It has become in vogue for NBA players to join forces or shift allegiances to find the easiest path to success. But Austin Rivers insisted that his decision to join the Knicks as a free agent was not one of desperation, but a chance to build something special in what he still considers a magical place.
He knows his history, as his father, Doc Rivers, played for the Knicks in better days for the franchise. But the younger Rivers said that he had three or four playoff teams bidding for his services and he opted to sign on with the Knicks instead.
"We’re caught in an era where everyone likes riding a wave," Rivers said in a Zoom call. "People want to go to places that are already on the rise and going to franchises that are already doing really well. And people have lost interest in going somewhere and making something great again. I don’t understand someone not wanting to play for a city like New York. I just don’t get that. I don’t understand that. For me, the opportunity was obvious. In a city that is regarded as the mecca of basketball with the fans they have. Why not try to be part of something special?"
The last time Rivers was playing basketball was in the bubble, where he was having his moments individually - scoring a career-best 41 points one night - and as a team with the Houston Rockets winning a round in the playoffs before being knocked out by the Lakers.
But as the Rockets began to take apart that team, trading Robert Covington and letting coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey depart, Rivers opted for a three-year, $10 million deal in New York - although only the first year is fully guaranteed. He said that he picked New York because he believed in new coach Tom Thibodeau, who worked for Doc Rivers and won a title in Boston, and the front office. But he also had praise for what he’s seen in rookie Obi Toppin and some of the young players.
Rivers has only seen glimpses of Toppin working out this week, but was awed.
"Obi Toppin is beyond a freak athlete." Rivers said. "He’s going to be really good. I know I obviously didn’t get to play against him last year but just seeing him in here, my God."
Rivers also is impressed with the overall future of the Knicks.
"Everything right now is headed in the right direction," he said. "From the hiring of the coach to the hiring of management and assistant coaches and the picks they drafted we’re building. To be part of something is special. It’s easy to go somewhere where everything already is set up and they’ve been to the playoffs four, five years in a row. I’ve been on those teams.
"Those are great experiences. But I want to take those experiences and lessons and help this team and this organization as many ways as possible. … That era of people not wanting to come here, our job is to change that. We have to make that attractive. And we will. We have everything else. We have the city of New York and the best fans in basketball. You play in Madison Square Garden every night. You have the style of living. You got all that. it’s our job as players – the management could only do so much. So it’s exciting. I wanted to be a part of it. Why not?"
There are reasons that could counter his argument as many stars have passed on the Knicks in recent years. But he pointed to the young players in the locker room and insisted he thought the Knicks were on the right path. And once the direction is righted he thinks New York is a place that will succeed.
"To be good and stay good is hard," he said. "You’ve got to have patience and you’ve got to have guys that buy in. … [Today] you can have players that demand trades and ask for this. It’s just different. It’s not like how it was when I first got drafted, which wasn’t that long ago but still, it’s changed that much. It’s tough.
"But the good thing is we do play in New York. This would be a place where people want to play. If you’re a real hooper, if you really like playing on the biggest stage, this is it. It’s like why guys like playing for the Lakers. The Knicks are the same way. We have to get us there. It starts I think this year with all the changes that have been made. We’ve got to build. That’s all I preach every day in the locker room. Whatever happened last year in the past, that’s gone."