A round of applause for Ernie Grunfeld and the Washington Wizards: at least they didn’t deal for J.R. Smith.
Trading Marcin Gortat is a fine thing to do. He turns 34 next season, and his production has slipped the past couple years. Like a lot of aging athletes in decline, Gortat was capable of looking sensational for a few games, and then unplayable for a few. Plus, he and John Wall didn’t get along. Needing a frontcourt upgrade, plus a personality clash made him easy to deal.
But not for Austin Rivers.
When Rivers entered the NBA Draft, I ran him through my statistical evaluation tools and concluded he shouldn’t be drafted. Not even in the second round. He spent the first several seasons of his career supporting that conclusion. Here’s his Player Production Average by season (in PPA, average is 100, higher is better, replacement level is 45):
- 2012-13: 0
- 2013-14: 39
- 2014-15: 41
- 2015-16: 48
- 2016-17: 54
- 2017-18: 78
That Rivers remained in the league after such a bad start is a testament to his high draft position, how hard he worked, and to his father’s role as team president and coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. Players who began their careers as Rivers did typically disappeared into the bench and then to Europe. But, Doc Rivers traded for his son and then gave him minutes and opportunities as if he was actually good — often to the detriment of the team. And then, Doc awarded his son a lucrative contract and an even larger role within the franchise.
To his credit, Austin Rivers worked hard and transformed himself from horrific to merely bad. A number of fans and commentators are using words like “solid” and “good” and “average” to describe Rivers. None of those are correct.
The Wizards think they’re getting that third guard they’ve been trying (and failing) to find. What they’re actually getting is an inefficient gunner and (at best) ineffective defender who’s best known for an irrational-bordering-on-delusional confidence in his own limited abilities. If Rivers was half as good as he imagines he is, he’d be an All-Star.
This past season, Rivers became a full-time starter (59 starts in 61 games). Among the 55 guards who started at least 41 games, Rivers ranked 46th in PPA. Among the 78 guards who started at least half of the games they appeared in, and played at least 500 minutes, Rivers ranked 55th in PPA. In other words, he was among the league’s least productive starting guards.
Expand the pool to all 162 guards who played at least 500 minutes last season, and Rivers ranks 84th in PPA. To be blunt, there isn’t much he does at a high level. His free throw shooting is well below average. He shot a career-best 37.8 percent from three-point range last season, which ranked 55th among guards who played at least 500 minutes.
He’s 83rd in assists per 100 team possessions, 71st in free throw attempts, 64th in steals, 157th (among guards) in rebounding. On the positive side, he doesn’t commit many fouls or turnovers.
As for his defense, he has his defenders. I’ve seen it described everywhere from good to excellent to okay to pesky to terrible. I’ve also seen him play and seen the numbers. In ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus, Rivers ranked 495th in the league last season, four spots ahead of Jodie Meeks.
Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus Minus includes 161 guards who played at least 500 minutes last season. Rivers ranked 117th in defensive impact. In Goldstein’s multiseason metric, Rivers ranked 144th in that same group.
In the defense part of my metric, Rivers ranked 112th among guards.
Now, this is not to say there are no positives in this trade. The deal saves the Wizards about $2.3 million in salary and luxury tax, and it removes an aging big man who didn’t get along with the team’s star point guard. It also signals the front office is going to be shopping for a center in July (there is no way the front office thinks they go into next season with Mahinmi as the starter), and there’s a reasonable chance they could get an upgrade on Gortat. Plus, Rivers is on an expiring contract, which makes him potential trade bait.
The hope from Wizards fans that Rivers could be a dynamic third guard and bolster the bench is understandable. Unfortunately, Rivers probably is going to be the latest in a long string of disappointments. He’s inefficient on offense and ineffective on defense, and his presence on the roster is likely going to take minutes from Tomas Satoransky, who was actually productive last season.
Gortat for Rivers isn’t the worst trade the Wizards could have made, but it’s likely the team would have been better off packaging Gortat with Kelly Oubre Jr. or Tomas Satoransky and gotten someone good. Rivers might “move the needle” for the Wizards, but it’ll probably be in the wrong direction.