In the first of three pieces, Marco Catanzaro is breaking down the nuts and bolts of Chinese basketball and trying to make sense of why tactics are not succeeding and suggesting what needs to change. In light of the Chinese National Team recently getting SMOKED by the USA over two games, his first task is to run the rule over why Team China got so comprehensively beaten.
Let’s face it: no one quite expects Team China (or any other team, really) to bother the Americans at any point of these Olympic Games. Despite missing major stars such as Stephen Curry, LeBron James et al. Team USA is still ungodly powerful.
However it’s fair to say that even in a relatively friendly setting, the Chinese National Team (CNT) got utterly exposed. Slow-footed, horrible spacing, multiple airballs. On the defensive end it wasn’t much better, but at the same time it wasn’t necessarily worse than most people would imagine a team of fringe-to-non-NBA players fare against an All-Star squad. The real issue has been the offense, and it may take more than a couple of adjustments to solve this.
The big issue is that the playing style of the CNT is outdated. By contrast, the NBA (and the style that influence the players who make up the American national team) has changed drastically, and you won’t find a single basketball fan who doesn’t recognize how different the game is. Most will tell you that new rules have resulted in a different game (no hand checking, illegal defense and so on) but truthfully the playing style has drastically changed not only in the ’00s, but in the ’10s as well.
Consider the 2010-12 Lakers. Back in the day, Pau Gasol was a power forward that variously shadowed Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard and Chis Kamen (ouch). Fast forward to 2016 and he’s played his first season exclusively as a C since 2007. And he’s back in All-Star contention for the second year in a row after a three-season drought. Also consider that the 2012 NBA Champions Miami Heat were seen as taking a risky road by playing Chris Bosh, a natural PF, at center whilst LeBron James, who started his NBA career as an full-time resident of the backcourt, gradually played more minutes at power forward than any other position.
Now, in the 2016, the gold standard line-up belongs to the small ball Golden State. The much feared “tweener” issue regarding players stuck between the two forward positions is a relative non-factor today, as those who had to endure that uncomfortable label just a few years ago are now slotted at the 4 without hesitation. Moreover, two big men in one lineup are a very unlikely occurrence unless one can truly shoot from the perimeter (see: Bosh, Nowitzki, somewhat Aldridge, Towns, Porzingis and so on) and even most of these names are seen as 5s more than 4s; their ideal pairing is a Tobias Harris/Chandler Parsons kind of forward, with perimeter skills and power forward bulk and/or height.
This brings us back to the CNT, who against the USA were regularly running out two old fashioned big men (Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhelin, Zhou Qi and Zou Yuchen) and that huge lack of offensive spacing killed the game early on. The only modern offensive concept China resorted to was forcing opposing bigs on the perimeter via the pick and roll. As a result, the guard play– widely regarded as China’s weak link– was the only working asset in the game, with Zhao Jiwei (who doesn’t start for his CBA team) scoring 14 points almost exclusively by virtue of forcing a big man to guard him on the perimeter and then exploiting his quickness advantage. In the NBA, this is an everyday occurrence, with Golden State head and shoulders above everyone else.
China won’t be the only team struggling to keep up with the trends as much as they struggle to keep up with the players, but no league other than the CBA enjoys such frequent technical communications with the NBA. In China, there’s such bouncing around, with American players regularly moving to NBA once the CBA season, that the Chinese should know what the better players in the world are starting to learn. Michael Beasley is a perfect example of that: a true stretch 4 who’s played both in the CBA and the NBA for the last 2 seasons. There are many CBA imports who know and understand the newest NBA fads and trends but the CNT seems numb to learning from them. By contrast, some Chinese domestic teams are embracing the idea of small ball and/or using their big men to stretch the floor. Its amazing that that Americans like Beasley (Shandong Bulls), Andray Blatche (Xinjiang Tigers) and Mike Harris (Sichuan Blue Whale) were all deployed as a destructive stretch 4’s by their CBA teams but Team China still wants to play like its 1986.
Perhaps the reason that the CNT has not adopted this modern style of basketball is arguably down to the lack of local guys who can play this stretch 4 role. The most logical fit would be Beijing’s Zhu Yanxi and after that, the list is fairly small. But it shouldn’t be like this– and the fault of this lies with the coaching. Bayi legend Wang Zhizhi would have been sensational in the new era of smallball basketball and Zhu Fangyu, although somewhat undersized, could also have done this job. The point is that the Chinese obsession with two-dimensional big men is making the CNT look increasingly archaic against teams outside of Asia. If this is going to change, they need to start bringing through big men who can kinda shoot the rock and actually play like a stretch big man: pick and pops, perimeter rotations, looking for the open space especially in the corners. It has to happen– and if it doesn’t considering triple digits on the world stage is going to keep on happening.