The ongoing NBA lockout has understandably been a massive coup to other basketball leagues around the world, who have invited a number of its currently unpaid players for a spot of moonlighting in a variety of interesting locations. Deron Williams is in Turkey, Tony Parker and Rudy Fernandez are turning up for teams in their native France and Spain, and players from the basketball’s most lucrative league can be found plying their trade in Israel, Russia, Brazil, Poland, South Korea, Slovenia, Serbia, Lithuania and Montenegro to name but a few.
China has also got in on the act but with a crucial difference. Though the NBA lock-out allows for players to play for other teams, the majority of the players playing overseas have opt-out clauses in these invariably year-long contracts that will allow them to return to the NBA if and when the labour dispute ends. China on the other hand is taking a firm line with teams in the CBA reaching out to NBA players, insisting that only free agents can be signed, all of whom will be expected to fulfill the duration of their CBA contracts.
This caveat has not slowed CBA teams making deals with a variety of close-to-household names and the depth of new talent arriving into the Chinese league remains impressive;
Foshan Dragons – Gerald Greene
Jiangsu Dragons- Dan Gadzuric
Jilin Tigers- Cartier Martin
Liaoning Dinosaurs- Josh Powell and Jermaine Martin
Xingiang Guanghui- Kenyon Martin
Zhejiang Golden Bulls- J.R. Smith and Josh Boone
Zhejiang Lions- Wilson Chandler
Amongst the new arrivals, that include the first overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft (Kenyon Martin) and a two-time champion (Powell, albeit tentatively), all bar Jermaine Martin have play-off experience in their career and all of them played anywhere from often to continuously during the last NBA regular season. Only Kenyon Martin and Gadzuric are in their 30’s and in the cases of Smith and Chandler, are players approaching their prime. For CBA fans, who have spent last season with only the aging, broken Stephon Marberry as their sole marquee name, the NBA’s problems are Chinese basketball’s gain.
Likewise, the short term benefits for the free agents are clear to see. Though there won’t be an immediate exit route back to the NBA, what they can look forward to are regular games and the chance to develop (something Chandler has already acknowledged) whilst the rest of the NBA’s players head to Europe to play (but not too hard lest they injure themselves too close to the lockout finishing) or stagnate through inactivity. Equally important is the fact that all of the new arrivals will being paid handsomely; Zhejiang will be paying Smith a cool $3 million salary for his year in East China, Kenyon Martin will be taking home $2.65 million, whilst Chandler can expect to make somewhere between$2-$3million. By comparison, Shanghai’s presumably new starting centre, Tseng Wen-ting will be taking home $310,000 during the same time frame.
The sudden chaos in American basketball has created an unexpected bonanza for the CBA, certainly in the short-term but it remains to be seen what will happen when the 2012-2013 season rolls along.
Firstly, the CBA is still a small league where its highest-points-in-a-game record is still held by Andre Emmitt, a journeyman who played six games for Memphis in his rookie season in 2004 and has since diligently moved from weak league to weak-ish league, picking up high points per game averages in Venezuela, France and Belgium as well as China. A similarly nomadic guard, Leon Rodgers hit a record fifteen three-pointers in a game in 2008. For a country as crazy about basketball as China, its domestic league measures up poorly in comparison with its European counterparts and the arrival of out-and-out ‘big’ names will give the CBA the legitimacy that a developing league needs to improve, both in terms of marketability but also standard of play. Further along from 2011, one of the core criteria for assessing how Chinese basketball utilised this unexpected diaspora of NBA talent will be if it will still be possible for unremarkable players to score 71 points in a game, or whether the admittedly temporary arrival of top drawer talent can rubber stamp the CBA as a respectable, competitive league that can continually attract competent, talented athletes.
Secondly, the CBA will be faced with the challenge of maintaining the fan interest that will be created by the arrival of Mssrs Smith, Chandler et al once they have returned to the States. Ideally, team owners will resist the urge to raise prices for CBA matches too much this season (although you obviously can’t afford to pay someone three million dollars for thirty-two games without some gameday price raise) and find ways to keep the arenas and gymnasiums full once the current crop of stars have moved on.Whilst the CBA shouldn’t become a lucrative elephants graveyard, the idea of NBA players considering Chinese teams in free agency shouldn’t be so unusual anymore and owners, players and agents alike will no doubt be aware of the marketing potential that would come with being part of a successful Chinese team and through it, a more widely supported and attended CBA.
Ultimately, the greatest benefactors from the NBA lockout chaos should be the Chinese basketball players themselves. The arrival of players like Smith and Chandler could be a gimmick that is coyly exploited for one year and then China will return to watching basketball on their tv screens rather than live and in person. Yet it could easily be the spark that improves the CBA, the quality of players it can attract and with time, the standards of the players it produces for the NBA and the national team. The upcoming CBA season promises to be an exciting one for obvious reasons but in the long-term, it may also be one that shapes the league’s progression and ambition for a decade to come.