13 games into this brand new season, the Sacramento Kings are the early front-runner for this year’s surprise team. What are they doing so differently? They didn’t make the most noise in the offseason with marquee additions. There was no coaching change. If anything, the biggest news coming out of Sleep Train Arena this summer was the surprise departure of former “Mr. Irrelevant,” Isaiah Thomas, to the Phoenix Suns. Yet, here we are, 13 games in, and the Kings are 8-5 with an early MVP candidate in DeMarcus Cousins and a lot of people scratching their heads. Before the season began, the Kings were perceived as a team that had invested in the wrong guys once again, but like most things in life, perception isn’t always reality. Basketball is a game of subtleties and the reasons for the Kings’ early ascendance are subtle.
The first of these reasons is better composure from the lead guys. Perennial powder keg, DeMarcus Cousins, has vowed to receive no more than 5 technical fouls this season. So far, he’s been a model citizen. Many times in the NBA, it comes down to not beating yourself and not hurting your chances of winning games. The Kings are doing just that so far and if they can maintain that demeanor, they looked primed to be a playoff team for the first time since 2005-2006.
The second reason is their renewed emphasis on rebounding the ball. The Kings are 5th in the league in total rebounds per game (46.4) and 7th total defensive rebounds per game (34.5). They are also 3rd in the league in defensive rebound percentage (78.1%) and 1st in the league in offensive rebound percentage (30.1%). Rebounding is especially important because it limits opponents’ possessions while creating second chance opportunities.
Another way the Kings are off to such a hot start is their ability to get to the free-throw line. They lead the league in free-throws attempted per game (33.6) and are 2<sup>nd</sup> in free throw percentage (80.8%). Getting easy points from the free throw line is a great way to increase offensive efficiency and cut down transition opportunities for your opponents (*side-eyes the New York Knicks*). Taking and making free throws is a staple of successful basketball teams.
The last, and to many, unexpected reason for the Kings’ start this season is the play of Darren Collison. While he is not nearly the scorer that Isaiah Thomas is, he is a far superior defender. For some perspective, Thomas had a defensive rating of 111 during the last season. Collison has a defensive rating of 106. An 8-point difference in points given up per 100 possessions can be the difference between winning and losing. In a league full of point guard driven offenses, the ability to at least contain opposing point guards is pivotal in giving your team a chance to win. With Thomas at the helm last season, the Kings had no chance at that.
It is still very early in the season. This could all be a distant memory a month from now. But this could also be the beginning of the emergence of a new powerhouse in the loaded Western Conference. One thing is for sure, the Kings have all the ingredients for success, whether they come together to make something sweet remains to be seen.