Its been rumored for a while but has now finally happened. Stephon Marbury is staying in Beijing but will no longer be with the Beijing Ducks. Instead, the veteran free agent will be moving across town and suiting up for the underperforming Beijing Dragons.
Right off the bat, one has to acknowledge what a magnificent ‘fuck you’ this is to a Ducks front office who refused to pick up his team option. Its also an opportunity for Marbury to further ingratiate himself with the Chinese capital, something he has gone out of this way to do since arriving back in 2011.
But beyond the symbolism of a beloved player staying in the city, Marbury’s move from the Ducks to the Dragons has created a massive upheaval within Beijing’s basketball circles. Indeed, a Sina poll showed that almost 90% of locals would be supporting the Dragons next season. It remains to be seen if fans will actually abandon one of the most storied clubs in Chinese basketball for a three year old expansion team but the surge in interest for the Dragons underlines Marbury’s popularity across the city.
For the Ducks, this is a terrifying situation. Not only have they jettisoned their most famous American player, they have also pushed aside former head coach Min Lulei, a native Beijinger who played for the Ducks before coaching the team for almost two decades. Now they have to rebuild their team with little momentum and the open contempt of a city that previously sold out one of the largest arenas in China on a nightly basis.
Meanwhile, the Dragons are playing with house money. This is an awful team that has been nothing since it was first moved into the CBA as an expansion team in Chongqing back in 2014. Before Marbury signed, their best known American player was Josh Harrellson, the notable jorts enthusiast and brief NBA cult hero. Back in Harrellson was allegedly cut because he was becoming too familiar with nightclubs in Chongqing. Marbury, obsessed being the man of the hour, is unlikely to take his eye off the ball in quite the same way.
Given the threadbare nature of the local roster, the Dragons are loading up on quality overseas imports. The team’s other American signing is Shavlik Randolph, a hugely experienced CBA pro who led the league in scoring a few seasons ago. Because they are eligible for a third ‘Asian’ foreign import, the Dragons have also picked up notoriously intense Jordanian rebounding machine, Zaid Abbas. Teenage youth team product He Xining will likely slot in at the shooting guard spot and a medley of guys no-one has ever heard off will finish up the line-up.
Marbury’s defection to the Dragons has happened to much fanfare. It doesn’t matter if his new team can even make the play-offs (and that’s going to be a stretch given how bad that local roster is). What is important is that the Dragons are both relevant and likely to play to full houses. By contrast, Beijing will be playing the role of ‘scorned lover looking on from afar’. Regardless of the positive PR both sides put out in advance of this year’s Beijing derby, these encounters are going to be white hot, particularly between the fanbases, one of whom will regard the other as turncoats.
Although he says this is a swan song campaign, one also has to ask if Marbury might actually play on beyond this year. He has changed his mind once about retirement and the grassroots support for him might be enough to make him play on beyond this upcoming season. The Dragons, who will dissolve back into irrelevancy once Marbury goes, certainly won’t be kicking him out.
For all of the above, this new chapter in the Marbury/Beijing sojourn is perhaps the most fascinating yet. Could he do the improbable and get the Dragons to the play-offs, it would be hugely impressive. But even if he doesn’t, Marbury remains the man in Beijing– and ultimately that is what he was always wanted.