Austin Rivers: Worst season ever?
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Thanks to the Chris Paul trade, the New Orleans Hornets joined the Portland Trail Blazers as one of two teams with a pair of picks in the lottery of last June's NBA draft. After taking Kentucky forward Anthony Davis No. 1 overall, the Hornets were also able to add another top one-and-done prospect, Duke guard Austin Rivers, with the 10th pick.
While Davis and Rivers were once considered perhaps the top two prospects in the country coming out of high school, they have had very different professional debuts. When healthy, Davis has lived up to the hype he generated as a National Player of the Year and national champion during his lone college season; he leads all rookies in PER. By contrast, Rivers has struggled with the transition to the NBA, in several ways -- that includes making only 34.6 percent of his shot attempts inside the 3-point line.
In fact, Rivers is on track to make dubious history during his rookie campaign. Two months into the season, Rivers projects to rate nearly seven wins worse than a replacement-level player by my player metric, which would be the worst WARP score in the 34 seasons on record, starting with 1979-80, the first NBA season with the 3-point line.
WORST WARP SCORES
Player Season Team Win % MPG WARP
Austin Rivers (projected) 2012-13 NOH .271 28.2 -6.9
Jason Collins 2006-07 NJN .250 23.1 -6.5
Adam Morrison 2006-07 CHA .300 29.9 -5.8
Michael Curry 2001-02 DET .273 23.3 -5.7
Desmond Mason 2006-07 NOH .313 34.3 -5.7
Desmond Mason 2005-06 NOH .292 30.1 -5.6
Trenton Hassell 2002-03 CHI .288 24.4 -5.3
Calbert Cheaney 2002-03 UTA .309 29.0 -5.3
Charlie Scott 1979-80 DEN .287 27.0 -5.2
Juwan Howard 1999-00 WAS .333 35.5 -5.2
d!ckey Simpkins 1999-00 CHI .268 23.9 -5.2
WARP stands for Wins Above Replacement Player, because normally it is measuring a player's positive impact. But in the case of Rivers, it is measuring a player's negative impact on his team's efforts.
Like its baseball cousins, the various types of "WAR" that figured so prominently in this year's AL MVP debate, WARP is a value statistic that includes two components -- per-minute performance (measured by player win percentage) and minutes played. For players who rate better than replacement, more minutes translate into more value. That relationship flips for ineffective players such as Rivers, who play worse than the type of player a team could invite to training camp or call up from the D-League.
So a "replacement player" is what, exactly? It's the type of player who is easy to find when a team needs a replacement. To find a good example, look no further than Hornets guard Brian Roberts, who went undrafted out of Dayton before starring overseas and signing with the Hornets after a successful stint in summer league. Roberts has been far more effective than Rivers as both a scorer and distributor while making the NBA's minimum salary.
Of course, to build a historically negative WARP rating, a player has to be on the court in the first place. Most of the leaderboard is made up of defensive specialists whose value is not reflected by their individual statistics. Collins, for example, is one of the players most underrated by advanced box score stats.
Beyond that, the list is filled out by players who were overexposed on terrible teams and rookies whose potential demanded playing time that their performance did not yet justify. Rivers qualifies on both counts. With Eric Gordon out of the lineup, the 5-22 Hornets have few good alternatives in the backcourt despite Roberts' surprising performance. Backup wing Xavier Henry has been nearly as ineffective. The situation will change when Gordon returns to action after being cleared to practice over the weekend.
Still, Monty Williams will surely find regular playing time for Rivers, who appears to be a major part of New Orleans' future by virtue of the high pick the team used to draft him. Williams indicated as much to the New Orleans Times-Picayune earlier this month, saying, "I'm going to play him through his mistakes and it's going to help our program two or three years from now."
Because this Hornets season is going nowhere, the more important question is what Rivers' slow start says about his long-term development. Despite the cautionary example of Adam Morrison (see chart), the only rookie currently in the WARP bottom 10, a poor first season isn't necessarily a death knell for a player's career. Allan Houston, Chris Kaman and Glen Rice all developed into All-Stars after rating at least three wins below replacement as rookies. And none of those players was anywhere near as young or inexperienced as Rivers at the time.
Still, the more common outcome is that even those ineffective rookies who go on to long careers tend to never rate well statistically. Jeff Green, who had -4.1 WARP during his first season with the Seattle SuperSonics, is a good example. As much as young players tend to improve, the shape of their performance usually doesn't change, and Rivers' volume shooting has always played better among scouts than by the numbers.
Furthermore, the troubling aspect of Rivers' play this season is that it can't really be called a fluke. In fact, his per-minute win percentage (.271) is nearly exactly what his translated college stat line indicated (.274). Frankly, there is no track record of Rivers playing an efficient brand of basketball against high-level competition. He was one of the least valuable NBA players during the preseason, and even shot just 4-of-19 from the field in two summer-league games before suffering an ankle injury.
Supporters will point to Rivers' shot selection as the culprit for his poor percentages, but Hoopdata.com shows that the larger issue has been his inability to finish at the rim, where Rivers is making just 42.9 percent of his attempts (the league average is 63.9 percent). Though this will improve as Rivers learns to navigate rangy NBA shot-blockers, finishing is typically a skill players bring with them to the league. Bradley Beal, another one-and-done guard who has struggled at times during his rookie season, is shooting 61.0 percent at the rim.
Moreover, Rivers has yet to show the kind of dynamic playmaking the Hornets hoped would allow him to transition to point guard in the NBA. His a.ssist rate is only slightly better than average for a shooting guard, let alone a lead ball handler. If Rivers is unable to handle the point, it will be difficult for him to coexist with a healthy Gordon in the New Orleans backcourt.
At age 20, Rivers has plenty of time to develop a more efficient game, possibly focused around the best skill he has shown so far -- 36.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. If he gets there, his eventual style of play will bear little resemblance to his ineffective brand of basketball thus far.
Last edited by Illuminati; 12-26-2012 at 02:47 PM..