Perhaps the biggest surprise of the NBA season to date is that the Sacramento Kings are 2-1 against a brutal schedule. The Kings lost to the Warriors at home on opening night, then bounced the Blazers two days later, and on Sunday, waltzed into L.A. and beat the Clippers. The Kings won just 28 games last season, had a poorly-reviewed offseason and ... just beat two 50-win teams back to back.
The popular thing to say about any team is that they are the new Suns, nodding back to Phoenix's stunning, out-of-nowhere rise in the 2013-14 season. So are the Kings the new Suns? Here are three reasons why the comparison is apt and one big reason why it's not.
1. The Kings play an unusual style
The Suns turned heads by playing fast, loose and reckless with a double point guard lineup featuring Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Up front, Phoenix had Markieff Morris and Channing Frye stretching the floor, often playing without an interior big. It worked! It threw opponents off and let Phoenix dictate the flow of the game.
Sacramento doesn't play like that at all. With the offense focused on DeMarcus Cousins, one of the last true post-up centers in the NBA, the Kings don't fly. (They have tended toward faster than average offenses in recent years, but that's been more due to quick shots on the break than organized up-tempo tactics.) Instead, the Kings play weird by living near the rim and at the free throw line, and using that interior play to open up long two-point jumpers.
Sacramento is actually taking fewer three-pointers than the Lakers this season, landing at No. 29 in attempts per game. The team doesn't have many (any?) great shooters, so the ball ends up going to Cousins at the elbow or in the pivot, or Rudy Gay freelances. The Kings rank dead last in assists, but very high in free throw attempts as Gay has been attacking and Cousins draws loads of contact.
While the NBA does have a bumper crop of tall shotblockers, the lack of post-up bigs has de-emphasized post defense. It seems few big men these days can defend Shaq-style lane loads. (For example, Andrew Bogut can handle that and limited Cousins to poor shooting in the opener. More modern defensive centers Robin Lopez and DeAndre Jordan were eaten alive by Boogie.)
Bringing something weird on offense was effective for the Suns, and it looks to have been successful so far for the Kings. Even good teams aren't really well-equipped to defend massive, creative centers who take a lot of shots in the paint.
2. The Kings' defense looks much improved
That was the secret of the Suns: despite all the attention paid to the attacking offense, Phoenix was surprisingly good because Jeff Hornacek had the defense playing quite well. (The Suns ended up No. 15 in defensive efficiency.) So far, against three excellent offenses (Nos. 1, 2 and 12 last year), the Kings have held their own, allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions.
In particular, the performances against L.A. and Portland stand out. The Clips scored 92 points in 91 possessions and had an effective field goal percentage of .426. The Blazers scored 94 points in 89 possessions. In both games, the Kings' frontcourt -- Cousins, Jason Thompson, Carl Landry and Reggie Evans -- held back opposing All-Star power forwards. LaMarcus Aldridge shot 7-of-18 on Friday, and Blake Griffin went 6-of-20 on Sunday.
Both Cousins and Thompson have been more disciplined and cohesive to date, while Landry's return to the court after playing just 18 games last season has made a noticeable impact. The Kings don't have stoppers on the wing or in the backcourt, but a strong defensive back line would work wonders in the West. Despite coach Michael Malone's reputation, the Kings' defense was disappointing last season. Perhaps a change at point guard, another training camp and more buy-in from Cousins and Thompson has changed the calculus.
3. The Kings still have things to improve.
They are not overachieving up and down the roster. Sacramento is 2-1 despite getting almost nothing on offense from three of its four rotation guards. Darren Collison has been really useful on both ends, but young shooting guards Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas have been uneven (to say the least) and Ramon Sessions has been stunningly mediocre through three games. (We're another bad week away from loud, legitimate calls for Ray McCallum.) Sure, Gay isn't going to shoot 50 percent all season, but the Kings are likely to get more than they have out of their backcourt.
Of course there is one huge, massive, blinking reason to believe that the Kings are not this season's Suns.
1. We're only three games into the season.
This could be a series of flukes. Remember that the Sixers were 3-0 to start last season and ended up with 19 wins. Offenses struggle much more than defenses in the early days of the season as units get their timing together: we could just be witnessing new system growing pains for the Warriors and warm-up sessions for the Clippers and Blazers. Or the shooters missing shots against the Kings could just be ... missing shots regardless of the defense. (J.J. Redick missed a number of open Js on Sunday, for example, including this one.)
Furthermore, we have seen so much bad defense from the Kings over the years -- including last season under Malone -- that Sacramento is really going to need to prove it for a sustained stretch before we buy it. Thompson has been solid at times through his career, but is foul-prone and has never been great helping from off the ball. Cousins got much better last season, but is still foul-prone and not a shot blocker. The guards are small and have little record of defensive success. And, in my opinion, Gay remains the biggest impediment to a strong team defense despite his elite physical attributes. He just showed so many bad habits last year.
If this is real and the Kings are going to be surprisingly good, it's on Gay to play smart all season and Cousins to dominate regularly. It could happen, but we're going to see more proof before we buy it.