Post by Jon Pastuszek
October 18, 2011
Chinese basketball got an unexpected piece of news last week when three-time defending CBA champs, Guangdong Hongyuan, announced the return of former player, Yi Jianlian, for the 2011-2012 season. Unlike other NBA-to-CBAers, Yi will be given the right to opt-out of his contract and return to the NBA whenever the lockout ends.
Of course, the question that immediately comes to mind for people who have stayed up on CBA’s restrictions on NBA out-clauses is: If Yi played in the NBA last year, why is he allowed to have an NBA out-clause when every other player isn’t?
The simple answer: He’s not just an NBA player, he’s a Chinese NBA player. And that makes his case much, much different from everyone else.
For those not in the know (and if you’re not, that’s cool, just click on this link to the right), CBA officials passed two rules in August designed to keep their league from falling at the mercy of China-minded locked-out NBA superstars. The first barred all players currently under NBA contract from signing here this season, making only restricted and unrestricted free-agents eligible to play. The second rule barred those free-agents from signing any out-clauses into their contracts. Free-agents who signed to play in China this year like Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, Josh Powell and J.R. Smith among others, are all contractually obligated to China for the entire season and cannot return to the NBA until the season is over March.
In the case of Yi, he fits the league’s first requirement. Before the lockout hit on July 1st, the Wizards declined to pick up his $5.4 million qualifying offer, which makes him an unrestricted free-agent. But in regard to the second rule, Yi’s under a different set of circumstances because of his Chinese passport. The no opt-out rule only applies to players registered as foreign imports, not domestic players. Since Yi is Chinese, he can be legally registered as a local player and can thus sidestep any regulations regarding out-clauses. The special rule has since been dubbed “The Yi Clause.”
Yet in our own Chinese basketball-trained eyes, technicalities are only part of the reason why Yi will be allowed to sign a deal with an NBA team whenever the season starts back up again.
With Yao Ming having officially retired, Yi is now the lone Chinese face in the NBA. A free-agent coming off of a lackluster season (or four) in America, Ah Lian cannot afford to lower himself anymore in the eyes of NBA general managers by wasting a season in China playing against sub-par competition. Heck, not even the CBA itself can risk Yi playing here the whole year — if Yi fails to get a contract, the Chinese basketball powers that be would be in the humiliating post-Yao position of having their best player relegated to CBA ball.
On the other side of the ocean, the NBA probably wouldn’t be too happy about that scenario either. For better or worse, Yi is now David Stern’s only direct Chinese link to the highly valued Middle Kingdom market. As Guan Weijia introduced to Western audiences last week what is a long known fact about the NBA in China, TV ratings have been at all-time lows since 2008-09 when Yao went down with what would be a career ending injury. It’s true that the NBA has made a lot of progress marketing its own superstars to China, but the fact remains that for most casual Chinese viewers, watching Yao was more important than watching basketball. Take Yi away, and Stern would be left with even less fans than he has now.
For sure, there is much at stake for all player, Chinese basketball and the NBA by keeping Yi locked up in China. But in the end, we think its something that doesn’t require too much worrying. While everyone is in agreement that Yi doesn’t have anywhere near the star power to carry huge national ratings in China, he does have enough popularity to bring at least some fans to the television. And in China, population 1.3 people, some people is still a lot. Even more so when you consider that Yi is still worshiped in his home province of Guangdong, which also happens to be China’s most populous. Yi won’t create sciesmic shifts for a team’s financials, but he still has commercial potential for the NBA and the team that signs him.
Plus, there’s still that somewhat tantalizing on-court potential that at least one team will take a cheap, low-risk flier on in the hope that its finally realized.
In all, forcing Yi to stay the whole year in the NBA is against everyone’s interest. And that’s why Yi is heading back to the States as soon as Billy Hunter and Stern can get a deal done.