Call it an overhaul, call it a gentle purge but whatever is going on in Beijing is pretty significant. Yesterday, the Beijing Ducks announced that Yannis Christopoulos, a long-term assistant coach with the Chinese national was taking over as Ducks head coach.
Min Lulei, Christopoulos’ predecessor and one of the CBA’s most decorated coaches, will now take up a role within the Ducks front office. For watchers of Chinese basketball, these are remarkable times.
Less than three months ago, things looked very different in Beijing. Although they had missed out on making the play-offs on the final day of the season, the face of the team was still Stephon Marbury and the final authority belonged to Min, who had been Beijing’s coach for almost 20 years. But things were changing fast. Marbury, the driving force of three CBA championships in five seasons was aging. The final year of his deal was a team option that would have taken him past his 41st birthday. It was clear that the Ducks were at a crossroads. Another year of Marbury meant holding off a rebuild of the roster that seemed increasingly listless.
Even then, most assumed the team would blink and still give Marbury his final year. After all, the American was hugely popular with fans and remained a major face on CBA advertisements. But instead Marbury was told he was now a free agent and should seek new employment if he wanted to play on. The Ducks showed an unexpected ruthlessness and made it clear he could stay on as a coach but not a player.
That was shocking enough but the changes still keep coming. Min, the coaching mind behind Beijing’s success, has also moved on– albeit upstairs rather than through the backdoor. “I don’t think of today as me stepping down. My new role is to help him get familiar with the whole team as soon as possible and to establish a better youth system”, Min told the China Daily website.
So far, so diplomatic but it remains unclear if Min was pushed out or suddenly decided to call it quits after nearly two decades of management. It has been suggested that Min’s issues with high blood pressure was a big factor in his resignation but we would be remiss if we didn’t note the whispering in the comments section and across Chinese social media.
One major source of intrigue is how the decision came to be made. Beijing’s GM, Qin Xioawen (left) has been an assertive presence since her arrival a couple of years ago and having ousted Marbury, some are wondering what part she played in Min’s reassignment. A well connected agent who sent Chinese players to the WNBA in the early 2000’s, Qin also has previous ties to her new head coach. In 2013, she represented Panagiotis Giannakis, the decorated Euroleague coach who managed the Chinese national team for that year’s FIBA Asian Championships. Christopoulos followed his countryman out to the Middle Kingdom and proceeded to stay with the national team after Giannakis left following a disastrous FIBA campaign and rumors of internal meddling. The sudden hiring of a Giannakis protege at a time when his former agent is clearing house in Beijing may be a coincidence but also invites conspiracy theories that Qin is making sure that Beijing can completely move on from the old days.
Either way, this will be the first time in forty years that Min will not be a player or head coach for the Ducks. Filling the massive void is an experienced coach who prior to coming to China, had spells in his own country as well as Cyprus, Germany and Romania. But critically, Christopoulos has never been a CBA head coach. The Ducks were built from the ground up by Min, who will be looming large in the background whilst the new man tries to find his feet. The first time Christopoulos loses a big game, there will be calls for Min to return to coach a roster made up largely of local players who have known him since they were children. ‘The difficulty [for Christopoulos]’, as Sina Sports drily quipped yesterday, ‘is not small’.
Change is never easy and it remains to be seen if the Ducks can escape their past. Marbury has not officially retired and will not be taking up a place on the Beijing bench. He has been linked with a move to the Shenzhen Leopards and given his ties to the capital city, a move to the young Beijing North Control Dragons team is also an outside possibility. Min will still be a daily presence around the team and retains support from every level of the team. Meanwhile, elements of the volatile Ducks fanbase are not exactly thrilled with the exiling of Marbury and the departure of their decorated coach. Christopoulos and the new regime have already targeted a postseason run for next year. But given the media frenzy surrounding the team right now, a play-off run has to happen or else things are going to get very political very quickly.