SAN DIEGO – Austin River is still looking over his shoulder.
When you’ve seen the NBA’s business come to an end, as Rivers has—five teams since the 2017-’18 season—there’s no room for complacency. Rivers was unceremoniously traded to the Knicks last season and then forgiven by Oklahoma City when he found himself sitting on the couch wondering when the next call would come.
It eventually came from Tim Connelly, the Nuggets president of basketball operations, who had worked with Rivers in New Orleans. Rivers’ perception did not match reality, and Connelly knew it. Rivers’ reputation was dented, and he was forced to admit what had gone wrong during his brief stays in Washington and New York.
By the time Connelly reached him, Rivers was meek and still very hungry. Destroyed by injuries, particularly in their backcourt, the Nuggets took a chance on Rivers. To say it paid off would be an understatement. Without Rivers, the Nuggets would have been trying to knock off one of the best backcourts in the NBA — with Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum — along with Facundo Campazo and Shaq Harrison. Monte Morris had just returned from injury, and Will Barton, PJ Dozier and Jamal Murray were all injured.
“We don’t beat Portland without Austin Rivers,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said in reference to his monumental Game 3 performance from training camp this week.
Although the Nuggets were bounced 4-0 by the Phoenix in the second round, Rivers found what he was looking for: a new contract and, momentarily, stability.
But even though the Nuggets brought him back on a one-year deal, Rivers, 29, doesn’t feel like he’s safe in the league that almost left him.
“I’m not more comfortable now than I was a year ago,” he said this week on The Denver Post’s Nuggets Inc. podcast. “I’m still treating it like it’s my last shot.”
On Friday afternoon, inside the University of California San Diego gym, Rivers, Campazzo and rookie Bones Highland took it upon a more experienced squad during Denver’s intra-squad scrimmage. The three-guard lineup played with pace on offense and intensity on defense. Rivers played as advertised.
According to Malone, he played fast, made quick decisions, put pressure on the defense and stopped at the other end. He said he was talking to his teammates during the surprising result.
Will Barton’s injured ankle would have provided an opening for Rivers to exploit. When the Nuggets open their preseason against the Clippers on Monday, there’s a chance Rivers will be the team’s opening shooting guard, probably alongside Morris, Michael Porter Jr., and Aaron Gordon. Nikola Jokic’s status remains uncertain after the birth of his daughter.
If everyone was healthy, Rivers would have to grapple with backup shooting guards for minutes. But, as last year’s injury toll can attest, the value of rivers can be significant. He’s still a quick-twitch scoring guard who can fall short and stay in front of his man. And where there have been rivers, there is no role they are unwilling to play. If he can help a team win in any capacity, he said he is up for it.
“I’m really thrilled he’s back,” Malone said. “Obviously, it’s not just his offense. I think Austin is an underrated defender.