Three and four games into the NBA's regular season, every performance, good and bad, collective and individual, comes with an asterisk.
The Sacramento Kings are, as of now, the league's biggest asterisk.
Important: This is not a joke.
Equally important: This may be temporary. Or it may not.
These Kings are a lot of things—surprising, entertaining, brain-bending. But are they also for real, or are they just the beneficiaries of an early-season heatwave?
This Kings team hasn't been what most expected. It's not just the wins but the manner in which they're winning and the identity they've married in those victories.
"We've just been holding our ground," Darren Collison told reporters following Sacramento's Nov. 2 win over the Clippers.
As in playing defense.
Defense is fueling their rise. Yes, defense. The same defense that ranked 23rd in points allowed per 100 possessions last year and didn't add anyone of significant note over the offseason who was supposed to remedy its point-preventing practices.
That defense ranks seventh in efficiency through four games after facing two of last year's top-five offensive teams in the Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers, both of whom the Kings have defeated. All of which makes for an interesting juxtaposition, since the franchise's defense has been pretty terrible over the last decade.
Though it can be argued that Collison and Ramon Sessions are defensive upgrades over the diminutive Isaiah Thomas, the Kings didn't inundate themselves with lockdown defenders between last year and now. Their success to this point, as Tom Ziller explained for SB Nation, has more to do with internal growth:
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.
Something, even if it cannot be pinpointed, about the Kings' defensive intelligence has certainly changed.
Players are reading and reacting quicker and with greater consistency. The interior rotations off dribble penetration have been phenomenal, while those on the perimeter are doing a great job of trapping ball-handlers and contesting jumpers.
Opponents are connecting on just 44 percent of their shots at the rim against the Kings, the fifth-best mark to date. They're also holding foes to 26.9 percent shooting from deep, giving them a top-eight three-point defense. This comes after they ranked 27th and 29th, respectively, in those two categories last season.
After years of defensive incompetence, they'll need to hold strong for a while longer before anyone truly believes they're an elite or above-average basket-bungling contingent. But the early returns are unfathomably positive, if only because they've improved while going up against three potent offenses (the Golden State Warriors ranked 12th in offensive efficiency last season).
Encouraging still, the Kings are keeping pace with good teams despite fielding a mediocre offense. They rank 21st in efficiency and have been relying on DeMarcus Cousins' and Rudy Gay's self-sufficiency to get by. That the ball sticks so frequently—they rank 18th in passes per game—is of concern, but they are more deliberate in their offensive sets than last year.
Cousins is one of the few remaining back-to-the-basket towers—he ranks in the top 30 of elbow touches per game thus far—and Gay has proved masterful off the dribble. The Kings are funneling a bulk of their touches through them, along with Collison, giving their best scorers a chance to create shots while controlling the ebb and flow of the entire game.
Said blueprint is similar to that of the Memphis Grizzlies, who use staunch defensive sets to carry middling and below-average offensive attacks. The Kings, of course, aren't the Grizzlies, but there are worse models to (inadvertently) emulate.
First-rate defenses offer a fighting chance at securing playoff berths, even if the offense is stagnant and predicated on the lofty success of two or three individuals. The Chicago Bulls barreled into the playoffs last year with a bottom-four offense and top-two defense. It can be done.
As long as the Kings remain elite—which is to say, in the top seven or 10—on defense, they, too, can piece together a season worthy of a winning record and postseason ambitions.
Not all good things from season onsets must come to an end.
Some of them, though, invariably will.
What's most troublesome about the Kings' recent performance is how much must continue to go right in the coming weeks and months for them to become and remain this season's version of last year's Phoenix Suns.
Gay has never shot better than 47.1 percent overall or 39.6 percent from deep for an entire season. He's on pace to set career highs in both categories (47.5 and 44.4 percent, respectively) nearly a decade into his career.
Can he remain the best, most efficient version of himself?
Collison is presently obliterating his career marks by averaging 16.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game. He entered this season notching 11.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.1 steals through his first five years.
Will he have a career year during which he replaces most, if not all, of the production Thomas took with him?
And then there are flagrant flaws to consider—such as Ben McLemore playing like a six-year-old whose parents lost him or her at the mall.
Aside from the Kings', ahem, Big Three, no one else is totaling more than 7.8 points per game. The team is also attempting fewer three-pointers (11.8) than the ultraconservative Los Angeles Lakers (14.3) and Grizzlies (14.8). Fourteen teams have attempted fewer than 12 threes since 2005. Only four of them made the playoffs, the most recent being the 2010-11 Grizzlies.
Insufficient floor-spacing can ruin offenses, and ruined offenses can lose games. The Kings held the Warriors to 95 points in their season opener...and they still lost. Cousins is their only guaranteed source of efficient offense, so they'll need to find more—outside of Gay and Collison—to compete in the West.
Oh, yeah. The West. It's still brutal.
Injuries have torpedoed the Oklahoma City Thunder's immediate title chances, but assuming Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook return good as new, there isn't one playoff team from last year that looks ready to fall out of the postseason picture. And that's before considering healthier Denver Nuggets and New Orleans Pelicans squads and the still-feisty Suns.
Maintaining this level of success, then, will be difficult. The Kings only mustered 28 wins last season. It would take 14 more to make them a .500 team. It would take 20-22 more for them to be in the playoff conversation. It would take 33-34 more for them to continue winning at their current rate.
Despite all the positives, there is plenty of room for skepticism.
Still Super Early
Proceed with caution.
Four games aren't enough to reach any groundbreaking conclusions. Five won't be enough. Ten won't be enough. Years of futility have made it so the Kings cannot be ruled "back" after any short-term success. They have to sustain this.
"Wins over the Blazers and Clippers, with defense and a lot of DeMarcus Cousins," wrote CBS Sports' Matt Moore while calling Sacramento the NBA's eighth-best team for now. "The Kings won't be in this spot by the end of the week (or Monday, considering they have the dreaded Denver back-to-back). But boy has it been fun to watch this Kings team... where are we?"
At the moment, we don't know where the Kings are. The early returns are promising but not definitive. The last time they started 3-1 (2010-11), they went on to win 24 games. And the time before that (2003-04), they went on to win 55. There's no telling whether their current display holds, folds or lands somewhere in between.
Upcoming games against the San Antonio Spurs, Suns, Mavericks, Thunder, Grizzlies and Pelicans—four of which come on the road—should provide a better glimpse into their potential. But no matter what happens, no matter how well or poorly they play, the Kings' identity remains a work in progress.
Until it's something more than a fluid concept, it's difficult to see their sudden rise being anything other than an abnormally hot start.