Never doubt the power of money, folks. The Xinjiang Tigers, barely five months after an embarrassing failure to make the CBA play-offs, have loaded up once again for a roster that looks– on paper at least– to be close to unstoppable. This is of course the Xinjiang way; win the offseason and come into the subsequent CBA campaign with everyone talking about them. Its happened many times before but this time, its especially galling. Not only have they added Li Gen, one of China’s best shooters, the Tigers have also hired Liu Quiping to act as the coach for the forthcoming campaign.
Both moves were announced in the last couple of days and confirm that Sun Guangxin, the billionaire owner of the Tigers will stop at nothing to get his first CBA title. Li, who signed a 3 year, $4.9 million deal, comes over from the Beijing Ducks where he was a lethal part of the CBA champions’ offense. The swingman averaged 17.3 ppg, averaged 46.7% from 3pt range and played like the best Chinese player in the league for much of the year. In the Finals itself, Li continually seemed to come up with critical baskets and also emerged as a decent post-up option against smaller Chinese guards.
Li’s signing is a double win for the Tigers, who not only add a local scorer but completely screw up Beijing’s chance of a three-peat. In the Ducks’ floor-stretching offense, Li was a critical component and now leaves a massive hole in the champs’ depth chart. With Sun Yue coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, Li was going to be critical for Beijing. Now he is gone and the Ducks instantly are no longer favorites to retain their title.
The reality however is that Li will not care. At twenty-seven, Xinjiang will be the fourth team that the player has turned out for in the last seven years. Initially a Shanghai Sharks youth player, Li then moved to the Qingdao Eagles and put up a couple of solid seasons in north-east China. The move to Beijing was seen as a coup for the Ducks at the time but they only kept him for three years before the Tigers decided to make him one of the best paid Chinese players in the CBA.
But when Li arrives in Urumqi, home city of the Tigers, he will find a couple of familiar faces waiting for him. The first will be Liu Wei, the iconic captain of the Sharks team Li first played for. This time last year Liu shocked China by leaving Shanghai, the team he had played with for eighteen seasons for one final shot at a ring only for everything to go very wrong.
Another familiar face with be Liu Qiuping (no relation to Liu Wei), the former Shanghai and Qingdao coach and a coach nicknamed ‘little Zhuge Liang’ after the famous military strategist from Chinese antiquity. Coach Liu was the guiding hand for the celebrated Shanghai team which won the 2002 CBA title and featured a young Yao Ming and Liu Wei among their ranks. Since then Liu Quiping had largely faded from prominence until he was hired by Qingdao last season and given full control of the team. The old master then took a team that had never achieved a winning season before and guided them all the way to the play-off semi-finals.
But one doesn’t get nicknamed after a legendary tactician without being able to think two steps ahead of everyone else. Liu pulled off that Qingdao fairytale run by loading the team with three of the best free agents the Eagles could afford in the form of Hamad Haddadi, Justin Deadmon and Mike Harris. Having achieved such a high finish, the Eagles will only have two foreign roster slots this season, meaning they can only bring back one less overseas player than before. Haddadi will almost certainly be signed by a bottom-five team that has an additional ‘Asian foreigner’ slot whilst Harris, an undersized power forward, simply is not big enough to fill the Haddadi-sized hole in the front court by himself. Deadmon plus one American center will not be able to replicate the success of the Eagles, who have once again failed to improve their bench rotation. After proving once again that he is a high-level coach, Liu Quiping has promptly jumped ship to the first title contender that came calling. Its cold thinking but business is still business.
And so, as is the case during every offseason in China, Xinjiang are the talk of the CBA. The front court looks absolutely loaded given that Andray Blatche is onboard for the next three years whilst highly regarded NBA prospect Zhou Qi is signed up for at least the next two. Liu Wei is still a serviceable combo guard, even at thirty-seven– whilst home grown bench guys Xirelijiang and Makhan Korambeck could start for other CBA teams. Now with Li Gen in the mix as well, this could make things real interesting in the backcourt. Its also worth remembering that Xinjiang also have one roster spot left for an American guard that can put up points and handle the ball. This means a possible starting line-up of Liu Wei, [TBC American], Li Gen, Zhou Qi and Blatche, whilst over on the sidelines will be one of the most revered Chinese coaches of his generation.
Its shameless but once again, Xinjiang are making headlines in the offseason. Whether they win in the regular season remains to be seen but for now at least, the Tigers remain the talk of the CBA– and this time for positive reasons.