Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Rocket Launch: Morey is All In on Red

Before I begin, let me take a deep breath.

::Takes deep breath::

...Now that I found my namaste, it's all about figuring out what the hell just happened.

The short answer: The NBA's new "Super Team Era", and the Rockets' latest gamble that has launched their own new era.

And now for the long answer.

As soon as the NBA season ended with Kevin Durant hoisting the NBA Finals MVP and Larry O'Brien trophies, you could literally hear players colluding on how to build a team to counter the Goliath known as the Golden State Warriors. It's like the Power Rangers constructing a new Mega Zord to defeat the big, bad monster operating with a smidge of assistance from their GM's.

This new era didn't begin with Kevin Durant choosing the Warriors last summer. Some like to trace it back to the 2004 Lakers or the 2008 Celtics, but players had less influence on the league at that time. It began in 2010 when LeBron decided to form "The Heatles" with Dywane Wade and Chris Bosh, no matter how much he tries to deny it was a "super team". And losing 4-1 to  monster he indirectly created is how he was repaid.

Chris Paul was heavily rumored to go to the Spurs which seemed like a very natural fit and very likely to happen. It just made too much sense not to. Gregg Popovich would breathe life back into a franchise to extend the team's window to compete with the Warriors.

Then two weeks ago in an interview with Zach Lowe, Daryl Morey said, "We are used to long odds. If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve.”

Rule #1 of Rocket Club: don't doubt Daryl. Just like the name of this blog, when it comes to the NBA offseason, anything's in play for Mr. Morey.

Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon, and Chris Paul is a Houston Rocket. Instead of falling in love with the idea of being a Spur, Paul was said to be deterred by the team's focus on bringing back Tony Parker for prime minutes. Houston may have lost in an embarrassing fashion to San Antonio in the playoffs, but this at least felt like a counter punch to the stomach for Red Nation.

A team with an elite superstar who switched to point guard last season and led his team to the third-best record in the West while almost averaging a triple-double (29/11/8) signed a guy who is better than the aforementioned elite superstar at that position. And all this was AFTER three seasons of a painful guess and test with Dwight Howard, a square peg in a round hole and now a basketball vagabond. EVERYTHING went through Harden- and head coach Mike D'Antoni was fully comfortable with it...even if sitting Harden made it glaringly obvious the team lacked any other shot creators. Houston's offense seemed to click with James Harden at point guard, so why add another ball dominant player at the same position?

I will admit- I didn't favor this move as a primary focus. Yes, if Houston whiffed on Paul George and Blake Griffin, by all means adding Chris Paul would constitute a successful offseason. But imagining the pick and roll possibilities of James and Blake was quite tantalizing, and even I thought adding George was a pipe dream as his sights are rumored to be set for LA with a franchise making moves to look enticing.

But the more I settled into it throughout Wednesday, the more I thought of the possibilities. Harden would get to rest more often and not worry about who is directing the offense or creating shots. The two would likely coincide well oncourt together, as Paul would allow Harden to expend less energy trying to find his shot or creating for others, and Paul's midrange jumpers would keep defenses honest. Harden would feel less pressure to take every big shot, or answer every question pertaining to the team's success. I'm not saying he should shy away from accountability, but having another option to fall back on is quite alleviating on both Harden's physical and mental well-being.

Paul would also be a veteran presence to reign in Harden at times and his penchant for step back three-pointers, and keep him focused late in games. Last season and into the playoffs, Harden seemed to be a wild horse at times in regards to his shot selection and turnovers with only someone like Nene to calm him down and get him in check.

Another plus for Houston fans: Paul and Harden want to play together. This isn't a forced sports marriage, as Harden was said to be heavily recruiting CP3. And sure, there's plenty of time for it to go South like Dwight/James did, but at this stage in their careers and with the Warriors running roughshod on the league, I have a feeling both guys will be more open to making it work.

The downside to this deal? Paul has an option to go elsewhere next offseason if Houston doesn't work out or he simply can't play alongside Harden. It's been highly rumored since the "Summer of the Banana Boat" that CP3 longs to play with LeBron, Carmelo and Dywane. There's a lot of stars to align in making that possible, and who knows how this next season changes their minds respectively? If Paul were to leave, the Rockets gave up quite a lot to be left empty handed: Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, DeAndre Liggins, Darrun Hilliard, a 2018 top three protected 1st round pick and $661,000.

Houston does have leverage with Paul's full Bird rights, allowing them to go over the salary cap to sign him to a long-term deal worth as much as $205 million over five years.

But that is the gamble Daryl Morey took to stay competitive in the West. Why wait with an MVP-caliber star in Harden to win? That time is now, and any team with a little flexibility needs to have the same mindset. Outside of Dwight Howard, Morey struck out more often than not on players like Chris Bosh (who was ::this close:: to being a Rocket in 2014), Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Morey wouldn't make any move haphazardly without thinking of the possibilities. By trading for Paul before July 1st, this allows Houston a lot more flexibility with the cap. Instead of making moves to fit CP3 as a free-agent, Morey cleared rooms through a bevy of trades  to arm Houston with $8.4 million for mid-level exception players and $2.3 million bi-annual exception to avoid moving more contracts around. They could also group other players together to fit another potential deal that would create another $11 million trade exception.

From the looks of it, Morey isn't finished, either. The Rockets are still in the race to acquire Paul George or Carmelo Anthony- or hell, even Paul Millsap. Having two superstars is just the kind of appealing look to players looking to play for a contender and a change of scenery. And if they were fortunate enough to acquire Paul George, having a a trio with Paul and Harden would make re-signing very likely in 2018.

While swinging for the fences, Morey's ambition is to be admired. Throughout his tenure as Rockets GM since 2007, they've never fallen under .500 (32-32 in the shortened 2012 season, 41-41 in 2015-16). He's turned over rosters and wheeled and dealed, but never fully committed to a rebuilding process or tanked for a high draft pick. Houston during Morey's decade-long reign has never drafted higher than 12th overall.

Morey's low-key summer signings (head coach Mike D'Antoni included) last year weren't glamorous- but they produced results. This offseason, Morey is bringing out the biggest bat he has in hopes of getting that ever elusive trio of max-level superstars who can come together to be a real challenge for the Warriors.

Today is the day that launches Houston into their new era, and I am all in on red.

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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Fighting for the Right to Fight

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – HP Lovecraft

As a slew of fights take place tonight in Cleveland at UFC 203, a bigger fight is taking place: CM Punk versus the world.

Many have criticized Punk (real name Philip Brooks) before he’s even stepped foot in the cage. A lot of it has to do with his lack of experience. But Punk isn’t lacking in fights. His record may be 0-0, but he’s had many opponents since his untimely exit from WWE over two years ago:

-MMA fighters
-MMA fans
-MMA purists.
-Wrestling fans/pundits.
-Multiple injuries, the biggest being one that required back surgery

HP Lovecraft’s quote speaks volumes, and encapsulates the disdain some have for what can be seen as an experiment of sorts. We fear what we do not know. If the oldest and strongest emotion is fear, then jealousy can’t be far behind.

Fighters could be jealous he’s “cutting the line” and getting a shot they think he doesn’t deserve. 

They could also be jealous he’s training at a premiere fighting camp. They could be jealous he’s lined up for an incredible pay day.

Wrestlers may be jealous Punk told a billionaire to essentially kick rocks.

And whether some people in general may like to admit it or not, they’re jealous of Punk’s freedom to blaze his own path in life.

Yet this opportunity is not unearned. The “voice of the voiceless” sacrificed his life to make his wrestling dreams come true. With that came his immense popularity, success and wealth. Those things have afforded him a chance to delve into various projects such as writing comics, take time off to be with family, and a chance to train with elite MMA coaches and fighters.

But it’s not likely that any of the jealousy and contempt bothers Punk. He’s always walked to the beat of his own drum (as evidenced by his leaving WWE at the height of his wrestling popularity), and isn’t the type to conform to anyone else’s expectations of what should or shouldn’t be possible. 

Remind you of anyone?

Brock Lesnar did the same in 2004 following Wrestlemania 20 to chase his dream of being an NFL player. He was 27 years old. While the NFL didn’t work out, Lesnar would enter the MMA world.   

Like Brock Lesnar in 2008, Punk’s mere debut will light the MMA world on fire for at least one night.

Unlike 2008 Lesnar, Punk has no amateur wrestling background or MMA experience prior to his first UFC fight.

Unlike 2008 Lesnar, Punk isn’t built like The Hulk.

Unlike 2008 Lesnar, Punk doesn’t have jaw-dropping athleticism. 

Unlike 2008 Lesnar, Punk had to cut around thirty pounds to make weight.

And what may be the most notable difference, unlike 2008 Lesnar- Punk isn’t 31. He’s 37. He’s put a lot of miles on his body, literally and figuratively by traveling the independent wrestling scene and for WWE. His “bump card” (a term used to describe the amount of punishment wrestlers take during the course of their career) has plenty of punches on it. But after dietary changes and training with Duke Roufus, Punk has put himself in the best possible position to prove his naysayers wrong.

Punk said one advantage he has is that by having no experience, there’s no bad habits Roufus had to correct. But with that comes the fact Punk lacks the experience. Gall may be a young fighter with only three professional fights, but before that comes amateur fights as well and the simple fact he has devoted his life to MMA longer than Punk has. This is no knock on the former WWE star but only the circumstances he and Gall find themselves in.

One interesting part about UFC’s recent mini documentary on Punk’s journey is Gall’s training camp casually joking about how to prepare for the Chicago made fighter. In a scene, they show how to defend against a choke-slam and a sharpshooter.

Was this to build fake tension, or is Gall really thinking Punk and the entire lead-up to this is a joke? For a fighter who begged repeatedly to face Punk, he can’t afford to take any part of it lightly. If you want to be a realist, Gall should win tonight’s bout convincingly. Punk’s desire is certainly there, but can that carry over into the fight itself?

A possibility for fans of Brooks is that he could legitimately be unconscious or be submitted by Gall. For a former wrestler who’s finishing move was called the “GTS” (Go to Sleep), that would be quite a jarring visual. But win or lose, tonight’s fight is about a man who’s taking a chance and betting on himself, something that some of us might never do. 

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

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Smoke, Mirrors and McGregor

Back in March right before UFC 196, I wrote about my admiration for Conor McGregor's style of self promotion. His way with words was equaled by his unique and successful fighting style in the octagon. It's fair to say some in the fight world want to see the brash Irishman shut up. How do you do that? Normally, you silence them by defeating them. But over the last few weeks, McGregor has shown the defeat hasn't left him speechless by any means. Instead of enhancing his aura, the sharp-tongued fighter comes off looking attention-seeking and petty.

Some may see it as Conor being a self-promoter, but I see it as a distraction from the realization that McGregor will not figure out Nate Diaz a second time around.

Instead of limiting himself to just MMA, McGregor's scope of promotion has extended to Floyd Mayweather and even God himself. Now it has found it's way into the wrestling realm:

“For the most part, those WWE guys are [expletive], to be honest,” McGregor said. “They’re messed up [expletive], if you ask me. Fair play to Brock [Lesnar], he got in and fought, but at the end of the day he was juiced up to the [expletive] eyeballs, so how can I respect that?”

He didn't back away after personalities in the wrestling world came after him, either:

"What's the main guy? John Cena. He's 40. He's 40 years of age. He's walking around in a luminous orange t-shirt and a headband talking about nobody can see him. We can see him right there. He's a big fat, 40-year-old failed Mr. Olympia mother f*cker."

This isn't an exposition to scold McGregor for his lack of knowledge of wrestling. He's got his right to his opinions and freedom of speech. But for a guy who before the loss to Diaz was so quick with his wit and creative with his insults, it seemed rather trivial to challenge athletes from a pre-determined sport.

There were two possibilities. He hastily decided to insult the WWE and wrestlers around the world for the sake of it and to grab headlines. The other intention? It was designed to work all of us and open up the channels for McGregor to get a payday at Wrestlemania 33.

Whether it was one or the other, it seems once again like a way to deter eyes from the elephant in the room: McGregor hasn't improved enough since their last encounter and views this fight with Diaz as a vehice to get "big money". It's no secret McGregor scoffs at the featherweight division he is a champion of:

“It was my idea. I wanted to have my revenge at 170, and they’re crying and complaining about the 145-pound belt, which I just won three months ago. That division was killed, it was dead. Jose went down in 13 seconds. What more can I do? I traveled the world with that man. I finally got him in the Octagon, and he only lasts 13 seconds.
I didn’t see a challenge there anymore. So, I wanted to create interest from a fan’s perspective and my perspective. I want to see them two go at it, with an interim belt on the line. Then I will see people walking around my division with a belt and that will intrigue me. It will make me want that belt again.”

It was a mistake to risk his unbeatable aura back at UFC 196, and a bigger err in judgement to schedule an immediate rematch. The fact is that Nate Diaz is as accomplished at jui-jitsu as they come, and a few months of preparation won't make up for McGregor's shortcomings on the ground.

"The Notorious One" can dominate featherweights by being bigger than them while matching their speed. His advantage comes in the striking department where he can get up close and personal and influence the direction of the fight. But with Diaz's length, McGregor can't get inside to dish out his deadly strikes. McGregor may have once prided himself on his conditioning, but Diaz is a triathlon veteran with an incredibly deep gas tank. I don't see why this second go-around won't be a repeat of the first with Conor gassing out and being vulnerable to any and all of Diaz's fight-ending submissions.

The ultimate irony about the quick-witted Irishman is his unwillingness to do press appearances over the last few months. That got him into hot water with UFC management and cost him his spot on the UFC 200 card opposite Diaz. After "retiring" for a day, it was later agreed the two would meet tonight at UFC 202.

Then mere days ago, McGregor/Diaz boiled to a fever pitch. After the featherweight champion showed up thirty minutes late, the presser didn't last much longer after what I'll coin "The Battle of Dasani and Monster". Diaz was enraged and decided to leave and tossed a bottle of water in McGregor's direction. The champ was having none of it, and responded with not one but two cans of Monster flung into the audience.

Maybe I'm in the minority, but while many found it entertaining and adding to the hype of the rematch- I found it childish and unbecoming of a fighter who considers himself the best in the world and on level with Jesus Christ. 

He would later go on SportsCenter to explain his side, and it once again came off as lazy and immature (NSFW language):
To some that, too may have been a riot. To me, it screamed that McGregor has let Diaz get into his head in some fashion. 

That brings us to tonight. What happens if "The Notorious One" wins? Sure, he'll get his win back. Sure, it's more money for him and added fuel to continue fighting outside his division. But aside from him getting an amount of pride back, it doesn't accomplish much in the big UFC picture. The rematch is unnecessary from a standpoint that there was no controversy the first time around. Diaz outstruck McGregor and finished him decisively with a rear-naked choke.

Yet wouldn't a McGregor win give Diaz an argument for a rubber match? As much as one would think so, UFC despite all their posturing has shown that Conor will eventually get his way and would look to have him move on to another match-up. Diaz's conspiracy case against the UFC would only grow stronger. 

As mentioned above, I strongly believe Diaz will win again. If that does happen, does Conor tuck his tail between his legs, give up the "big fight" match-ups and stick to featherweight/lightweight match-ups? His negotiating power will severely be affected if he were to lose a second fight in a row to the same fighter. Any other welterweight aspirations will be shelved for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. 

If Diaz does win again, no amount of smoke, mirrors or spin will aid the UFC or McGregor. They'll only have themselves to blame for a situation that could have easily been avoided. 

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

Friday, August 19, 2016

Wrestle Against the Machine

“I’m betting on myself and not the machine. Whether I succeed or fail, it’s all on me.”

Back in May, Cody Rhodes was granted his release from World Wrestling Entertainment- the only company he’s ever known. He didn’t just wrestle there for a decade- he was born into it with his father being The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes. Along with his brother, Dustin (also known as Goldust), Cody forged his own legacy in the WWE. Despite wrestling there for the better part of ten years, his exit seemed premature and far from amicable. 

Like any longtime worker leaving their employer, Rhodes is driven by his desire to test himself and a change of scenery. The grass is not guaranteed to be greener, but with Rhodes’ abilities in ring and on the mic- the sky’s the limit for the thirty-one year old.

Cody’s debut on the independent circuit has been known ever since he released this image of a wish list of matches he wants to have:

Matches would be announced not too much later after the release of the image: Zack Sabre, Jr., Chris Hero, Kurt Angle- with plenty more on the way. Ever since his departure from WWE, Rhodes has kept to himself for the most part. But now as the match is almost here, Rhodes had an extensive and impressive interview with Aubrey Sitterson:

It wasn’t just what he said- but how he said it. Rhodes’ conviction was palpable, and his confidence was very much present as well. It was a superb mix of genuine honesty that brilliantly balanced the line between modesty and arrogance. It didn’t take long for him to establish a commandment of sorts: thou shall not use insider terms. Rhodes did admit it was mostly his personal take, and not that non-wrestlers can’t use them- but don’t be surprised if he cringes when he hears them.

But how did Rhodes get to this point of self-discovery and testing his limits outside of a WWE umbrella? Over the last decade, it could have been a multitude of things that added up over time- but there are a few things that stand out. The first is false promises made to him by management in regards to winning Money in the Bank- not once, but twice. Akin to not receiving a bonus, pulling the rug out from Rhodes only hurt his relationship with WWE. The most recent instance stands out the most, thought.

“When you’re calling NXT ‘Dusty’s kids’ and his actual kid is working there- dressing up as a f*cking space clown is the last thing you want to do.”

The “space clown” Rhodes refers to is his most recent WWE vehicle- Stardust. The character was an advent of sorts for Rhodes, coyly playing off his brother’s Goldust character. It was further evidence of Rhodes making chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. Some may have folded when given a character with limited potential- but not Rhodes.

He admits his debut seemed boring to himself, but would later find magic with “Dashing” Cody Rhodes. He’d be lumped into Legacy with fellow second and third generation stars Ted DiBiase and Randy Orton. Later after he’d suffer a broken nose from Rey Mysterio, working the real-life mask into a storylines. His evolution was fairly obvious, and a joy to watch. His work with Damien Sandow as one half of Rhodes Scholars was entertaining- but it always felt the son of The American Dream was destined for much, much more.

That brings us back to his “space clown” comment. I can only sympathize with Rhodes, as it seemed like a no-brainer to have him assume his real name and identity instead of a “Jim Carrey impression”. 

Fans in 2016 enjoy realness in their perceived “fake” sport. CM Punk introduced us to a new kind of “real” in wrestling in 2011. Daniel Bryan’s 2013-2014 meteoric rise added to it, and multiple storylines over the last few years have used real life elements to power them.

Yet WWE failed to give Cody the ball following his father’s unfortunate passing- dropping it and letting the star flounder in the midcard. Sometimes Stardust received opportunities on RAW, but was more often used to put over talent and at best take part on a preshow of a pay-per-view. Despite being stuck in the midcard, Rhodes kept plugging away. The first of two instances that led to Cody’s decision to leave was when a writer approached Cody and suggested using the Dusty Rhodes’ tag team tournament as a way to kick off a storyline. This deeply offended Rhodes, and rightfully so.

Then prior to the WWE Draft, Rhodes was told that creative had nothing planned for him.

Let me get this straight- nothing planned for THE Cody Rhodes, during a time where the likes of Rhyno, Shelton Benjamin and Curt Hawkins were being looked at as roster additions? Preposterous.

As Owen Hart was famously known for saying, “enough’s enough and it’s time for a change.”

That change is peeling away the bright lights and big stage on both USA Network and the WWE Network. That change is breaking away from the Cody Rhodes of WWE, and a new version not yet seen on the independent circuit. That change is giving Rhodes control of his future and any success or failure is placed squarely on his shoulders.

Rhodes admits not all of the blame can be placed on an employer in this situation. According to him, a wrestler isn’t just held back by the company. At times, it can be due to laziness from the perceivably-oppressed wrestler. Yet when you throw tomato after tomato at the wall and try to work with them to no positive reception- a change must be made.

Now with him dropping hints such as new ring boots for his match with Angle, or talking about a new not-yet-named finisher, Rhodes has begun to plant seeds for his evolution.

“I’m betting on myself and not the machine. Whether I succeed or fail, it’s all on me.”

Call it what you will. An evolution, a renaissance, an epiphany, a revelation, a reinvention. But whatever you call it, there’s one thing for certain: this next stage in Rhodes’ career is powered by his love of wrestling. He was offered a hefty contract to stay with WWE, but chose to do what he thinks may fulfill him. Like a professional athlete who never experienced college life, Rhodes wants to see what the noise is all about with the independent up-and-comers. Iron sharpens iron, and Rhodes will assuredly improve those he works with- but he’ll likely improve not only because of his hunger but also because of the variety of talented opponents to work with.

Evolve is a fitting name for Rhodes’ first show, as it’s exactly what he is looking to do as a wrestler. 

His first challenge is Zack Sabre, Jr. at Evolve 66 Friday night in Joppa, Maryland.

“He’s not a great technical wrestler. He’s a great wrestler,” said Cody.

With a burgeoning acting career being kicked off with an appearance on season five of Arrow, Rhodes is making the most of his opportunities. But the greatest opportunity isn’t the money and the fame. No, it’s simply for a star in his prime to prove himself on a new stage of a sport he loves.

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