After a summer of obituaries to a fine basketball team, somehow the Guangdong Tigers will not die. After being blown out by almost thirty points against the Shanxi Dragons in Game 1 of the regular season, it felt safe to finally say the most dominant CBA team of the last decade was done. But instead, Guangdong are 17-3 and sitting in second place in the table. They are on course to make the postseason and force their way into the title discussion once again. On paper, it makes no sense.
However, whether it makes sense or not is irrelevant. Right now, a lot of CBA observers are having to eat their words– myself included. Indeed, as I noted in my earlier piece about the Tigers, the team had spent most of October dealing with a messy tug of war as Yi Jianlian lobbied for an aging Guangdong roster to push on for one final title push instead of allowing head coach Du Feng to bring about a much needed rebuild. The Yi faction has obviously won out but even then, the Guangdong turn-around has been astounding.
The key to all of this has been Yi himself, who has backed up his power play with an MVP calibre start to the season. His numbers (24.6 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.6bpg) are nothing to write home about but Yi is constantly stepping up in must-win games against play-off rivals; 42 points against Liaoning, 21 points against Xinjiang, 23 points against Guangsha, 31 points against Shanxi. He seems content to let others do the heavy lifting against lesser teams but when the Tigers need that big performance, Yi is ready.
It also helps that Guangdong have found several useful players to compliment Yi. Donald Sloan, now in his second stint with the team, has thrived within the effective but metronomic Tigers offense. Alongside Sloan, Zhou Peng has also been impressive for a player who had retired in the summer only to change his mind at the last second. Meanwhile, Carlos Boozer, after a slow start, is now a reliable sixth man that can carry the offense when Yi is off the floor. It doesn’t take long to see Guangdong are a veteran roster that just know what they need to do and where they need to be.
The problem right now is trying to figure out how far this Guangdong team can go having already defied preseason expectations. Yi is playing great but it should also be noted that the CBA landscape is the most unpredictable it has been in years. Make no mistake, Guangdong are old but Stephon Marbury is now in his forties and the Beijing Ducks themselves are looking lifeless. Current champions Sichuan may not even make the play-offs whilst Xinjiang need Andray Blatche to return from injury if they are to be a credible contender. Liaoning, the most obvious threat to Guangdong, have also looked off-the-pace and the mental exhaustion of losing two consecutive CBA Finals may well have caught up with them. After that, the Tigers will fancy their chances in play-off series against Shanghai, who remain heavily reliant on their star American guards, Jimmer Fredette. If ever there was a year for an aging CBA team to go all-out, it would be this one.
Still, no-one should put their money on Guangdong going all the way like some in China are suggesting. The team’s remarkable last stand is surprising but the Tigers have a track record for bossing the regular season only to come undone in the play-offs. Opposing teams will once again look to drain Yi by making him carry Guangdong on the defensive end and then try to contain the American guard, safe in the knowledge that this will invariably rattle the Tigers. Meanwhile, the grind of flying back-and-fourth across China will remain a factor for the old legs within the roster.
But even then, what Yi and Guangdong are doing should be applauded. The fact that I can’t completely rule out an improbable title is testament to the unlikely season the Tigers are having. Right now, Yi is odds-on favorite to win another league MVP title and Guangdong’s play-off streak is very much alive. I still think the title will go somewhere else this season but the Tigers have once again earned the respect of everyone in the CBA.