Among the things that most confuse long-established American players in the Chinese Basketball Association is the reluctance of local players to take advantage of their free agency. In the CBA, contracts have expiration dates like you would see in the NBA but its still extremely rare to see a high profile player move teams. Lesser known Chinese players will of course switch teams but that is more because their current employer has no interest on offering them a new deal.
Chinese players tend to sign long term contracts whilst American players generally only sign deals that last for one season at a time. Typically the structure is designed to ensure the latter are a free agent as soon as they finish their last competitive game for that CBA team (some American players have been known to jump on a plane within twenty-four hours of their last obligated appearance for their Chinese team). There are obviously some exceptions; Beijing have Stephon Marbury and Randolph Morris signed to long term deals as does Dongguan with Bobby Brown but those players will demand the very big bucks for their loyalty- an obligation many CBA teams are unwilling or unable to accommodate. Moreover, most overseas players insist on doing one season deals so they can duly go off and try to make an NBA roster or play in other short season leagues like Puerto Rico or Venezuela and still have time to enroll in the D-League or go back to China in the fall. It would imply then that the key to building a successful team for the long term would be to aggressively chase high end Chinese free agents and simply slot in Americans to fill in the gaps. This though never seems to happen.
Depending on who you talk to, there are many reasons for this, mostly involving the players’ own long term financial or lifestyle concerns. For starters, because there is no draft system, its possible for a player to be discovered by his hometown team, brought in through the system and play his entire professional career without ever having to move away from family and friends. Exhibit A for this would be Liaoning’s Han Dejun, a center once seen as China’s best prospect for the NBA since Yi Jianlian (and some would say before that). Han, dubbed ‘the Flying Pig’ by some Chinese fans, instead rejected all opportunities to leave his native province and wrapped in this comfort blanket has done little other than get progressively fatter as the years go by. Others point out the complicated and shadowy contractual arrangements that exist within the CBA and other sports leagues within China disincentivizes players from moving. It could also be argued that in a league where teams are routinely take to court for not paying their employees, its safer to stick with the team that pays you on time.
However, not all CBA teams are put off by this player hesitancy. Located out into the far west of the country, the Xinjiang Tigers are a rarity in China; namely a team willing to wade into the Chinese free agency market time and time again.
The reasons for this are relatively simple. The first is that the Tigers, based in the isolated, vastly polluted city of Urumqi, have to pay top dollar anyway if they are to bring anyone to their franchise. The second is that they are own by one of China’s richest men, Sun Guangxin, a billionaire entrepreneur with a keen interest in bringing a title to his home province. In the last six years, Xinjiang have made the CBA finals four times but lost in each appearance.
Xinjiang’s willingness to roll their sleeves up and do whatever it takes to get big name Chinese free agents are well known. In 2011, they waded into the Byzantine world of CBA front office politics and gave the Jiangsu Dragons close to $1 million to take over the contract of Tang Zhengdong, a highly regarded Chinese big man. In 2013, the Tigers then offered to make Shanghai Sharks’ center Zhang Zhaoxu, then an upcoming free agent, the best paid player in the league. Zhang, a limited offensive player but whose 7″3 frame and lanky athleticism made him a decent rim protector, was seen as a project and absolutely not worth such an offer. Zhang eventually resigned in Shanghai but Xinjiang’s willingness to throw money around was becoming a concern for front offices all over the league.
This year though, the Tigers have outdone themselves in the high stakes free agency battle. Firstly, the Tigers signed Liu Wei, the longstanding captain of the Shanghai Sharks to a three year deal that stunned Chinese basketball. Liu, who was an institution in Shanghai, played for sixteen seasons with the team and was a childhood friend of current Sharks owner Yao Ming. It was a classic overpay for an injury prone thirty-four year old point guard but Xinjiang doesn’t seem to care. Liu, though somewhat over the hill, is a proven operator at the CBA level and still a top five Chinese point guard that can still be penciled in for twenty-five minutes plus a night.
Another headline baiting move was the acquisition from Liaoning of Zhou Qi, who along with Wang Zhelin and Li Muhao, is seen as one of China’s best big men prospects for the future. Zhou, then aged seventeen, was technically an amateur under CBA rules, allowing Xinjiang to offer him a lucrative three-year contract. The terms of the deal meant Zhou became one of the best paid Chinese players in the league before he had even played a professional game.
There is method behind the madness though. Simply put, the team with a stronger Chinese roster will ultimately win against teams relying on one or two Americans. By trying to dominate the Chinese free agent market and hoard promising or proven CBA players, Xinjiang are trying to buy themselves the advantage that ultimately leads to a championship. It may well also come in handy if rumors are to be believed and that the CBA might be changing its rules on how many foreigners can play in the second half of a CBA game (currently its two but this could change to one).
Money talks in China, and for better or worse, Xinjiang are using it to have their voice heard all across the CBA. Forever the bridesmaids of Chinese basketball, it may well be the case that their new found commitment to spending big on local guys eventually brings about the ultimate reward.