On the surface, the CBA offseason is six months of dead time. The national team gathers together the county’s best players together for several days (and sometimes even several weeks) of training sessions at various locations inside and outside China. For two months, the National Basketball League (NBL), the sport’s second tier in China, also gets played, albeit to little or no fanfare. Given that this is one of the few periods of free time for CBA players, right now is also the best time of year to be getting married so very tall dudes are either walking down the aisle right this second or watching one of their teammates do the same thing. But it doesn’t mean that there isn’t any meaningful basketball related activity going on. There’s plenty of it– but at this time of year, it’s all being held behind closed doors and far away from the court (and prying eyes). Last year’s offseason was especially interesting given that the owners of two NBL teams managed to talk their way into being promoted into the CBA (there has been no automatic promotion/relegation between the two leagues since 2003). Further behind the scenes maneuvering saw the creation of new rules governing the use of foreign players in fourth quarter— a move that seen as an attempt to slow the dominance of Stephon Marbury and the Beijing Ducks– as well as a clause that allowed CBA teams to have the right of first refusal when it came to resigning overseas imports. This spring there have already been a couple of major developments, most notably one that was buried away in a recent article on Sina Sports. For the first time ever it seems, the CBA may actually be considering a player draft. At present, all CBA teams have to find their own young players and then bring them through into the senior team in a similar fashion to European and South American soccer teams. This system worked well in the past but as the league approaches its’ twentieth birthday, things need a fresh coat of paint now that there are other places from which Chinese talent is emerging. The first is the Chinese University Basketball Association (CUBA). Essentially China’s version of the NCAA; in recent years, CUBA has been producing very talented players that have decided to go to college instead of enrolling in the specialized sports schools that double as farm systems for CBA teams. A prominent example is Foshan’s combo guard, Zeng Xu, who was a star at Tsinghua University before joining the CBA after graduation in 2011. After a stand-out season with the Long Lions, Zeng was a starter in this year’s CBA All-Star game.
Another new avenue for finding talent is not even on the Chinese mainland itself but rather on the nearby island of Taiwan. The two countries have enjoyed an uneasy existence since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and although technically a sovereign nation, Beijing insists that Taiwan is a rebel province and therefore still part of greater China. In a country where sport and politics are very closely aligned, the CBA has echoed this stance by not counting Taiwanese players as foreign imports– who therefore can be signed by CBA teams without costing them an import roster spot. This in turn has led to an increased plundering of the best players from Taiwan, whose own Super Basketball League can’t keep up with the comparatively huge salaries of the CBA. Signees from Hong Kong, along with Macao, are also governed by this rule and this most recent season saw seven Taiwanese and one Hong Kong player ply their trade on the mainland.
Another recent scenario that the CBA were not expecting are Chinese who bypass both the CUBA and the CBA by moving to America and playing there instead. In recent years, several players have moved stateside to play their basketball at either the high school level or at a NCAA D1 college including national team center Zhang Zhaoxu (Cal, 2008-2010) and Jiangsu’s on-loan swingman Chang Lin (Long Beach State, 2009-2010). After college, returning Chinese players are free agents and have no signing obligations with any team. But given that they were good enough for the D1 college level, they are almost always going to be very useful players in the CBA and thus highly valued commodities. All three of these groups represent a loophole for the CBA and the emergence of a draft is the league’s attempt to fix the situation. From the start of the 2015/16 season, players from those categories who wish to play in the CBA will be selected by teams via a draft, presumably with the order of selection decided by who has the worst record from the previous year. This is obviously a very basic rule that covers a small group of players but it is the long-term implications that are far more interesting. As the quality of American players coming to the CBA grows, will there eventually be a similar kind of draft for first time foreign imports? Say for example the patron saint of gunners himself, Jimmer Freddette doesn’t get an NBA contract and wants to come to China instead. In the NBA, he is a fairly limited player but the fact that Fredette is a shoot-first guard that can hit the three point shot reasonable well makes him an ideal CBA player. If the draft system was expanded to feature American players, the worst team in the CBA would get the first choice at trying to sign a massive free agent– and then have the signing rights for the player for the following year as well. Given the impact of American players in China, this would presumably be the next logical step for the player draft. For now, the CBA is trying to deal with an unanticipated fillip but in the long-term, drafting incoming Americans would appear to be the competitive equalizer the league has been desperately seeking for a decade. Currently, the bottom five teams in the league at the end of each year get to sign an extra ‘Asian’ foreign player to help them improve. But the end result is that those bad teams tend to be better the next year with a third import only to suck the following season when they go back to just two. As a result, the CBA is filled with a handful of thoroughbreds and several yo-yo teams. The draft may eventually be the thing to change this and create a more stable league for the long-term. It’s all fascinating stuff and as obscure as a draft for Taiwanese and local college players may seem, the new legislation might become a huge game changer in future years. Edit (30/04/2015): More news coming out today suggests that contracts will be for two years with a maximum salary of $300,000. There is no provision for drafting players out of high school (presumably to avoid creating another unexpected entry path into the CBA) and draft picks can’t be traded between teams.