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Why the Sixers should pursue Austin Rivers

The Philadelphia 76ers need depth — badly. A lot rests on the buyout market for them to give their elite starters the support they need this season, so any opportunity to add capable backups should be taken seriously. And now, all of a sudden, there’s a new available player worth targeting.

Austin Rivers, typically clouded in ancient narratives that he only stuck around in the NBA because he played for his father, has parted with the Phoenix Suns following a trade with the Washington Wizards and will be a free agent once he clears waivers. After an initial report that Rivers was expected to sign with the Memphis Grizzlies, Chris Herrington of The Daily Memphian reported that isn’t the case. The Athletic’s Shams Charania has also provided an update that “four to five other teams are still expressing interest.” While others are still vying for Rivers’ services, Elton Brand would be wise to get involved.

First off, Rivers hasn’t been good this season. His shooting percentages have fallen significantly to 39.2 percent overall and 31.1 percent from 3. But we’re still dealing with a sample size that’s far too small to outweigh previous seasons, and he’s been in a woeful situation in Washington. Rivers wants to join a team that’s “pursuing the playoffs”, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi has explained, and there’s no reason Rivers can’t find the role he wants with a top-4 seed in the East with a majorly talented trio of stars.

Rivers has a skill set the Sixers could use. After struggling from 3-point range early in his career, he drastically turned himself around from over his last two seasons with the LA Clippers, upping his volume to 4.9 attempts per game with a 37.5 percent stroke from deep. He’s a confident, capable shooter, and this improved efficiency includes a 38 percent mark on 3.1 pull-up 3s per game last season. Having someone with the ability to handle the ball, navigate screens in high pick-and-rolls, step back into space when need be, and fire off the bounce when breathing room opens up is something the Sixers need more of. There’s only so much Landry Shamet can do off the bench.

With this in his arsenal, Rivers averaged 13.4 points per game over the last two seasons, capped off by career-highs across the board in 2017-18 — 15.1 points, 37.8 percent from 3, 2.4 rebounds, four assists (to 1.8 turnovers), and 1.2 steals.

He didn’t just use improved 3-point shooting to elevate his scoring, though. A big reason for Rivers ranking in the 88th percentile on isolation plays (and in the 58th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler) last season was due to his driving game as well. His use of a quick first step, decent handle, floaters, and some nifty finishes with scoops and finger-rolls around the basket can help him liven up second units as a spark plug scorer:

Again, the ability to dribble, penetrate, and create a little off the bounce — from 3 and when attacking inside — is something the Sixers don’t have at all outside of Jimmy Butler. It’s these strengths that also helped Rivers rank a respectable 65th in Offensive Real Plus/Minus last season.

Even though playmaking isn’t Rivers’ specialty, he’s developed and can make basic reads, take reasonable care of the ball, and help keep the offense humming in short stretches off the bench. Plus, as the Sixers stagger their offense around stints of Joel Embiid’s two-man game with JJ Redick and the duo of Ben Simmons and Butler, Rivers will never (and should never) be responsible for waves of pick-and-roll or high-usage creative duties.

Beyond just the offensive tools, Rivers, unlike every Sixers guard and wing except Simmons and Butler, is actually a solid defender. While there are limitations with his ability to switch onto bigger players due to his size at 6’4” (which isn’t perfect for Philly’s switch-heavy system, but still an upgrade over the rest of the bench), Rivers can hold his own against plenty of guards and compete fairly well on the ball. His lateral quickness and physicality to hang close to his man could help cut down some of the constant dribble penetration the Sixers have been allowing to guards all season.

Obviously, Rivers has his flaws. He’s always been a bad free throw shooter (64.4 percent for his career), his shot selection and decision making can waver, he over dribbles at times, and, as I’ve mentioned, he doesn’t have the defensive versatility to switch up that would be preferable for the Sixers. There are reasons he should only be a 6th-8th man. The advanced numbers for his career are also ugly, primarily due to how much he struggled on bad teams early on.

But everyone on the Sixers’ bench has their weaknesses, as will any role player they can hope to add. If any better options appear through trade or the buyout market and their open roster spot is needed again, ideally for a wing upgrade, then it’s easy enough to part ways with a less useful player and move on (sorry, TJ McConnell).

Rivers has been a joke to many NBA fans for his entire career. Whether it’s takes regarding nepotism, his hefty contract from the Clippers in 2016, or simple ignorance that he’s come a long way in recent seasons, many still think of him as useless. But he’s worked hard to become a different player who can contribute. This has been the case for years now.

At the very least Rivers can provide a blend of 3-point shooting, scoring off the bounce and perimeter defense that can help, and shouldn’t cost much either. For a Sixers team in such desperate need of depth and some of the strengths Rivers brings to the table, he’s well worth pursuing.

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.



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