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Austin Rivers Needed the Rockets As Much As They Needed Him

After a confounding start to his career, Rivers is living his best life playing off of James Harden in Houston

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Superstars may dictate the fate of the NBA, but the Rockets have found out the hard way this season that even the reigning MVP needs help to make it through an 82-game slog.

After losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency, Houston came into this season with a bunch of dart throws in key roles. It signed Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, and James Ennis III in free agency, and traded for Marquese Chriss and Brandon Knight. Except for Ennis, none have panned out. Anthony is no longer with the team, and on Monday, ESPN reported that the Rockets traded MCW before his contract became guaranteed for the rest of the season. Knight is averaging less than 10 minutes a game, and Chriss hasn’t played in 15 the past 16 games. The Rockets have had some success on the fringes—they’ve gotten meaningful minutes from a 24-year-old rookie (Gary Clark) and a player on a two-way contract (Danuel House). But their best acquisition has been the player who wanted to fight them less than a year ago.

The Rockets signed Austin Rivers on Christmas Eve to fill a glaring hole in the backcourt created by Chris Paul’s hamstring injury. And Rivers, who was waived by the Suns following the trade that sent Ariza to Washington, D.C., has quickly become an integral part of the Rockets’ recent success. In six games, Rivers is averaging 13.5 points—nearly twice as many as he did with the Wizards this season—on a 56.4 effective field goal percentage (which would be a career high) in starter’s minutes (38). In classic Moreyball fashion, Rivers has upped his 3-point shooting, making (a career-high) 41.5 percent of (a career-high) 6.8 3s per game.

Finding players who can eat minutes while not being a detriment has been important given Houston’s injuries and lack of depth, and during the small sample of 228 minutes, the Rockets have been 2.4 points per 100 possessions better when Rivers is on the floor. He’s scored in double digits in every game as a Rocket, including 18 crucial points in the team’s thrilling win over the Warriors last Thursday.

Rivers is still only 26 and has both the size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and the energy to be useful on most teams, even if he is reckless at times. In the past, Rivers has been branded as the problem—he had a dreadful start to his career in New Orleans, and then his Clippers tenure was clouded by talk of nepotism and his sometimes-terse on-court personality. Rivers hasn’t exactly been the solution to Houston’s problems, but he has been a key contributor to its recent run of 11 wins in 13 games.

The bulk of the credit obviously goes to James Harden, whose every performance comes with the subtext of “Give me another MVP award.” (“I need it for sure,” he told reported recently. “And I’m going to get it.”) After languishing near the bottom of the West for the first couple months of the season, the Rockets are now close to the top thanks to Harden’s surge—they’re fifth in the conference and just 4.5 games back from the top spot heading into Monday’s matchup with the first-place Nuggets. The ability to drop 40-point games like they’re the new 20-point games will obviously open things up for your teammates, but unlike earlier in the season, Harden now has enough capable players around him who can take advantage of those opportunities. It may sound simple, but Rivers’s ability to hit open shots when necessary and handle the ball a bit in CP3’s absence has been a boon.

At his previous stops, Rivers was derided for trying to do too much, for playing too much like the player he thought he’d be coming out of college rather than the one he’s become. But there’s always been a capable role player peeking through all the bluster, and in Houston, he’s finally embraced that persona. In the end, both Rivers and the Rockets got exactly what they needed: stability.