Basically everyone agrees that the Los Angeles Clippers’s biggest weakness is wing defense. To reach the NBA Finals, the Clippers will have to make it through players like Kevin Durant, James Harden, Klay Thompson, and Kawhi Leonard—and that’s just in the Western Conference. To stop these wing scorers they will have to rely upon ... Matt Barnes. I like Barnes, but c’mon. Early on this season, Clippers coach Doc Rivers tried starting Jamal Crawford—you know, a shooting guard who basically only scores and plays absolutely no defense—at small forward. Just a month ago he admitted to searching for bench help.
So, with the bench in general and the wing in particular such a problem, why did Rivers just trade two of his backup small forwards along with a second round draft pick—and waive his backup point guard—all to acquire and accommodate Austin Rivers, his son and a pretty useless NBA player? First, some background.
After realizing a couple of years too late that Vinny Del Negro wasn’t the man to lead them, the Clippers sent their 2015 first round pick to the Celtics for the right to pay Doc Rivers a ton of money to be their coach and president of basketball operations. Front Office Rivers immediately had to decide what to do with Eric Bledsoe, a talented player who was too small to start next to Chris Paul, and who sure as hell wasn’t going to supplant him.
The solution was to trade Bledsoe, Caron Butler, and a 2015 second round pick in a three-way trade to get J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. Redick spent much of last season injured, but has played well as the starting shooting guard this season. Dudley, meanwhile, submitted (per minute) career lows pretty much across the board last season, and lost his starting spot for the second half of the season and playoffs.
Seeking to correct his own apparent mistake, this summer Front Office Rivers traded Dudley and a 2017 first round pick to the Bucks for Carlos Delfino and Miroslav Raduljica—who were immediately waived—and a 2015 second round pick. Basically, they paid Milwaukee a first round pick just to take Dudley and the two years, $8.5 million remaining on his contract off their hands. And for their trouble the Bucks have gotten the Dudley the Clippers thought they were getting, as he has been a big contributor to their surprisingly good team.
With everybody in agreement that the Clippers have a wing problem, and Rivers making multiple failed trades to strengthen it, apparently he has decided to just abandon the small forward position. After a couple days worth of rumors, tonight the Clippers went and traded Reggie Bullock (their backup small forward), Chris Douglas-Roberts (a little used shooting guard/small forward), and a second round draft pick to the Celtics for Austin Rivers. To make room for Rivers, they’re working on a buyout of backup point guard Jordan Farmar.
It is hard to overstate how insane this deal is. Austin Rivers is simply not playable in the NBA. Before the season began the Pelicans declined to exercise his $4 million option for 2016-17, and his play this year has done nothing but affirm that decision. Despite being a shooting guard who can really only shoot, Rivers is shooting 38% from the field. He’s a shooting guard in the modern run-and-gun NBA, and he only shoots 28% on threes. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus ranks Rivers 73rd on defense and 81st on offense: and that’s just among shooting guards! When the Celtics acquired Rivers three days ago in a three-way trade primarily built around Jeff Green, there was speculation that they would just straight waive him!
Look, it’s not like the Clippers gave up some untouchable pieces. For one, Chris Douglas-Roberts was basically useless and rarely got any run. Reggie Bullock barely saw the court either, but it’s never quite been clear why Coach Rivers is so down on him. He was drafted to be a 3-and-D backup wing, and he’s shown the potential to be just that in only his second season, but even with a shallow wing rotation Coach Rivers won’t play him. Jordan Farmar isn’t very good, but he is totally acceptable as a backup to Chris Paul. And hey, a second round pick could be something! Rivers is giving this all up—a grab bag of useful seventh-to-tenth men in the rotation and a draft pick—for Austin Rivers!
Hiring somebody to be the coach and general manager—let alone trading a first round pick for them—is pretty rare in the NBA. Before Rivers, Gregg Popovich was the only league’s only coach/GM, and they’ve since been joined by Stan Van Gundy. While Popovich has been incredibly successful in the dual role, Van Gundy demonstrated its perils when Front Office Van Gundy forewent trading Josh Smith this summer under the mistaken assumption that Coach Van Gundy could sort out the team’s frontcourt log jam, only for Front Office Van Gundy to waive Smith after Coach Van Gundy got fed up with him.
Strictly on its merits, this is a moderate risk/low reward trade for the Doc Rivers, and of course every front office top dog has a few blots on their resumé. But in a year-and-a-half Rivers has now given up Bledsoe, Butler, Dudley, Farmar, Bullock, Douglas-Roberts, a first round pick, and a second round pick, and all he has to show for it is J.J. Redick and now Austin Rivers. Front Office Rivers has mortgaged part of the Clippers’s future to correct his own mistakes in an attempt to help Coach Rivers out, and now it’s down to his own son to bail him out.
Neither Oedipus nor Freud could have written a juicier basketball storyline.
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