This topic has become a bit of an obsession of mine, but I think that obsession is warranted. Rudy Gay’s versatility, specifically his ability to play both power forward and small forward on a seemingly fulltime bases, has had decision makers within the Kings organization teasing a power forward transition since the moment Gay was traded to Sacramento back in 2013. Pete D’Alessandro and Michael Malone teased it, but we never really saw an increased power forward role for Gay under that regime. George Karl teased it, and actually started a DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Omri Casspi front court for a stretch last season to mixed results, and we’ve already heard Karl, and Vlade Divac tease the move again this offseason.
The reason why I’ve become obsessive over this decision, and the reason why I think it is the single most intriguing story we’ll be following throughout training camp, is because the difference between starting, say, Cousins, Gay, and Casspi to Koufos, Cousins, Gay is massive. That is barely the same team. The play style would be completely different. The spacing would be completely different. Defensive strategy would be completely different. I’m not saying that I know one option would be better than the other, I have some thoughts on that, too, but I don’t think the importance of that call should go undocumented. It’s a big, tough, close call, and considering this team is on a short leash to begin with, yea, did I mention that this was important?
Rudy Gay went on SiriusXM NBA Radio in early June and mentioned that Karl had told him he’d be playing "more at the four" this season. That was before the Kings drafted Willie Cauley-Stein, and signed Kosta Koufos.
After the Willie Cauley-Stein selection, Vlade Divac stated that Gay would be playing "a lot" of power forward this season. This was before the Kings signed Kosta Koufos.
We don’t know how much the acquisitions of Koufos and Cauley-Stein impacted the context of those comments, and we don’t know the specific details behind Karl and Divac’s comments to begin with.
Are they talking about starting Gay? Are they talking about starting Gay depending on the matchup? Or are they just talking about using Gay there more than they have in the past? We don’t know. I don’t know if they know. That is what training camp is for, after all. This could be much ado about nothing, or it could be much ado about everything. We’ll find out shortly.
I wrote about this situation after Gay made his initial comments on SiriusXM, and I still think those points are valid. Blake Ellington touched on it in a column on Friday, and I agree with everything he had to say there. There are a lot of on-court factors to consider, most of which involve offensive spacing. The Kings have been a poorly spaced team for a long time now, and trotting out Rondo, McLemore, Gay, Cousins, and Koufos doesn’t exactly solve that aspect of their offensive struggles. The hope is that whatever you lose in spacing, you gain in offensive rebounding, defense, passing, physicality, etc. It’s something the Kings are going to have to play with until they find the right balance, and I find that fascinating.
If you start Rudy Gay at power forward, I would assume that would push Omri Casspi into the starting lineup at small forward, which he excelled at towards the end of last season. Then you’d have some combination of Caron Butler, Marco Belinelli, James Anderson, and Duje Dukan to eat up any bench small forward minutes. I like Belinelli better at shooting guard, and I’d be lying if I said I like the idea of any of those other guys playing a regular rotation role with the Kings this season. If Butler can find the fountain of youth, and stay healthy, maybe that works. He was just OK in Detroit last season.
I like the depth at power forward. I’m a little more comfortable with Willie Cauley-Stein and Quincy Acy then I am with any of the reserve options at small forward, and Eric Moreland’s recent return adds a little more juice to that group.
But the truth is, in a game, you can mix and match all you want. You can sub Koufos out early, bring in Casspi, then bring Koufos back in for Cousins, etc. The combinations are endless, and it’s wonderful that the Kings finally have a roster that allows the coach to have multiple good options. The key word there is good. The Kings have always had options, but instead of choosing between Jason Thompson, Reggie Evans, and Carl Landry, we’re talking about Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein. It’s a beautiful thing.
I’m also hesitant to downplay the importance of a starting lineup. You'll often hear folks with a lot more experienced than me tell you that 'it doesn't matter who starts a game, it matters who finishes it' and I think I understand the point they're making, but I have to disagree with that first part of it. In game mixing and matching is fine, but chemistry and consistency is also important. The better teams in this league have lineups and rotations that they stick to, for the most part, and the Kings haven’t had starting lineup or rotation consistency for almost a decade, unless you want to call John Salmons sneaking his way into the starting lineup every year consistency.
Personally, I want to see Kosta Koufos starting next to DeMarcus Cousins. I expressed my concerns with using Rudy Gay as the key cog behind going small in the past, and while I have no issues with small ball in theory, I just don’t think Rudy Gay is the guy to do it with. He doesn’t defend particularly well, and I don’t want to see teams targeting that matchup even if Gay does manage to hold his own. It just feels like unnecessary wear and tear to put on a player who the Kings are going to rely on offensively, especially if Rajon Rondo is the starting point guard. Simply put, they don’t need Rudy Gay getting beat up in the paint. Not when two completely different, but potentially just as effective options in Kosta Koufos (likely) and Willie Cauley-Stein (unlikely, but possible) are here.
Every time I convince myself that Koufos will be the guy, partly because they paid him quite a bit for a limited bench role, I remember how thirsty this franchise has been for a legitimate stretch four, and that is where my brain stops working and I come to the all-to-sane realization that this is a toss up. Where will Rudy Gay log his minutes this season? Your guess is as good as mine.