While the star-studded Xinjiang Flying Tigers, previously led by the Andray & Andrew Show, are stumbling out of the All-Star break, the Chinese Basketball Association playoff picture is shaping up quite clearly.
Eight teams qualify for the postseason. Zhejiang is eighth and has a three-game advantage over ninth place. And there are three teams climbing with impressive late-season winning streaks.
For those of you who have kept a watchful eye on our China updates, we’ve already discussed the three top CBA teams here. As the situation has evolved, however, it’s perhaps time to get familiar with three more.
Again, at the present time some of the players discussed here may be so far off the NBA radar you would require a the Hubble Telescope to see them. But this being China, well, never write anybody off.
Liaoning Flying Leopards: 26-7, tied for first place
Who runs the show: NBA journeyman, Doc Rivers favorite and perennial CBA MVP contender Lester Hudson (29,1 ppg, 7,1 rpg, 5,8 apg); former Duke and NBA big man Shavlik Randolph (22,1 ppg, 11 rpg); rising Olympian combo guard Guo Ailun (15,1 ppg, 5,9 apg).
They’re back at it. Liaoning was one free throw away from tying Game 4 in last season’s CBA Finals. Had that shot gone, the Flying Leopards would have forced OT, and a win in extra time would have meant a 3-1 series lead. But it wasn’t destined to be as Beijing won Games 4, 5 and 6 and the championship.
After a couple of hiccups in the season’s first half, Liaoning is back on track and in the midst of a scintillating 12-game winning streak. The reason why Liaoning is such a strong candidate to compete at the highest level is obvious: Hudson is the best player in the league.
With two MVPs and favored for a third, one CBA title back in 2011 and an NBA call-up with the Clippers (Doc Rivers had already drafted him with the Celtics back in 2009) for last year’s playoffs, Hudson is much more than a mere scorer: he consistently is top-two in rebounds per game among backcourt players, has never averaged less than 4,5 assists in five CBA seasons, is consistently around three steals per game and has cut down his turnovers (2.43) while shooting a career-high 44,2 percent from deep.
Around him are former top CBA scorer Randolph and a wealth of local heroes. One is Han Dejun, “China’s Shaq” who really looks much more like China’s Eddy Curry but has unsuspected hops – Stephon Marbury knows a thing or two about it – and was believed to have a bright future even outside of the Middle Kingdom had he stayed in shape. Another is He Tianju, recently picked up by New Orleans for some Summer League action. Yet another is Guo Ailun, who some people remember for being a World Cup participant at 16 and an Olympic Team member at 18, just slightly ahead of common western schedules for bringing up young talent.
This team oozes with local and imported talent. The problem is nobody outside of Hudson has won anything valuable in China. Can talent alone breed a winning culture?
Shandong Golden Stars: 25-8, tied for third place
Who runs the show: Former NBA second overall pick Michael Beasley (32,1 ppg, 13,4 rpg); former Sacramento Kings guard and Euroleague star Pooh Jeter (26,4 ppg, 5,6 apg).
A team that reached an unlikely CBA Finals matchup vs. Guangdong in 2013 with Jeter already running their offense, the Golden Stars have proven to be as inconsistent as they are talented. While some of their most glistening stars from three years ago have dimmed a bit in recent seasons (swingman Ding Yanyuhang was a real glimmer of hope for Chinese fans even from an NBA perspective), almost all local players are homegrown talents and have played together at a high level, making their chemistry hard to replicate elsewhere.
Jeter, meanwhile, is nearing a 50-40-90 season despite somewhat losing his first-option status in Shandong in his fourth year with the team and is proving himself as a supreme team player regardless of who’s around him.
The top option in Shandong now is Beasley. The former Miami Heat forward has been in and out of the NBA and very likely to make a comeback as soon as this CBA season is over.
Beasley had already established himself as a game-changing asset by Chinese standards last season, playing nearly every position for Yao Ming’s Shanghai Sharks. However, with the Golden Stars he now has a chance to show how his abilities fit in a winning environment where it’s not delusional to strive for some hardware, perhaps even this season.
“B-Easy” has played like an MVP candidate, and if it weren’t for Hudson’s domination he could be the front-runner in that race. But individual accolades only matter so much, as they often are testimony of talent. Beasley is notoriously talented and needs no further evidence. The question with him is maturity, and whether or not he is a winner. That’s what the NBA respects, whatever the level.
Guangdong Southern Tigers: 24-9, tied for fifth place
Who runs the show: 2007 NBA lottery pick and China’s finest Yi Jianlian (26,7 ppg, 9,7 rpg); former Detroit Pistons point guard Will Bynum (17,8 ppg, 6,5 apg), 2005 lottery pick and NBA journeyman Ike Diogu (18,7 ppg, 9 rpg).
Well, we lied. The real answer to the “who runs the show?” question in Guangdong has been and always will be everyone. That’s how the Southern Tigers have earned the label of “CBA’s last dynasty” even when Jianlian – now a true local star after an overall disappointing NBA stint – was still away from his homeland. However, after years of domination, Guangdong missed the CBA Finals last season.
Furthermore, the sudden outbreak in the local player market has redcued the gap they enjoyed as rich teams such as Xinjiang have made a point of hoarding Chinese talents, sometimes for the pure sake of not having to play against them.
However, Guangdong still retains a team-first approach with spectacular chemistry and the best local player available in Yi, an NBA enigma who had a promising first season (capped off by this Porzingis-like dunk on Carmelo Anthony during the 2008 Olympics), then completely lost it to the point of having to leave the States.
Now Yi has found his own dimension as a local star. Guangdong is pairing him with Diogu and Bynum – the type of team-oriented foreigners it is often hard to lure to the CBA – and a local bunch in a state of flux.
Former Chinese National Team starters Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu (currently the all-time leading scorer in CBA history with over 9,000 points) are transitioning to veteran roles. Most of Yi’s help is coming from Zhou Peng, a 6-9 swingman formerly known as just a defensive specialist who now is scoring over 16 points per game and morphing into a CBA version of Paul George.
It might take something special to pull it off this year for the Cantonese Tigers, but perhaps no team is more special than them.
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.