The picture shown above was the lead image of Sina Sport’s CBA coverage for most of Sunday and early Monday morning. In it, Stephon Marbury is glaring angrily at his Beijing teammate and former LA Laker, Sun Yue. Meanwhile, with both men trapped in their own private imbroglio, Shandong’s Ding Yanyuhan hangs from the rim amid the sound of a home arena rising to its feet. Few images speak this loud; few moments better incapsulate how much trouble the reigning CBA champions are in.
For most of the year, this has been the story of the Beijing Ducks. CBA champions three times out of the last four, the team from the capital were a source of local pride along with the similarly high profile Beijing Guoan soccer team.
But what was more, the Ducks were so damn good. Marbury was obviously the face of the team and the man that made Min Lulei’s pick-and-roll heavy offense flow with such elegance. But along with Marbury and a head coach like Min, who helped bring along a group dead-eye shooters, there was also the shadowy management group that bankrolled signings like Sun Yue (Beijing Olympians), Li Gen (Qingdao Eagles) and also kept big man Randolph Morris around.
Things, though, never stay perfect, and it is starting to feel like the end is nigh for the so-called ‘Ducks Dynasty’. Last season, the rule changes to the fourth quarter meant the Ducks could no longer let Marbury and Morris pick-and-roll teams to death. So with Min’s help, the Ducks learned to improvise; Morris powered Beijing through the regular season and then Marbury took over in the play-offs. But the key to that switch was surrounding Marbury in the fourth-quarter with local shooters. Beijing obviously had lots of them but the 6″9 Sun and 6″8 Li were unique in that they were both guards who could post up as well as drive to the rim. Through a mixture of space, match-up advantages and cold blooded shooting, the Ducks veteran roster were too crafty to stop.
But come the offseason, everything changed. Xinjiang, one of the few teams richer than Beijing, poached away Li whilst Sun spent most of the offseason having his shoulder operated on. Overnight, the Ducks backcourt was reduced to an almost forty-year old Marbury and a hobbled Sun. At twenty-seven, Li, the youngest of the three, was now with one of the Ducks’ natural rivals.
Critically, with the halfway point of the 2015/16 season looming, Beijing are now 7-7 and not even in the play-off spots. Teams the Ducks would once have beaten handily are now the ones dishing out the punishment. Moreover, some of them are even starting trouble with the CBA champs in a show of open defiance. In their 109-88 win over the Ducks, Shandong’s Sui Ran was even pushing his face into Marbury’s when the latter began to talk trash. Local guys have stepped to foreigners in the past but its often the senior players who’ve spent years in the national team. On Sunday, it was a twenty-three year old averaging 7.0 points a game who was barking at Marbury. Then, even when Sui went to the bench, he carried on screaming at the foreign poster boy of Chinese basketball.
Amid this feeling that Beijing are there for the taking, teams are trying desperately hard to make a name for themselves. The lowly Shanghai Sharks beat Beijing for the first time since 2013– and others have also got in on the act.
Whilst this is bad, there are quirks in the regular season that could make things even worse for the Ducks. For starters, the schedule has not been kind to them. Whilst there are a couple of stretches with winnable games coming up, invariably a play-off contender looms immediately after to snap any potential winning streak. There are two suddenly concerning derby games with Beijing North Control, the expansion team brought by businessmen from Chongqing to the capital specifically to tap into the city’s sudden craze for basketball. North Control are a three-trick team (those tricks being former NBA players Dorell Wright and Edison Batista, plus Jordanian point guard Mahdi Camrani), but it has worked well enough to get them to a 6-8 record. For those keeping score, that is only one win less than their big brothers across town.
None of this bodes well for the Ducks. They should beat North Control at least once in their two upcoming meetings and will almost certainly sneak into the postseason because of how effective the Ducks’ playbook is. But after that, no-one is sure what happens. In the past, it has been a rite of journalistic passage to write off Marbury and the gang during the play-offs only to watch them have the last laugh. But this time around, something really doesn’t feel right. The team is old, their pick-and-roll offense can’t be deployed in the fourth and their best local player is playing for a rival. Given that gambling is still technically illegal on the mainland, there’s no-one around to guess what Beijing’s champion odds are. But regardless, the smart money would be on the Ducks not getting out the quarter-finals for the first time since 2010. Eventually something has to give, and in this time– and with this much evidence– one suspects the nails may finally be needed for Beijing’s coffin.