If you haven’t already guessed, Chinese basketball is a highly complicated, incredibly political landscape. Yet somehow, the events of the past few days in Guangdong have been especially unprecedented and will be a storyline to follow for the whole of the current CBA season.
Now, we should probably pause to recap some stuff. Regular readers of Shark Fin Hoops will know that the Guangdong Tigers are a fading but extremely important dynasty. The Tigers’ rivalry with the Bayi Rockets defined the early years of the Chinese Basketball Association and Guangdong went on to win eight titles in thirteen years. The cornerstones of this success were the local players and although Yao Ming was the face of the national team, players like Du Feng, Yi Jianlian, Zhu Fangyu and Wang Shipeng all played on multiple Olympic teams during that time. A hugely successful core, Yi went to the NBA in 2007, Zhu almost went in 2004 and Du and Wang may well have got their shot had they played for another team in China that did not require such strict adherence to team-first basketball.
But as the adage goes, no-one beats Father Time and Du, the oldest as Guangdong’s four stars, was the first to go. In 2012, the two-way big man retired after 14 years in the league, ending a playing career that saw him secure seven championships, a Finals MVP and finish 9th all-time in points scored. His star was so bright that within a year, the Tigers icon was promoted to head coach. Du then won a title in his first season on the bench and it looked like the Tigers dynasty would stretch into a third decade.
Things seemed too good to be true– and they were. Du was untried when he got promoted and some felt that Guangdong’s team of veterans coached themselves to that last title. It also helped that Guangdong’s main rival, the Beijing Ducks, were unexpectedly knocked out in the other semi-final bracket that year by the Shandong Bulls.
In the years that followed, things did not go so well. Du was tactically outmaneuvered by Beijing twice when the two teams met in consecutive semi-finals series. Then last season, the Tigers lost to the Liaoning Leopards– who in a twist of fate featured several players Du had played against in the 2008 Finals as teenagers but were now in their prime and able to bulldoze an aging Guangdong side.
Three straight years without a Finals appearance was seen as unacceptable and some began to argue that Du was not good enough to be the coach. There are certainly elements of truth to this. At times, Du has been duped by the best coaching minds in the CBA but he is still a third year coach going up against guys with decades of experience. This, plus an aging roster, questionable overseas signings and a front office that lost many key faces in recent years, has not helped the development of a young coach in a high pressure environment.
Yet Du still retained a significant support block due to his successful playing career and probably thought he was out of the woods by the time this summer came around. By then, Wang (left), the team’s defensive talisman was about to retire and Zhu (right) seemed close to doing the same thing and was hinting at a reduced role during a swansong campaign in 2016/17. Meanwhile, Yi Jianlian, the most beloved player to ever wear the Tigers jersey, had provisionally signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. Having survived the last three title-less seasons, the sudden exodus of Guandong’s remaining veteran stars meant that Du could finally start to rebuild the team with younger players. The Guangdong fanbase would never accept a rebuilding project when it still had recognized stars but with only young players, expectations had to be tempered. Now everyone could start to think about the future.
But no sooner had Du braced everyone for a rebuilding season, things quickly turned upside down. Yi, whose flirtations with the Lakers had been going on for two seasons, unexpectedly decided to void his contract in LA in September due to a lack of guaranteed playing time. Instead, he would be coming home to Guangdong– and went on record that he expected to be chasing a championship.
Thus Guangdong is being pulled in two directions by two of their most successful players, and politics is quickly coming into play. Although a huge figure within Tigers history, Du is not as revered as Yi, whose unsuccessful spell in the NBA remains a milestone in modern Chinese basketball. Du had no choice but to allow Yi to return to the Tigers but in doing so, allowed the latter to completely change the expectations for the season. There will be no badly needed rebuild and instead, as well as Yi coming back, Wang also unexpectedly returned from retirement. Along with Zhu, the old guard are once again in charge of the castle.
As well as making great copy, the sudden crisis at the heart of the Guangdong locker room represents another wrinkle in the relationship between Du and Yi. The two are have known each other for years and Du was initially a mentor for Yi with both Guangdong and the Chinese national team. But once Yi’s star began to shine bright, the two men went down different paths. Yi became the face of the CBA and then Chinese basketball once Yao Ming retired in 2011, whereas Du gradually found himself in the shadow of his old apprentice. What has also gone unmentioned is that this will be the second time Yi has left Guangdong for the NBA only to return once he failed to get a prominent role. By contrast, Du stayed on after Yi left in 2007 and having won five more titles, retired at the young age of thirty-two, in large part so that the new generation could be brought through. Although Du is smart enough not to say this publicly, the embattled coach probably wishes his old teammates would reciprocate the gesture. But with Yi but in the fold, this isn’t going to happen.
Make no mistake, the pragmatic Du is right about the need to rebuild. Whether he is the best qualified person to help implement this is debatable but the Tigers absolutely need a fresh engine to survive against younger rosters. Indeed, in the first game of the 2016/17 season, the Tigers lost by 35 points on the road to an average Shanxi team. Although Yi did not play, Zhu and Wang played almost thirty minutes each– and combined for a total of four points. The only players who did impress were rookies like Zhao Rui, who Du wanted to bring through anyway as part of his rebuilding effort.
All of this means a bizarre season beckons in central Guangdong province. Its possible that Yi can continue an outstanding run of form that has lasted for almost all of his second spell in China and helped him win three Chinese MVP crowns in four years. But equally, he is almost thirty-two and the wear and tear on his body is only growing. That he was not good enough to make the final roster of a LA Lakers team that will be lucky to win 30 games is also not a good sign. Meanwhile, the other two legends left over from glory days have been dealing with retirement rumors for years.
However, the person who will suffer the most is Du. If Guangdong make the play-offs, the credit will go to the old guard but if they don’t, the blame gets dumped upon the beleaguered head coach. Decisions Du made in the summer have been publicly reversed and a recent poll on a Chinese sports blog put the public support at nearly 90% in Yi’s camp. To call Du a lame duck would be an understatement and if the coach keeps his job this season, it will be impressive. But to do that, he first has to survive both a competitive CBA schedule as well as the ambitions of an increasingly delusional trio of former teammates.