Entering Monday, the Kings had won three in a row and four of six while Rudy Gay recovered from a strained right hip flexor.
Gay was back in the starting lineup Monday against the Philadelphia 76ers at Golden 1 Center. The small forward is the team’s second-leading scorer with an 18.6-point average. He also was averaging 6.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Gay’s return forced coach Dave Joerger to juggle his rotation as the team has shown signs of coming together.
“What it does is it shoves everybody down the line in the rotation as far as who plays,” Joerger said. “It’s very difficult to play (three small forwards) with Rudy starting, so how do you play all three together ... or you steal time from other guys at other positions?”
The other two small forwards are Matt Barnes and Omri Casspi. During Gay’s absence, Joerger also relied on a fourth-quarter unit composed mostly of DeMarcus Cousins and four reserves. So late in games, Joerger must see how he can work Gay into the mix.
Joerger acknowledged the Kings had stretches when they struggled to score without Gay, so having a second option behind Cousins would make sense.
While Gay was sidelined, Anthony Tolliver found his shooting touch from long distance, making 13 of 30 3-point attempts (43.3 percent), including five 3-pointers in Friday’s win at Minnesota.
Casspi also missed time recently because of illness, giving Tolliver a greater opportunity to find his shot after struggling much of the season during sporadic playing time.
“You never want it to be if you’re making shots, you’re playing and if you’re not making shots, you’re not playing, because he wasn’t making shots earlier in the year,” Joerger said of Tolliver. “But we had to try to figure out who should play and who should play with who, so we’re back to that. Not enjoyable.”
Any Kings success without Gay will only spark more trade speculation. He will opt out of his contract after the season and become an unrestricted free agent.
With the Kings possibly losing Gay in the offseason without compensation, trading him might be wise regardless of the team’s place in the standings.
The Kings have been reluctant to deal Gay for the sake of a deal. And, even though the Kings have played well recently, only two of the four victories were against teams with winning records (Utah, Memphis). Both were road wins, but more than a six-game sample is needed before concluding the Kings can afford to part with Gay without suitable compensation.
In the first half against Philadelphia, Joerger played Gay, Barnes, Casspi and Tolliver. Arron Afflalo, a key to the recent success, was out because of a right elbow sprain, freeing minutes on the perimeter.
It will be Joerger’s “not enjoyable” job to make it all work.
Afflalo was hurt Friday but played through the injury, drawing Joerger’s praise.
After being out of the rotation, Afflalo has begun to earn Joerger’s trust with the second unit, partly because of his willingness to play defense late in games.
They’re back – All three Kings rookies are back with the team after forward-center Skal Labissiere and center George Papagiannis returned from the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League.
Guard Malachi Richardson was the only rookie on the recent two-game trip.