Sacramento Kings

Kings make big lineup change in heat of Western Conference playoff race

Buddy Hield and Dave Joerger hug it out

The ⁦Sacramento Kings⁩ beat the ⁦Oklahoma City Thunder⁩ 119-116 on Saturday. Dave Joerger gave Buddy Hield a hug instead of a scolding.
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The ⁦Sacramento Kings⁩ beat the ⁦Oklahoma City Thunder⁩ 119-116 on Saturday. Dave Joerger gave Buddy Hield a hug instead of a scolding.

Kings coach Dave Joerger knew he had a difficult decision to make. By the time he returned from the All-Star break, he had made up his mind.

Joerger unveiled a new lineup for Thursday’s game against the Golden State Warriors, moving Harrison Barnes to power forward and starting Bogdan Bogdanovic at small forward. Joerger went with that lineup again Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder and is expected to start the same group when the Kings (31-28) visit the Minnesota Timberwolves (28-31) on Monday night at Target Center.

Joerger said he intends to stick with his new starting lineup for the foreseeable future. He explained that having Bogdanovic at small forward and Barnes at power forward gives him the floor spacing he needs for point guard De’Aaron Fox to orchestrate the team’s uptempo, run-and-gun offense. Joerger added that he can still manipulate his rotation to get Bogdanovic on the floor with some of the backups he has played with most of the season.

“I think to continue to have space for De’Aaron is the biggest thing,” Joerger said. “We want to keep playing fast, and we’ve got guys up and down the roster that will play fast, but just to start with some space (is good). And there are some other reasons (for) different matchups that come up throughout the course of games, where our second group has had good chemistry, so I can get Bogdanovic back with that group also.”

Joerger’s decision might have come as a bit of a surprise to some. The Kings have been seeking a prototypical small forward with the size and length for the position since Rudy Gay went down with a ruptured Achilles early in the 2015-16 season.

Now that they have one, Joerger is going to start him as a small-ball power forward, although Barnes will still see minutes at small forward. In fact, in the final minutes of Saturday’s 119-116 victory over Oklahoma City, Joerger had Barnes on the floor at small forward with Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III and Willie Cauley-Stein.

The timing of this move is interesting, too. The Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs both lost Sunday, leaving the Kings just one game out of the seventh and eighth spots in the Western Conference playoff race.

Barnes, who was acquired from the Dallas Mavericks on the eve of the trade deadline in exchange for Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph, is a versatile player who has logged major minutes at both forward spots throughout his career. The Warriors used him primarily at small forward in 2012-13 and 2014-15, but he logged most of his minutes in 2013-14 and 2015-16 at power forward. He played 80 percent of his minutes with the Mavericks this season at power forward, averaging 17.7 points in 49 games.

“Obviously, whatever coach wants to do, I’m good with that, whether it’s playing the 3 or the 4,” Barnes said. “We play such a fast pace, so there’s a lot of switching involved, so a lot of times you’re going to be cross-matched anyway, but I just know that when I play the 4, I’m going to definitely have to step up my rebounding.”

The odd man out in this new lineup is Nemanja Bjelica, who started 55 of the first 56 games at power forward after signing a three-year, $20.475 million contract with the Kings last summer. Bjelica played a big role in the team’s hot start, shooting 54.5 percent from 3-point range in October and 48.6 percent in November, but his contributions waned as he shot just 36.4 percent from beyond the arc in January.

Bjelica did not appear in either of the last two games. Joerger was noncommittal when asked if Bjelica would return to the rotation.

“We’ll see,” Joerger said. “I told him every guy has got to be ready for their opportunity as always.”

Jason Anderson is an award-winning sportswriter for The Sacramento Bee. He started his journalism career at The Bee more than 20 years ago and returned to cover the Sacramento Kings in September 2018.