Hardwood and Hollywood

Sonny Says … Let Me Save The WWE!

After a two month hiatus, I’m back with a brand new edition of my Sonny Says mailbag. All questions came from friends and family members, and I could always use more questions to answer. So if you have anything sports or pop culture related that you want an answer to, find a way to get it to me!

Tyler – “Now that WrestleMania has come and gone, what are your thoughts and takeaways from the whole show?”  

This question came in the day after WrestleMania 33, but I actually feel better-equipped to answer it now than I did back in April. It’s generally difficult to judge the weight of a particular WrestleMania in the moment, unless it’s one that is truly memorable. In the 21st Century, WrestleMania’s 17, 18, 25, 28 and 30 are the best examples of “truly memorable” WrestleMania’s, though there is no set criteria established that determines what would give a WrestleMania this distinction. In my opinion however, this annual event accomplish three things, and if those three things are checked off at the end of the night, then it likely belongs in the pay-per-view pantheon … It should produce a number of high-quality matches, it should create a handful of memorable moments, and it should leave fans feeling like WWE is in a good position moving forward.

WrestleMania 33 didn’t really accomplish any of those things (save for The Undertaker’s emotional and mostly well-executed farewell), and that’s actually a pretty remarkable failure considering how effectively WWE has been able to pillage all of their industry competitors to create a roster that is totally and indisputably stacked from top to bottom. WWE hasn’t been able to capitalize on this influx of talent because of the same two essential problems that have haunted the company for years now. First, WWE continues to rely too heavily on part-timers and guys who were past their prime. I mean, three of the four guys competing in the two biggest matches at WrestleMania 33 were The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar and Bill Fucking Goldberg. That’s a serious issue. The Undertaker first main evented a WrestleMania in 1997. Brock Lesnar first main evented a WrestleMania in 2003. Bill Goldberg never main evented a WrestleMania because he peaked in WCW when I was a Kindergartner. Why are they all still so relevant in 2017?

This goes hand-in-hand with WWE’s other problem, one that I find even more offensive: the writing over the last few years has been so incredibly lazy and uninspired that it makes WWE programming really difficult to watch on a regular basis. Once upon a time, WWE told intriguing, creative and out of the box stories, in both the short and long term, that made Monday Night Raw and Smackdown must watch television each week. For the last ten years they’ve only occasionally been able to re-capture this sort of magic … the summer of CM Punk, the entire run of The Shield and the Wyatt Family, the Yes Movement, Kevin Owens’ main roster debut, etc.. It used to be that WWE was able to get through periods with lesser talent because their writing team was able to maximize each and every guy on the roster. Now the opposite is true.

That’s why I would like to officially announce my candidacy to join and lead WWE’s creative team. I’ve twice applied to this job through WWE’s career page, but there is a complete lack of television writing or production experience on my resume, so I imagine I’ve been altogether ignored. But here’s my question: why are we putting the job of developing wrestling storylines in the hands of people who used to write sitcoms? Wrestling is at it’s worst when it feels over-scripted, so let’s take the power out of the hands of the script-writers. The job of WWE’s creative team is probably easier said than done, but with that said, it seems like the current crew is ignoring the basics of the job description, and as a result, TV ratings are lower than they ever have been before.

First and foremost, WWE has to listen to the crowd. Steve Austin became the face of the Attitude Era largely because fans went ape shit after his “Austin 3:16” victory speech at the 1996 King of the Ring. If WWE hadn’t listened to Daniel Bryan’s “Yes Movement” WrestleMania 30 would have concluded with a truly horrendous Randy Orton/Batista main event. Instead WrestleMania 30 wrapped with the most electric crowd frenzy in the events history. 95 percent of the time the fans will tell you who the biggest star in the company is.

Second, play to the strengths of your talent. Don’t force guys go outside of their comfort zone if they aren’t ready, and don’t neuter superstars who are capable of reaching ridiculous heights. Here’s a good example … Roman Reigns is one of the best guys in the WWE, but he shouldn’t be cutting lengthy promos, regardless of how bad the higher-ups wants him to be “the guy” in the company. Reigns is a badass who puts on better matches than fans will ever give him credit for. My guess is that the mixed reactions towards Reigns are in response to his subpar mic work and a push that was a little too predictable and not totally deserved. WWE tried to make Reigns something he wasn’t ready to be and they still are, and that’s the biggest reason why he isn’t as over with the fans as they hoped he would be.

Third, keep viewers on their toes. As is the case with any other television program or sporting event, people want to be entertained and they want to be surprised. Now there have been times when WWE actually took the idea of “keeping viewers on their toes” — like when Vince McMahon’s limousine exploded and he was supposedly dead, or when Triple H revealed that Kane was a murderer — but there have also been some well-executed swerves that worked out as expected. Like when The Rock made an unexpected heel turn and joined The Corporation at Survivor Series 1998, or when CM Punk defeated John Cena at Money In The Bank 2011, or when The Undertaker was defeated at WrestleMania for the first time (the problem with this was that it wasn’t to CM Punk at WrestleMania 29 or Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 31, but instead to Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 30).

Fourth, you need to make everything seem like it matters. About a week ago I was watching a random episode of Monday Night Raw from 2003 on the WWE Network, and every match, every segment, felt like it meant something. In fairness, much of this had to do with Jim Ross, the greatest pro wrestling play-by-play man ever, being able to tell a unique story for each rivalry and give every match tangible stakes, but this is still something that falls on the shoulders of the most powerful decision makers in the company. Too many segments are wasted, too much time is spent not advancing or bettering storylines, and this comes out of sheer laziness.

Last, and most critically, you need to create new young stars and allow them to flourish. This should be the easiest for WWE to accomplish due to the massive popularity of NXT, their de facto minor league feeder system, but recently WWE’s NXT call-ups haven’t had that some of the NXT originals had. It’s as if NXT stars are being pulled up to Raw and Smackdown, and the main roster writers have no clue how to use them (you’d sometimes think they aren’t even watching NXT). This shouldn’t be a huge challenge, and it shouldn’t be something WWE doesn’t prioritize just because it requires the integration of guys who aren’t the same old guys you’ve been writing for for years.

This why it is so aggravating to see Brock Lesnar and Bill Goldberg in a title match at WrestleMania. It’s like the writing team came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter if the build-up or the match itself would be shitty, it would just be one less feud they had to actually devote attention to. That slot deserves to go to younger stars who are there every night and can actually put on entertaining matches, like Reigns, Wyatt, Owens, Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura, Braun Strowman and too many others to mention by name.

One last time … I’m very available and very willing to do this job, and if I’m hired, I promise I will make WWE great again!

Jack – “I would like to know if you think Ross and Rachel were on a break.”  

I didn’t watch Friends, but I do know that if Vince Vaughn couldn’t keep Jennifer Aniston in The Break Up, David Schwimmer certainly doesn’t have a chance of holding onto her.

 Aaron – “If Warriors sweep in the Finals, where will this rank in worst NBA postseasons of all-time?”

Even though the Warriors didn’t sweep in the Finals, they still came damn close (and damn close to sweeping the entire NBA Playoffs), so I felt like this was a question worth answering, especially since the general consensus is that, while the Golden State Warriors were utterly dominant and are without a doubt worthy champions, they were also the main reason why the 2017 NBA Playoffs, for lack of a better word, sucked. For the record, I don’t agree with either assertion. I don’t agree that the Playoffs sucked, and I don’t believe that the Warriors did anything to harm the overall quality of the postseason as a whole or the NBA in general. I guess my vantage point is just different than others.

If we’re looking only at the level of competitiveness, or lack thereof, then yes, the 2017 postseason was indeed one of the worst in recent memory. Eight of the fifteen series were either sweeps or finished in five games, and the two teams that were pre-ordained to meet in an NBA Finals three-match, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, both made it a habit to beat the cavities out of the mouths of their opponents for a month and a half on the way there. Still, I would be inclined to look elsewhere to find the “worst NBA postseason of all-time.”

My counterargument to anyone who is suggesting that this is the worst NBA postseason of all-time would be that we shouldn’t be quick to forget about the overall quality of play when we’re evaluating the quality of an entire NBA postseason. Since the league switched to a best of seven format in Round 1 in 2003, we’ve seen four postseasons where at least eight series were either sweeps or ended in five games (2017, 2011, 2007, 2004). My point is this: I would argue that the game of basketball is in a better place now than it was in 2004 (or 2007, or 2011).

The talent in the league as a whole is superior now compared to any of those three other years, and stylistically the game is more enjoyable now to where it was in 2004, when the league was still stuck playing the type of ugly basketball that led to games with final scores in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I’m not even shitting ya … the average score of the winning team in six game Eastern Conference Finals series between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers was 78.3 points. Yeah, I’m talking about that Pistons squad that Rasheed Wallace said would “destroy” the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors. Did you know during their 23 game Playoff run in 2004, the Pistons scored 100 or more points only one more time (four) than they scored fewer than 70 points? Again, I’m not shitting ya.

This isn’t to say I’m not a fan of a greater number of more competitive games. If I could have signed up for a longer series between the Warriors and a healthy version of the San Antonio Spurs, I absolutely would have. Same goes for an NBA Finals match-up that went beyond five games (and ideally saw the Cavaliers wining). The two series that did go to Game 7 (Los Angeles/Utah and Boston/Washington) were both delightfully entertaining because of the intense level of competition and the degree of competitiveness throughout. Just because there was a lack of competitive series’ and very few surprises along the way, it doesn’t mean the Playoffs were bad, and it definitely doesn’t mean the league is in bad shape. The NBA is just fine, despite the noise coming from those with take a contrary position.

Collin – “Does Dennis Rodman negotiating with North Korea help or hurt America’s chances of increased diplomatic relations with them?” 

I typically prefer to stay away from politics in my writing, and not because I’m afraid of offending people; I’ve openly argued that LeBron James is a better basketball player than Michael Jordan, so therefore I’m no stranger to taking a position that might piss some people off. I choose to keep away from politics because I believe the two-party system does nothing but create a schism among the people in our country, and call me wacky, but that seems counterproductive since we are living in the United States of America. That’s right, I made the decision to put “United” in bold, italics and I underlined it just to get the point across that we, as a country, are supposed to be united, and the two groups of crooked individuals who, for the most part, control our country are doing everything they can to divide us.

Anyway, the three major players we’re dealing with are Dennis Rodman, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump … so no, I don’t see things getting better anytime soon. That doesn’t mean we can’t keep our fingers crossed though.

Pauley – “Who would you start your team with if your choices were James Harden, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook?” 

This was another question I received back in April, and it’s probably for the best that I didn’t have the opportunity to answer it right away. Had I decided to give my answer two months ago it would have been incorrect. Sure, it’s just my opinion, but contrary to popular belief, not all opinions are correct. I’m just as guilty as most people are of having forgotten about how damn good Kevin Durant was and still is.

It’s actually pretty easy to piece together how it happened; when Durant got hurt and missed the majority of the 2014-15 season, Russell Westbrook gave us a two month glimpse of what we didn’t realize was just a year and a half away. Westbrook was so polarizing and so confusingly ball-dominant that it led to all of those “Well what would happen if Oklahoma City just built their team around Westbrook” stories that were, in reality, premature and pretty foolish considering the question at the heart of it was, at it’s simplest, “Would Oklahoma City be better off if they had one of the five best players in the NBA, or two of the five best players in the NBA?”

Durant came back for the 2015-16 season and was 95% as good as he was before he missed 55 games the season prior. Meanwhile, Westbrook continued getting better and continued to pile up Triple Doubles. Now more than ever before, Westbrook appeared to be at least Durant’s equal; for two consecutive seasons, Westbrook finished higher in the MVP voting than Durant did. The same silly questions were still being asked during the 15-16 season, and the noise was louder now because Durant was just months away from Free Agency. You know how the rest of this plays out, right? Oklahoma City jumps out to a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals against the 73-win Golden State Warriors, the Warriors come back and then blow a 3-1 lead of their own in the NBA Finals (that last part is my favorite part of the story).

Those two 3-1 collapses allowed Durant to take his talents to the Bay Area, joining an already loaded Warriors squad that was one win away from joining every Greatest Team of All Time conversation we will ever have. All season long the same sort of questions were being asked about Golden State: Whose team is it? Is Stephen Curry the alpha dog? Is Kevin Durant the alpha dog? Is Draymond Green secretly the alpha dog? By the time everyone came to the conclusion that this didn’t matter all that much, the Warriors had already established themselves as arguably, on paper and by way of the typically trusty eye test, the greatest professional basketball team ever assembled. Golden State coasted through the regular season, steamrolled their way past four postseason opponents and won an NBA Title that was way closer to a sure-thing than most fans ever realized.

By now you’re probably asking yourself, “What does the chronology of events have to do with your choice of Kevin Durant?” I’m glad you’re still with me. I broke down everything that happened because all of it was nothing more than a distraction from the fact that Durant will go down as one of the best basketball players ever. And I swear to you, this isn’t a prisoner of the moment just pick because Durant won the Finals MVP … we all collectively made the mistake of forgetting that Durant was the most talented, the most dominant and the most easily adaptable of a former Thunder trio that somehow made only one NBA Finals appearance together.

Kevin Durant started his career as a “too skinny” 7-foot shooting guard, and he just wrapped up a captivating Finals series where he was unleashed as a devastating two-way small-ball Center in crunch-time. It absolutely boggles the mind how great KD is at the game of basketball, and I say that with no disrespect to Westbrook and Harden, my top two MVP candidates this season and two of the six best players in the league. The choice to Pauley’s question is, as a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, unfortunately clear though … it’s the reigning Finals MVP.

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Sonny Giuliano

Contributor at Hardwood and Hollywood
I'm a wanna-be NBA historian, the pride of Elba, New York and the greatest racket sport player you'll ever meet. I write about the NBA, NFL, WWE and other relevant pop culture topics as well. My parents taught me never to talk to strangers, but if you ever want to engage in a friendly sports debate, you can follow or harass me on Twitter @SonnyCG.

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