Doc Rivers Trades For His Son And The NBA Is Baffled Why

By trading for his son, Doc has appeared to make his team worse. Is this nepotism in action or does he know something we don’t?

Clippers coach and general manager Doc Rivers pulled off a trade last night that sent two reserve players and a draft pick to another team in exchange for a middling young player, who is a weak shooter and defender. In the pantheon of NBA trades, this one is a bit puzzling, but certainly not the craziest. What makes it notable is that the middling young player’s last name is also Rivers. He’s Austin Rivers and he’s Doc’s son.

Austin Rivers is now in his third NBA season, the season during which unremarkable players generally make substantial progress or get handed a one-way ticket to Europe (or the D-League). The younger Rivers has shown little promise lately, posting a career low in three point field goal percentage and demonstrating zero improvement on defense. Whereas Doc Rivers, in his playing days, made tremendous year-to-year progress as a member of a tough, young Hawks team, the younger Rivers is mired in the sort of slump that never ever makes for trade speculation. That said, Doc Rivers is smart. He could well know something the rest of the league doesn’t. 

By bringing his son to his team, Doc might be looking to develop a player he knows better than anyone else, an Inside Man for the five on the floor, and someone who shares his philosophy and tenacity. Doc’s control over the team has become almost total over the past two years, with Rivers now calling the plays and signing the players as GM. By having his son actually executing those plays, it’s as if Doc is there himself (although Doc was a better player). Anyway, it’s a win-win for the older Rivers – either his son flourishes and he’s hailed as a genius, or Austin walks at the end of the season as his contract expires. 

Basketball commentators have been pretty unanimous in their scorn for the trade, as it leaves Clippers with even less draft picks, down a small forward, and still hurting defensively. There is a long history of father-son sports combos, with mixed results. But there’s never been a precedent for this in the NBA. When Mike Dunleavy Sr. had an opportunity to add Jr. to his club, he told that he passed because he “had a great relationship with my son and the only way to screw it up was to coach him.” Still, in other sports, there have been some notable successes.

The most famous of father-son pairings would be Ken Griffey Jr. and Ken Griffey Sr., who played for the Mariners in 1990. By hitting back-to-back home runs, the Griffey’s secured their place in father-son history, as well as created perhaps the pinnacle achievement in baseball history. Baseball really should have just closed up shop right then.

Also on the diamond, the multi-generational Alou family got in on the action, with Felipe Alou coaching his son Moises on the really great Montreal Expos team in the nineties. But the Alous are almost superhuman in their mastery of the game of baseball and no amount of bad coaching will ever stop them from being anything other than savants. Over in racing, the Earnhardts raced on the same team. The result? Uneven performances from the younger Earnhardt and a tragic end for the older. In terms of hard-nosed asshole coaches, there’s no greater example than Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who coached his son-in-law to two Super Bowl titles. What helped the relationship was that Chris Snee, his son-in-law, was a very good offensive lineman. Coughlin told reporters this summer, “I’ll take 100 of him.”

Austin Rivers is part of a flock of second-generation NBA players currently flying up court in the NBA. The sons of nineties stars of Tim Hardaway and Glen Rice have both made it to the league, with varying levels of success. The younger Rice has been bouncing around the D-League while Tim Hardaway Jr. is struggling through a horrid season on the Knicks (but that might just be a Knicks-related worsening, and shouldn’t be considered an actual player development trend). The older Hardaway is currently an assistant coach with the Pistons, so he might be next in line to coach a son in the NBA.

Whether Rivers can unlock some latent potential in the younger Rivers is going to be exciting to see over the last two months of the basketball season. If the Clippers are in a win-now mentality (which they are), then Austin will have to improve his game tremendously in a very short window. Doc might be able to shape his son into a better player, but the chances don’t look great. This is basketball at the highest level, not mowing the lawn. But, then again, there’s no motivation quite like a disappointed father, so expect Austin to be playing his heart out. He just needs to make one guy happy.

Photos by Yoon S. Byun / The Boston Globe / Getty Images