As someone who covers the NBA for a living—and makes a point to try to watch every team at least once each week to better understand how they play—I can’t help but have favorite clubs to watch from a League Pass perspective. Some teams are more fun to watch than others.
With that thought in mind, it’s harder to find two more dissonant clubs than the Kings and the Rockets, who, to me, have been this season’s most and least fun NBA teams, respectively.
With these teams—who meet for the first time this season Wednesday night—it’d be easy enough to suggest the disparity in fun boils down to winning and losing. (The Kings are 21–18 and in fifth out West, while the Rockets are in last place at 10–30.) But that’s not the case here.
If you talk to Pistons fans, for instance, they’ll tell you they enjoy plenty about their young club, whether it’s Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren getting their feet wet as promising rookies, or point guard Killian Hayes finally showing enormous signs of improvement as a third-year player. Detroit seems to be building toward something, even with Cade Cunningham out for the season.
Houston certainly has talent. But unlike the Pistons—and definitely unlike the Kings—there often seems to be little rhyme or reason to the team’s playing style, which leaves something to be desired. The Rockets, for instance, are the NBA’s youngest club and are wildly athletic compared to many of their opponents. Yet it’s extremely rare to see them push the ball.
The club ranks in the lower half of the league in pace. And while it’s tempting to believe that might be due to the team’s unimpressive defense, which is repeatedly left taking the ball out of the basket, that doesn’t appear to be the culprit. Even when the Rockets get stops, they generally walk the ball up. Case in point: They rank dead-last in terms of how slowly they put up a shot, on average, after securing a defensive board, according to data site Inpredictable.
As a result of playing so frequently in half-court scenarios, it’s more of a slog to create offense despite having a couple of really talented passers on the roster, particularly in the frontcourt. (Alperen Şengün is highly gifted in that regard, and Usman Garuba isn’t bad, either.) Still, Houston has the fourth-lowest assist percentage in the NBA, a stat that was at least somewhat understandable when James Harden and Chris Paul ran the iso-heavy attack as part of Mike D’Antoni’s strategy a few years back. But making sense of any strategy here, with 20-year-old Jalen Green and 22-year-old Kevin Porter Jr. manning the backcourt, is more difficult to do.
This isn’t to say there are never bright spots in watching Houston. The Rockets showed heart the day after the passing of Rockets coach Stephen Silas’s father, Paul, by staging an emotional, come-from-behind victory at home over the Bucks on Dec. 11. And they followed that by knocking off Phoenix one game later. (Suns coach Monty Williams, who’s been through his own share of loss, shared a noteworthy embrace with Silas as they shook hands at half court.)
But generally speaking, in a year when most teams have been incredibly fun to watch—even some of the ones we didn’t expect much from—it’s been … not the most fun to watch Houston. In fact, the club has lost 12 of its last 13 games since that mid-December victory over the Suns.
The Rockets turn it over more than any club, and even when they actually manage to hold on to the ball, the team’s shot profile looks upside down much of the time. Houston shoots relatively well, almost 40% as a team, on corner threes, but takes fewer than any other club. By contrast, the Rockets are right near the top of The Association in terms of how many above-the-break triples they attempt, and they’re one of the worst teams at actually making them.
Because of the lack of optimization, the instances where you see the young talent and potential shine through in Houston feel less often, even though they’re there in glimpses. But on a team scale, in the words of seemingly frustrated wing Eric Gordon, “There’s no improvement.” And on a club that’s already finished in last place for two consecutive years, that’s not very encouraging.
On the flip side of the equation stands the Kings, which have played an entertaining style of ball for years, but finally seem to be experiencing a breakthrough for the first time in 15-plus years. The club’s perimeter shooting has been enhanced, courtesy of rookie Keegan Murray and veteran sharpshooter Kevin Huerter—both of whom are shooting more than 40% from the arc.
Huerter was an ideal trade target for Sacramento because of how he jells with center Domantas Sabonis, who orchestrates from the elbow area with countless dribble-handoffs for the guard. In fact, no team makes use of dribble-handoffs more than the Kings do—or scores more per game off those looks. In almost direct contrast with the Rockets, Sacramento has found something that works and harped on it relentlessly, daring opposing defenses to stop the two-man game.
Of course starting point guard De’Aaron Fox is the other factor defenses have trouble stopping, especially when he pushes the ball in transition. No club gets as much of its offense from transition as the Kings do; it accounts for more than 20% of the Kings’ attack, per Synergy. Even after surrendering a bucket on D, Fox and the Kings complete their offensive possessions within 14.5 seconds on average, the second-fastest rate in the league, according to Inpredictable.
To put it bluntly, neither team plays much defense, with both ranking in the bottom 10 in efficiency. But perhaps their greatest differences are ball movement and tempo. The resurgent Kings generally play offense like they have somewhere to be, while the more static Rockets often appear to be stuck in quicksand on that end of the floor.
With that in mind, it’s no wonder Houston’s improvement—if there’s been any at all—has been so difficult to notice. And it might explain why watching the Rockets usually hasn’t been fun.