With Beijing’s Game 5 win to seal the title, the CBA is done for until October. To discuss an action packed season of Chinese basketball, its Niubball’s Jon Pastuzek and Edward Bothfeld swing by to pass judgement on the good, the bad and the ugly of what may well have been the most memorable few months in the league’s history.
AC: First things first, Beijing Ducks are the CBA champions. They led the league, then they had that slump, they needed five games to beat Shanxi- how surprised are you guys with the Ducks being the CBA champions?
EB: After getting off to such a hot start, you had to expect there would be a mid-season letdown but with the way they started the season, it showed that they were going to be one of the best teams all year long. With Shanxi, I feel like they could have taken any team to the brink of defeat because Williams and Gaines can really score the ball. The first few games against Guangdong surprised me because I expected Guangdong to win but after their Game 2 victory, it seemed that Beijing might actually be better than Guangdong.
JP: Regardless of how they started the season, I always thought it was going to be Guangdong again. Remember when Xinjiang went 31-1 last season in the regular season and people thought they were finally going to get a championship? Guangdong always plays below their level in the regular season because they know their final goal is a championship, so I never took much stock in Beijing’s hot start.
Plus, with Beijing only going seven deep, I also thought there’d be fatigue issues so to see Beijing lift the trophy was a huge surprise to me. That said, I wonder — and this to me is the big “what if” that doesn’t get raised enough — if a motivated Wilson Chandler had been playing in the playoffs, would Beijing have even made it past the first round?
EB: Jim Cleamons firmly believed, without a doubt, that if they had Wilson they would have won that series. A motivated Wilson that is. Cleamons also said that the Beijing team knew that too.
AC: That’s an interesting point which I was going to ask later but we might as well talk about now- Chandler, J. R. Smith and Kenyon Martin were the big names coming over this summer. Wilson walked out, Smith couldn’t get his team into the playoffs and K-Martin bought his contract out after half the season. When we look back at this season, did these three guys justify the hype?
EB: Wilson and J.R. were good when they wanted to be but once the lockout ended, all bets were off. Wilson really struggled once the lockout ended and he saw Kenyon board that plane back to the States so I think if the lockout had lasted a lot longer, the hype would have been justified, but the fact that Kenyon and Wilson didn’t even finish the season, I don’t think you can say they justified the hype. And J.R. Smith put up impressive numbers but when I saw him live it looked like he was goofing around the majority of the time – attempting impossible passes, etc.
JP: I think Ned is right about the impact of the NBA season resuming. All of those guys signed in China with the expectation that the NBA wouldn’t be playing, so for the lockout to end suddenly was huge. You can come out and say that it doesn’t bother you, but when you’re a free-agent who has the comforts of home and a big money contract waiting for you, of course it’s going to impact your performance. When K-Mart first got bought out, and then got his FIBA clearance, that just took things to a new level, but I think it also depends on how you interpret “hype”- even though none of those guys played in the playoffs, they helped to attract more attention to the league than ever before. Ratings and attendance were higher than ever before, so if you’re looking it at from that standpoint, I think they did live up to the hype. I’m sure their teams feel otherwise, however…
AC: Indeed. What have you guys made of less heralded names from this season? Before he got injured, I thought Ryan Forehan-Kelly was amongst the best imports in the CBA. Besides Marcus Williams (obviously), who stood out to you as an overseas guy really making a difference in the league?
JP: I’m with you on RFK; his numbers may not have jumped off the page, but he was a huge reason for Shanghai’s success before he got hurt. Having played under Panaggio and his triangle offense, in the D-League, he was a big part of their success in integrating that offense in Shanghai. Not only that, he was their best clutch performer and was their most versatile perimeter defender. Just from a fan standpoint, it was sad to see him get hurt. Other guys who stood out: I’ve always been a big James Singleton guy, I just like his unselfishness and how he’s commited to winning. Will McDonald in Fujian was also great to watch, he’s one of the most skilled bigs to come into this league in a while and I hope he’ll be back next year.
AC: I am a big Zaid Abbas fan. After watching him live, I really have an appreciation for all the little things he does; his hustle, his determination, his shit talking- I want him on my team, and as we’ve seen, every team he goes to starts doing really well. He’s a winner.
JP: Would either of you sign him as a regular, non-Asian import though?
AC: Personally speaking, I would- either him or Singleton would be perfect for Coach Panaggio’s setup. I know they are talking about scrapping the Asian import but regardless, he’s a proven player. I’d be delighted to see him pitch up Shanghai- the Yuanshen would go nuts for him.
EB: Another guy I liked besides Abbas was Lester Hudson. I realize he hoisted a ton of shots but he was all over the place, getting steals, rebounds, etc- and after talking with him after his game against Guangsha, it seemed like his head was really in the right place and that he was dedicated to winning as a team and becoming a better player personally.
AC: Okay then, lets move on- which Chinese player(s) really stood out for you? I know he flew under the radar because he plays for a terrible team in Tianjin but Zhang Nan looked like a tidy player in the forward posistion. Han Dejun looks like he could be a monster with the right coaching and conditioning and I’ve got to show some love for Zhang Zhaoxu who is getting better and better every game. The Sharks coaches really like him and he could well be an every night double-double guy next season.
JP: Beijing’s Zhu Yanxi was a guy who really caught my eye this season. A big part of the Ducks’ championship was their ability to spread the floor and let Marbury do his thing. Without Zhu drawing out opposing bigs, there’s no way they would have been as successful as they were. I’ve always thought China should look to produce more Euro-type big guys who can stretch the floor and shoot it from the perimeter; maybe Zhu will convince coaches of the same. I’m looking forward towards seeing him develop both on Beijing and the National Team in the years ahead. Other guys I liked this year- Han and Zhang both looked good and I also really liked Xinjiang’s Xirelijiang.
EB: For Guangsha, I felt like Wang Zirui made a lot of progress in terms of developing. At just 18 years old, he was the youngest player in the CBA. He started the season on Jim Cleamons’ bench but was the starting PG by the time the playoffs rolled around. If he continues to develop, he will be a starting caliber PG for years to come.
AC: What about Coaches? I know I’m writing from a Shanghai perspective but I have to say that the turn-around sparked by Coach Panaggio here has been impressive. What are your thoughts on guys who’ve made a big impact from the touchline?
JP: I agree about Panaggio, and I think Brian Goorjian in Dongguan also has done really well. Both overcame slow starts to make the playoffs and both made it a priority to develop their Chinese players, which is ultimately what this league should be about. Yang Xuezeng was the first coach ever to lead Shanxi to a post-season berth, so I think that has to be commended as well.
EB: Yeah, I also thought Daniel Panaggio did an excellent job with Shanghai. He preached defense and it showed. He also managed to incorporate Marcus Landry into the team’s system after Ryan Forehan-Kelly went down with the Achilles injury. Shanghai finished the 2011 season 12-20 and was ranked all the way down at fifteen on NiuBBall’s season preview. Coaching had a lot to do with their turnaround.
AC: What teams did well this season? There have been a few surprises this season but which teams really caught your eye?
EB: Qingdao and Fujian were nice surprises. I can’t say it enough- Lester Hudson is a hell of a player, although he does shoot the air out of the ball. Qingdao were fun to watch and it was good to see them have some success. As we anticipated, Fujian would get a boost due to the addition of Abbas, who was their Asian import. But I don’t think anyone saw them making the playoffs. Besides Abbas, McDonald really came on strong and played well — and if Roberson was shooting well, they really had a three headed monster. I thought they could make some noise in the playoffs, but with Roberson and Abbas battling injuries, they had no chance.
JP: You have to start with Beijing. I think a lot of people expected them to be a playoff team, but hardly anybody thought they’d be serious championship contenders. For a team to go from a periphery playoff squad to CBA champion is unheard of in this league, even more so when you consider that Beijing was among the younger teams this season. Shanghai was another team that surprised me; a new coach, a new offense, lots of young players and relatively unknown imports- I thought it was going to be a long season in Yuanshen.
AC: You’ve mentioned the improbable success of Beijing but we should also talk about the poor seasons endured by Jiangsu and Bayi- what were the critical factors in their seasons being so bad? Do you think this will be a blip or could you see these teams starting to stagnate?
JP: We all know Bayi doesn’t have any imports. Back in the late 1990s and early and mid-2000s, when the league was attracting mid to lower-level imports, that wasn’t an issue because they could contend every year knowing they had the best Chinese players. Things are a lot different now, though: First, their star player, Wang Zhizhi, is old and not nearly the player he once was. Second, the CBA is attracting better imports with every passing year, with this season’s NBA-to-China exodus clearly standing out as the best crop of foreign players in league history. So with every team around them getting better while Bayi themselves decline, it wasn’t a huge shock to see them take a dive this year. For Jiangsu, I think they missed having Tang Zhengdong in the middle. They also did a terrible job selecting their imports. Mardy Collins and Dan Gadzuric were both gone shortly after the beginning of the season. Jackson Vroman was a good pick-up, but Marcus Williams (the UConn one) was without a doubt the worst foreigner in the league this season.
EB: With Jiangsu, I thought the problem was with Williams. He looked really out of shape and only averaged 11.34. That’s not going to cut it for an import. Vroman was a nice surprise, but they need an imported upgrade in their back court. As for Bayi, maybe it’s time for them to change the system. Their demise was seen eight months ago, when Jon predicted they would miss the playoffs. Wang ZhiZhi is really old — they need a new face to the franchise. When I saw them live, they played without any hint of passion.
AC: Let’s return to the players for one last time. Who have been your favorite guys to watch? For me, Osama Daghlas was a masterful point guard- he crushed Shanghai when they went away to Jilin and he’ll be another ‘Asian’ player that teams should look to sign this time next year, regardless of what the status is with imports. Mike Harris could really put on a show and should expect several suitors if he comes back to China. J.R. was also unbelievable in person and was absolutely worth the price of admission.
EB: Marcus Williams was just so efficient. I loved his game. Whether his team needed him to slow the game down by getting to the line or hit a big three, he was there for them. At times, it seemed like he would never miss! Abbas is also a blast to watch. His hustle and passion were infectious and he’s so annoying. I would hate to play against him. I was sitting first row behind the Guangsha bench and he would not stop talking shit, “Alright guys- one on five, one on five!” (in the fourth quarter when Chandler was attempting to take over”. I really hope he’s back in the CBA next season.
JP: I’ll give you three: I enjoyed watching Marbury for obvious reasons. He was able to perfectly balance his point-guard duties with his import ones, running the offense and distributing effectively for the first three quarters before taking over himself in the fourth. Shanxi’s Marcus Williams was fun to watch, he’s pretty much able to get whatever he wants on offense and looks very smooth while getting it. And last, Liaoning’s Guo Ailun. I’ve always been a fan of Guo, he doesn’t play the point guard position like a typical Chinese, he’s very vocal, energetic and enthusiastic. Plus he can be a beast out of pick-and-roll. All of that is fun to watch, even if he’s bricking jumpers and turning the ball over.
AC: Final question then- what has been the highlight and lowlight to your CBA season? I’ll take any of the big results Shanghai got against Guangsha, Xinjiang, Beijing, or Zhejiang for the former and the latter will probably be losing both home games in that Shanxi playoff.
JP: The highlight of the season was being a part of the 18,000 fans who filled up Wukesong Arena to watch Games 1, 4 and 5 of Beijing – Guangdong. As for the low point of the year, I think it’s a tie between Shanxi fans’ behavior during and after Game 4 of the semi-finals and Li Chunjiang ordering his players to sweep the leg and injure someone.
EB: The highlight of the season was watching Jin Lipeng hit the buzzer beater against Shanxi. It was a game that the Lions should have won, but gave away their lead at the end of the game…. until Jin came up huge. The lowlight has to be watching Wilson Chandler and the rest of the Lions team mailing it in during some games. It was so frustrating to watch. Against Bayi, with the playoffs on the line, they showed no sense of urgency. Just thinking about what could have been if Chandler and the Lions had remained motivated. I think that once Chandler had checked out, so did his teammates.