Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers earns his place in Michael Malone’s regular rotation

A year ago, it was unclear when or even if veteran journeyman guard Austin Rivers would find his way back into the NBA, as he bided his time at home awaiting his next chance after being traded at the deadline. from the New York Knicks to the Oklahoma City Thunder, then later waived.

After two months in limbo, he found a new home with the Denver Nuggets, who in late April last year first signed him to a ten-day deal and then converted him to a standard contract until at the end of the season.

“There were times over the last month where I didn’t know where my life was going,” Rivers said in his first postgame press conference after his Nuggets debut. When asked what it was like to be back on the pitch, he said it was “amazing”.

“Sometimes you don’t know how awesome something is until it’s taken down,” Rivers explained. “I’ve been home for the past month just sort of looking for the right place. And obviously it opened up, and it just made sense to me.

Injuries to Denver’s top three guards in Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Monte Morris, all of which occurred in the same month, opened the door of opportunity for Rivers, and he wasted no time in taking advantage of it. the best party, as he started in all but one of their ten playoff games, including two big outings of 21 and 18 points respectively that helped Denver ride out the hump to win their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Now on the one-year, $1.7 million contract the Nuggets signed him in free agency last offseason, Rivers is no longer a band-aid solution for injury newcomers to the team, but a more permanent item on Denver’s roster. Even so, in a backcourt full of guards, and in a season in which Rivers faced a December bout with COVID that left him sick enough that he “had trouble breathing” several times. nights, his role at the start of the season wavered.

In the table above, which does not include games missed by Rivers due to alternatively health and safety protocols, injuries or coach’s decision, one can quickly see both the extent to which his playing time has fluctuated, but mostly that the general trend has been towards increased minutes. At the start of the season before contracting COVID (games one through 18 on the chart), Rivers averaged 17.5 minutes, which has risen to 23.6 minutes since returning.

And while there might be some back and forth (it’s helpful for shooters to have a rhythm if they have consistent playing time), part of the reason for that is that he found the way to improve shooting efficiency throughout the course. of the season. Rivers’ effective field goal percentage, which accounts for the higher value of three-point shots, is 54.5 percent this season, which puts him in the 66th percentile for his position, according to Cleaning the Glass. And while that’s not an elite number, it’s perfectly respectable for a bench guard or winger, and puts him on par with starter Will Barton (53.9%) and shooting specialist Bryn Forbes ( 54.1%).

A good example of Rivers’ improved shooting consistency is a particularly hot three-point shooting streak he led in late January, during which he drained 11 of his 16 attempts (or 68.8% ) while averaging 3.7 marks during this period.

But another vital part of Rivers’ offensive game is his ability to effectively attack the rim in a way that few other guards on the Nuggets’ roster are capable of (at least not until Jamal Murray returns, if that happens). ), and for a team whose guards are shooting the fourth-fewest attempts per game in the restricted area, according to NBA.com, that’s a valuable skill.

Rivers has a deceptively diverse moveset that he uses to get to the basket, whether attacking fences or making pick-and-rolls.

Here he first uses a jab step to steer his defender away from the baseline before driving for the reverse layup, then deploys a nifty spin move to an excellent DeMarcus Cousins ​​display for a line drive straight to the rim.

And on this play, he completely shakes up his man with a crossover, and again displays a nice finishing touch with the backhand.

But what really looks likely to keep Rivers in head coach Michael Malone’s regular rotation both down the stretch and in the playoffs is the skill and tenacity he has shown on the defensive end. from the field, the most recent example being the job he saved Steph Curry from the Golden State Warriors last week, an effort that earned him the Nuggets Defensive Player of the Game string.

While Rivers is more scrappy than locked, at his best he can relentlessly pursue his missions and get them to work harder for tougher shots. And a 1.5% steal rate that sits in the 69th percentile among wings reflects his ability to pickpocket opponents and get his hands on passing lanes for deflections and steals.

With Austin Rivers on the court, the Nuggets outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions. While far from the dominant numbers of most Denver starters (Jokic’s on/off number is an absurd plus-23.7, with Morris and Aaron Gordon in plus-14 territory), it’s the best number among all Denver bench players, and the only one who is in the most. And as I previously wrote for Forbes about the Nuggets’ reserve unit, even when they just aren’t bleeding excessively while Jokic is off the court, Denver is winning games at a high rate.

Rivers might periodically explode to help his team win, as he did twice in the playoffs last year, but it’s his reliability as a two-way player that brings the brunt of his efforts from both. sides in every performance, as well as the character and leadership he brings to the Nuggets locker room, which truly makes him a “Malone guy”, a player the coach trusts and is not afraid of. to put on the ground in high leverage situations.

Despite the additions of Bryn Forbes and DeMarcus Cousins ​​(although on the other hand made somewhat easier by Facu Campazzo being replaced by Bones Highland as playmaker), Rivers provides a complimentary set of Swiss army knife skills from the bench that makes it an easily adaptable to almost any lineup, whether it’s the regular reserve unit or an offset combo top. And while Murray’s seemingly imminent return would certainly eat up a large amount of available minutes, it seems increasingly likely that Malone will find ways to keep Rivers in the rotation, both for his ability to make hard-hitting plays and as a kind of “glue”. guy” who can easily fit into any five-man group Denver could get together.

It remains to be seen if Rivers can, as he did last season, deliver standout performances on the big playoff stage that propel the Nuggets to playoff victories. But it seems more likely now than at any time this season that he will at least be on the pitch with the opportunity to do so.

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