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As I expected, with 3 games played per week, the CBA season is flying by. Having 16 games behind us and only 16 left to go in the regular season, I thought it would be fun to give an update on exactly how the Jiangsu Dragons are fairing. Let me preface this by saying that the Dragons finished the 2010-2011 season with a long run into the postseason, ultimately placing a respectable 4th out of 17 CBA teams in the end.

Currently, at the mid-point of the 2011-2012 season, the Dragons are sitting dead last. Our record stands at 4-13. I did some research and in the past couple seasons the 8th and final team to qualify for the playoffs usually had no more than 15-17 losses. While I am trying to remain optimistic, it is obvious that our chances of making the playoffs are very slim. If the season was 82 games like the NBA there would still be plenty of time to right the ship, but with only 32 games a CBA team can dig itself into a deep hole with early losses, one that’s tough to climb out of. So how does a 4th place team end up dropping to last place the following year with essentially the same domestic team members? Here are my theories:

Dragons action shots (left in white, middle in white, right in blue)

If I had to pick only one reason, this would be it: the team spent way too much time in the summer and early fall playing pointless exhibition games. Sure, the players got a lot of practice, but the team also spent endless weeks traveling to random places playing low-level teams which, quite frankly, were a joke. Final scores of some exhibition games were often 100-40!  Some teams had teenage players while others were pudgy, middle-aged men. Why bother, right? If by some chance the games were close (we did play a few CBA exhibition games), the coaches played all the older veteran players to make sure we won (i.e. more wear and tear on their bodies) rather than ignoring the final score and allowing the younger players to develop.

Long before the season began I had concerns about the time wasted on these games. My translator told me that the team played more exhibition games this year than the previous year, but why? In my mind, this time could have been better spent working on many aspects of the game, like defense.

Additionally, this obsession with off-season games made my job a nightmare. While in Nanjing, the team had access to a quality weight room which allowed me to properly train the athletes. However, after seeing several weeks of encouraging strength gains the team announced that we would be traveling for 2 weeks, which for me meant less weight training sessions and also no access to proper facilities. This eraser-effect happened several times before the season started. Two steps forward, one and a half steps back. Before I understood how the team operated I spent hours writing training cycles, dwelling on the details, which incrementally challenged the athletes week-by-week. But, these exhibition game trips threw a major wrench in my programs.

I did all that I could with the team when traveling, every push-up variation known to man, but at some point you need access to weights. In an effort to cling to the players’ strength, we have done workouts in hotel rooms, hotel hallways, and even the small square space outside hotel elevators. Still, when an athlete can squat well over 300 lbs, body weight lunges aren’t exactly challenging. Thankfully I brought about two dozen heavy-duty exercise bands from the U.S. which have given me some more options for planning workouts.

players doing Standing Band Rows

From what I gather, the team was paid by sponsors (rich businessmen) to play these exhibition games in the summer, so maybe the team needed the money. Like I even have to mention, you know what else rakes in the dough? Ticket sales to playoff games and championships!

Anyway, there is also quite a lot happening during the season which I feel is contributing to our current struggles:

Every CBA team is allowed to have two foreign players who are not from China. The two foreign players are typically from the U.S. who were drafted into the NBA out of college, but only lasted a couple of years before being bounced out for a variety of reasons. The CBA also gets some veteran NBA players who are no longer good enough to score quality playing time in the NBA, so they choose to play in China. For basketball fans, Stephon Marbury is the biggest NBA veteran and is currently playing his 3rd season. In the CBA it is not uncommon for a team to decide that a certain foreign player is not a good fit and replace them with another before the season ends. Many teams have done this in the past; the CBA has a reputation for having a quick trigger finger when it comes to foreign talent.

Dan Gadzuric, Mardy Collins (both played 4-6 weeks for the Jiangsu Dragons)

Jackson Vroman, Marcus Williams (both currently on the team)

The Dragons are currently on their 3rd and 4th foreign players this season. The first two, one a very tall athletic NBA veteran and the other a former NBA guard who created many match-up problems because of his height compared to Chinese guards, were viewed as a poor fit. (Coincidentally, we have not yet won without them.) They were replaced by two other players, both who spent about 2 years each in the NBA. This all happened by about the 12thgame of the season. So by the 13th game the team had at least four different starting line-ups, probably more. It’s tough to develop any sort of team chemistry in that situation. To tops things off, when the newest players did not produce wins, the head coach was fired (4 coaches in the league have already been fired this season). Interesting enough, the new coach is not exactly “new”. Here are the last four coaches of the Jiangsu Dragons:

  1. Coach Xu
  2. Coach Hu
  3. Coach Xu (seen him before)
  4. Coach Hu (present coach, seen him before)

Xu Qiang & Hu Weidong

Needless to say the “new” coach hasn’t turned the team around yet. Maybe the Dragons are not used to losing, so they do not know how to react, but I have a different opinion. I feel this is reflection of their off-season and in-season approach. Rather than first blaming the foreign talent for lack of success, I feel they should have worried more about the X’s & O’s of their defense, which is pretty bad. During most games we give up around 100 points to the other team as it appears the CBA does not like to play hard-nosed defense. The Dragons do not spend much time tactically preparing for the other team. They will walk through the plays that their opponent runs, but they rarely simulate anything at full speed, or mimic the tendencies of an opposing team’s star player. In addition, they never harp on the fundamental details of defense, such as how to defend a screen, which drives the NBA players crazy.

For example, this morning our team spent probably about 2/3 of the practice running 3-man weave variations (a simple drill used mostly for a warm-up) and shooting jump shots. One of the NBA guys said today, “If you want to become an expert at history you don’t just write, ‘George Washington was the first president’ over and over repeatedly. You got to study the finer details.” There is little attention to the components of the game. I’m not sure if this is because they have a “more is better” approach, thinking more shooting will make us better, or because they simply were never taught the finer elements to winning the sport. Often the two NBA players will take other teammates aside and show them how to set a quality screen or how to cut to the basket in certain circumstances.

The following are observations through my eyes about the CBA and the way it operates during the season, for better or for worse:

The League – The CBA is a league rich in talent, however there are glaring issues that I believe are slowing its growth. Many of the teams are not in the biggest cities, but rather second or third tier cities. Since China has a ton of people, this isn’t a huge problem, but it simply does not make sense. The bigger the city, the more exposure, the more the league can grow, right? Additionally many arenas seem to be tucked into remote corners of cities making them difficult to access. The Dragons arena in Nanjing is nearly impossible to get to from downtown. It’s about a 30-45 minute cab ride to the edge of the city (assuming the driver even knows how to get there). No buses and no metro reach it.

The Fans – Some arenas have very loud, rowdy fans, which is great, but often times fans only cheer for dunks. Also, many arenas are only half full. Given that the stadiums aren’t terribly big (they can hold about a couple thousand people) it’s strange that a country of 1.4 billion supposedly “basketball obsessed” people can’t fill them. Of course being in last place, maybe the Dragons just aren’t drawing crowds, but I think there is more to it than that. Fans never wear team colors. Even though CBA apparel isn’t sold (I haven’t seen anywhere that sells jerseys or hats), you would think people would still put on red, green, and blue shirts to support their favorite team. The fans are a sea of black winter coats, well, except the cheerleaders showing off their mid-drifts in sequined costumes.

The Team – From what I’ve learned thus far my team might be the most “old school” team in the league. The Dragons have no real home. We have two “home” arenas in completely different cities, but no permanent residence in our city. When the team goes on the road, we have to pack up our entire hotel room while other CBA teams rent rooms in hotels for the entire season so the players’ have their own personal space. (The fact that “home” means living in a hotel is also super strange, but that is league-wide.) Because of this living situation, no one ever really sees their family or friends. It’s just teammates 24/7.

The Chinese Players – The CBA is full of homegrown talent. They can do everything well, but when watching the Chinese players during a live game with foreign players in the mix the finer details of basketball begin to emerge. The foreign talent notices passing opportunities that the Chinese players do not, often resulting in a wide open lay-up turning into the ball flying out-of-bounds because a player wasn’t looking. The foreign players seem to have far better court awareness and are always looking for the easiest way to score, while the Chinese players seem to be going through the motions of the play that was called.

It’s tough to explain exactly the difference, but it often appears that the action is moving slower for the foreign players. My guess is that most of the American players spent a lot of time perfecting their game with new people in informal settings, like at camp or on the playground. Conversely, the Chinese players have been playing with the same group of guys since they were teens; their basketball style is much more structured. From a defensive perspective, the Chinese players simply don’t play hard defense, which is true across the league. Good defense is like watching five rabid animals run around trying to swarm and suffocate their opponents. The CBA defense is nothing like that. In the spirit of the sport, there is very little passion during games from the players (other than complaining every time a foul is called on them.) I am often the only one on the bench cheering.

Dragons' top players: Hu XueFeng (G), Yi Li (F/G)

The Foreign Players – While I can only speak for the 4 that I have encountered so far, most are mainly here because the CBA pays good money compared to other leagues around the world. None of the players really show an interest in the culture, none learn their teammates’ names, none take great interest in trying the food (most have western-ish food delivered to their room in privacy), none take the coaching too seriously, none venture out of their rooms (instead they sleep, Tweet, and play video games on their PlayStation) and I can guarantee all are gone the day after the season ends. They are all nice guys, but they don’ t seem thrilled at the opportunity of being in China and what the country has to offer.

The Refereeing – Before the CBA season started the league was harping on how the refereeing would be more strict this year (in my opinion, as fall out from the Georgetown fight during the summer which only fueled the fire that Chinese basketball players like to fight). In the first few games of the season I thought the referees did a great job and I was impressed. However, as of late, the refereeing has turned to the worst. Having refereed intramural basketball games in college myself, I can appreciate how hard it is, but one of the most important parts of the job is being consistent. CBA refs allow the game to be over-physical in the first half. When the game borders on getting out of control, the refs get worried and start calling everything which suddenly makes a player pick up 3 fouls in 5 minutes, effectively stapling him to the bench until the 4th quarter. The refs also make blatant “make-up” calls. When a hard foul goes uncalled and a team starts screaming at a ref, he will often call a tiny, barely there foul the next time down the court. They are easily intimidated and rarely call technical fouls.

In the status-driven world of professional basketball, it’s well-known that the refs are paid money, given nice food/alcohol, and gifts by owners of the home teams. I had heard rumors of this, and at first I thought there was no way it could be true, but I have since read about it on several occasions. Still resistant to the idea, I finally bought in when during one away game we had 3 players foul-out, while the home team had nobody on the team with more than 3 fouls.

CBA referees

The Arenas – Arenas are never heated during practices (except for the cities way up north) and the games are semi-heated. Despite the fact, outside doors are often left wide-open creating an uncomfortably cold draft for the players sitting on the bench. There’s no better way to catch a cold then to start sweating heavily in a frigid arena during practice. To make matters worse, my “old school” team makes the players wear only tank tops and shorts because they claim extra layers of clothing will negatively effect their shooting technique. Give me a break. At any given time, half our team seems to have a cold. I wonder why.

The Dragons are half-way there, literally living on a prayer. I’m practically along for the ride, silently hoping for a miracle turn-around. C’mon 8th place…

The BEST holidays

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