Look at the standings and the Kings are pretty, pretty awful. At 20-39, Sacramento is tied for worst in the West (with the Lakers!) and tied for fifth worst in the entire NBA. If the season ended today, that would be really weird. But also, the Kings and Lakers would flip a coin to decide who picked fifth and sixth in the case neither moved up into the top three of the NBA Draft. The Kings would have a 7.5 percent probability of winning the No. 1 pick overall and a 25 percent probability of moving into the top three. The Kings are in a stronger draft position than last season in a better draft year.
But instead look at the Kings' points margin and it's pretty clear that Sacramento is way better than last season's edition and, really, in a very lucky spot right now.
Historically, points margin is a better measure of a team's quality than win-loss record. Why? Wins and losses are crude instruments. In won-loss record, a 2-point victory counts the same as a 30-point victory. Over the course of the season, looking at teams' average point margin will put a finer detail on how good or bad a team is. This very Kings team is a good example.
The Kings are on pace for 28 wins, same as last season. But in 2012-13, the Kings average scoring margin was -4.88 points per game. (The average Kings game ended Other Team 105.1, Sacramento 100.2). This year, the Kings' average scoring margin is -2.54 points per game. The average Kings game is ending Other Team 104.1, Kings 101.6. Sacramento also has a tougher schedule this season (thanks to the West getting even better while the East lags). If you adjust for schedule strength, the Kings are more accurately a -1.54 points per game team this season.
Per Basketball-Reference, the Kings have the No. 17 schedule-adjusted scoring margin in the league. Sacramento's ahead of two Eastern playoff teams (Nets, Bobcats), every East lottery team and every West lottery team except for Minnesota and Memphis.
Based on points margin, the Kings should be 24-35 instead of 20-39. That would put Sacramento in line to pick around No. 10 with a slim chance to move into the top three, not around No. 5 with a substantial chance of moving up into the top three.
How does a scoring margin get so far away from a won-loss record? In this case (where won-loss underrates a team), close losses and blowout wins. The same thing has happened to the Wolves, who are No. 9 in the league in schedule-adjust scoring margin but No. 16 in wins. For the Wolves, this is horrible news: Minnesota is pushing for the playoffs, and is good enough to get there. But luck has bounced away from the team.
For the Kings, this is fantastic. Sacramento is good enough to finish No. 11 in the West with a 33-49 record -- its best since 2007-08. But in a year with a great draft class and a bunch of bad teams, the Kings are poised to finish 28-54 with a great chance at an impact rookie.
Getting unlucky results in close games are actually moments in which Lady Luck is taking the long view. Embrace them.