With speculation mounting about his free agency status, Yi Jianlian was forced to release a statement last Monday. In it, the captain of the Chinese national team confirmed that he had not re-signed with the Guangdong Tigers despite his looming free agency but that talks were set to begin soon.
But the announcement, designed to put Tigers fans at ease, underlines a growing concern that Yi might not actually agree to a deal. The ramifications were this to happen would be huge and if Yi did indeed go elsewhere, it essentially spells the end for one of Chinese basketball’s most successful rosters.
In many ways, Yi embodies Guangdong’s rise to the top. The big man made his debut in 2002 and a year later the Tigers won the first of eight CBA titles. After going to the NBA in 2007, Yi returned to the team who raised him from a youth player after his five year stint in America ended in 2011. Since then the big man has been the best local player in the CBA by a mile.
However, despite finishing on top of the standings in the regular season for the fourth successive season, Guangdong then lost in the CBA play-offs to Beijing for the third time in four years. It was another disastrous postseason run for the Tigers and especially for their head coach, Du Feng. At the start of the season, Guangdong signed Emmanuel Mudiay as a backcourt difference maker only for the team to go with veteran Will Bynum once Mudiay went down with injury. Bynum was critical in the team winning twenty-seven consecutive regular season games (a CBA record) only for Du to lose his nerve once the play-offs got underway.
Coming up against Beijing in the semi-finals, initially the team went with Bynum and former Milwaukee Bucks power forward Jeff Adrien. But with the Tigers down 2-0 to Beijing, Du then decided to bring in Mudiay for Adrien in a desperate last roll of the dice. Mudiay would go onto help Guangdong win a critical Game 3 but with no real frontcourt depth, the Tigers were eventually eliminated after a thrilling Game 4 in Beijing. Once again, the most successful Chinese team of the CBA era had to watch the Finals from their living rooms.
The reality of the situation is this; Yi is thirty years old and the star player on a historically successful roster that might be sliding from relevance. Li Chunjiang, the coach who won seven of those eight CBA titles with Guangdong, resigned in 2012 (and its still unclear whether he jumped or was pushed out in a front-office coup). Du has not been a reliable replacement and one suspects only his status as a legendary former player is shielding him from more criticism. Yi will not be lobbying for his former teammate and mentor to be axed but Du’s future as head coach feels uncertain. The team’s fabled general manager Li Hongjian also quit the Tigers in 2014 to start over again at the neighboring Foshan Long Lions. The team’s second best Chinese player Zhu Fangyu is reportedly planning to retire in three years whilst current national team player Li Xiaoyu could also leave in free agency right now.
So Yi has a tough choice to make. He could stay at Guangdong but in the knowledge that it will eventually involve a rebuilding season. In the meantime, the Tigers also have an uncertain situation with regards to their head coach and the front office remains in disarray.
Similarly, the core of the Guangdong team is only getting older. Wang Shipeng turned thirty-two recently and posted the worst numbers of his lengthy career with the Tigers. Zhu, who had an incredible season (18.4ppg, whilst taking eight 3-pt shots a game and making 46% of them), is also thirty-two and until this year had been on a noticeable downward slide. There will also be concern at how Zhu, Guangdong’s captain and locker room leader, continued to garner unwanted media coverage following a messy divorce with his now ex-wife. That situation would reach its zenith on the eve of Guangdong’s play-off series with Dongguan when Zhu took to Chinese social media and published copies of court papers granting him access to the couple’s two sons.
Make no mistake, Yi is not going back to the NBA and if he exits from Guangdong, it will only be to teams that can challenge for a CBA title and pay him handsomely. Given those criteria, only a handful of organizations could do that; Beijing, the Xinjiang Tigers and perhaps the Liaoning Leopards. Xinjiang, as noted in a previous article, are ready to offer a deal for five-years and $17 million if reports are to be believed. According to Sina Sports, Xinjiang– who have already signed Andray Blatche to a three year deal– are also interested in hiring Li Chunjiang, the architect of Guangdong’s success, as the Tigers new head coach.
So on Yi’s shoulders lies the future of the Guangdong Tigers. If the player stays, Guangdong can build around their star big man and hope the team secures at least one more title. But if the Chinese national team captain leaves– and its worth pointing out that Yi himself confirmed that no formal discussions have gotten underway– the Tigers are in real trouble. They would still be an effective team but their chances of winning a title under the current regime would be low. Guangdong would essentially have to rebuild and hope to bring about a second wave of Chinese talent, which they have done in the past but these things would take time. Its all a fascinating situation and one that may well end up defining the upcoming CBA offseason.