The FIBA Asia Championship starts on September 15th in Wuhan, Hubei province in China. Like the FIBA Americas, FIBA Oceania and FIBA EuroBasket Championships that already underway, and the FIBA Africa Championship that concluded on August 26, the winner of the Asia Championship receives an automatic berth into the 2012 London Olympics.
Throughout the tournament’s history, the Asia Championship’s result and a spot in the Olympics has generally been guaranteed for the Chinese, who have won the competition a record 14 times. But, this year things look to be vastly different for Big Red, who enter Wuhan as consensus underdogs for perhaps the only time other than the 2007 Asia Championship when they sent their “B team” to Tokushima, Japan, since their participation in the 2008 Beijing Olympics had already been guaranteed as the host nation.
After all, why should they be considered favorites? For the first time since 1997, China will not be defending its FIBA Asia Championship crown. Instead, they’ll be trying to deny Iran from lifting their third straight championship, an image that many — including us — feel is the tournament’s most likely result.
If Iran does indeed win the Asian crown, China would find itself in a pretty big mess. Assuming at least a top-three finish, their next shot at Olympic qualification would come in July 2012 at the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament. There, the top three teams out of 12 will advance on to London. Since those spots are typically grabbed up by European teams, China would be faced with the very real scenario of missing out on the 2012 Olympics altogether. Which is why this tournament is so important and why the Chinese Basketball Association has been hell-bent on getting Team China ready.
Ready or not, though, China will head into Wuhan clearly behind Iran. Why the change from perennial favorites to sudden underdogs? Let’s break it down.
Be patient, there’s a lot of them.
On August 16th, reigning CBA Finals MVP, Wang Shipeng, broke his wrist in an exhibition game against Australia in London. Initially expected to be out 4-6 weeks, there was a small glimmer of hope that Wang would be ready for the team’s opening match against Bahrain on September 15th. However, on August 26th doctors announced that Wang will not be able to play in any of the Asia Championship.
It’s a huge blow for the Chinese. Not only is Wang one of China’s best and most experienced players, he’s the only guard who can consistently create his own shot off the dribble. Without Wang’s scoring on the perimeter, Yi Jianlian is now option A through Z on offense, which is why opposing teams are likely to send even more defenders in his direction in an attempt to keep him from taking over on that end.
To replace Wang, the team decided to call up Duan Jiangpeng, a soon to be 22 year-old guard/forward who plays domestically for Shanxi Zhongyu. Duan played well for the Chinese U-23 Team this summer in their three-game exhibition series against the Duke Blue Devils and is someone who like Wang can create some offense for himself on the wing. But, let’s be honest — if Duan was good enough for the Senior Team, he wouldn’t have been cut from the roster altogether earlier this summer. Maybe he surprises, but we doubt he’ll be seeing any playing time in any of China’s “must-wins” against Iran and South Korea.
As unfortunate as Wang Shipeng’s injury is, what’s more unfortunate is that he’s not the only guy who is injured. Wang’s Guangdong teammate, Zhou Peng, who played Quincy Douby in the CBA Finals as well as anyone had all season last year, dislocated his elbow during training in early July and has been on the sidelines since trying to get right for the Asia Championship. According to a report yesterday on Sina Sports though, Zhou’s recovery isn’t going well and his status is in major doubt as he has yet to participate in any full-team practices.
There’s more: Zhejiang Chouzhou’s and NiuBBall’s favorite Chinese undersized power forward, Ding Jinhui, ruptured an ankle ligament earlier in the summer and although he has healed well enough to train with the team, team doctor Du Wenliang told reporters yesterday that there has the ankle is flaring up after practices and that Ding “is a little scared he might re-injure it, during practice he’s still playing tentatively.”
All of this is quite problematic. Healthy, China is thin enough as it is. At the 2010 World Championship in Turkey, China went only seven deep throughout the tournament, relying heavily on Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi, Sun Yue, Wang Shipeng and Liu Wei to carry most of the minutes, with Zhou Peng and Ding Jinhui playing in spots off the bench. With China’s core seven definitely down to six and possibly five depending on Zhou Peng’s elbow, other less experienced and less talented players are going to have to step up for the Chinese, especially in games against lesser opponents so that the starters can get some rest in the preliminary rounds. Possible? Maybe. Likely? No.
Though China has won the Asia Championship a record 14 times, they haven’t won a title since 2005 when they had a healthy Yao Ming leading the way. Some people will be quick to point out that China, who had automatically qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics as the host nation, sent out its young “B team” in 2007, which opened the door for Iran to win gold. And that’s valid.
But in 2009, China sent out its best squad to regain the country’s Asian glory. They were famously destroyed by Hamed Haddadi and Iran in the Finals, a result that still haunts the team today. Some of the same people who were quick to point to China’s B teammers in 2007 will be equally quick to point out that Yao Ming was hurt in 2009. That point is also valid, but Yao’s injury was and still is the cold reality of a Chinese system that leaned too much upon one player to deliver gold medals to the country. And this year, that cold reality is going to be made even more frigid when China goes up against the toughest field in Asia Championship history.
In addition to their already strong roster led by Haddadi and Mahdi Kamrani, tournament favorite Iran is adding Rice University standout, Arsalan Kazemi, who has been granted permission by his school to play in Wuhan. The addition of the 6’7 Kazemi, a Second-Team All-Conference USA selection last year and the only player in his conference to average a double-double, will make Iran even more of a favorite when the tournament starts up on the 15th.
There’s other teams that will challenge China on the top-tier as well. Lebanon, who has finished in the top four in each of the last five tournaments, will be joined by 32 year-old 6’9 American forward Sam Hoskin, who naturalized this summer and has officially been put on the team’s 12-man roster. Though past his prime, Hoskin was once a very good player in Europe, playing EuroLeague ball with Greek power Olympiacos and Croatain outfit Cibona Zagreb.
South Korea, who China narrowly beat last year in Guangzhou at the 2010 Asia Championship, will also be very much in the mix, too. Yes, as there are 16 teams in the Asia Championship, there are still plenty of cupcakes like India, Bahrain, Indonesia and Malaysia that will make up the majority of the tournament’s early stages. But at the top, there has never been this many good teams. And that’s not good news for China.
We wrote about it over at Shanghai City Weekend and Bob Donewald went on the record about it in the New York Times, but really it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to anyone who’s even casually followed Team China over the years: The Chinese basketball system simply cannot develop a crop of young, talented basketball players.
Case in point: 32 year-old Wang Zhizhi and 31 year-old Liu Wei, whose odometer reads somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 miles after playing domestic and national team basketball year-round for the last decade or so, are still playing major roles for the team in 2011. We’re not saying that these guys shouldn’t still be playing because Wang Zhizhi clearly demonstrated he can definitely still hoop last year during China’s run to gold at the Asia Games. We just think they shouldn’t be playing 25+ minutes a game. Ideally, we think both would be great in small doses of concentrated court-time — think Lithuania’s highly seasoned 31 year-old point guard, Sarunas Jasikevicius, who is playing an average of 15.6 very effective minutes per game at EuroBasket backing up Lithuania’s 24 year-old young-ishblood Mantas Kalnietis.
Of course, China has nobody who can allow Big Wang and Liu to ease into roles more suitable for their senior citizen statuses. China’s next-gen guard combo of Guo Ailun and Yu Shulong aren’t ready yet and the development of big men Max Zhang and Su Wei haven’t gone as well as initially hoped. No matter how much is done in the garage to keep Wang and Liu running somewhat smoothly, these two rickety players will eventually either show their obsolescence or just completely break down for good.
Chinese fans are just hoping that doesn’t happen in Hubei.
They’re just not that good
Maybe its a product of all of the things mentioned above, maybe its because they’re tired from playing basketball all year, or maybe its just that this group of Team China just isn’t that good. Or maybe its a combination of everything.
Whatever it is, China has been losing games way more than they’ve been winning them this summer during their long schedule of “warm-up games” in preparation for the Asia Championship. And we don’t think that’s a very good sign of things to come.
In late June, China lost two close games against Australia in the 2011 YouYi Games, one of which was played in Perth and the other in Singapore. From August 1-9, China went 1-7 in the Stankovic Cup, losing all four of their games in Haining to Russia (twice), Angola and Australia before losing their next three to New Zealand, Angola and Australia in the Guangzhou tournament. In the tournament’s last game, China managed to eek one out against Angola. From August 16-21, China went 0-5 in the London International Basketball Festival, losing by an average of 24.3 points to Australia, Serbia, Croatia, France and yes, even Great Britain, who did not even have a basketball team six years ago. During the festival, China put up a 43 point stinker against the Aussies in the opener, and never cracked the 60 point plateau in any of the four games after.
We’ve watched Team China throughout the summer and the results have confirmed our beliefs — this just isn’t a very good team as currently constructed. On offense, China’s motion offense looks like a pile of wet leaves. Like always, their guards are still to easily flustered by on-ball pressure, which makes it difficult for them to get into any kind of rhythm on offense. Defensively, though Donewald praised this group back in June for being “the best defensive team in Chinese history,” the team just looks plain tired in September. And while Yi will get his stats as he is a tough matchup for most teams in the international game, China is going to have major problems getting consistent offense from anyone else, especially without Wang Shipeng.
Donewald has tried to search for answers in these tough times, giving hard looks to Yi Li, Mo Ke, Xirelijiang, Zhang Bo, Zhang Qingpeng and Yu Shulong in the hope that someone is ready to make the jump into a trusted player Donewald can rely upon in Wuhan. So far, no dice. Which could mean come next year, no Olympics.