Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Win and In Trouble

Win, and they’re in.

Most teams would be envious to be controlling their own playoff destiny like the Houston Rockets can Wednesday night. Beat a 33-48 Kings at home team with nothing to play for and seemingly no one to play for them. Sacramento will be without stars DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay.

For a Houston team averaging 124.6 points per game over their last three games, this should not be in question. Fans in Clutch City shouldn’t get ahead of themselves, though. Nothing has been a sure thing this season for a 40-41 Rockets squad. If there’s one thing they’ve been consistent at, it’s being inconsistent.

But if the last two games (wins) are any indication, James Harden and company have found a semblance of rhythm and are showing signs of actual chemistry. That said chemistry has been missing for a majority of the season.

It seems too little, too late for James Harden and company. If this was their version of using the regular season to get in shape for the postseason like Rasheed Wallace was known for, they picked a hell of a time for it. Sure they might beat Sacramento- but they’ll most definitely be in trouble come playoff time.

Morey and the Rockets will need to pull out all the equations if they face the Warriors.

Houston’s general manager Daryl Morey may have an MBA from MIT and known for his unique statistical analysis, but no formula can calculate exactly how all the pieces he’s gathered fit together.

Last year’s roster overachieved and came back from the grave to beat the Los Angeles Clippers and get to the Western Conference Finals. While they may have accomplished more than anyone thought possible, no one could foresee the struggles the team has gone through in 2015-2016.

After bringing back most of last year’s team (even a returning Josh Smith who they let sign with the Clippers last offseason), Houston got off to a rocky 0-3 start before reeling off four straight. Instead of staying on a consistent path, the team would be 4-7 after eleven games. Heads would roll, and the only one who could be held accountable was Kevin McHale’s. Some argued it was too early, while others felt a change sooner than later was a good idea.

There’s no way to figure out how many wins McHale would have led Houston to, but with all their on-court instability, managing personalities and line-ups that gel together have seemingly overwhelmed interim head coach JB Bickerstaff. While a superb assistant coach, Bickerstaff doesn’t hold that same level of credibility as McHale had.

Hovering around the .500 mark almost all season, there was plenty of turmoil to be had amongst Red Nation. The team aggressively shopped Dwight Howard, then had to kiss and make up after no other teams were willing to take on a rental for half a season- a rental with lots of baggage. The team even shopped power forward Donatas Motiejunas, finding a spot for him in Detroit. But ultimately the deal fell through after concerns over Motiejunas’ back were expressed.

I originally thought of Ty Lawson as a redemption story of sorts (that role would go to Michael Beasley) Offseason addition Ty Lawson was on the block as well, with rumors of a deal to the Jazz buzzed. The offer was never solid, and Houston would be so desperate to rid themselves of Lawson that they’d just buy him out.

None of this is what you expect to hear from a team that won its division and finished as a conference finalist last year. But “expect the unexpected” seems to be the team’s unofficial slogan this season.

So here they are. A best case scenario sees them go 41-41 to snag the eighth seed in the West.

Behind door number one? The Golden State Warriors.

This might be the match-up Harden desired at some point in the playoffs after last year’s turn of events- but not like this. The Rockets were mentioned as preseason contenders briefly, especially after many believed getting Ty Lawson was a steal of a deal. Yet once the regular season was underway, the team was never once seen as a contender- and deservedly so. Houston had eight separate occasions where they lost at least three games in a row. They never once managed to win more than three games in a row.

To put that in perspective, Golden State never once lost back to back games, and had seven streaks of 5 wins in a row or more (including starting the season 24-0).

Instead of returning to that “almost MVP” caliber of play from last season, James Harden struggled out of the gate. He did finish strong, coming in second to Curry in scoring (28.9 PPG). Harden had the most 40 pt/ 10 assist games since 1975-1976 (5, matching '05-'06 Allen Iverson and '88-'89 Michael Jordan). Yet those numbers throughout the season often failed to correlate to wins.

Curry outdid himself in fantastic fashion: 29.9 PPG, 6.7 APG and 5.5 RPG. He’s also completing the ever elusive 50-40-90 season as well (50% from field, 45% from three and 90% from the free throw line). Curry blew his three-point record out of the water as well, drilling 392 after 81 games.

And that’s just Curry. I haven’t even gotten to how good Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Maurice Speights and the rest of their team has been. Their unrelenting depth and ball movement is deadly and has helped them be in position to finish 73-9 Wednesday night.

So, does Houston have anything they can lean on in a potential series against the Warriors? Last year they were an afterthought heading into the WCF and did little to change that perception. This year, they’re not even a blip on anyone’s radar. Some even have joked whoever secured the eighth seed doesn’t really make the playoffs. But if there’s one thing Houston can use to their advantage, it’s that no one expects them to do anything at this point. This will cause them to play looser, with less pressure. This in no way guarantees them even one win, especially since they couldn’t beat the Warriors during the season.

Whether or not Houston wins tonight, little can be done to get rid of the stench of underachieving all year. There is plenty of commotion to be had in the offseason, and not just in the free agent market with Daryl Morey. Owner Les Alexander had little patience for Kevin McHale, so who knows how much more he has for Morey- or JB Bickerstaff for that matter.

A silver lining in all of this: if Houston loses to the Kings, and the Jazz win their game, Houston keeps their only draft pick in this year's draft. It might not mean much ultimately, as Morey and company don't have a stellar track record for developing younger players. (Clint Capela, Chandler Parsons and Montrezl Harrell have been rare exceptions.)

Even Wednesday night against the Kings isn’t guaranteed for this Rockets team. A loss would be quite possibly be the most Rockets thing for them to do. And if they can’t win in that advantageous scenario, they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs at all.

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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Welcome to WrestleMcMahonia

Talk some sense into him, Shane.
Sunday night saw the WWE put on their grandest show of them all- Wrestlemania. I may sound like Stefon from Saturday Night Live- but it had everything.

Ladders. Tables. New championship belts. Legends. Moments that left you speechless. Great wrestling. Poor wrestling. 

And off-screen behind the scenes, there was an older gentleman pulling the strings behind a curtain a la The Wizard of Oz, paying no attention to those who voice their displeasure. It may be called Wrestlemania, but I refer to it as WrestleMcMahonia since it all boils down to what Vince McMahon- and only McMahon- wants.

Heck, even ESPN acknowledged the faux sport with all-day coverage courtesy of former WWE personality Jonathan Coachman on site, and his Sportscenter peers back in Bristol. The show was hyped up to be the biggest of the year, even with the rash of injuries that had severely depleted the card and forced WWE in to certain booking decisions. On a night where even the most sour of wrestling fans could find something to cheer for, the end left the majority of the WWE Universe with a bad taste in their mouths.

Ever since the 2015 Royal Rumble in Philadelphia, a good amount of fans have showed their disdain for current champion Roman Reigns. WWE even sent out long-time fan favorite Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to give Reigns the rub. As this photo shows, it had little to no effect. And if The Rock can't sway a crowd to like you, who or what will? 

Despite the fervent negative reactions to the company pushing the young star to the moon, Vince McMahon continued on his desired course. Instead of adjusting on the fly like a year earlier with Daniel Bryan as champion, McMahon refused to listen to the internet wrestling community. (If you don't know who comprises that section of the wrestling world, here's a hint: you, me and anyone else discussing or reading about wrestling online.) The IWC used to have a stigma of being made up of solely those of the 18-40 male demographic- but with the dawn of Twitter and the 24/7 coverage of wrestling, the IWC has grown exponentially from casual fan to the most expert of wrestling analysts.

(via Wrestlemania 31 ended on a far different note than Sunday's 32.
Wrestlemania 31 ended on a far different note than Sunday's 32. (
WWE did manage to surprise fans at Wrestlemania 31 when Seth Rollins cashed his Money in the Bank briefcase to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The parting shot of Rollins raising the WWE title over his head as fireworks went off left fans wondering what was next. To say Sunday's final result was rather underwhelming would be an understatement.
With long-time company flagbearer John Cena at thirty-eight years old, Vince McMahon is in dire need of a replacement. 

Reigns is looked at as Cena's successor. While in 2014 fans were digging this possibility, McMahon's forcing of Reigns on the audience has left them -at best- indifferent to the former Shield member. For the better part of 2015 and all of 2016, Reigns has been met with incredible levels of rejection not only from the IWC, but also live crowds. The go-home show (final show before a special event) to 'Mania 32 in Brooklyn was significantly telling. Instead of being on full display for the fans, Reigns was kept mostly backstage in segments. His opening monologue was kept short and sweet to soften the blow of the arena's dislike. He was even attacked by the Dudley Boyz and HHH. The final segment which was a brawl between the two was no different, despite an impressive outside dive by Reigns onto a mass of wrestlers.

All week, I wondered how the WWE could make this main event interesting. It was too late to insert Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar into it. And they even tried making it a "No Holds Barred" match mid-week to garner more interest. They had only one logical decision in my mind: make Reigns a bad guy, and channel the negative reactions he elicits into something positive. Like "goody two shoes" Rocky Maiva in 1996, turn a new leaf and see what happens. Ironically enough, use the former Rocky Maiva as the vehicle for this turn. Simply have him show support like he had at the 2015 Rumble, then Reigns lays him out.

Did WWE take this course of action similar to Steve Austin's turn at Wrestlemania 17

Nope. Instead of giving fans something intriguing to discuss for tomorrow's RAW, the company forged ahead with their plan as Reigns playing the top babyface. To make matters even worse, the championship bout went on last. HHH and Reigns delivered a main event worthy of a RAW or even a lesser event- but for the "show of shows"? Not even close. The crowd sat on their hands for the entirety of it, only getting up briefly for Reigns' accidental spear of Stephanie. The reactions were Goldberg/Brock Lesnar Wrestlemania 20 bad. Instead of leaving fans wondering what could happen tomorrow on RAW, all we were left with was "see Roman and Charlotte Flair on the 'Good Morning Show' tomorrow."

WWE could have made history at Wrestlemania by repeating it. (
WWE could have made history at Wrestlemania by repeating it. (
On a night where WWE proved it could surprise us (Ryder winning the Intercontinental title/HBK, Foley, Austin, Rock and Cena returning/ Corbin winning the Battle Royal), it chose the status quo for most of the card- most noticably its two highest-billed match-ups.

The second match of the night saw AJ Styles face Chris Jericho for the fourth time. With Styles' impressive crowd reactions and rumors of Jericho riding off into the sunset again, Styles was a lock to win- right? Wrong. Jericho came out the victor in decisive fashion.

The WWE even began anew with the Divas division, christening them with the fresh Women's Championship. It was decided by Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks and Becky Lynch. I pegged Banks to lead the new charge. Wrong again. Charlotte came out the victor.

The Rock returned, interrupted by the Wyatt Family. The Wyatts would finally look like a threat and move up the ladder for once. Wrong. The Rock ran them down and beat Erick Rowan in an impromptu in six seconds.

Shane McMahon's shocking return to television a few weeks ago had fans at a fever pitch with the brand new possibility of something fresh- anything but the same Authority storyline beaten to death since 2013. He came back in impressive fashion with claims he held dirt on his old man and demanded control of RAW. With his son having leverage over him, Vince did what anyone in an inferior position would do: schedule a match between his blackmailer and one of his longest-tenured employees (The Undertaker). Shane (the one in a position of power in this scenario) was to defeat The Undertaker if he wanted control of RAW. If Undertaker had lost, he would have to retire. Before we go any farther, let us count the holes in this storyline.

  1. What exactly did Shane have on Vince?
  2. Why only RAW and not the entire WWE?
  3. Why would Shane agree to this almost certain loss if he had leverage?
  4. Why would face Undertaker do heel Vince's bidding? Wouldn't this make Undertaker a heel by association?
  5. Why did Undertaker let Vince call him a b*tch with no rebuttal?
  6. If the Authority were to be ousted, why was HHH never involved in any of these segments to show concern for his faux job?
I can't answer those specific plot holes, but to answer the entire scenario: because Wrestlemania. With a depleted roster and a need for a quick fix, Vince decided to add this surreal match-up to a card that lacked mainstream appeal. SHANE MCMAHON. THE UNDERTAKER. HELL IN A CELL. THE FUTURE OF THE WWE RAW. THE FUTURE OF UNDERTAKER.

"Screw logic, I want viewership," Vince must have thought.

The lack of depth in writing was masked by a stipulation on the grandest stage, with all sorts of spots (most of which Shane came out on wrong side of). Yes, we'll remember Shane's legitimate 20-foot dive through the announce table for years to come, but does it matter in the grand scheme of things? McMahon with all his heart and courage came out the loser, and the Authority still controls RAW. Reigns is still the good-guy champion.

Wrestlemania 32 had the chance to be something special. It vies for mainstream appeal and publicity, so it can't be everything to everyone. But if it's intention is to kick off the new "season" for WWE, it failed miserably. For all the talk of NXT and envisioning a bold new world, nothing will change if Vince McMahon continues to hold on to the past with nostalgia at every turn. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, Vince McMahon is certifiably insane.

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