Photo courtesy Evan Chvotkin
For Austin and Doc Rivers, a second trade much harder than the first
BY TODD DYBAS | JULY 2, 2018
CAPITAL ONE ARENA — The call from dad came two hours later. Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell had already stunned Austin Rivers with the news he had been traded to the Wizards. The looming conversation was with his father, who was also his coach.
Doc Rivers searched for what to say. His words weren’t choked off with tears. They were being measured in an emotional conversation. The criticism the pair received peaked when Austin received a new contract from the Clippers after his dad traded for him. They were used to that. Austin was told throughout his life that his successes were because of his dad. Doc was told that Austin’s achievements were because of who he was, former NBA player turned coach and personnel decision-maker.
The Rivers were not prepared for a call about a trade. That was difficult. Such a challenge that Doc texted Austin after they hung up to say he was sorry, there was more to say, but he couldn’t talk right then.
“There’s no handbook passed out at the coaching clinic on how to trade your son,” Doc Rivers told The Sports Capitol on Monday. “If there is, I didn’t read that chapter and maybe I’ll be writing that chapter. I can tell you that was one of the harder calls I had to make. Sam kind of did a little bit of the work for me. He knew it was coming. It still didn’t make it easy for you. That conversation I won’t share but it was very, very good, positive conversation. It was emotional. It was a great conversation because it was a coach and a player who had great fondness for each other. Then, more importantly, it was a father and son who had great love for each other. That conversation will always be remembered.”
The closest thing the Rivers had for a blueprint about how to be the first father-son, coach-player duo in NBA history was what they went through as Austin became older. He estimated around age 7 or 8 he began to hear the sniping. It continued through AAU, then when he was high school player of the year, all-ACC at Duke (as if he didn’t have enough people coming at him) and even into the NBA. The persistent needling had a beneficial effect on Austin. Instead of cowering, it drove him. He understood his upbringing was counter to most players in the NBA. His father was famous and rich. But, he contended that it was his first step and hard work that made him a basketball success. The Rivers make a simple argument to back this premise: If it was just about genes or legacy or house size, why hasn’t anyone else ever been coached by their father in NBA history?
“When I started playing basketball, people are judging me,” Austin said. “You’re not going to be this or you’re only this because you’re this, and that followed me all the way up to forever, I guess. Obviously that multiplied by like a hundred when I played for my father. I had to play with that chip on my shoulder to be able to play through that and that pressure of playing for him, especially in the media there in LA. I had to have that or else I wouldn’t be here today.
“For me, it wasn’t even about me playing for my dad. I can see why people think that. I totally get it. I understand the criticism. I totally understand…I had to step back for a while and look at it from somebody else’s point of view and understand. I get it. My whole thing, was judge me off my actions. Don’t judge me on anything else. At the end of the day, I’m out there alone, just like every other player. No matter if my grandma’s coaching — I don’t care who’s coaching me — when I’m on the floor, I’m on the floor. Ain’t nobody can help me do what I do besides myself or my teammates. That’s what I always ask for is judgment off that. The only thing I can say to that is every year there’s been growth. No matter how you cut or slice it, that’s a fact. I’ve gotten better. That’s due to hard work and the great teammates and coaches I’ve had who helped me get better.”
His father has a succinct quip to cover this ground.
“Unfortunately, Austin didn’t do anything,” Doc said. “He just happened to be born in my house. Unfortunately for him, that came with baggage. It was never fair for him.”
Austin was adrift in the NBA before going to Los Angeles. The New Orleans Hornets picked him 10th overall in 2012. He came off the bench. His shooting was abysmal. His play then dipped from an already low point. He was sent to Los Angeles as part of a three-team trade in 2015 what became a clear victory for the Clippers. Rivers to the Clippers, Chris Douglas-Roberts and a second-round pick (Jabari Bird) to the Boston Celtics, Reggie Bullock to the Phoenix Suns and Shavlik Randolph to the Celtics. None came close to Rivers’ eventual impact.
The new contract Rivers signed with the Clippers screamed nepotism. He had improved since arriving, but the contract continued to rankle the same way earlier perceptions of his opportunities did. Again, it was a case of, “If you weren’t Doc Rivers’ kid…”
“I made a trade for him because I believed in who he could be,” Doc said. “That part of it was positive. The negative part was anything he didn’t do well, it was broadcast and talked about. He became an easy guy for people to focus on. At the end of the day, would I do it again? Yeah. Listen, when you’re in it you don’t look at it. It’s funny, since he’s gone, I look already. Already miss him. Guys on the team all text him and miss him. Became a great teammate, great team player. But more importantly, he’s my son. For me, we did something no one’s ever done in the NBA in the history of the league. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe now, we’ve opened the door for that to happen and no one feels scared to do it. The one thing about me, I’ve never been fearful of taking a gamble. That is one gamble that I’m glad I took.”
Rivers, with a lot of room to do so, became better each season in Los Angeles. His 3-point shooting went up annually until it hit 37.8 percent last season when he played his most minutes and took his most shots. His work in isolation was among the best in the league. Doc the coach regrets not putting him there more. Work to improve remains, from efficiency to the free throw line. But, the trade, from a straight basketball standpoint, worked for the Clippers.
It also provided an easy target. When Austin failed or Doc mismanaged something on the floor with him, a click chase would follow, the scourge of modern media.
“I thought early on it was easy to use Austin’s name and get hits,” Doc said. “I thought the easy for some media folk to do that, and I thought that was unfair. But Austin never complained. I told him, this is part of the territory but part of the stuff that comes with me coaching you. Comes with, unfortunately, you’re my son.”
Both feel like Austin is free, in a manner, now. “He can just go play basketball,” Doc said. Austin’s fiancé loves museums, which makes the District a perfect destination. His son, Kaden James, is expected in late August. Austin wonders if Kaden will be standing in front of the NBA media in 19 years.
“It’s hard to reflect on my father’s stuff right now because it’s so fresh,” Austin said. “I don’t think I even grasp what we just did. I think when I get older — I’m about to have a son. I think when he starts playing one day, I’m going to look at him and be like, ‘I can’t believe I did that with my pops.’ That’s the only thing he said to me on the phone. ‘Austin, I don’t care what anybody says, what I did with you is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.’ Coming from him and all the things he’s achieved, that’s something that made me feel very special. And I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
Todd Dybas is the managing editor and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He has spent 17 years in the sports editorial industry, working as a writer and layout editor, winning multiple awards in both positions. He has been an NFL beat writer, has worked as a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for seven years, and is a member of the Pro Basketball Writers Association.