Both teams are on the cusp of the playoff race while being carried by an All-Star. Both teams have made a decision to go with a big lineup by reinserting a rookie who was injured earlier this season. And both teams hope things improve quickly.
The Kings have gone back to starting sixth overall pick Willie Cauley-Stein at center, which moves monstrous DeMarcus Cousins to power forward and Rudy Gay to small forward. At 7 feet, 6-11 and 6-8 across the front line, that is about as big as it gets in today’s small-ball NBA.
The Pacers, who began the season committed to small ball, have decided to use more conventional lineups featuring 11th overall pick Myles Turner. When played alongside Ian Mahinmi or Lavoy Allen, Turner’s presence slides Paul George back to his traditional position of small forward.
Ironically, both rookies are playing their best basketball of the season while their teams are somewhat slumping, which isn’t a good sign for their postseason prospects.
Let’s start with Cauley-Stein and the Kings, who had been playing well until some slippage this week. The big man from Kentucky began the season alternating between starting and coming off the bench. After opening some eyes with 17 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in a rout of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second game of the season, Cauley-Stein scored in double figures just once over his next 18 games before dislocating his right index finger and missing virtually all of December.
When Cauley-Stein returned for good, he played two games off the bench as coach George Karl expressed concern with his conditioning. But Karl then inserted him in the starting lineup, a move that coincided with a five-game winning streak, Sacramento’s longest of the season. Cousins said the rookie “changed the whole identity of our team.”
In seven games as a starter, Cauley-Stein is averaging 8.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.71 blocks in 28.3 minutes. But there has been some slippage lately, with the Kings losing their last two games and Karl calling out the kid as a “big part of our defensive breakdowns.”
“We’ve got to find a way to contain the ball better on pick-and-rolls,” Kings forward Omri Casspi said after the team wasted a career-high 56 points by Cousins in a double-overtime home loss to Charlotte. I felt like we kind of got collapsed every time Kemba (Walker) or Jeremy (Lin) or their point guards tried to get it in the paint.”
The Kings (20-25) crept into the eighth spot in the West over the weekend but are now tied with Utah for ninth, percentage points behind Portland after a loss to the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. If they want to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006, they have to fix their defense, with is last in the NBA, allowing 107.8 points per game.
The Pacers (23-22) are in a similar position, clinging to the eighth spot in the East. After an 0-3 start raised questions about their commitment to small ball, they rattled off 12 wins in 14 games and looked like they would be jockeying for a top-four seed for the rest of the season.
During that stretch, Turner was coming off the bench until fracturing his left thumb in a win over Boston on Nov. 11, costing him six weeks. Meanwhile, Indiana’s hot start is all but forgotten as the Pacers have lost 13 of their last 20 games. Since Jan. 8, the only team they have beaten is the woeful Phoenix Suns (twice).
That isn’t Turner’s fault, however. The kid from Texas is averaging 18 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.33 blocks in 27.7 minutes over his last six games. That stretch includes a 31-point outburst surpassed only by Phoenix’s Devin Booker among rookies.
When Turner returned, Pacers coach Frank Vogel challenged him to earn more minutes. Now Vogel is considering starting Turner over Lavoy Allen, saying, “We’ll find the right time to put him in the starting lineup based on way he’s playing.”
On to the rankings, where it is still looking a two-man race.
1. KRISTAPS PORZINGIS, F-C, NEW YORK: The numbers for January and overall may not be as good as those from his competition, but Porzingis is playing under different circumstances than the other top rookies because he is trying to lift his team into the playoffs. He also has had to do that for several games without offensive alpha dog Carmelo Anthony, who has missed all or parts of five games this month. Nevertheless, the man Kevin Durant called a “unicorn” is averaging 15.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 36 percent from deep this month. LAST RANKING: 2
2. KARL-ANTHONY TOWNS, C, MINNESOTA: After a strong December, his scoring slipped a bit in January to 15.5 points with three single-digit games. He did average 10.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks while shooting nearly 52 percent this month, and his overall PER of 22.14 is tops among rookies. But the Wolves are just 2-12 in 2016 and clearly headed for their 12th straight season without a playoff berth, which makes it much easier for KAT to work on his game outside of the framework of his team. As close as the race is with Porzingis, that has to count slightly against him, no? LAST RANKING: 1
3. JAHLIL OKAFOR, C, PHILADELPHIA: First, the good news. Okafor still leads all rookies with 17.4 points per game while shooting a solid 49 percent from the field, including nearly 60 percent in January, now that Ish Smith is throwing him the ball. And some more good news: The once-embarrassing Sixers are a highly competitive 6-10 with two overtime losses in their last 16 games. But now, the bad news. During that stretch, the Sixers won twice without Okafor, who is averaging 16.3 points and 0.5 blocks in the wins and 17.9 points and 1.0 blocks in the losses. Strange. LAST RANKING: 3
4. DEVIN BOOKER, G, PHOENIX: It has been a lost season for the Suns, but they may have found a solution to their failed two-point guard experiment in Booker, who at 19 is the youngest player in the NBA and very much looks it. The season-ending injury to Eric Bledsoe has given Booker a chance and he has taken full advantage, averaging 16.8 points on 44 percent shooting with just one single-digit game in January. His 32 points vs. Indiana on Jan. 19 is the most by a rookie this season. However, his 3-point percentage is down to “just” .417 (40-of-96) after a blistering 17-of-22 start. LAST RANKING: NR
5. D’ANGELO RUSSELL, G, LA LAKERS: He has maintained his production and picked up his shooting while coach Byron Scott has maintained his uneasy relationship with his rookie, benching him late in a loss to Dallas before giving the media an English lesson on the difference between confidence and cockiness. Whatever. Russell is averaging 13.3 points while shooting better than 45 percent from the field in January. Even his 3-point percentage of .346 this month is creeping upward toward acceptable. The Lakers are five games behind the Timberwolves, for crying out loud. Could they just start the kid? LAST RANKING: 4
DROPOUTS: Nikola Jokic, C, Denver (5).
FIVE TO WATCH: Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Sacramento; Stanley Johnson, F, Detroit; Frank Kaminsky, F-C, Charlotte; Emmanuel Mudiay, G, Denver; Myles Turner, F, Indiana.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Mondays, and his Rookie Rankings on Fridays. Usually. Follow him on Twitter.