Even beyond all the off-court drama, it hasn't been a pretty stretch for the Sacramento Kings. The team's schedule has fallen to 1-7 on the year and the numbers are ugly. The Kings have fallen to 21st in the NBA in offensive rating, while still wallowing at 27th in defensive rating. The team is the sixth worst in the entire league when ranked by net rating, which is a solid predictor of overall team strength, sample size aside.
But, lets not pretend that context isn't important. DeMarcus Cousins has missed half of the games this season, and Darren Collison has been out for a fourth. There are very good reasons for the Kings fans to keep their chins up and stay optimistic heading into the next slew of post-team-meeting games.
1) The Starting Lineup has been great... when they've been on the court
The Kings, despite crazy roster volatility, has one lineup that has played more than any other, and its presumably the starting lineup that we can expect going forward. That lineup is Rajon Rondo, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay, Willie Cauley-Stein, and DeMarcus Cousins.
There's a lot to like about that lineup on paper. Rondo controls the game and makes it easier for Gay and Cousins to get the ball in spots they like. Cauley-Stein is a freak defender who can protect the rim, harass the pick-and-roll, and step out to guard the perimeter. McLemore is another speedy athlete who theoretically offers three point shooting to space the floor, although that has not worked out yet.
With the standard small sample size caveats, this lineup has been simply outstanding. It currently sports an offensive rating of 131.7 and a defensive rating of 85.7 for a stellar +46 net rating. That's currently the top ranked starting unit in the entire league, and the fourth best overall lineup for all lineups that have played 20 or more minutes on the court. This unit was single-handedly responsible for crushing the Lakers earlier this season, basically ending the game by the end of the first quarter with a 20 point lead. This same unit went head to head with the Clippers' vaunted starting five the next game, which was the best starting five in the entire league last year; the Kings' unit had a two point advantage over the Clippers by the time the first substitutions were made.
The biggest problem has been precisely the small sample size. The Kings just haven't gotten these five together on the court for very long. In the first game of the season against the Clippers, George Karl opted for Kosta Koufos in the starting lineup, who in Karl's own words is a worse fit than Cauley-Stein next to Cousins. The Lakers game was next, and as mentioned before it went extraordinarily well. The rematch with the Clippers was going well too until the achilles injury knocked Cousins out of the lineup at halftime. Cousins returned against the Spurs last night, but James Anderson had supplanted McLemore in the starting lineup (to be fair, the lineup with Anderson was successful against the Spurs too, with a +6 net rating in the minutes they played). McLemore was reinstated to start the third quarter, but the unit bafflingly only played one minute together before Karl opted to sub in Koufos for Cauley-Stein.
As a result of both injuries and coaching decisions, the Kings' starting five is the most underused starting lineup in the entire league after the Boston Celtics, who have Isaiah Thomas come off the bench and play majority of the minutes anyways. Many teams have starting units who have racked up 100+ minutes already early in the season, while the Kings have trotted theirs out for a measly 22.
If the Kings can overcome the injury bug and Karl can stay out of his own way, its easy to see this unit leading the Kings to more success sooner rather than later.
2) Despite all odds, the bench has been outstanding
Anybody who's seen the last stretch of games for the Kings knows that the bench is single-handedly responsible for making the Kings competitive whenever they have been. With the Boogie-less starting lineup crapping the bed, the Kings bench has stepped up making key runs and at least giving fans a reason to stay tuned.
The numbers have shown this excellence. The Kings bench is currently third in the NBA in points per game, averaging 47 points per game. This is mostly because Darren Collison has been consistently terrific, raking in nearly 16 points per game in the time he's seen the court. Marco Belinelli is also starting to bust out of his early season slump, averaging 12 points per game himself and offering key playmaking contributions. Omri Casspi has been shooting lights out from three (he's currently 2nd in the NBA among qualified leaders) and running the break hard, giving the team nearly 11 points per game himself. Koufos has been rock solid as a backup; he's an incredibly fundamental defender, and you can't ignore him offensively.
What's truly remarkable is that this group has kept its production up even with all the injuries. With Cousins out and Gay struggling, Karl has been forced to mix and match bench pieces to find some semblance of offense coming from the starting unit, and the bench unit continued to chug onwards. Collison and his backup Seth Curry have missed the last couple of games, but the bench still chipped in 45 points against the Spurs and 41 against the Warriors, both being teams known to have great depth.
Optimistically, if the Kings can find some semblance of lineup stability, this bench should continue to pack some serious firepower in support of the starters. Vlade Divac worked hard to bring depth to the team, and while it hasn't reflected in the win-loss record yet, I think the production of the reserves speaks for itself.
3) The schedule gets easier
The Kings' schedule has been a murderer's row for any team, let alone one facing big injury concerns. The Kings' opponents together have a .585 record, with many of those teams (like Houston, Memphis, and Phoenix) arguably much better than their record suggests. All of their opponents have been Western Conference teams with only two teams missing the Playoffs last year. The Kings have already played two back-to-backs, currently finishing up an exhausting stretch where they played 5 games in 7 nights at a time where the team desperately needed some down time to get used to playing without Cousins and to give themselves a chance to heal up. Not so, unfortunately; the schedule has been unforgiving and relentless.
That being said, things should be going downhill for the time being. The Kings' next eight opponents have a combined .507 record, with only one back-to-back on the horizon. All of these opponents are Eastern Conference teams, and while on paper it seems the East is much better than last year, its too early to tell whether there has been a significant power shift.
The Kings' next opponents are the resurgent Pistons, the downtrodden Nets, and the solid Raptors; all of those games will be at home and should be considered winnable. The team then heads out East on the first road trip of the season to play a slew of teams considered good (the Hawks), solid (the Heat and the Bucks), to bad (the Hornets). You can never take these wins for granted (except maybe the Nets), but after a solid two weeks of playing championship contenders without their best player, I'm sure the Kings will welcome a different caliber of opponent.
Everything considered, its not time to panic yet. Yes, the Kings sit at 1-7. Yes, that is an ugly hole to dig out of. Yes, they play in the unforgiving Western Conference. But its still only eight games into the season. The Dallas Mavericks currently occupy the last Playoff seed, and are only three games ahead of the Kings in the standings. There is still plenty of time to turn it around, despite the fact that everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. The season doesn't end in November; just ask last year's Kings.