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Austin Rivers’ time as a Rockets’ villain is over

After years of being a thorn in the Rockets’ side, Austin Rivers’ defensive intensity and confidence has endeared him to Houston’s fans.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Upon signing with the Rockets on December 23, it was hard to know what to expect from Austin Rivers. Sure, he’d averaged career highs in both points and assists the year prior, but he was atrocious in Washington, posting his lowest numbers across the board since 2014-15. Many called it a typical Darryl Morey low-risk, high-reward gamble, but make no mistake, there were Carmelo Anthony levels of disaster potential here.

Besides, if you had to rank Rockets’ villains before the signing, Rivers would undoubtedly have finished in the top two (behind Draymond Green). There aren’t many players in the league who’ve had a career night, stirred the pot, and talked junk while in street clothes all against the Rockets.

However, since joining the once-sputtering Rockets, Rivers has endeared himself to Rockets’ teammates and fans due in large part to the intensity and effectiveness of his on-ball defense. In his five games, Rivers has thrived defensively despite matching up with a murderers row of point guards in Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Jrue Holiday, and Mike Conley, holding them to a combined 40 percent from the field and 23.5 percent from three.

Rivers’ tweener size for a guard at 6’4” allows him to bother point guards especially well. His 200-pound frame enables him to absorb contact while maintaining positioning, while his 6’7” wingspan helps him keep his distance, preventing blow-bys while staying close enough to contest pull-ups. That ability to defend scoring guards at a high level will do wonders for preserving Chris Paul the rest of the season and in the playoffs.

Additionally, the fact that Rivers finished in the 88th percentile for defensive efficiency (per Synergy Sports) during his Washington tenure despite the Wizards being a bottom-five dumpster fire of aloofness on the defensive end shows his combination of size, length, and speed can excel regardless of circumstance. So if the Rockets decide to ramp up their switching again at any point, Rivers will fare perfectly fine.

Still, despite Rivers’ natural fit with the Rockets defensively, he may fit even better on the sexier end of the court. Despite being notoriously inefficient his entire career (he’s never surpassed even league average true shooting percentage for a season), Rivers has always excelled in one area: isolation. Despite atrocious-at-times shot selection, Rivers has an exceptional do-it-yourself-kit, finishing in the 88th percentile for isolation efficiency last season.

Free-flowing, ball movement-heavy offenses have never been Rivers’ thing. Irrational confidence players often thrive on stagnation. So considering the Rockets’ currently rank bottom-two in passes per game for the second year in a row, if Rivers is going to return to form on offense anywhere, it’s in Houston.

Having another creator of offense besides James Harden, Eric Gordon, and the aforementioned Paul is a luxury the Rockets have severely lacked during their recent run of success. Rivers’ ability to create when the Rockets’ main threats are tired, injured, or both, should keep the Rockets offense humming like never before during stretches where it would normally bog down.

Despite what some may think, any concerns over Rivers hijacking the offense during inopportune times need to be put aside. This isn’t the same Austin Rivers that spat out one arrogant proclamation after another during his prestigious amateur career (skip to 0:08 of the video below). He doesn’t undeservedly carry himself with the swagger of a multi-time All-Star anymore.

Since joining the Rockets, Rivers has continually praised Harden and Paul, hinting that he’s accepted his place within the Rockets’ eloquently built hierarchy. In fact, earlier this year, Rivers even went so far as to say on his podcast Go off that the struggles he faced early in his career were “because I was a know-it-all”. A far cry from the Rivers’ NBA fans used to know.

Rivers’ newfound humility, mixed with his lunch-pail approach to defense, has helped him win over the Rockets’ locker room fairly quickly despite their checkered history. Despite only being with the team for a week, Harden has said how “happy” he is that Rivers is there, while also comparing his grit to that of former Rocket, Patrick Beverley.

Rivers even earned the ultimate compliment from the working man himself, P.J. Tucker, who said, “He has a grit and attitude about him. He doesn’t back down.” All Rivers needs now is a compliment from Paul and we’ll know it’s real.

Lastly, Rivers’ emergence combined with Brandon Knight’s slow but steady improvement might give Houston the best guard rotation in the league come the playoffs, allowing Morey to focus on fortifying the Rockets’ wing rotation should reports about the Rockets’ being a “buyer” at the deadline be true.

Furthermore, for a team lacking depth, Rivers’ resurgence in Houston should entice other buyout candidates to seriously consider the Rockets come late-February. So it’s possible Rivers’ addition may end up turning the Rockets’ recent hot stretch into a full-blown season turnaround.

Regardless of what happens, get used to enjoying the Austin Rivers experience Rockets fans. He’s a villain no more.