A few days ago, I took part in a web-chat with two of the best English-language basketball writers in China - Andrew Crawford, the writer Shark Fin Hoops, and Jon Pastuzek, the man behind NiuBball. This was the first time that I have participated in a webchat with them, and as a relative newcomer to Chinese hoops, it served as an important introductory conversation. The chat was first published on Shark Fin Hoops.
The Chinese basketball season is about a month away from starting and in anticipation of this, cash has been flashed and some well-known NBA players will be plying their trade in China this season.
Karan Madhok: Well, I’m a basketball writer from India and have worked with the Basketball Federation of India, NBA.com/India, and SLAM Magazine. I keep a blog about basketball in India called ‘Hoopistani‘. I moved to China just over 3 months ago so I’m still new to the CBA and Chinese hoops.
AC: Great stuff. Do you think you’ll chose a team to follow this year or are you going to stay neutral the whole time!
KM: Oh, I’m definitely choosing the Beijing Ducks for 2 obvious reasons. 1) I live in Beijing and I’m already a fan of the city and 2) Call me crazy, but I’ve been on the Stephon Marbury bandwagon for over a decade now, following his career through its ups and downs, vaseline eating and championships. Oh and 3) The Ducks and have the coolest name in the CBA!
AC: That they do. Well, you’ve picked a fine time to arrive in the capital- I was hoping to get you on the Sharks bandwagon but alas. Since you brought up Stephon Marbury, lets neatly segway into another NBA player whose been around for a while- Tracey McGrady has signed with the Qingdao Eagles. Guys, do you think T-Mac can still do it or is this more about both sides making money off this?
KM: Well, this is definitely about the money first and foremost. Qingdao benefits, McGrady benefits, everyone’s happy. But for McGrady, I think there is still some (very) faint hope that this stint will give a him a chance in the NBA again once the CBA season ends. I don’t expect him to be a Marbury-type loyalist to basketball in China – at least not yet, anyways. Whether or not he gets a shot with the NBA again (and I’m not sure he will), McGrady will be using Qingdao for the stats and the money, and Qingdao will use McGrady for the money and the fans.
Jon Pastuszek: Obviously, money plays a big factor when these big name NBA guys sign in China. But, whereas last year there were some players making well into the seven figures, T-Mac’s contract this season is reportedly quite reasonable by CBA standards. This is more of a long-term thing for him. McGrady, a la Stephon Marbury, will aim at building his brand inside the Chinese market. He’s already hugely popular among fans and the belief is that if he can stick around and build Qingdao into a winner, he’ll become an even bigger name out here.
About his play, there’s a few questions: Can his body hold up to 30+ minutes a night? Is he explosive enough to get to the basket consistently? How is he going to handle the pressure of having to score 25 to 30 points a night?
With his height and versatility, he will find ways to effect the game beyond scoring the ball, but in the CBA, imports are expected to put the ball in the hoop… and with seven Chinese players leaving the team this off-season, including Li Gen, he won’t have much help around him to alleviate that pressure.
AC: Absolutely- the Li Gen point is crucial in my books. I know last season, Qingdao were happy to let Lester Hudson call the shots but they always had a solid Plan B in Li. Cai Liang was also a decent player for them too and he’s gone as well so it really is all about the star player this season.
After the K-Mart/Patty Mills/ Wilson Chandler drama last season, how do you think T-Mac will handle his debut year in China. Qingdao is obviously a very nice city but it certainly isn’t Orlando or Houston!
KM: I have never been to Qingdao, so it won’t be fair for me to comment on how McGrady can fit in. But I believe that if guys like JR Smith and Kenyon Martin can go to the hinterlands of China, then McGrady will be okay, too. In the end, if the money is good, he’ll be good. Plus, he’ll enjoy the type of popularity here that he has never experienced in his career. That will be worth it all.
AC: Just behind T-Mac in terms of the wow factor is probably Yi Jianlian coming back to China and playing for his home team, the Guangdong Tigers. The fact that the Tigers now have an already strong local roster that is now reinforced by getting a Chinese NBA caliber player as well as still having room to add two overseas imports has to make the favorites going into the start of the season?
KM: From what I’ve been able to gather in my short time here, it seems that Guangdong are primed to be the favourites again. The NBA imports may get all the hype but it will be the familiarity of Yi coming back to his old system that will really propel this team.
JP: I’ve almost always been a subscriber to the belief that the reigning champions come into the season as the favorites. And with a Beijing team that made a big addition themselves with Li Gen, I still think they’re the favorites.
But, Yi is obviously a massive signing for them. Not only is he an NBA-caliber seven footer, he’s one who has no playing time restrictions because he’ll be registered as a Chinese player. Yet, while he’ll be force this year, Guangdong didn’t play well in the time that he was with the team last year during the NBA lockout, and I think there will be an adjustment period as his team gets re-adjusted to playing alongside him. Having too much talent is one of those good problems, though, and I think Guangdong is certainly the odds-on-pick to get back to the Finals.
KM: This is a high risk/high reward move of course: either Arenas just shoots them out of contention or he somehow manages to play with Yi and build a championship.
JP: Like T-Mac, the issue with Gil will be his body’s ability to deal with 30+ minutes a night. If he really is healthy. like some reports have suggested, and he has some of that explosiveness he had a few years ago, he’ll be a problem for opponents. I question if this is really what Guangdong needs right now, especially with Yi coming back. Historically, this is a team that thrives when they get “system foreigners,” like Smush Parker and Lester Hudson, ones who understand that the team doesn’t need their imports to dominate offensively. Last season, they had a similar import in Aaron Brooks, and while he played very well, he struggled to run good offense and get his teammates good looks in the Finals against Beijing. Critics of this argument will say that Arenas is bigger and stronger than Brooks and will be able to effect the game in more ways than just scoring, but I don’t believe its ever been within Arenas’ nature to be a distributor. There’s a lot of potential for Guangdong to be an explosive offense, but whether the pieces fit together is something that I’m not too sure on.
AC: Have there been any other moves that have caught your eye? I really like the Hudson move to Dongguan and the Elijah Milsapp signing by my Sharks is also a nice bit of business. Millsap’s got that unknown quality to him but everyone’s excited about him in the city and he’ll hopefully provide a ton of dynamism between the 2 and 3 spots.
JP: I’m with you on Hudson, he should be a great fit with the Leopards. But I’m surprised you didn’t mention D.J. White, who if healthy is going to have a huge season in Shanghai. I like what Xinjiang has done, burying the hatchet on James Singleton and whatever beefs were there from two years ago, and bringing Von Wafer to play alongside him. I think Wafer is going to shred the nets this season and Singleton, as always, will do all of the little things in between that has made him such a good player in this league over the last three years. And I’m totally buying the culture change in Foshan: New coach, three good imports and a complete Chinese roster overhaul. Maybe they’re not a playoff team, but they’ll be much improved.
AC: I think for me, White’s NBA resume implies he’ll be a strong signing so I’m more instinctively drawn to the ‘what could be’ of Milsapp rather than the ‘what we know’ about White. This could easily be a case of preseason optimism but he’s quick and can make shots from all over the court so I’m hoping he could be Shanghai’s own Marcus Williams but time will tell on that one. Viz Foshan- any sort of culture change within that organisation can only be for the better because they’ve been nothing but mediocre for several seasons.
JP: Jiangsu needs bigs like I need jianbings in the morning, which is why they signed one of the bigger centers on the market, Garret Siler, and I’m looking into buying a jianbing skillet to put in my house. OK maybe just walking three minutes outside my house will do, but you get the point. Siler will help, but he is not a 36 minute a night kind of guy and I don’t think their Chinese are good enough to play consistently well when he’s off the court. I like Siler if he’s in shape, but I think they still are lacking in that area. I think Pooh Jeter will be solid for Shandong, but with Sui Ran already there at point guard, I’m surprised they didn’t go with a ball-handling wing. Maybe they’re committed to developing Ding Yanyuhang this season.
AC: Jianbings for life! That said, I don’t think even those delicious turnips ones I get on the corner of Wuding Lu and my apartment over in SH are going to help out Jiangsu this season. They were truly, truly bad and even my love for Meng Da’s oddness and Nanjing as a city can obscure the reality that the Dragons bouncing back to anything respectable this season is going to be tough.
Alright gents- There’ll obviously be a preview before the the first round of games starts but with the CBA season now a month away from starting, how excited are you about Chinese basketball in 2012/13?
JP: think it’s going to be a great season. For once, there’s actually some parity in the league — not just at the top of the league, but also in the middle part of the standings. Overall, I think the quality of the league top to bottom is as good as its ever been. The CBA is getting better and better every year: The level of foreign players, Chinese players and coaching continue to be on the upward. And as we saw last year during the Finals, fan interest is at an all-time high. Excited to see how it all plays out this year.
KM: I’m really excited obviously since this will be my first time to witness the action first-hand in China. The CBA is becoming one of the most-hyped leagues in the world. Of course, there can be a lot of criticisms and drawbacks of the way certain things are done here, but coming from India, the CBA model is a good one to follow to see how a league should be built and developed. This season, Yi is back, McGrady and Arenas are on board, and I live in the city of the Ducks and Marbury. What’s not to love?
AC: Indeed. I’ll gladly second Jon’s point about the upcoming season. There is so much to get excited about. For me personally, its been a massively long offseason and the sooner I get my three nights of basketball the better. Now I’ve got a season under my belt from last year, there’s a whole range of teams I want to see the Sharks crush, players I want to see crossed up and fourth quarter shoot-outs I want us to sneak out off by a point. Can’t wait. Thanks for your time guys- we’ll have to do this again before the season starts in late November