Are the Sacramento Kings a Playoff Contender?

Can this tough, feisty Kings team finally stand up to the competition in the Western Conference?

Something has gotten into the water supply (or lack thereof) in Northern California.

Just check out the Pacific Division Standings through one and a half weeks.

Pacific Division RecordPPGOpp. PPGDifferential

What's going on here? How are the Kings ahead of both the Suns and the Clippers? Did the Kings and Clippers switch rosters?

Let's take a look at how we got here.

Last Wednesday: Coach Mike Malone's regal bunch was outscored 48-28 in the second half at home against the one-loss Warriors.

Last Friday: The Kings rode a monster 40 point performance from Rudy Gay to a 9-point home win over the Blazers. 1-1.

Last Sunday: Sacramento was in Los Angeles for a division showdown with the popular title pick Clippers. Demarcus Cousins went for 34 points and 17 boards in the first statement win of the season. Kings 98, Clippers 92. 2-1.

Monday and Wednesday: The Kings took both ends of a home-and-home with the Nuggets. In the 22-point home blowout win, Boogie Cousins dropped 30 and 11 despite fouling out in just 22 minutes!

Friday: The Kings rallied behind Cousins' 25 and 18, and Gay hit a clutch, double-overtime shot to propel them past the Suns. 5-1

Yesterday: The streak ended in Oklahoma as the Kings fell 101-93 to the Thunder. 5-2.

The Kings went on their first four-, no, five-game winning streak since March of 2011. So how are they doing it? It's not smoke and mirrors.

They've dramatically improved their team defense. Head Coach Mike Malone was credited with turning the Warriors defense around as the 2011 assistant coach and defensive coordinator. Now he's officially putting his stamp on the Kings. With Cousins in the paint, length on the wings, and Reggie Evans off the bench, Sacramento's rebounding has become even more of a strength than it was last year.

SeasonTrue Shooting Def. RatingOff. Rebounding RateDef. Rebounding Rate
2013-1453% (20th)108.8 (28th)27.8% (4th)77.7% (7th)
2014-1554% (14th)103.5 (11th)29% (4th)78.1 (3rd)

Rebounding rate measures the percentage of available rebounds that one team grabs. The Kings are top five in rebounding on both ends of the floor. True shooting percentage is a conglomerate of all shots taken by a team, including free throws - they lead the league in attempted and made free throws. Cousins, Gay, and new point guard Darren Collison are living at the line, and all three are averaging over 6.7 shots per game from the charity stripe.

There was a lot of fuss made amongst the prognosticators (myself included) about the Kings letting point guard Isaiah Thomas walk and "settling" for Darren Collison. Thomas had been one of three 20 point per game scorers on the Kings last season and looked to challenge for an All-Star slot in the loaded Western Conference, but Kings brass didn't believe that Thomas was worth the 4 year, $27 million that the Suns offered. They didn't match the offer sheet, instead opting for 3 years and $16 million worth of journeyman backup point guard Darren Collison.

Collison has blown by every expectation thus far this year. He may be weird off the court, but he's lightning quick with the rock and can defend tall point guards better than the 5'9" Thomas. If his production holds, the Kings could challenge the Clippers, Cavaliers, and Bulls with a stellar trio of offensive stars.

Demarcus Cousins2311.11.416.3
Rudy Gay22.37.12.711
Darren Collison14.746.36.9

Gay and Cousins were one of just two sets of teammates to suit up for Team USA this summer. There's finally a healthy mix of veteran leadership and young talent in the state capital, and Head Coach Mike Malone has established and identity for this team. Every night, the Kings are going to pound the glass, beat their opponent up in the post, and win the free throw battle.

The days of the clumsy Maloof brothers' ownership are long gone. Owner Vivek Ranadive wants to win now, he's willing to take risks, and he has a deep talented group in California's capital. If Boogie can stay healthy and not let his head get in the way, he'll be an All-Star, and the Kings will challenge for a playoff birth in the deep Western Conference.

Sacramento is back.