In the land of the NBA expat, the standard being set by the Golden State Warriors has not gone unnoticed — and in a few cases, it has nearly been matched.
No team has duplicated what the ‘Dubs have done in the NBA, opening 24-0 en route to a 30-2 record that they took into their Saturday night matchup with the Denver Nuggets.
But behind Andray Blatche, Andrew Goudelock and future lottery pick Zhou Qi, the Xianjing Flying Tigers are not all that far behind.
And as for the role being played by the San Antonio Spurs — 2nd-best in a runaway, and a legit threat to emerge from the West when it’s all said and done, Jeremy Pargo and Eli Holman (a poor man’s Hassan Whiteside, according to our own Chris Sheridan) are leading the way for the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions.
And a second set of China’s version of the Spurs, the the Sichuan Blue Whales, are tied for second place at 20-5 led by former NBA journeymen Mike Harris and Justin Dentmon along with former Memphis Grizzlies center and Iranian National Team stalwart Hamed Haddadi.
It is making for quite the season in the CBA as the playoffs quickly approach.
The players mentioned above may be off the NBA radar to a profound degree, but they are not forgotten on this Web site. So without further ado, let’s bring you up to date on what’s been happening in the Chinese Basketball Association — and who is going to be remembered by Chinese fans when things are said and done this season.
Xinjiang Flying Tigers – 22-3, 1st place.
Who runs the show: 9-year NBA veteran and Filipino (well, sorta) star Andray Blatche (23,5 ppg, 9,9 rpg), former Kobe protégé Andrew Goudelock (21,4 ppg, 43% from deep), 2016 projected lottery pick Zhou Qi (we talk about him here, 18 ppg, 9,9 rpg, 3,7 bpg).
It’s easy to understand how the Tigers from Urumqi have gotten their climb to the top going: money, money, money. The northwestern team has always been ready to dish out lavish contracts inaccessible to any other CBA side, and that has awarded them the services of guys like Kenyon Martin, Patty Mills and Jordan Crawford over the last five years.
This year, however, we’re actually seeing team results follow lead in an unprecedented fashion: 22-3, unbeaten at home, a 13-point differential on average and a cohesion that seemed long gone just a year ago.
Of course, having guys like Blatche and Goudelock has helped a great deal, but the real turning point for this team, combined with the presence of a plethora of local stars like Li Gen (probably the real MVP of last year’s CBA Finals for Beijing, a do-it-all stocky 2-guard who likes to post up American guards and shot 45% from deep last year), Liu Wei (a long time National Team starter at SG and a former Sacramento Kings Summer Leaguer now transitioned to veteran status) and Xirelijiang (by far the most unpredictable and flamboyant personality in the CBA, the best perimeter defender in the league and probably someone who’d deserve an article of its own) has probably been the presence of Zhou Qi, an NBA-bound stud who was given a huge, top-5 in the league contract a year ago without having appeared in a single professional game just so Xinjiang could steal him from Liaoning, the team that nurtured him basketball-wise.
A move that would surely be labeled as risky – if he’s not as good as advertised you’re wasting money, if he is better than expected, he’s going to the NBA before he reaches his prime and you get left on the seat of your pants.
Zhou Qi has basically this season to get a CBA title, and he’s surely leaving no matter what happens with Xinjiang. In the meantime, however, Xinjiang gets to have probably the only NBA-caliber rim protector available in China while still retaining two high-scoring foreigners (a couple of years ago Tianjin went for the rim-protecting route by signing Hamady N’Diaye, who despite a very sparse and forgettable NBA section in his resume was an NBA-caliber rim protector, but left his team begging for scoring on the offensive end), and this alone might be worth a CBA title.
Or so people hope, up northwest.
Zhejiang Guangsha Lions – 20-5, tied for 2nd.
Who runs the show: Former NBA player and Euroleague star Jeremy Pargo (24 ppg, 7,8 apg), local hero and regular Summer League presence Eli Holman (19,3 ppg, 11,6 rpg, 1,9 bpg), Taiwanese star and shotmaking veteran Lin Chih-Chieh (18,5 ppg, 41% from deep on 7 attempts per game).
We’ll start off by saying that surprises happen, every once in a while, in Chinese b-ball too.
Guangsha has been satisfying in recent years, but the turn they’ve taken this year is incredible. Pargo has been a revelation as a true point guard, while Holman hasn’t lost any efficiency while accepting a lesser role of the bench. Of course, there’s just no diminishing the stellar season Lin Chih-Chieh is having at 33 years of age, often being the finisher in crunch-time possessions. But while for Xinjiang you do appreciate the team effort and give Zhou Qi his credit as possibly the best Chinese player not named Yi Jianlian, in Hangzhou the team truly is more than the sum of its parts.
From the big-time foreigners to the unheralded rookies, everybody in Guangsha has answered the call to arms and the results are there to prove it. This is a team where star players aren’t necessarily called upon to create a shot for themselves in decisive moments.
If an open shot opportunity presents itself for a local player, that player will get his due chance to shoot – in a stark contrast to how most CBA teams believe foreigners should take key shots no matter how tough they are.
To top all that off, the team is extremely young, and that’s why even non-CBA fans should keep an eye on them.
Guys like Zhao Yanhao (11 ppg, 42% from deep playing in the starting five as an 18-year-old rookie) and Hu Jinqiu (a 1997-born big man who isn’t seeing much playing time after a fast start but is still shooting 60% from the field) might not be on the big radar right now, but NBA scouts have known their names for a while now. And apparently even Youtube fans are catching up, both in China and abroad, so if I were you I’d make sure I’ll be prepared if these two guys end up in NBA Draft conversations one or two years away from now.
Sichuan Blue Whales – 20-5, tied for 2nd.
Who runs the show: journeyman, former Houston Rocket, CBA veteran and apparently old school yellow-ish sunglasses admirer Mike Harris (32,5 ppg, 11,1 rpg), former NBA and Euroleague stud Justin Dentmon (25,4 ppg) and the Great Iranian himself, former Memphis Grizzlies fan favorite Hamed Haddadi (17,9 ppg, 15,1 rpg, 5,7 apg, 2bpg).
It’s good to have chemistry. Everybody knows it.
On the other hand, it’s also said that you can’t buy chemistry, but apparently this isn’t really the case. Bringing in all three of Qingdao’s foreigners from last year’s successful campaign that saw them reach the semifinals and bringing in veteran scoring guard Meng Da from Jiangsu, Sichuan has finally made up for that gap they’ve always perceived when facing other CBA teams since their promotion from the NBL in 2014.
A gap that they tried to cover last year by bringing in Metta World Peace, a brave CBA experiment that didn’t work out as the former Laker just wasn’t getting accustomed to being the shotmaker for his team.
Now, however, there’s no single star in Sichuan but a band of three. Having played together last year surely helped the trio, but overall it’s Harris’ impressive scoring output and Haddadi’s domination on both ends of the floor that should get the most credit, while Dentmon has been very strong despite not being a first violin anymore – something that CBA imports should always be lauded for when it happens, as most of them still perceive the Chinese league as a way to get gigantic stats and improve their resume.
This team is currently on a 7-game winning streak, too, and their game vs Guangsha saw them put up 50 points and 10 threes in a quarter. Let’s just respect their hard work, shall we?
Marco Catanzaro is a blogger and a CBA analyst at Shotsuey!, Shark Fin Hoops and, of course, Sheridan Hoops. You can follow him on Twitter @Arnstrad.