The oft used quote that those who don’t learn from their history are only doomed to repeat it seems particularly apt in Xinjiang right now. The Tigers, forever looking to win their first ever CBA title, once again broke out the checkbook early on in the year to build up star-studded line-up. Liu Wei, Cao Fei, Zhou Qi, Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche all arrived at the start of the year and yet the team is 9-4 when they were expecting to be 13-0. The reality is that in the industrial city of Urumqi, it is title or bust and their constantly anxious fan base is now once again calling for something to be done to get the team back on track.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. In 2011, during the NBA lock out, the Tigers brought in Kenyon Martin and Patty Mills as well as Bob Donewald, then the Chinese national team coach to create a seemingly unstoppable team. Yet within nine games, an uncertain start had fans beginning to heckle Donewald whilst it became clear that Martin was the wrong kind of player for the team. A couple of games later, Donewald was gone and a short while later, so was Martin and Mills. A disoriented Xinjiang made the play-offs regardless but walked right into the defending champions Guangdong, who swept them in the play-off semi-finals with ease.
As was the case then, it is now. Sun Guangxin, one of the world’s richest men and an owner who has consistently spent huge sums of money to try to make his team China’s best, is seemingly unhappy. As a result, the axe is now looming for more than one prominent current member of the Tigers. Jordan Crawford, who has only played five games and been struggling with eye injuries sounds like he is the first out the door. Crawford’s stop-gap replacement Stephon Bonneau, who no-one in China had ever heard of and had spent most of his pro career playing in Canada (and not for the Raptors) will probably also leave. Reports in America suggest Sebastian Telfair, who did well for Tianjin and scored 53 points in a play-off game that season is in the mix to come in to replace Crawford.
It is rumored that the Tigers coach will also clear his desk. Gao Minshu, in his first year with the team is supposedly done and will be replaced the team’s old coach Cai Wenjun- who Sina Sports was suggesting was on a plane to Xinjiang province as they went to print with their article. Cai led the team to the CBA finals last year before they lost in six games to Stephon Marbury and the Beijing Ducks.
All of this upheaval is classic Xinjiang and as speculated upon in the preseason rankings, the biggest regular season obstacle to the Tigers would be their own expectations. That has rung true and after almost the same number of games as the 2011 implosion, the 2014 vintage looks to be just as insane. Adding to the sense of doom is the Tigers’ upcoming game against the Ducks in Urumqi tomorrow. Lose tomorrow and a lot of people connected to Xinjiang should probably start updating their resumes.
Amazingly though, things didn’t have to be this way. Crawford’s injury could not have been predicted but the Tigers already had a solid and proven CBA weapon in the form of Lester Hudson. The combo guard was last year’s regular season MVP and a huge part of Xinjiang making it to the finals. Instead, the allure of getting a known NBA player onto the team seemed too much to resist and the team waived its right to resign Hudson, who promptly went to the Liaoning Jaguars. Still struggling to believe their luck, Liaoning are now 13-0 and top of the league whilst Hudson remains one of the league’s best players and put up huge shot after huge shot in Liaoning’s unexpected 112-111 road win three weeks ago. It was a classic ‘f-you’ game from the former Cleveland guard but once again, all of this is on Xinjiang for looking lustfully at an NBA name rather than a proven CBA commodity.
As it stands, Guo and Crawford will probably be the only big casualties for now. Andray Blatch is playing out of his mind, averaging 31.7 points, 15.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Zhou Qi has also been solid as a bouncy rip protector and Tang Zhendong will eventually return to full fitness to give the Tigers that impressive front court everyone was salivating about in the summer. Offensively, the team is pretty decent with Blatch, Zhou, Liu Wei, Xirelijan and Korambek all averaging double figures in scoring. But consistency is big a problem as the roster adjusts to several new starters. How exactly the situation will be helped changing the coach and bringing in another new player is unclear but welcome to Chinese basketball, folks.
So to return to the matter at hand; Xinjiang are once again on the verge of blowing everything up. It won’t be pretty and it probably won’t work. Just like it didn’t in 2011.