Summer Of The Dragon Part 3: How Smallball Can Take Over The CBA


In the third and final part of his look at Chinese basketball, their tactics and and the national team’s traditional stubbornness to change its ways, Marco Catanzro looks at how the best teams in China can embrace modern NBA playbooks and help improve the NT product through leading by example.

Lets be honest here; the only way to really enhance Team China’s competitiveness, however, goes far beyond these Olympic Games. It will take a couple of seasons to fully embrace today’s basketball and it might be long enough for the world to change trend once again. For Chinese basketball, however, it might be worth the risk: there’s actually a good number of players that might improve at a fast pace by playing for teams that play this brand of ball.

Let’s see how it would work.

Beijing Ducks

Current lineup: Marbury, Sun Yue, Zhai Xiaochuan, Ji Zhe (Morris), Zhang Songtao.

Smallball lineup: Marbury, Zhang Qingpeng, Sun Yue, Zhai Xiaochuan, Zhu Yanxi (Morris)

The Ducks have often employed Ji Zhe, a quite adequate Chinese version of a tweener playing the 4 spot. He hasn’t let the team down at all, but this team has enough shooting to aim for even more spacing. As it is right now they’re probably bringing back both Marbury and Morris, and right they are. Morris is a very good hybrid 4-5 that will cover the glass, while a team with Marbury, Zhang, Sun, Zhai and Zhu Yanxi on the offensive end would guarantee enough room for any type of penetration while giving nightmares of wide open shooters to any defender who tries to cover up for lost teammates.

As it pertains to individuals, Zhu and Zhai are much better suited for the 5 and 4 spots respectively. Zhu Yanxi is the league’s best shooting big man at 6’11” and actually has spent time at the 5. Zhai is a true small ball 4: 6’9″, quick, a very good off the ball and a more than capable shooter. His ability to read the offense and create either cuts or offensive rebounds is far more evident in a spread offense like the one that at times Beijing employs. It would just be more fun (and useful to the youngsters) to see these concepts extended to a norm.

Xinjiang Flying Tigers

Current lineup: Liu Wei, Xirelijiang, Li Gen, Andray Blatche, Zhou Qi.

Smallball lineup: Xirelijiang, Li Gen, Makhan Korambek, Abdulla, Andray Blatche.

Hard to argue with the idea of reviving a team as promising as the Flying Tigers. They have a luxury big man who can handle the ball in Andray Blatche, a future NBA player in Zhou Qi (unclear whether he’s moving to the Rockets this season already; the buyout isn’t that high and Houston doesn’t really have a bevy of centers) and plenty of local talent of all shapes and sizes.

Blatche, however, is going to be even more devastating as a 5 man and with a good pair of perimeter defenders in Xirelijiang and Makhan, there’s also room for the offense of Li Gen and Wang Le. Out of all the 5-man units conceivable in Urumqi, no other has quite the amount of versatility, opportunity to switch, shooting and shot creation this one features. Blatche could be a handler at the center spot, creating all sorts of unnatural rotations for opposing defenses. Meanwhile, Li Gen offers a viable post up threat, Xire shoots well when dialed in and Makhan is expanding on his offensive game at a convincing pace. On the boards Blatche is usually enough of a force to retain a decent edge team-wise, but of course the rest of the unit needs to pick up the slack a bit.

For the 4 spot I’m going to swing for the fences and put 6’7″ promising soon-to-be-sophomore Abdulla, who’s seen very limited playing time but is a fan favorite with promising tools on both ends that playing basically only garbage time minutes as an unheralded rookie in a team that was in “title or bust” mode has shot a ridiculous 73% from the field as a 3-man. We’ll see if he can actually spread the floor, but in case he doesn’t work out soon enough (patience would be required, as for every young player) for Xinjiang’s taste there’s still plenty of options, starting with Wang Lei and going all the way to Yu Changdong (very interesting player that probably should leave Xinjiang and look for some playing time elsewhere) and, of course, Zhou Qi at 5.

Guangdong Southern Tigers

Current lineup: Sloan, Zhu Fangyu, Zhou Peng, Dong Hanlin, Yi Jianlian

Smallball lineup: Sloan, Gao Shang, Zhu Fangyu, Zhou Peng, Yi Jianlian

Guangdong hasn’t had a whole lot of luck last year, amongst injuries and a number of strong seeds in the playoffs that had them square up against a healthier and overall deeper Liaoning squad in the semifinals.

Yi Jianlian being a good shooter, Guangdong and Team China often fall for the wrong impression that you automatically spread the floor by having him at the 5. However, the Southern Tigers have possibly the most dangerous smallball 4 in China in Zhou Peng, who, when compared to Zhai Xiaochuan, has a lot more offense as a whole. Alongside Yi, Zhou’s established himself as the top wing in Guangdong given that all-time CBA top scorer Zhu Fangyu is transitioning to the veteran role and Wang Shipeng has retired. Gao, meanwhile, has really asserted himself as a 2-way player and looks to be the most promising guard the Cantonese region has seen in a while. Former NBA player Donald Sloan will be the point guard, a role within a system he’s already played in (and won with) and looks comfortable in. There’s just enough shooting for everybody to enjoy some space and on the defensive end Sloan is the shortest player at a solid 6’3″ while Yi is athletic enough to at least slow down shorter opponents after switches. Everybody else will switch pretty seamlessly, and both Gao and Zhou are very good defenders by CBA standards.

Liaoning Dinosaurs

Current lineup: Hudson, Guo Ailun, He Tianju, Li Xiaoxu, Han Dejun

Smallball lineup: Zhao Jiwei, Hudson, Guo Ailun, He Tianju, Li Xiaoxu

It is, in my book, fair to say that had He Tianju been provided with any minutes and consistency playing the 4 spot, he would have fared so much better in his Summer League stint last year, playing for the Pelicans. He wouldn’t have made the roster but don’t forget that New Orleans was coming off a playoff appearance and felt like a playoff team altogether – but it would have been a huge confidence boost and probably enough for a team to call him again this season for some summertime action.
Instead, He felt completely unprepared at the 4 spot and the trend didn’t change this year in Liaoning. Now, Han Dejun is a very solid player, coming from the years of the “Chinese Shaq” gimmick. He also happen to be a personal favorite of Mr Crawford, the owner of this blog, so I really shouldn’t talk smack. But the Finals have once again exposed his deficiencies in the clutch. Furthermore, the smallball approach would completely annihilate his defensive abilities, forcing him to switch on the perimeter and get eaten alive by opposing guards.
Li Xiaoxu, conversely, is as inconsistent as they come. But when he dials it in (and that’s not something as uncontrollable as most Chinese fans think) he’s a heck of a big man: 6’9″, quick, has a bit of range, moves well and an absolute bomb of a rebounder.

It’s really unclear why he hasn’t panned out as a CBA bona fide superstar, but at the 5 spot in a very small lineup where Li and Hudson will grab a whole bunch of rebounds and everybody else will run and gun he might be born again.
This lineup doesn’t quite have ideal size, but there’s a whole lot of playmaking with basically 3 potential PGs on the floor (and if you feel like getting the 6’6″ Yang Ming instead of Zhao Jiwei you still have the same result), a great shooter in He and a lot of mobility and quickness. Defensively? Maybe too much speculation, but on the offensive end no team would stop this.

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