Nuggets season in review: Austin Rivers

DENVER NUGGETS VS GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS, NBA
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Reviewing the 2021-22 season for Nuggets shooting guard Austin Rivers

Austin Rivers – 2021-22 per game statistics

Part of year Games Minutes Points Rebounds Assists Steals + Blocks FG% 3P% TS%
Regular Season 67 22.1 6.0 1.7 1.3 0.9 41.7 34.2 54.6
Playoffs 5 21.6 4.2 0.6 1.2 1.6 44.4 33.3 56.9

The story of the regular season

Last off-season, Austin Rivers re-signed with the Denver Nuggets on a one-year minimum contract. There were other offers with more money out there, but Rivers chose Denver. He wanted to see things through with the team that gave him a chance after he was out of the league following the 2021 NBA trade deadline. The Nuggets brought him in to bolster their backcourt without Jamal Murray, and Rivers proved himself big time in the 2021 playoffs. The hope was for Rivers to do something similar during the 2021-22 season.

The start of the year was certainly, well…horrible. Rivers was part of a bench unit that was absolutely atrocious, and with the veteran guard shooting 35% from the field and 27% from three during the first six weeks of the year, things weren’t looking great. After an injury that sidelined Rivers for eight games to begin December, Rivers returned and found his niche as Denver’s primary bench wing. He averaged nearly 24 minutes a night in his final 49 games, was slightly more productive as a scorer, and shot 36% from three the rest of the way.

The real improvements came on the defensive end though. Rivers was never known as a defensive guard — he was initially signed to replace some of the scoring vacated by an injured Murray — but he locked in on defense anyway and gave Denver a different dimension throughout the game. Denver had solid offensive guards in Monte Morris, Will barton, Bones Hyland, and Bryn Forbes. What they lacked was a defensive option, and Rivers shouldered that assignment throughout the year. He wasn’t exceptional, not to be confused with the best defenders in the NBA, but he hustled, was focused on the nuances, and took his defensive role seriously. It afforded him several opportunities to start throughout the year, and he immediately became indispensable to a Nuggets guard rotation with some truly awful defensive execution.

Did it translate in the playoffs?

With the Nuggets facing the Golden State Warriors in the first round, Rivers was immediately vaulted to the front of the line of “most important Nuggets reserves” due to his defensive capabilities. Matching up with Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, and Klay Thompson is exceptionally difficult, and there’s only so much one player can do when guarding that trio; however, Rivers had some really impressive moments. His defense against Poole left something to be desired, but against Curry, NBA.com’s tracking data has Rivers limiting Curry to just 3/11 from the field and 1/6 from three-point range while serving as the primary defender in the playoffs. That’s incredible, given just how exceptional Curry was in the series as a whole.

Offensively, Rivers was mostly a non-factor, and while that’s a problem in high leverage matchups as the Nuggets plan to get deeper in the playoffs, the hope is that Murray and Porter alleviate some of the offensive pressure upon their return anyway.

Best Moment – Clutch steal versus Golden State to win Game 4

It has to be Rivers’ steal in Denver’s Game 4 win over Golden State. Nikola Jokić and the rest of the Nuggets correctly identified Golden State’s go-to play at the end of the game, giving Rivers a chance to intercept a pass intended for Andrew Wiggins at the front of the rim. Rivers tipped the ball and generated his fifth steal of the evening (sixth if you ask him) and helped Denver seal their lone playoff victory. It was a great moment, and it showcased Rivers’ best traits that he brought to the Nuggets this year: basketball intelligence and hustle.

Season Grade: B+

The beginning of the season, as well as an unfortunate injury in Game 5 that held Rivers out of Denver’s elimination game, limit Rivers’ grade from becoming ‘A’ level. Still, this was a good year for Rivers in relation to the contract he signed and Denver’s expectations heading into the deal. Rivers solidified his place within the Nuggets rotation at the turn of the New Year and never looked back, locking in defensively as one of Denver’s most reliable options. Reliability and consistency are two endearing traits that allowed Denver to be successful with Rivers on the court because the team knew exactly what he would provide every single night. That proved to be the difference in a playoff win.

What does the future hold for Rivers?

Rivers is an unrestricted free agent heading into this off-season, and it would be surprising if he didn’t have any other suitors in free agency as a veteran guard that can fill multiple defensive roles on the perimeter. It’s quite possible that Rivers played his way out of what Denver would prefer to pay him, though they have the flexibility to do so if that’s what they want.

The Nuggets should want Rivers back though. He profiles as an excellent guard to have on the roster at shooting guard next to Murray, Porter, Gordon, and Jokić. The Nuggets have better offensive options at that spot, but there isn’t a single defensive option that makes as much sense at the moment.

Rivers is 29 years old and will turn 30 during the summer. He still has at least another year or two of high energy defense left in him, and the Nuggets need as many defensive options as they can get heading into next season. Whether Rivers is one of the defensive options or the only defensive option, expect the Nuggets to look to retain him this off-season. He was a great fit in the locker room and made winning plays without needing the ball in his hands offensively. That’s all any team can ask of a veteran role player.

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