Looking handsome at 7-1 (5-0 at home), the Shanghai Sharks are off the the best start to a CBA campaign since a 22 year old center named Yao Ming was anchoring the front court back in 2002. That was almost fifteen years ago and Yao is now five years into retirement and watching games from the directors box. Yet have finally found another offensive fulcrum in the shape of former BYU star, Jimmer Freddette, suddenly the most fair weather of sports towns is talking about basketball again and a play-off run seems all but certain. Remarkably, some are even wondering if Shanghai can win their first CBA title since Yao was entering his prime almost two decades earlier.
In reality, however, this is not a team that has any real chance of winning another CBA title. Instead, Shanghai represents what too many rosters in China have become; a solid regular season team built around the idea of selling out home games before an inevitable first or second round loss in the postseason. To be blunt, few CBA teams in recent memory are so top heavy and so decidedly flimsy.
To understand what is meant by this, its important to understand the current set-up in Chinese basketball. Like the country’s soccer league, money is pouring into the sport and the CBA has now become a viable option within the overseas free agency market. As a result, legitimate NBA players like Fredette are coming to China because the money is better an NBA bench role. Equally, CBA teams are no longer swayed by high profile but frail legends like Tracy McGrady or Gilbert Arenas. Suddenly, instead of old boys picking up one final pay cheque, there is now an influx of hungry NBA talent looking to put up massive numbers before coming home and securing a multi-year deal whilst still in their peak years.
At the same time, Chinese teams have almost universally abandoned the notion of building around local players or even two overseas imports. Now, in the era of only one foreigner in the fourth quarter, the key to CBA free agency is securing the best offensively minded American money can buy and giving him all the shots he wants. Along with the CBA’s sudden ability to recruit in-their-prime NBA players, the unintended consequences behind the fourth quarter rule changes also mean that a single American player can be responsible for half a team’s points on any given night.
Finally, most CBA teams have forgotten about cultivating young Chinese talent. Instead, local players have become specialists to their go-to American scorers; defensive stoppers, rebounders, corner three marksmen. In other words, Chinese players are no longer stars in their own league but rather complimentary pieces for whatever American scorer their GM brings in that season.
All of this takes us back to Shanghai, where Fredette is responsible for almost all of their offense. If you don’t believe me, just look at the team’s stat sheet. If one takes out the American guard, Shanghai’s team is currently averaging 60ppg between twelve players (and that includes Boston Celtic’s first round pick, Guerschon Yabusele). By contrast, Fredette is averaging 40.2ppg by himself and Sharks’ players not called Jimmer do all the heavy lifting for the American. Barring Liu Xiaoyou (left), who is basically the security blanket for when the double team comes looking for Fredette, all of the local roster clean the boards, play defense and watch Jimmer get buckets. That includes ‘Max’ Zhang Zhaoxu, a 7″4 former national team player and once promising backcourt pieces like Cai Liang and Zhai Yi. The multi-faceted Taiwanese big man Tsung Wen-ting has also fared no better.
Shanghai will obviously live with this because it helps them win regular season games. In a short season with no back-to-backs, CBA teams can essentially run the same game plan over and over again. For the Sharks, this means letting a shooter like Fredette run wild within a league notorious for its’ lack of defense, especially up along the perimeter.
Yet the the trouble will be when Shanghai get to the postseason and encounter a multi-game series where teams can game plan for the Sharks’ key player. Moreover, most teams who make it into the play-offs invariably took the time to bring through young Chinese players and kept them involved throughout the season (Beijing, Liaoning, Guangdong, Guangsha)– or aggressively bought up the best local talent, who in turn were high profile enough to demand that plays were called for them (Xinjiang). For all these teams, the local guys have the confidence and experience to take the big shot if needed. By contrast, Shanghai’s roster will have spent the entire season watching Jimmer pull up for his thirty-second shot of the night. By then, it will be too much to ask for those players to suddenly win games after a season of twiddling their thumbs.
In the past, we’ve seen teams live and die by a single American make it to the knock out rounds but Shanghai are a little different. Those previous one-dimensional teams often needed a push to make it through to the postseason before teams with deeper local rosters took them to school. But now, with an NBA-caliber guard on their roster, Shanghai are flying high and tied for top place with a third of the season to play. All of this has helped create a false illusion; namely that Shanghai are elite. They are not, but rather they have found an ideal import to help them win in a frantic regular season when teams simply don’t have time to plan from one game to the next. The same teams who have a cast of capable locals will still cook the Sharks in the play-offs but should do so as the fifth seed rather than the second.
A weak local roster has been an issue for too many teams in the past and just because Shanghai are top of the standings doesn’t mean it will be any different for them when it counts. The most impressive thing Jimmer Fredette has achieved so far in his short time in China doesn’t involve scoring. Instead, it has been convincing too many in Middle Kingdom basketball that high profile imports can negate the traditional shortcomings of rosters built around Americans and with no meaningful support from Chinese players.