Let’s Rock

These are the obstacles preventing a Roughnecks revival in The Rock’s XFL

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There's a lot that doesn't add up to the headline "The Rock Buys XFL for $15 Million."
First, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson certainly is the headliner, the pitchman, the slot machine that Vegas casinos put by the front door, but he's just part of a group that, pending approval by a bankruptcy judge, is purchasing the snake-bit football league created and paid for by pro wrestling mastermind Vince McMahon.
Joining The Rock in the ownership combine are his ex-wife and still business partner Dany Garcia and an investment group called RedBird Capital Partners. RedBird reportedly is sitting on $4 billion of funds, so $15 million is mere peanuts - which the XFL won't be able to sell at concession stands if the league plays without fans in 2021.
Absolutely $15 million is big bucks, and spending it on the XFL 3.0 could involve lots of whammies. Like lawsuits, bill collectors, a cursed brand and suspicious fans who've been burnt two times by the league.
First, why would anybody buy a proven flop? The original XFL played its one and only season in 2001. Faced with dwindling TV ratings and uncertainty that networks were interested in a second season, McMahon pulled the plug. McMahon brought back the XFL 2.0 this year. Just like 2001, the first week's TV ratings were good but quickly spiraled downward. XFL 2.0 played only five games in 2020 before suspending its season in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, In April, despite pouring $200 million of his own money into the XFL, McMahon announced the league was done. The XFL 2.0 declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and terminated all of its employees, including commissioner Oliver Luck, who is now suing McMahon for wrongful termination.
Let the record show that the Houston Roughnecks were undefeated with a 5-0 record, in sole first place of the XFL's western division. The Roughnecks' future is up in the air, but they were the league's glamour team and could be rarin' to go in 2021. But like everything else with the XFL, there's a big "if" attached. For example, the University of Houston wants a big chunk of the XFL sale, $800,000, for hosting Roughnecks games last season. Also, the players were officially terminated, the quarterback has signed with the NFL. It may be difficult to get the band back together.
The XFL brand's baggage certainly wouldn't fit in an overhead compartment. If The Rock, Dany Garcia and RedBird wanted to start an alternative football league, wouldn't it be easier, for sure cheaper, to start their own league, with a new name, from scratch?
I'm also not buying that The Rock is buying the XFL. Celebrities, and The Rock is the world's highest-paid actor ($87 million last year), usually don't put up their own money for companies that brandish their name for publicity. In 1989, tennis legend Bjorn Borg declared personal bankruptcy after his sporting goods stores closed. Financial commentators were shocked to discover that Borg had invested his own money in the venture. Baseball great Pete Rose was smarter. In 2016, Rose was in Houston to announce the first of what would be many Pete Rose Hit King Academies across America, where kids would learn to play the game "the right way," like Rose did. There was a whispered doubt that anything involving Rose would be "the right way," and the facility closed a year later. Investors lost their money, but Rose came out smelling like his last name. He was paid up front for use of his name. He invested nothing.
Garcia, announcing the purchase of the XFL, told ESPN that she contacted The Rock right after McMahon threw his league into bankruptcy. She told her ex-husband, "We have something really important to do." She added, "We do sports. We do entertainment. If you look at our resumes, everything points to this moment and opportunity for us, to work with these athletes and build this brand."
So if we smell what The Rock is cooking, this could be the strategy behind buying the XFL. We always hear, for a sports league to survive, it must have rock-solid TV exposure. Who better to get networks and cable onboard with lucrative, long-term deals? The Rock is the most bankable movie star going. He owns and hosts the Titan Games on NBC. He has relationships with FOX and USA cable. While networks may have cast a wary eye on McMahon and his crazy pro wrestling schemes, everybody loves and respects The Rock. TV will want to get in The Rock business.
The almighty NFL has withstood the challenge of alternative leagues for the past 50 years. They come, they fail, they vanish. But what if the NFL is thinking, we could use a minor league like baseball, or a developmental league like basketball? Instead of draft picks and free agents sitting on the bench, or biding time on practice rosters for one or two seasons, wouldn't they gain more from actual games in an NFL-affiliated rookie league owned by one of the most influential people on the planet?
Is The Rock connected? Uh, yeah. In 2011, he was first to let the world know that Osama bin Laden was captured and killed. He tweeted, "Just got word that will shock the world - Land of the free ... home of the brave, DAMN PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN." He wouldn't reveal who gave him the "word," but he later told Movietone, "I got friends in high places. The individuals who were there were proud to let me know. I knew the president was going to give his speech."
As for his own political ambitions, unlike his wrestling career, The Rock doesn't pull any punches: "Right now the best way I can impact the world is through entertainment. One day, and that day will come, I can impact the world through politics. The great news is that I am American, therefore I can become president."
President? That's almost as powerful as NFL commissioner.

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Here's what to make of the Rockets free agency moves. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No NBA team with title aspirations entered the offseason with more questions than the Houston Rockets. Ironically, Houston's situation got more precarious as the offseason went along. From head coach Mike D'Antoni walking away after the season to general manager Daryl Morey following suit shortly after that, the Rockets have been a sinking ship in desperate need of stability. They found some of that once new head coach Stephen Silas was hired, but the boat took on more water when star players James Harden and Russell Westbrook demanded to be traded a couple of weeks later.

It's been a giant roller coaster and it was unclear how Houston would approach their free agency. Would they double down on contending for a championship to try and convince their star players to stay or would they be forced to rebuild?

It looks like Houston tried to thread the needle and accomplish both: They appear ready to rebuild if they can't convince James Harden to stay, but also addressed roster needs and acquired better fitting pieces for their stars. It's hard to say whether or not they got better, but they're certainly a lot younger and look to play a lot different. Let's take a look at each player and how they fit into the framework.

Christian Wood

Contract:

3 years, $41 million

Grade:

B+

If there's a signing that embodies Houston's offseason, it's Christian Wood. For obvious reasons and some subtle ones, Wood is the exact kind of player Houston had to acquire this summer. Let's start with the obvious: Wood is the perfect player to have alongside both James Harden and Russell Westbrook because of his unique set of skills. Wood can hit threes at a high clip for someone his size (36.8% for his career) and stretches the floor for the moments you want Russell Westbrook barreling to the rim or James Harden trying to break a trap.

Lob threat

The Rockets didn't have a big man with that capability on the roster last year, so they had to resort to trading for Robert Covington and going small so they could properly space the floor. However, in doing that the Rockets lost their best lob threat and limited themselves on offense even further. This is where Wood solves the second problem: He may not be as good of a lob threat as Clint Capela, but he's damn close.

Over the past few years, the Rockets have slowly phased out pick and roll out of their offense and resorted to isolation. Part of it is because of how teams have defended the pick and roll, but part of it is also them not having the option anymore. James Harden is too good of a pick and roll ball handler for it to not be a part of the Rockets' attack. Adding more pick and roll to Houston's offense should be a priority next season, regardless of what else Silas decides to do.

Clint Capela was the perfect center for James Harden. P.J. Tucker was the perfect center for Russell Westbrook. Christian Wood is the perfect center for both.

Defensive rebounding

Another weakness Houston needed to address this offseason was their defensive rebounding (26th in NBA last season). It got to the point where it was a rarity that Houston would win the rebounding battle against good teams. This was partly by design and partly because of roster weakness. Houston was so porous at rebounding in the beginning of the season, they decided to emphasize turning over opponents to even the possession battle. If Houston were to even marginally improve in defensive rebounding, it could have a drastic positive impact on their defense.

Per 36 minutes:

22.0 PPG

10.6 RPG

1.5 BPG

65.9% True Shooting

Houston also replenished their coffers in the process of acquiring Wood. By flipping Robert Covington to the Blazers, the Rockets netted two draft picks back after losing two the prior offseason in the Westbrook trade. It may not matter in the grand scheme of next season, but these assets could be especially useful if Houston pivots to a rebuild. They could also be useful to upgrade the roster at the trade deadline if Houston gets Harden's buy-in. (As an aside, the series of transactions that led to Wood are impressive and reflect well on new GM Rafael Stone's ability to get deals done.)

The subtle reason Wood embodies their offseason is his age, 25 years old. Wood would immediately become the youngest starter on the team and be a building block piece on the next iteration of the Rockets. He's also old enough to make an immediate impact should Houston acquire a ready-made blue chip prospect in a James Harden trade. With the 76ers rumored to be a team interested in Harden's services, it probably isn't a coincidence that Ben Simmons (24 years old) falls neatly into Wood's age group. It also probably isn't a coincidence that the ideal team for Simmons has always been imagined to be a team that can spread the floor at the four other positions on the court. Having Wood is great start to try and accomplish that.

David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, and Jae'Sean Tate

Contracts:

Negligible

Grade:

B-

Nwaba, Brown, and Tate are all being placed in one category because it's quite clear what the Rockets are trying to accomplish: Take bets on young, cheap wings on the market and hope one pans out enough to make the final rotation for Stephen Silas.

While David Nwaba technically wasn't signed this offseason, he's essentially a free agency signing because the Rockets signed him up a few months ago with the knowledge he wouldn't be able to play in the first year of his deal. He's the oldest of this group (27 years old), has the largest wingspan (7'0"), and has logged the most NBA minutes (3295). Because of all this, he's probably the safest bet to make Houston's final rotation. However, just because he's the 'safest bet' doesn't mean he's a 'safe bet' per se.

Nwaba suffered a season-ending achilles injury on December 9th of last season and has spent the past year rehabbing. It's unclear how he will respond from this, but before the injury, Nwaba had found a nice role in Brooklyn as a combo forward who could shoot well enough from beyond the perimeter (34.4% for his career). The Rockets have desperately needed competent perimeter defenders off the bench since their 2017-18 campaign and a healthy Nwaba was just that.

Sterling Brown, 24, found his way on the fringes of the Bucks' rotation the past few seasons and gained the trust of head coach Mike Budenholzer enough to play nearly 15 minutes a game. Brown is a pesky defender and average three-point shooter (34.5% for his career) and like the other wings in this category, he doesn't need the ball. He's probably the second most proven wing here and if he cracks the rotation, it's unlikely he will have to play more than he did in Milwaukee.

Jae'Sean Tate, 25, is probably the most intriguing prospect of this bunch as he's never played in the NBA before. Tate played under new Rockets assistant coach Will Weaver on the Sidney Kings and averaged 16.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists on 66.0% shooting from the field last season while earning first-team All-NBL honors. He's 6'4" with a 6'8" wingspan and was considered to be one of the top basketball prospects outside the NBA before signing with Houston. The Rockets appear to be quite high on him considering they used part of their mid-level exception to sign him to a three-year deal.

The Rockets already have much of their rotation locked in:

James Harden and Russell Westbrook will likely play at least 35 minutes a piece, P.J. Tucker will probably play around 32 minutes, and finally Danuel House and Christian Wood will likely play around 30 minutes each. That leaves 78 minutes for a bench that already has Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore. Also, Houston will probably sign another center before the season starts. Now, the Rockets may try to ease the load off of some of their older starters, in which case there might be more time available. However, whatever way you slice it, they really only need one of these wings to crack the rotation for regular season purposes.

It's unlikely all three signings end up backfiring for them, but we'll see. Stranger things have happened.

It's also convenient that all three of these players are 27 years or younger should the Rockets decide to trade Harden at the trade deadline. Like Wood, these signings give Houston the option to pivot in another direction. Because of Houston's lack of room under the apron, they didn't have the option to use their full mid-level or bi-annual exception. Ring-chaser types also weren't going to sign with the Rockets for the minimum given the uncertainty surrounding their stars. This was a nice way for Houston to hedge their bets while also filling out the roster with possible contributors.

The Rockets aren't done making moves yet, but they're close. Understanding the circumstances, it's hard to be too critical of what they did in free agency.

Overall Grade: B

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