The fourth and final part of our monster CBA preview is in the books. The new season is almost upon us but not before we break down the final five teams. Xinjiang are once again a monster, Sichuan could be a real problem for everyone whilst Qingdao, Tianjin and Zhejiang all have undergone big roster changes.
Sichuan Blue Whales
Notable Players: Hamed Haddadi (C), Justin Dentmon (PF), Mike Harris (PG)
Last Season: 8-30 (18th place)
Sichuan may just be the biggest dark horse in the new CBA season. Sure, the third youngest CBA team was horrible last season, ranking as the third worst team only before Bayi and Chongqing. But this year they added some serious upgrades to their roster. The team brought back the Iranian center Hamed Haddadi, who played for Sichuan in the team’s debut season in the CBA two years ago. But this time he has the help from his two foreign teammates from last season, who together led Qingdao to third place in the regular season, proving once again that the key to success in the CBA is good foreign players. I highly doubt Sichuan’s signing of the trio is a mere coincidence but the question remains whether they can emulate Qingdao’s success last year.
Critically, the new coach Yang Xuezeng is the key to answering that question and for those not in the know, Yang is the man behind transforming Dongguan/Shenzhen and then Shanxi into genuine play-off teams. Under his coaching, Shanxi had one of the more enjoyable run & gun offense that was fundamental to their success. Like the three foreign players, Yang must prove he can repeat his glorious past. A big challenge to him is how to integrate the two foreign big men into his fast-paced offense. This may very well decides Sichuan’s future.
Tianjin Golden Lions
Notable Players: Jason Maxiell (PF), Casper Ware (PG/SG), Zhang Nan (SF)
Last Season: 13-25 (13th place)
Tianjin in the past few years has been, at best, mediocre. Their best record was ranking as the 6th in the 2013-2014 season. This year, they replaced Sheldon Williams and Dwight Buycks with Jason Maxiell and Casper Ware. Maxiell has been a solid blue collar player for Detroit, Orlando and Charlotte for the past ten years in the NBA, providing rebound and interior defense. Though he has already passed the age when he could contribute big numbers in the NBA, he could still be a rebounding machine in the CBA. That, along with his veteran experience, can potentially help Tianjin improve its records. His offensive skills are relatively limited but if he can click with Casper Ware in pick & roll situations, that would be lethal against teams with less athletic bigs.
Compared with his fellow American, Casper Ware is more of a myth. After going undrafted in the 2012 NBA Draft, the guard first spent two years playing in Italy, winning an MVP in the Italian 2nd Division. He then played for the 76ers briefly before joining EWE Baskets Oldenburg in Germany last season. From the scarce clips on the internet, we can gather that he’s a small, quick guard with abilities to knock down shots and drive to the basket. No wonder why Tianjin’s GM Zhang Runqi compared him to Eugene Jeter, who led the Shandong Lions to the CBA Finals in 2013. They probably won’t make it to the Finals yet, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can return to the playoffs picture.
Notable Players: Jonathan Gibson (PG/SG), Alan Williams (C)
Last Season: 28-10 (3rd place)
Looking at Qingdao’s records last season, you’d think they’ll be very competitive this year. But in the boom and bust cycle of the CBA, Qingdao is almost destined to fall in the coming season. Qingdao was able to become a pleasant surprise before because of how the foreign player system works in the CBA: they were allowed to have three foreign players because they sucked in the previous season. It’s almost like tanking in the NBA, except that the benefits only last for a brief season before the foreign mercenaries find some other employer (in this case, all three went to Sichuan.) The foreign players aren’t the only ones leaving Qingdao, so did coach Li Qiuping, who left for Xinjiang this season.
So who did they bring in to fill the void? On the one hand, they brought in a proven product; Jonathan Gibson, who was the scoring leader in the CBA two seasons ago. Guard who can score? Check. On the other hand, they defeated Houston Rockets in luring the center Alan Williams by offering a guaranteed and more lucrative contract. Williams went undrafted in this year’s NBA draft, and played for the Hornets and the Rockets in the NBA summer league, filling the scoring and rebounding stats when he got minutes. Center who can provide rebounding and interior scoring? Check. these are good players but its also important to note that the rest of the roster is not great. For Qingdao, it’s not a matter of whether they’ll be bad this season, but rather how worse they’ll get.
Xinjiang Flying Tigers
Notable Players: Andray Blatche (PF/C), Andrew Goudelock (PG/SG), Zhou Qi (PF/C), Li Gen (SF)
Last Season: 25-13 (9th place)
Fans of Xinjiang were disappointed by the team’s unusual absence in the playoffs after losing the final spot to Dongguan by a small margin last year. But this season, they have reloaded their roster and are ready to regain their long-time status as a top contender for the championship. How good are they? Well, three Xinjiang players (Zhou Qi, Li Gen and Andray Blatche) have just played in the final game of the 2015 FIBA Asian Championship. Blatche had monster stats but failed to help Xinjiang to the playoffs last season. Perhaps he’ll have better luck if the new American import, Andrew Goudelock, can prove to be a better helper than Jordan Crawford and Sebastian Telfair. The Mini Mamba has just had a good season with the Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahçe, averaging 17 points.
At the same time, Xinjiang has some of the best Chinese players available to anyone. The veteran guard Liu Wei might be near the end of his career, but he can still play. This is just Zhou Qi’s second CBA season, and though he led the league in blocks as a rookie, the young big man will still have a lot to prove to be a true star in the CBA. Li Gen, on the other hand, is a proven elite wing who is arguably the best Chinese shooter and overall scorer, for that matter. Besides them, Xinjiang also has reliable players like Korambek Makhan and Xiralijian Muhtar on the bench. They certainly appear to be an elite team on paper, but can they deliver? We’ll have to see.
Zhejiang Golden Bulls
Notable Players: Samad Bahrami (SF), Willie Warren (PG/SG), Charles Gaines (PF/C), Ding Jinhui (PF)
Last Season: 11-27 (14th place)
Zhejiang has spent yet another lackluster season last year. The only memorable moment is perhaps Errick McCollum’s setting of the new scoring record of 82 points, while losing the game. But compared with some other teams on the list, Zhejiang actually has more constants: Charles Gaines, a low-post monster, will continue making Shaq-esqe numbers each night whilst Ding Jinhui is back from injury and will be hoping to get back to 100% productivity.
There are also a fair amount of changes. The most valuable addition is the Iranian forward Samad Bahrami, who as an all-around wing, is always a rarity in the CBA. This means Bahrami will become the focal point of Zhejiang’s offense. However, that really depends on whether he can coexist with the guard Willie Warren. An elite Asian player as he is, Bahrami had a less than satisfactory debut season in the CBA two years ago when he failed to play alongside with Delonte West in Fujian. While Willie Warren has proven last season that averaging over 30 points per game in the CBA is not a challenge to him, he has to learn how to share the ball, especially with Bahrami. Ding and Bahrami both have a lot to prove this year individually, but the real question is, can Zhejiang excel as a team?