With a 4-0 sweep of the Guangdong Tigers, the Xinjiang Tigers (Chinese pro teams really love their big cats) are CBA champions for the first time in their history. The extremely wealthy team from Urumqi have been building towards this moment for over a decade but made it look easy in the fourth meeting in nine CBA Finals between the two sides.
On paper, the rise of Xinjiang is great for Chinese basketball, who now become only the fifth CBA team to have won the championship in in modern era of Middle Kingdom hoops. From the perspective of real politik, state-controlled media now also have a positive article to write about Xinjiang province, whose predominantly Muslim, Uyghur-speaking populace have been among the most defiant to Beijing and the CCP machine.
Moreover, it is strange to think that a Guangdong vs. Xinjiang Finals, essentially the gold standard of Chinese basketball, could ever be so one-sided. To even call it a beatdown understates how much better Xinjiang were. The reality was that Guangdong lacked the manpower to slow down their foes and every game was defined by a quarter of fantastic basketball that allowed Xinjiang to set the tone. A 36 point second quarter in Game 1, a 32 point first quarter in Game 2, a 34 point second quarter in Game 3 and a 37 point third quarter in Game 4 were all cornerstones of an ruthless Finals performances from a traditionally dysfunctional team. All of these twelve-minute runs were built around Xinjiang finding the right combinations to use against Guangdong’s thinner roster and then decisively outscoring the latter when the time was right.
Ultimately, we’ve known that Guangdong were a fading force for a while. The last time the two teams meet in 2011, Du Feng, Zhu Fangyu and Zhou Peng all in still in their primes. But fast forward to 2017 and Du is calling the shots from the bench, Zhou is no longer a game changer and Zhu should have retired last season. Only Yi Jianlian seemed able to keep up with Xinjiang but even then, Yi, who is in his early thirties, is himself on borrowed time. This was absolutely a Finals series too far for the grand old men of Chinese basketball– and the preseason power play that forced Guangdong to hold off a rebuilt could not have finished in a more disastrous way.
The cream of Chinese basketball for a decade, Zhou and Zhu will now likely transition to the bench as coaches. Meanwhile, Yi will have a difficult decision as to whether he stays with the Guangdong team or goes elsewhere to chase another title. Beijing would sign him in a heartbeat whilst, ironically, Xinjiang may be the best option for one final Championship ring. The fate of Du, the senior figure in the Guangdong Tigers dynasty, is perhaps the most complicated. Having won a title in his first year on the bench back in 2012, ugly semi-final defeats to Beijing and now a 4-0 sweep to their most hated rival are going to weigh heavily on his resume. It makes no sense to sack a beloved former player before embarking on a rebuild but something has to happen.
Meanwhile, for Xinjiang, the face of Chinese basketball’s new money is standing tall. This is their first title but the scene is set for several more to come. Chinese basketball is one of dynasties; Bayi ran things for years until they lost to Guangdong, who in turn were eventually outflanked by Beijing. But now, with Bayi in shambles, Guangdong and Beijing’s key players have also passed the threshold of relevance. Xinjiang are younger than their rivals and have vastly more money than anyone else. These two factors alone mean they are already the automatic favorites to repeat. If they can persuade Andray Blatche and breakout star Darius Miles to stay on for another year or two, they already have the import players in place. Zhou Qi’s draft rights are held by the Houston Rockets but he will need at least another year of conditioning to handle the rigors of the NBA. Li Gen, Makan and Xirelijiang are all high level local players that are paid too well to want to leave Urumqi. Sun Tonglin and Liu Xudong could start for most CBA teams but seem content to be rotation players for Xinjiang. Its looking ominous for other CBA sides.
Yet the final cornerstone for Xinjiang– both in this year’s Finals and going forward– was Liu Qiupeng. The man who coached Yao Ming from the Shanghai youth ranks before sending him to the NBA a decade later, Liu becomes the first CBA coach to win titles with multiple teams. Fifteen years apart from his first title with Shanghai, Liu has gone from helming his team with Chinese stars to running his playbook through foreigners. More so, having made his name with Yao in Shanghai and then sparking an unlikely second act in Qingdao via the hulking frame of Hamed Haddadi, Liu had few qualms in turning to an American shooting guard to finish off Guangdong. In Adams, who finished as Finals MVP, Liu had a shooter in the form of his life and ran everything through the unheralded American. Old dogs can clearly learn new tricks when silverware is on the line.
In doing all of this, Xinjiang have found themselves alone at the top of the mountain. Unlike last year’s title winners, Sichuan, Xinjiang have the roster, the coach and the funding to sustain more success. Meanwhile, their rivals, most notably Guangdong, have a long offseason and a looming rebuild to think about. This Xinjiang title was not simply a breakthrough for the Tigers; it may well be the start of a new dynasty.