Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Handling the Future with Care

There is a small minority of wrestling fans who are known as "smart". Smart is in quotations because as right as they think they are in predicting what WWE will do (read: should do), more often than not they are wrong.

This demographic of fans typically are males above the age of eighteen, and cannot be swayed by pandering good guys. Yes, I'm looking at you, John Cena. No, this market of "smart" fans is fueled by pushing boundaries, provoking thought, creating new and fresh storylines with depth, twists and character development. In short, these fans put far too much thought into a fake sport- myself included.

The opposite of "smart" fans? Everyone else. (Read: parents, females and children). They watch it solely to be entertained and to get lost in a world where human beings are super heroes capable of amazing feats of strength. Good guys save the day, and bad guys are the worst. These families, females and children feed the machine. They are the people Vince McMahon goes after to sell the headbands, the foam fingers, t-shirts, hats, backpacks, action figures, lunch boxes- the list goes on. In an era known to most as the PG one, these non "smart" fans are who the product is aimed at. Not dorks who post on message boards about how Ring of Honor is real wrestling and WWE is too mainstream.

"Smart" fans had nothing to look forward to as of a few months ago. Rumors about the Wrestlemania 30 card were swirling about, with nothing locked in. That was, until the Royal Rumble when Batista "triumphantly" returned to claim the number one contendership to Randy Orton's WWE World Heavyweight championship. By triumphantly, I mean as rough a return as there is. Fans booed, jeered and voiced their displeasure in arenas, on Twitter and anywhere they could. Batista was waltzing in after all to promote his new film, Guardians of the Galaxy. He'd likely get the belt, have it for a month then toss it aside like table scraps to a pack of dogs. The eighteen to thirty year old male contingency would cry foul, as Daniel Bryan would get seemingly pushed down the card once again. Except this time the interests of the "smart" and non "smart" fans intersected. They all wanted to see Daniel Bryan in the main event for one reason: they liked him. Weird, huh? But as Bryan seemed to be the one glimmer to making the thirtieth edition of Wrestlemania memorable, more hope would sprout up soon after.

That hope would also come in the form of Roman Reigns' 2014 Royal Rumble run. He set a new record of eliminations with twelve, breaking a thirteen-year old record held by Kane. While he would ultimately succumb to Batista, his showing was a microcosm of what the future could be for the WWE. Along with his two comrades Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, the trio would night in and night out show why they were the best and brightest the 'E has to offer- as they had been for the better part of a year and a half. They've managed to turn the six-man tag match- a previously ho-hum affair- into an absolute art form. The "Hounds of Justice" had no leash. Management threw them out there to sink or swim, and they went balls-to-the-wall, earning the respect of not only the boys in the back, but the fans as well. Their collision with the newest stable (The Wyatts) at  Elimination Chamber will be remembered for years to come.

While back in December people had foreseen the three cracking and breaking up, the WWE knew they could get more mileage out of the young trio. Everything about them has been anything but cliche, in a business where cliche is the status quo. Stables aren't supposed to last this long in modern day wrestling, as fans are supposed to lose interest after a few months. New blood such as the Shield are not supposed to be dominant for long periods of time- especially over some of the biggest names in the business. The Undertaker, Ryback (when he was at his peak), the Rock, John Cena, CM Punk and a slew of others have fallen victim to the vicious attacks, punctuated with their trademark triple powerbomb.

Whether you despised them as bad guys at first, eventually there was nothing left to do but to slowly turn the Shield into faces (good guys). The reactions they had gotten ultimately forced the decision. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have the previously mentioned Wyatt Family. The stable is led by Bray Wyatt, with Luke Harper and Erick Rowan as his two followers/henchmen. They were introduced with creepy vignettes. Promos that were out there, but in a good way. Not an Ultimate Warrior way. The best part? Wyatt (real name Windham Lawrence Rotunda) wrote his own promos. What sounded like it came from professional scripts or best-selling books was the product of a twenty-six year old "rookie". His Husky Harris run excluded.

Where the Shield was cool and badass and the big dogs of the yard, the Wyatts were cunning, crafting and just as vicious. Harper and Rowan would do the dirty work at first, but Wyatt hasn't been afraid to mix it up, and look good doing so. He worked briefly with Daniel Bryan, then moved on to a month long feud with the Shield and now has his sights set on John Cena. What better way to make a statement?

The latest collision Monday on RAW saw Harper give Cena all he had, and then some. Cena did a great job of making Harper look like his equal. The two had a match that was beyond physical, and ended when the lights went out right before Cena was about to hit his finisher. The lights came back on, and Cena was tied up in the ropes in the group's trademark lamb mask- an eerie visual etched into all fans minds instantly. This did so much in such a short amount of time. Sure, Cena can say he's scared and unsure of himself- but nothing makes him look more vulnerable than being at the mercy of Wyatt and his cronies.

This momentum should not be halted by a by-the-numbers Cena victory at 'Mania. Wyatt is so much more than just an Umaga, Khali, R-Truth or Mark Henry. He's not only physically imposing with his build and beard, but how intelligent his character comes across. The points he make are right, and the decisions he makes in the ring are calculated and not careless. The WWE has a chance to build a real star here, and a convincing win in New Orleans would most assuredly be a huge feather in Wyatt's cap.

The WWE already has proof pushing young talent can work with the Shield. They need to keep it up with Bray Wyatt and his family, not only because its beneficial in the short term, but because it is imperative for the long term.

My Two Sense: 

1. Really, Undertaker? - Monday saw the Deadman get the psychological advantage over challenger Brock Lesnar. Out came the smoke, the druids and the casket- things we have all seen before. Taker was no where to be found, before mysteriously appearing in the casket and laying the beatdown on Lesnar.

While some may have eaten it up, I found it wildly predictable. When it comes down to it, the Undertaker's age has never been so apparent. The only person who is less physically capable than him in the WWE is the almost-immobile Hulk Hogan. This limitation lends itself to a more realistic storyline.

Lesnar isn't the average challenger. He is big, he is quick and powerful. He's faced Taker before and beaten him in Hell in a Cell, for Heaven's sake. Why would he be so quick to be intimidated by Taker's tactics? The storyline's build has been mailed in, which is a shame. It's not like it requires a lot of creative thinking- just ingenuity. Have Lesnar show no fear, not just by his words but by action. Toss the druids aside. F-5 them. powerbomb them. Put them through a worked casket. Have Lesnar laugh in the face of Taker and his pseudo-Jedi mind tricks. Have him beat down Taker. Make Taker into the aging fighter he is. Don't just make Lesnar look like a challenger. Make him look like the man who WILL defeat Taker at the grandest show of them all. This doesn't mean Lesnar has to win- he just has to look like he can, while Undertaker has to look vulnerable.

The con to this is that it essentially puts Taker's fake "powers" on blast, and trashes his whole gimmick that he has spent over two decades building. But it's not 1990 anymore. It's 2014. We understand that Mark Calloway is getting older, and can't fly around the ring like he used to. Use it to your advantage, WWE. Also- make use of the two's confrontation back from Lesnar's UFC days. The fourth wall was shattered by CM Punk in 2011, while HHH works to keep it broken. Pull out all the stops, Vince.

2. We, the Tag Team Champs- While the Shield has perfected the six-man tag match, the Real Americans have proven they are one of the best, if not the best duos in the WWE. Cesaro only continues to build his brand, and Swagger has found his niche as a bruising and very capable teag team wrestler. The two gave Rollins and Ambrose a run for their money on RAW, and are even in the four-way tag title match at Mania. While the Usos could stand to keep the belts, the Real Americans have earned the right to be called champions.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron

Monday, March 24, 2014

Harden Powers Rockets to Win Over Bobcats

When an NBA team sees a stretch of their schedule against teams with .500 records or worse, it can be easy to overlook them. Yet the 47-22 Rockets hadn't, winners of their past three and averaging 124 points in those contests. They had won them by an average of 23 points.

None of those wins included star center Dwight Howard. Howard was sidelined after a minor surgery to remove a cyst from his ankle.

The Rockets came into Charlotte Monday night, and the Bobcats punched them in the mouth, keeping the game within striking distance heading into the half only down 54-50. Howard was productive (10 points, 10 rebounds), if not his usual dominating self- thanks to Al Jefferson. Jefferson would end the game with a double-double of his own (20 points, 11 rebounds). Defensively he challenged Howard all night. Offensively was no different, crafting baskets in the post like the savvy veteran big man he is.

The game remained tight late into the third quarter. Houston trailed 66-65 at the 2:25 mark, until a fire was lit under them. They ended the quarter on a 13-2 run in large part to guard James Harden who would end the game with 31 points. He has scored at least 28 points in 4 out of the last 5 games. Included in those 31 points was a highlight reel dunk off an assist from Jordan Hamilton, giving Houston a 75-68 lead and all the momentum they needed heading into the fourth. Moments later, Harden would drill a three to give the Rockets a 10 point cushion going into the final stanza.

The fourth would once again play like the rest of the quarters early. Houston would remain up by only five points for most of the quarter, until a later spurt with 2:44 left. Harden would set the trend, as Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley would drill a pair of three's to ice the game and give Houston a fourth win in a row. Parsons had struggled a majority of the game, only having two points through three quarters. His two long-distance shots wouldn't come until the final minutes of the game.

 "Chandler made a really big transition 3 and Pat made a big 3 in the corner that kind of sealed the game," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said.

The win streak stayed in tact, but the assists one did not. Houston had at least 30 assists in three straight games, but 22 Monday night. This was far better than Charlotte's 12, due in large part to the reliance on only two players (Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker). While Charlotte had the advantage at the charity stripe (21 made to Houston's 10), they came up short beyond the arc (4-21).

Houston's 48th win only solidifies their rank as 4th in the West while the 5th seeded Blazers lost to the Heat. The 3 spot remains occupied by the Los Angeles Clippers, who beat the Bucks to crack 50 wins (50-21). The Clippers have been a thorn in the side of the Rockets all season; Clipp-tonite if you will. Houston has yet to beat them, as they are 0-3 versus LAC. Saturday's match-up in Houston has huge implications for the playoffs, but neither team should overlook what is in front of them.

Houston faces the Sixers on Thursday who are coming off twenty-five straight losses, most recently to the streaking Spurs who have won 14 in a row. The Clippers face the Pelicans on Wednesday, then the Mavericks on Thursday.

Monday's win over Charlotte was the first step to Howard getting his rhythm back, with Philly serving as a nice tune-up. The Sixers lack any inside presence, and Howard should use it as an opportunity to assert himself and remind everyone of the dominant center he can be. But Monday belonged to Harden.

Kevin McHale simply said, “James just took over.”

And that's what franchise players do when it matters.

Like it ? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron

*quotes obtained from ESPN.com and NBA.com. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Where's the Boom?

Last week on RAW, The Authority (HHH and Stephanie McMahon) officially announced that Daniel Bryan would face HHH at Wrestlemania 30. (I can't type XXX, it seems wrong.) This was expected for some time, wrapping up one of the longest-running feuds in the company's past eight months or so. But the cherry on top was Bryan demanding- and receiving- the stipulation that if he beat HHH, he would insert himself into the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match between Batista and Randy Orton. The "YES!" Movement now had all the leverage, a movement that started the interesting notion of a potential new boom in wrestling.

Back in the mid-1990's when HHH was just a young buck, the boom period was on the horizon. But it wasn't because of him. It happened to involve him, and he played his part as a dynamic, manipulative bad guy. It happened because it was a perfect storm of events. It wasn't just lighting in a bottle- it was a thunderstorm in a vault. You had HHH, the Undertaker, Mankind, The Rock and most importantly- Stone Cold Steve Austin. Austin was the driving force behind the wrestling renaissance, as his rebellious employee character put up against McMahon's power-hungry boss archetype propelled the Federation into an uncharted territory of success. His ways weren't particularly "goodie two shoes" or selfless. In fact, he was very self-serving and motivated by his own needs and wants. But fans despised McMahon's evil ways so much, Austin was made their wrestling savior. Everything they touched turned into gold.

But the question is not how did they do it- but why? The answer is simple: competition. Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling was in the midst of a historical run atop the ratings thanks  to Hogan's New World Order. Before they ran it into the ground with  incredibly watered-down versions, it was the edgiest thing ever done in professional wrestling. The fact that they dominated the then-WWF left a sour taste in the ultra-competitive McMahon's mouth. He, along with the rest of his company was hungrier than ever to outdo WCW. Even the small Philadelphia-based Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) offered a different style, as WWE would incorporate that to its product and buy the company outright eventually.

Another reason? It was a different era, not only in wrestling- but also in society. Not everything was skewed to please the politically correct crowd. In fact, nothing was. You had women walking around in underwear, storylines which implied violent and sexual acts, and a company playing like it had nothing to lose.There was no immediate backlash via social media like there would be today.

Austin's career would eventually be slowed down, but not due to Austin lacking any charisma, but an unfortunate string of neck injuries from a 1997 Owen Hart piledriver. One of the lasting things he would contribute as an active wrestler was the simple catchphrase of "WHAT?" It didn't just ask a question- it uncut and undermined any wrestler or character Austin was in a segment with. There is no comeback to it. A simple one-word inquiry caught on like wildfire, and the credit goes to fellow Attitude Era wrestler Christian. Or "CLB" (creepy little bastard) as the on-screen Austin liked to call him.T-shirts were churned out, chants were easy to start (while being very hard to stop) and it breathed life back into Austin 3:16. Even as a bad guy following Wrestlemania X-7, Austin's character could do no wrong. His reactions were once again off-the-charts.

Fast forward to 2014. Daniel Bryan's WWE run is at its peak, not only because of his full-tilt wrestling style, but also because of a word. It's not a question, but a declarative statement of optimism: YES! That one word caught on in a hurry, inspired by the UFC's Diego Sanchez. Sanchez would yell the word as he walked to the octagon, and Bryan followed suit. His heel character at the time was overzealous and very cynical, celebrating wins like he had won a gold medal in the Olympics. The word was chanted by the crowd, and inserted into matches win Bryan would begin kicks or punches to an opponent. The energy in buildings that was created by Bryan's abilities was very similar to that of Austin's heydays.

So why isn't WWE set for another boom period?

While impressive, Bryan's recent run at the title won't start one. The most unique thing about this feud between Bryan and the Authority is how long it has gone on. Summerslam saw him win the belt, only to lose it moments later to Randy Orton. There was no way at the time to guarantee a feud culminating at Wrestlemania in New Orleans, yet here we are. After a few start/stop pushes, Bryan is now in position to be the star of the show.

Feuds of that length are rare in today's wrestling scene, just as long-tenured stables are. Hello, Shield. Two of the last three feuds that were memorable and long- while not dragging on- involved Shawn Michaels. One was with Chris Jericho in 2008. Michaels was the star veteran and Jericho was re-invented. It progressed naturally with superb matches and edge-of-your-seat segments, blowing off in a ladder match at 2008's No Mercy. The two's history together only made it that much better.

The other involved HBK's quest to defeat the Undertaker in 2009 and 2010. He wanted the challenge, and the two had been squaring off since the mid-1990's, even in the very first "Hell-In-A-Cell" match. The history was there, the motivations were there and the stage was as big as it gets in wrestling, ending in Michaels' last match at Wrestlemania 26 in Arizona. 

The final piece to that triumvirate of feuds was CM Punk and John Cena in 2011. Punk had come off his role as Nexus leader, and was fed up and tired of his current role as second fiddle to the main event stars. He spoke his mind, then entered into a personal feud with Cena. He represented change, and something new and fresh. While Cena represented the dynasty. The two would battle in the summer of 2011, during which Punk would win the WWE title and run off into the night. The feud wouldn't have the satisfying ending it should have, but it reached deeper to connect with the fanbase than any in recent memory. Now in 2014, Punk is still not happy- for different reasons, and has fled indefinitely.

But if wrestling were to ever take off again, these kind of personal feuds would need to be more prevalent, and not just once a year. The mid-card (less featured) stars would have to develop programs with more depth as well. Divas- yes, divas- would need real reasons to fight each other and not just because one has a belt or another called them a really mean name. Grow personalities, intertwine them, give them motivations- and watch the results.

If there is any hope of this happening in future years, it's in WWE's developmental program located in Florida- NXT. Once thought of as a new gimmick hour-long show in 2010, it has evolved into a feeder/minor league of sorts for the company. Young stars are groomed there, and ones who have name-recognition on the independent scene are taught the WWE style, too. They might have a following on the indy circuit, but it has to translate to massive crowds giving them a reaction as well.

Antonio Cesaro (formerly Claudio Castognoli), Seth Rollins (Tyler Black) and Dean Ambrose (John Moxley) are perfect examples of the new program developing indy talent well. Big E Langston and Roman Reigns are original NXT products who have benefited very well. Even the divas show promise, as Emma, Page and Summer Rae all wrestle lengthy contests while giving fans a reason to care- something not done on RAW or Smackdown for the females.

There's another elephant in the room to this boom argument: TNA. Yes, that is an actual name of a wrestling company. Total Nonstop Action. There is not one world in that phrase that lets the reader know it has anything to do with wrestling, which is only the first of many problems for them. The other would be that an almost twelve-year old company sounds the terms for a female's body. It only is hurt by the fact the company struggled to turn a dollar and increase ratings, and has no idea how to break into the mainstream. Which is only more problematic not just for them, but WWE and wrestling in general.

Just like wrestlers needs a crowd to feed off of, WWE needs that competition to motivate them as well. Vince does not even ackowledge TNA on television, and why would he? They aren't even a blip on his radar. There is no war between the two like WWF and WCW had. Stars aren't being poached back and forth. The only time the two cross paths in headlines is when they say "Former WWE Star Signs With TNA". Give them the belt for a month or two, then cast them aside until the next ex-WWE'er arrives. Or when all else fails, put the belt on Sting. Even if WWE were to buy the fledgling and very distant second fiddle, not much would change. The fact that there is no third wheel (as there was with ECW in the '90's) only makes WWE that much more of a monopoly.

Wrestlemania 30 is slated to see Bryan wrestle at least once, and likely even twice in the main event- thanks to the absence of CM Punk. His "YES!" Movement hasn't just sold merchandise and appeased the internet wrestling community. It's also caused WWE to pull a rare audible while injecting new life into a title picture that formerly looked more bleak than ever. Batista's return did not turn out at all like the suits had hoped, and Randy Orton as champion is....well it's Randy Orton as champion. The fans will be looking for that feel-good moment, and Batista/Orton wouldn't have produced one. It would have been more like Goldberg/Lesnar in 2004 at Wrestlemania XX.

While the WWE Universe may be looking at a memorable moment in New Orleans thanks to Daniel Bryan, just don't look for an instant boom. There is no boom on the immediate horizon, but there is hope if WWE can give fans a reason to care. Not just about the main events, but the rest of the cards as well. 

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Enjoy the Ride, Houstland

Tonight's match up between the Blazers and Rockets isn't just a battle between two of the top five teams of the ultra-competitive Western conference. It's a a microcosm of a story of season-long redemption for both franchises.

One year ago, these teams had no business being in the discussion for home court advantage in the playoffs. Houston hung on to take the eighth seed (losing to OKC in six games) while Portland missed the playoffs altogether at 33-49. But after various moves via the draft, trade and free agency, Portland and Houston are right where they want to be- in the thick of the playoff race.

The plan each organization had to get to where they are was supposed to happen years ago. But such is sports and life- plans don't always unfold as originally thought.


The origins of this story can be traced all the way back to June 26th, 2002 during the NBA Draft Lottery. The purpose of the lottery is to sort out the draft order of the first fourteen picks. On this night, the Houston Rockets had an 8.9% chance at landing the top overall pick, finishing the season 2001-2002 season an ugly 28-54. At 22.5%, the Bulls and Warriors each were favored to snag the rights to the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft. But as fate would have it, Houston swooped in and plucked the pick away from both teams. With that overall pick they would select their future franchise cornerstone, Yao Ming.

Ming was a physical specimen: 7'6, over 300 pounds. In China for the Shanghai Sharks he had amassed a fairly impressive career. He wasn't just a gimmick. Ming was a polished young star with fundamentals and finesse. The stats were there. In his final year with Shanghai, Yao averaged 38.9 points and 20.2 rebounds a game. He also shot 76.6% from the field. But the question was would it translate to the NBA? Could he be depended on to carry a franchise on his tall and lengthy frame? His sheer size and skill would bring on a forced rivalry with Shaq. The comparisons were there, but unfair. Shaq was built on power and interior domination. Ming was finesse and efficiency, complete with shooting 80% from the charity stripe.

The proof was in the pudding. Ming added to the talents of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley improved the Rockets by fifteen wins in 2002-2003.  He averaged 13.2 points per game and over 8 rebounds as well. Those totals would climb steadily the next few years. In 2006-2007, Yao averaged 25 points per game (in only 48 games played due to injury). Houston was seemingly going in the right direction, winning 45 games in 2003-2004. But another splash had to be made. Enter Tracy McGrady. Paired with Yao, the duo was hyped as the new Kobe/Shaq off pure speculation and intrigue. The duo were mentioned in the same breath as "title hopes" frequently. Owner Les Alexander was looking to restore the franchise as a contender for the first time since the mid-1990's.

"I sure hope so," McGrady told ESPN. "I can't predict the future, but it definitely would be nice. The ultimate goal is to win a championship for the Houston Rockets."

That very first season together saw the duo lead Clutch City to a 51-31 record, good enough for 5th in the West. They would lose to the Southwest Division rival Mavericks 4-3. It was a series which the Rockets were up 2-0, stealing the first two road games from the Mavericks. Dallas would storm back, winning the next 3 to grab control. Houston would prolong with a win at home before being knocked out after an embarrassing game 7 forty-point loss in Dallas, 116-76. They would miss the playoffs altogether the next season, while the Portland Trailblazers had missed them for three straight seasons. But the summer of 2006 was a game-changer for a franchise once dubbed the "Jailblazers", a team full of headcases. 

The 2006 NBA Draft saw the Blazers acquire both Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge. The pair, like Yao Ming and McGrady, were to spearhead the new movement in Portland. They wouldn't see results right away, going 32-50 in 2006-2007 and missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

While not a huge deal at the time, in the spring of 2007 Northwestern product Daryl Morey transitioned into general manager of the Rockets after serving a season as assistant to Carroll Dawson. No one could foresee his plan at the time, but the wheels inside Morey's head were always turning and never slowing down. This would become very fruitful in later years for the Rockets.

The next draft saw them procure the first overall pick, taking Greg Oden out of Ohio State. It's hard to believe it now, but during that summer, "Oden or Durant?" was a very serious argument. Franchise big man or franchise scorer? We all know how that turned out. But I digress.

Portland would break even at 41-41 the next year. That same season, the Rockets would lay claim to the second longest win streak in NBA history at 22 games (behind the 1972 Lakers' 33). It now sits third, after the 2012-2013 Heat's 27 in a row. The streak lifted off with the help of Yao-who would become injured- but it was McGrady who strapped the Rockets to his back and willed them into playoff contention. They'd finish 55-27, losing in the first round again to the Utah Jazz.

The 2009 playoffs were unique for both franchises. The Blazers made the playoffs for the first time in six years, and the Rockets won a first round series for the first time since 1997. The team Houston beat? Portland. That would kick of a three year period where the Blazers lost in the first round, the last being in 2010-2011. That was the last time they made the playoffs. But it was even a more significant year for the Rockets.

And not in a good way. 

After five games into the 2010-2011 season, Yao would have to sit out due to a lower leg stress fracture. His frame would ultimately not hold up to the constant wear and tear an NBA player goes through: games, practice, travel and the general awkwardness of being 7'6". He would later announce his retirement, throwing the franchise into somewhat of a tailspin. That following February, Tracy McGrady was traded to the New York Knicks after playing in only six games for Houston. His career would never reach the heights it had in Orlando or Houston...or for that matter even Toronto. The Rockets hadn't just lost the superstar duo they had spent over six years developing.

Houston was entering the most dreaded of phases for a fan or GM: rebuilding mode. The first piece to the puzzle after making moves for picks and cap space was stealing Chandler Parsons out of Florida at the 38th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. While a good college product, Parsons bloomed even more in the NBA with his dynamic game complete with an absolutely filthy pump fake.

In December of 2011, the Blazers had cut ties with Brandon Roy with the one-time amnesty clause. The reason? Nagging knee injuries/surgeries.

Both teams were in disarray by 2012, but help was on the way. After Oden had microfracture surgery on his knee that year, doctors suggested he retire. While he'd never play another game for the Blazers, he's since returned as a member of the Miami Heat. Aldridge quietly remained one of the best big men in the game. By being on a mediocre team in a small market city, he stayed off everyone's radar. That year's draft saw them get Weber State's Damian Lillard sixth overall. Lillard would be looked at to help Aldridge lead the offense as a scorer and distributor.

But the Rockets were only getting started. After beginning turning over the majority of their roster (Chandler Parsons is the only player left from 2011), they drafted Terrance Jones. They signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik as free agents. They drafted Royce White, which ultimately was one of Morey's least wise decisions. White was later released after never playing a game for the Rockets. But less than a week before the NBA season started, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded former sixth man of the year James Harden to Houston. The Rockets once again had a star to build off of. While it was not the end all and be all of Morey's plan, it was a massive step in the right direction. Harden would lead Houston to a 45-37 record and a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons. They'd lose 4-2 to- who else?- The Thunder. While they had a little fight in them, the Rockets just weren't ready yet.

Following progress, Houston was still in search for a star to pair with Harden. Dwight Howard was a free agent after one season in LA, and Morey once again had his eye on the big man. Howard would eventually choose Houston and the Rockets once again had a star duo. Morey proved his doubters wrong. He not only delivered on his promises of putting Houston in a position to win. He did each time in almost buzzer-beater style.

Both Houston and Portland had rebuilt, in two vastly different ways. The difference now is that Houston had high expectations, and Portland did not.


The Blazers shocked the NBA by coming out with guns blazing (No pun intended. Ok, it was intended.) They started a league best 19-4, and since then have cooled off a little and sit at 42-20, good for fifth in the West behind the Clippers. Aldridge has been more than efficient, with 23.6 ppg and 11.2 rpg. While still not seen as a perennial big dog in the West, they are still in prim position to get a top four seed.

Houston took time to gel. Like Miami in 2010, they needed to build chemistry with each other and gel together. Initial growing pains included blowout losses to the Thunder and Pacers, not involving Howard as much, missing alley-oop passes, and finding a power forward. But the tide has turned.

Howard is found frequently for alley-oops from Harden and Parsons. Terrance Jones has solidified himself at the four spot with double-double after double-double. They recently got back at the Pacers with a 112-86 win and are a league best 22-6 since the new year.

But while they are hot, not everything is rosy. Parsons is set to be a free agent (which I can only imagine Morey will do everything to keep him). Lin and Asik will be due to make 15 million each next season, and so far both have proven to not be worth even half of that due to the latest roster. Patrick Beverley has hounded opposing point guards with superb defense and developed quite the offensive game, too. Lin is too turnover prone, while Asik has struggled with mental (attitude) and physical health issues since the arrival of Howard. Since his return from injury, Asik has struggled to look like last year's version. But there's one thing he'll always have: his defense. Along with the Howard, Beverley, a re-invigorated Harden and newly acquired Jordan Hamilton, Houston's defense is vastly improved.

Sunday night's showdown may just be regular season NBA. But it goes to show that the regular season still matters in such a competitive conference. Rome was not built in a day, and neither were these two franchises. If anything is to be learned from the rollercoaster paths Houston and Portland took to get back to contention, it's simple.

Enjoy the ride. You never know when it will end.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Monday, March 3, 2014


With 33 days to go until Wrestlemania XXX descends on New Orleans, WWE is revving up the engine in hopes that it will be the most-watched pay-per-view event of all time. That is the goal every year for Vince McMahon and those in charge in Stamford, Connecticut. But there is one huge difference this year: the WWE is cutting it very close in regards to building up their card.

"But there's over a month until the event," you're saying to yourself.

That would be fine if this were a lesser event, but this is Wrestlemania. The Super Bowl of wrestling. The pay-per-view that ties together storylines, blows off feuds and creates new ones. The rare occasion where the mainstream media will pick up on it, all the while the hype machine is at full force. It's not just a one day thing, either. It's a week long extravaganza aided by WWE Axxess and a flurry of activity for fans and stars alike. It creates jobs and boost the local economy, sometimes as much as 100 million dollars. No wonder cities bid on it similarly to the Olympics.

That is why Wrestlemania is integral and pivotal to WWE's big picture. If it flops, it's a strong indication of the current product being churned out. Which makes the current rumored card to be all the more precarious.

The build should realistically begin at the Royal Rumble, so feuds can develop and fans can begin to become invested in their respective side. The skeleton plans of the card can be traced back as far as the previous fall typically. The term "card subject to change" is prevalent, no matter how much a match is wanted or demanded. Injuries and other circumstances can happen, so nothing really begins to take shape until January's Rumble.

This year's show was less than impressive, which might be understatement of the year. Batista stormed back on January 20th, and with less than a week under his belt after a near-five year hiatus, he won the Rumble amidst a sea of boos. A ploy such as his return can be used to throw fans off the scent that possibly Daniel Bryan would compete and win the thirty-man spectacle, but Bryan was never in it at all. Dating back to last Summer, fans have hopped on his bandwagon in droves (myself included). His passion for the business, quirky charisma and natural wrestling ability are what makes him so easy to root for. Amongst a land of giants, Bryan is realistic. He's one of us, in a way. Well- with a way hotter  girlfriend than any of us could ever imagine having.

The next night after, Bryan brought up the elephant in the room right away to open RAW. HHH came out to give him the "you sit at the kids table at Thanksgiving" talk, politely shoeing the bearded one away. The problem between the Rumble and 'Mania is just that. There's something between them- Elimination Chamber. WWE bookers have to find a way to keep people busy, and instead of developing feuds recently, they use EC as a placeholder of sorts. It's not meant to be memorable, just profitable. And while making a profit is always a top priority, having a pay-per-view without any real meaning hurts the product as a whole. Outside of quite possibly the best six-man tag team match of all time (the Shield versus the Wyatts), the event was largely a write-off. Bryan was shunted into the main-event, which no one expected him to win. Credit to WWE for making us believe he had even a 1% chance of walking away champion, though.

The last few weeks since Chamber have fans still wondering what the card will look like. The only two matches announced so far are Batista versus Orton and Lesnar versus Undertaker. While the names are big, the stakes aren't. Fans have soured on both Batista and Orton, to the point where I can see that potential match getting a worse reaction than Goldberg/Lesnar from 2004. A by-the-motions heel Batista is something no one wants.Batista was so bad as a newly-returned face that the WWE had no choice but to turn him and somehow hope making Orton a face is the cure-all. Orton as a face goes just as well as a whore in church.

The other main event has a lot of history and star power: Lesnar versus Undertaker. While the two have had great battles in the past and even ran into each other during Lesnar's UFC run, this match-up seems out of left field. It had been discussed, yes- but bear with me. Undertaker returns last week after a year-long absence and without being provoked, attacks Lesnar. We all know the streak is the streak. But why would he come out to shut-up Lesnar? What does Undertaker gain? At this stage in his career, many are wondering if Taker can handle the physical style of Brock's. Could this be his final go? No one knows just yet. While I'd still pay to see it, this match will be carried largely by name-power.

Unannounced but highly speculated matches include a Shield triple-threat, the Usos versus the New Age Outlaws for the tag-team titles, Daniel Bryan versus HHH, and John Cena versus Bray Wyatt. One would also have to think AJ and Big E would defend their titles as well. Even if these matches were official, there are still plenty of questions. Can the Usos finally win the titles? Will the Shield break-up after a year and a half run? Does WWE have the balls to have Bray Wyatt beat John Cena clean at the show of shows? What about the rest of the Wyatt Clan? Is Daniel Bryan really going to be shunned out of the title scene for the sake of HHH's ego?

But the final question is most pertinent, especially tonight as RAW comes from Chicago, Illinois.

What about CM Punk?

This may be unfair, because just because it is Chi-town does not guarantee his appearance. But the speculation seems fair after he left the company less than an hour before a RAW, and as he is a certified main-event star in the company (or was). If he does come back tonight, where does he figure in to the WMXXX equation? Do they simply insert him into the title scene in the hopes he stays happy and remains with them after his contract is up later this year? Or does WWE pair him with HHH as first thought back in January?

The Internet Wrestling Community (IWC) hopes for the latter, as that would free up Daniel Bryan for possibly bigger and better things. If tonight is any indication, fans of "the flying goat" may be in luck. Bryan is scheduled to face the heelish Batista in Chicago tonight, a city known for being smart wrestling fans and in the loop. The reaction should be night and day for each performer, and the fans will let Vince and company know who he should give the ball to.

More scenarios are left to be pondered. What about Cesaro? Ziggler? Miz? Christian? Sheamus? There is plenty of talent to go around, but the problem is they have no direction. WWE doesn't have much time to waste heading into 'Mania, their first on the brand-new WWE Network. The only thing we know for certain is if they are going to begin to formulate a card for their biggest show of the year, they better start tonight.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.