball, made an abnormal number of shots, helped the team keep James Harden away from ballhandling them to death, and was benched for Jamal Crawford in high-leverage moments.
I am not convinced that this is the future for Austin. Letting the game come to him doesn't feel like it can be his permanent tendency, and backup point guards who don't even make cursory attempts to run the offense don't seem like they will be in vogue anytime ever. But on one night, in one bizarre scenario, it worked okay. It says a lot, and nothing flattering, that this seems like the best case scenario for him, and for the team that is suddenly, wrenchingly dependent upon him.