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Willie Cauley-Stein is "Probably" Moving to the Starting Lineup

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

George Karl spoke to News ABC10’s Sean Cunningham after practice yesterday, and Karl revealed that Willie Cauley-Stein would probably start in tonight’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Whether or not this is a permanent switch, or still a game-to-game decision, remains to be seen.

I’ve preferred the Cauley-Stein, DeMarcus Cousins starting frontcourt since Karl mentioned it as a possibility during training camp, and while the preseason isn’t a great indicator of how effective a lineup is, it looked relatively good in that setting.

I don’t want to get too deep into lineup and rotation questioning right now. The Kings have only played one regular season game, and Karl is certainly allowed to tinker with his team for a while before settling on a more regular rotation, but I thought the strategy against the Clippers on Wednesday night was kind of odd considering Karl’s starting lineup.

Blake Ellington did an excellent job documenting how the Kings wanted to approach defending the Clippers on opening night. In short, make Blake Griffin and Chris Paul mid-range jump shooters. Keep J.J. Redick off the three-point line, and stop the lobs. Pretty standard stuff, although if you’re going to play off Griffin and dare him to shoot, well, Willie Cauley-Stein can probably do that. It seemed a little counterproductive to me in the sense that if you’re starting the huge Kosta Koufos, DeMarcus Cousins frontcourt, I’m begging the Clippers to take it inside. Koufos is a fantastic interior defender; I’ll live with Griffin trying to attack him near the rim. That’s why Kosta is here, after all.

I liked the strategy, I didn’t love the execution, and I didn’t think the personnel fit the strategy as well as it could have, particularly after Griffin proved he was going to make every jump shot. If Cauley-Stein is out there instead, you run the risk of Griffin posting him up because of his strength advantage, but if you play off him to the point Koufos was, and you’re forcing jumpers, Cauley-Stein should be able to get out there and close out on Griffin’s jumper faster than Koufos can.

I’m not arguing that DeMarcus Cousins and Kosta Koufos can’t play together, but I would argue that it isn’t the best use of their minutes. I thought Koufos was really good against the Clippers, aside from his defense on Griffin that was more strategic than anything else. The point is, I really like the way the Kings looked when one of Koufos and Cousins was on the court at all times. I want that to be the case every night.

The Kings’ ability to do that will come down to how ready Cauley-Stein is. He looked fine in his season debut, but he only played 7 minutes.

Karl has mentioned on multiple occasions that his starting lineup could change on a near-nightly basis. I’m a sucker for continuity, partly because constant lineup shuffling is not something you generally see out of good basketball teams, but that is another conversation for a different post. What I’m getting at here is that we don’t know if tonight is Cauley-Stein’s opportunity to take the starting role on a more consistent basis, or just Karl seeing something in the Lakers’ lineup that points towards a Cauley-Stein start.

The Lakers starting frontcourt of Julius Randle and Roy Hibbert doesn’t scream ‘Cauley-Stein over Kosta Koufos for strategic reasons’ to me, which is why I’m leaning towards this being a legitimate opportunity for Cauley-Stein to prove he’s ready for an increased role.

Karl has flip flopped on this issue throughout the preseason, but my gut tells me he’d like to start Cauley-Stein and use Koufos on the second unit, provided Willie can handle the work load. Hibbert and Randle are fairly similar to Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, stylistically, albeit on a lower skill level, which is why Karl has every reason to continue starting Koufos if that is actually what he wanted to do.

The Kings are going to want to make Randle a jump shooter much like they did to Griffin on Wednesday. Randle will have a strength advantage over Cauley-Stein inside, so this will be an excellent test for the rookie, and a wonderful opportunity earn the trust of his head coach.