Far away from the world’s eyes, the Xinjiang Tigers have existed in Chinese sport as a monolith for how one should absolutely not run a professional team. Fickle, slick and shameless; if there is talent for sale, the Tigers are picking up the phone and asking how much. Now Andray Blatche has even chosen Xinjiang over the NBA. Those numbers again, folks; three years, $7.5 million and the chance to be the most prominent athlete for a thousand mile in any direction.
As I noted in an article for Vice, this move has been on the cards for a while. Playing in the CBA is attractive to a certain kind of American player; its a short season and offers the chance to put up video game numbers. The money is also pretty good, with contracts well above the NBA minimum salary. Newcomers to the CBA are looking at $600,000 for three to five months work but returning players who have shown they can handle China can expect seven figure offers.
But as Blatche’s signing has shown, Xinjiang remain the CBA team most likely to splash the cash. Under the ownership of Sun Guangxin, an enormously wealthy construction magnate, the Tigers have not lost a free agency battle in over a decade. In 2006, they signed Mengke Bateer, a former San Antonio Spur and longterm national team center to what was then the biggest deal in Chinese basketball history ($500k a season). But in the last few years, the Tigers have made an especially aggressive push to recruit top talent from America and in the last five years, Quincy Douby, Kenyon Martin, Sebastian Telfair, Von Wafer, Jordan Crawford and of course Andray Blatche have all played for Xinjiang.
The trouble is that this is not NBA2k and big names doesn’t always mean titles. Since 2002, the Tigers have made the play-offs eight times, including four trips to the Finals in the last seven years. But they have never won a title despite the incredible rosters the front office has been able to assemble. Bateer (below) was league MVP three years in a row between 2008-2011 but the Tigers lost three consecutive trips to the Finals during that time. Lester Hudson was also MVP in 2014 before Xinjiang lost to Beijing in that season’s Finals.
The elephant in the room is that the Tigers always seem to lose to a more established team. Guangdong (2008-2011) and Beijing (2014) both built their rosters up with proven local players that had been around the team for years. Xinjiang meanwhile aggressively tries to snatch other team’s best Chinese players in free agency. In every Finals, the Tigers have won a game or two only to be eventually overwhelmed. The logical answer to these problems is to gradually build up a roster that know each other’s game but Sun has never listened. Instead, he has continued to throws money at anyone who enters free agency, even if many of them are past their prime or in the case of American players, have little experience playing in China. The front office– and it is never clear if Sun is calling the shots or one of his lackeys– also have a tendency to chase the most illustrious name on the market rather than the most suitable player for the team.
Things would reach their inevitable nadir in the CBA 2014/15 season that has just recently ended. The Tigers had just been to the 2013/14 CBA Finals, losing to Beijing in a tough six game series. But the Tigers still had Hudson, who was after all the CBA MVP and had already won a title with Guangdong (ironically, Hudson would help beat Xinjiang in the 2011 Finals). However Sun had himself a quandary; Jordan Crawford, he of dunking on LeBron James fame and being a decent NBA shooting-guard, was also on the market. Predictably, Xinjiang signed Crawford and waived their right to re-sign Hudson. The Tigers would then surround Crawford with Blatche and several CBA free agents that included Shanghai’s Liu Wei, Zhejiang’s Cao Fei and highly touted teenage power forward Zhou Qi. China recoiled in amazement; this was a super team that no-one could surely stop. Things got so crazy that some idiot made them his preseason favorite to finish top of the standings.
But what went largely unmentioned was that everyone was similarly excited about the 2011/2012 Xinjiang team. Then, amid great fanfare, the Tigers signed Kenyon Martin to play alongside shoot-first point guard Patty Mills and also hired China’s national team coach Bob Donewald to call the plays from the bench. That team collapsed within two months as the Tigers front office improbably began to panic about a 7-4 start to the season (they had gone 31-1 the previous season). Donewald was fired after 13 games, Martin then bought his way out a $3m contract and Mills was cut after being accused by the Tigers of faking an injury (the guard remains adamant that the team tried to make him play with a damaged hamstring). Xinjiang’s front office changed their foreign players five times during that season and ended up losing in the first round of the play-offs to Guangdong.
Because its Xinjiang, obviously everything immediately burst into flames in 2014 as well. Crawford contracted an eye infection and was done after five games, in large part one assumes because Urumqi is a vast coal city with some of the worst airborne pollution in the world. As cover, the front office managed to find as a replacement someone called Stefan Bonneau, a point guard who spent most of his career playing in Canada (and I don’t mean for the Raptors). After six games, Bonneau was also gone and ended up signing in the basketball hotbed of Iceland. As a replacement, Xinjiang then brought in Sebastian Telfair but the Tigers still couldn’t squeeze into the play-offs. The problem seemed simple; despite their talent, Xinjiang didn’t know how to play together and threw away games they should have won over and over again. A disastrous 25-13 season was summed up by Liu Wei– who left his hometown Shanghai Sharks after seventeen years to chase one final ring– looking like he would cry at a press conference. Meanwhile, Lester Hudson, who the team tossed aside to sign Crawford, won his second successive MVP and led the Liaoning Leopards to their first CBA Finals since 2008.
So twice in three years, Xinjiang’s quest to win a title using a hastily assembled super team has ended in disaster. But Sun is not going to stop. Blatche is coming back whilst Zhou, Liu and Cao Fei all have time left on their contracts. There are whispers that more players are on their way, including Yi Jianlian, the two-time reigning CBA Chinese MVP. Guangdong, whose veteran roster have won eight titles in eleven years is finally starting to age and Yi, at twenty-nine and an upcoming free agent, can’t afford to wait for his current team to restock the depth chart. The question is if Yi might want to leave the quiet security of Dongguan for the high risk but lucrative goldfish bowl of Urumqi.
But whether Yi does come or not (and Guangdong are felt to be in the lead to retain him), there are already enough names on the Tigers roster that need to win a title in Xinjiang to justify the gamble of coming out to Urumqi in the first place. To join Xinjiang, Liu Wei first had to leave Shanghai, now owned by his childhood friend and teammate Yao Ming. Liu was of course ‘Mr Shanghai’ and the city mourned the fact their team’s captain had walked away to chase a title. Cao Fei also left the Zhejiang Bulls under similarly awkward circumstances. But this neatly highlights the dillema that Xinjiang represent; eventually the Tigers will have to win a title because their owner keeps on throwing money around in a league that has no salary cap. Its easy for a player to convince themselves that this season will be the year Xinjiang finally get over the hump– and what’s more, no other CBA team pays better. When Sun wants you to come to his team, its difficult to say no, regardless of all the chaos the team is known for.
But the reality is that coming to Urumqi has so far always been a gamble that didn’t work out. Bateer is the most prominent example of a Xinjiang signee who never won a CBA title despite his talent but many others have wasted their best years on a Tigers team mired in chaos and consistency. Blatche could also become one of them.
All of this makes the next three years of Blatche’s life truly fascinating. A Zhou-Blatche line-up is automatically the best front court in China and make no mistake, Sun will find a foreign shooting-guard that can also make buckets. Will Blatche finally be the one to break the Xinjiang curse? History would suggest that’s unlikely but $7.5 million is evidently enough to persuade the American to roll the dice and see where it takes him.