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Player Grades: Austin Rivers, who found redemption on the Denver Nuggets

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Looking at veteran guard and latecomer Austin Rivers

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say that this season went nothing as planned for Austin Rivers. Rivers inked a three-year deal with the New York Knicks in November, was out of the rotation by mid-February, traded to Oklahoma City in March and unemployed days after.

“I sat there for like a month and a half waiting for the phone to ring,” Rivers said following an emotional Game 3 victory over Portland in first round of the playoffs. Once Denver did call, Rivers knew he had to make the most of it. “It helps me play with a different type of chip on my shoulder with a different type of hunger because I promised myself I would never be back in that situation ever again, and I won’t be,” he continued. “No matter what, I’ll play out on that court with every ounce of energy I have.”

Rivers did just that, helping stop-gap when the Nuggets faced a litany of injuries in April and May. Without him, things could have gone very differently for the Denver Nuggets.

Austin Rivers 2020-21 per game stats

Team Games Minutes Points Rebounds Assists Turnovers 2-point % 3-point % True Shooting %
New York 21 21.0 7.3 2.2 2.0 1.0 51.7 36.4 54.5
Denver 15 26.9 8.7 2.3 2.6 0.9 50.0 37.5 55.8

What Happened

Just as quick as the Denver Nuggets looked like world-beaters following the midseason trade for Aaron Gordon, the entire season seemed to go up in flames when Jamal Murray tore his ACL on April 12. Not even three games later, Monte Morris would be listed out with injury and miss the next 12 games followed by Will Barton with his hamstring shortly thereafter.

Like that, the Nuggets guard depth was reduced to Facundo Campazzo, PJ Dozier, Markus Howard and Shaquille Harrison, hardly the backcourt needed for a team with aspirations for another deep playoff run. The Nuggets would need to bring in a veteran guard.

Austin Rivers signed a 10-day contract on April 20 which was then converted to the remainder of the year on April 30. Fortunate timing, since Dozier got hurt right after. Rivers’ veteran presence stabilized the Nuggets’ guard rotation, which was critical as Denver made a push for the 3 seed and landed an impressive series win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Best Moment — 4th Quarter of Game 3 against Portland

With the series tied 1-1, the Nuggets needed to steal back home court while in Portland. Nikola Jokic was dominating but he alone couldn’t do it - and in Game 3, Rivers stepped up to the plate big time. In the fourth quarter of a close game, Rivers went supernova and put up 16 points while hitting several timely threes, including a beautiful heat check right in the face of CJ McCollum to put the game out of reach. For a player who was on the street mere weeks prior, to come out and win a critical game like that was surreal.

Player Grade — B

Rivers was never going to replace Jamal Murray’s 21 ppg or two-man game with Nikola Jokic, nor was he expected for such production. Rather, he was brought in to steady the ship in a weak guard rotation, hit some threes, and try to slow down opposing guards. He wasn’t perfect but overall he did a fine job. His scoring numbers were pedestrian considering the minutes he played, but Denver did go 10-5 to finish the regular season with him on the roster and nab the 3 seed for the playoffs.

Unfortunately, in the postseason more often than not he struggled. Save for Game 3’s performance above, Rivers only put up double figures one other time. Against Phoenix, he disappeared completely and was benched in Game 4. In the end, Rivers proved to be a serviceable backup, but a backup nonetheless.

Offseason Outlook

Assuming PJ Dozier is healthy and Will Barton exercises his player option, the Nuggets could still use another guard to shore things up while waiting for Murray to return from injury. Rivers makes complete sense. In a full rotation sans Murray, his load wouldn’t be quite as heavy as it was this year, plus with a full training camp and offseason he could be more integrated with the team. If Barton walks, re-signing Rivers becomes a no-brainer.

On top of that, he is a near perfect fit culturally. He had nothing but positive things to say about the Nuggets franchise and locker room (see below), which from a player who unfortunately had a somewhat negative reputation coming into his Nuggets tenure was a breath of fresh air. He certainly seemed to buy in to Denver’s system.

Denver does have some salary cap fenagling to do, but at Rivers’ market value the cost shouldn’t be a barrier to bringing him back. For a veteran guard on a minimum contract, Rivers fits the bill and could very well be back in a Nuggets uniform this fall.