A quick burst of obvious news from this week; a bear defecated in the woods, the Pope attended Mass and Greg Oden is out with injury. Only one of those stories affects a basketball team in China but the ongoing situation surrounding the former number one draft pick remains potent and could turn ugly at any second.
For those not up to speed, here is the 411. In October, Oden signed a seven-figure deal with the Jiangsu Dragons that reportedly was for one season with a player option for a second year.When he arrived, Oden charmed local reporters in Nanjing, the home city of the Dragons. He talked about trying local seafood and was approachable to one and all. Jiangsu, a fallen star in Chinese basketball, also appeared to have found a way back to relevance. Oden’s deal was then finalized after a strenuous medical test that cleared the American. He was lights out in the preseason and people got excited. Then he got injured and no-one has seen him play ever since. Meanwhile, Jiangsu have struggled greatly.
Last week, Wang Fei, who played for the Chinese national team during the 1980’s and won multiple league titles as a coach, went on TV and basically said Oden’s injury struggles were a distraction for his team. Yet Wang was not doing this to drop hot takes but to simply reflect the reality of the situation. Having invested themselves in the idea that Oden was going to be both healthy and impactful, the Dragons look deflated. Indeed, the listless Nanjingers have gone 0-3 so far this season and lost to bland sides like Shanghai and Qingdao.
The plot has since thickened when friend-of-the-website, David Pick tweeted that a deal was in place to bring in Will McDonald to Jiangsu. McDonald, a longtime China veteran, would be a like-for-like replacement for Oden. The Jiangsu Dragons have denied Oden is being cut but rather McDonald, who averaged 25.8 points and 9.7 rebounds for a dire Jiangsu Tongxi side last season, would be a stop-gap replacement. This is allowed within CBA rules and the Guangdong Tigers famously did it last year when Emmanuel Mudiay went down with injury and was replaced with Will Bynum.
Yet, there is also the feeling of deja-vu going on here. In 2013, the Shanghai Sharks signed Gilbert Arenas, reportedly over the heads of the coaching staff who had already brought in Elijah Milsap (brother of Atlanta’s Paul). Arenas had already been passed on by the Guangdong Tigers and something didn’t smell right. The oft-injured Arenas then duly went down with injury and the team eventually responded by bringing in Ryan Forehan Kelly, a long-time China pro and a former Sharks player, but it was too late. Shanghai’s potential play-off season was ruined.
Oden is a legit two-way player, at least on what we saw in the preseason. However, if he can’t get on the floor soon, he may also derail a team that was supposed to be play-off bound. The team had new owners and access to new money this offseason. MarShon Brooks, the team’s other import, had an NBA pedigree and he and Oden were going to link up well with a solid backcourt of Chinese players like Hu Xuefeng, Chang Lin and Yi Li.
Instead, with Oden out, the team’s front court has been badly exposed. Brooks has averaged 39.0 points per game but the Dragons are still 0-3 and going nowhere. McDonald and his midrange game might help but he put up those big numbers on a dire Tongxi team and spent two previous years operating as a secondary option to Fujian’s star big man, Wang Zhelin. Nice a guy as he may be, McDonald will not save the Dragons.
And so it all comes back to how long Jiangsu can hold their nerve. As I have argued elsewhere, Jiangsu don’t really have a choice given that Oden is a spark of relevancy for a team that hasn’t had one for a while. But there is also something draining about going into games without a marquee player. The team and the fanbase want to see Oden. By default, the big man brings with him NBA glamour and that generates money within the CBA. Jiangsu heard the roar when Arenas warmed up in Shanghai or Tracy McGrady in Qingdao or JR Smith in Zhejiang or Kenyon Martin in Xinjiang. The Dragons want a slice of that in Nanjing and will be loathed to give it up until they have too.
To save their season, McDonald will invariably come in as a substitute very soon. But it is still unclear when Oden returns. Jiangsu rolled the dice bringing in an oft-injured former NBA star to try and take them to the postseason. It is yet unclear whether the gamble will pay off. Oden could be a game changer if he gets on the court. If he doesn’t, people could soon be clearing their desks at the Jiangsu front office.