Austin Rivers says Rockets are a legitimate contender

Houston Rockets Austin Rivers (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Austin Rivers (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

Houston Rockets reserve Austin Rivers believes the Rockets have a legitimate opportunity to make a title run.

The Houston Rockets finished with the fourth-best record in the Western Conference, despite undergoing multiple changes this season. The Rockets swapped Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, and quickly realized their personnel wasn’t suited for Westbrook’s strengths.

The Rockets later traded Clint Capela for 3-and-D forward Robert Covington, and adopted the small ball strategy, which was designed to maximize spacing for Westbrook, which was the perfect gameplan for a player with his innate ability to drive to the basket with ease. But the Rockets find themselves in a unique position heading into their opening round postseason matchup against the Chris Paul-led Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Rockets will be without Russell Westbrook in the interim, and will be relying on the likes of Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, and Austin Rivers to step up in Westbrook’s absence. Rivers in particular, was viewed as one of the best deals of the 2019 offseason, as he essentially took less money to stay with the Houston Rockets.

Rivers and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey agreed to a veteran’s minimum contract that pays him $2.17 million annually, despite the fact that he had offers for $5.7 million annually. At the time of the deal, Rivers stated that he was happy in Houston, and was at a point in his career where he felt better than ever before as a member of the Rockets.

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Rivers believes Rockets are legitimate title contender

On Sunday, Rivers made similar comments, as the Rockets prepare for a title run.

“We have guys that can step up. We have really good players that were on other teams. We really do believe that we have a chance this year, but so does Denver, so does the Lakers and Clippers and Milwaukee. It’s nice to be able to say that and really feel that way.”

With Westbrook out of commission, Rivers will get plenty of opportunities for significant playing time, which should give Rockets fans a sigh of relief. During the 2019-20 season, the Rockets were 18-8 when Rivers scored in double figures and they went undefeated when he scored 20 or more points, with a record of 3-0 in such games.

Rivers has the ability to attack the basket, and potentially draw fouls on the trio of guards the Thunder have, in Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroeder. Rivers recently flashed a career-high against the Sacramento Kings, as he had 41 points, and helped lead the Rockets to victory without Westbrook.

But aside from Rivers’ career day against Sacramento, he’s had his most complete season this year, as he’s made 35.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, has averaged 110 points per 100 possessions (a career-best offensive rating), has averaged 13.5 points per 36 minutes, and had a true shooting percentage of 54.2 percent.

As a former lottery pick, Rivers is still just 28-years-old, and recently stated that although he’s on a team with one of the top scorers in the league, he believes that he too is a premier scorer.

Rivers: "I believe I'm a premier scorer, but I'm on a team where that's not required of me every night. I play with the best scorer in the NBA, so you've got to play a role and buy in."

— Anthony Duckett (@a_duckett) August 10, 2020

Rivers has the opportunity of a lifetime with Russell Westbrook out and with Eric Gordon still rounding into form following the ankle injury he suffered during the initial scrimmages in the bubble, which could mean more minutes for Rivers.

One thing we know is that Russell Westbrook and James Harden will be pulling for him, as they’ve been doing all along.

Rivers: "When you have a guy like James Harden telling you to go and Russell Westbrook telling you to go and that no one can stop you, that's coming from two of the best players in the NBA. I don't know what else you need."

— Anthony Duckett (@a_duckett) August 10, 2020

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Rivers is certainly in line to get a nice payday during the offseason, and how he performs throughout the postseason will only add to his annual number, which is good for the Rockets’ title hopes.