Tracy McGrady was supposed to bring a boost in worldwide attention, national television ratings and local attendance to the Qingdao Eagles when he signed in September. But two games into the season, the Eagles have yet to seen an increase in the most important asset of them all: wins.
And because of that, head coach Kang Jung-soo is out of a job.
After going 0-2 to start the year, Eagles management announced today that Kang has been fired. Kang, the league’s only South Korean coach, had been with the Eagles organization for the last four years, spending the 2008-09 and part of the 2010-11 season as an assistant before being promoted to head coach in December 2010. Under Kang’s direction last year, the Eagles went 16-16, the best season in club history. He had also served as an assistant on the Korean National Team.
Kang will be replaced by Zhang Shizhang, who up to this point had been head coach of the Eagles’ junior team.
Teams in China are not hesitant to make quick changes when things are going south, but even by CBA standards, Kang’s firing comes as extremely sudden. However, with expectations as high as they’ve ever been with McGrady on board, it’s become quite clear that Eagles management feel that it is unacceptable for a team with a seven-time NBA All-Star to be winless at the two game mark.
Last night, it also became quite apparent that fans feel the same way. Trailing most of the night against the Foshan Long Lions in their home opener, a team who has finished in the league’s bottom four the last two years in a row, fans who packed the Eagles’ arena for what they thought would be their first glimpse at McGrady — and the team’s first win — quickly became restless, repeatedly chanting “Fire Kang!” in the second half.
Media has speculated that the fan unrest was a determining factor in the decision to fire Kang. However, Eagles general manager, Sheng Xishun, moved to dismiss speculation that last night’s fan behavior sparked the change.
“Firing Kung Jang-soo is the club’s decision,” said Sheng. “It has nothing to do with the fans behavior last night. The club has made a decision based on the team’s situation, not on the wishes of the fans. Zhang Shizhang has been with this team for the last three or four years. Last year he was in charge of the team for the pre-season. Because he’s headed the team before for a period of time, everyone has confidence in his ability.”
Yet while it’s been decided that the 62 year-old Zhang will take charge in Qingdao, it’s quite unclear what will follow in both the team’s short and long-term future that will follow.
First, the most important issue at hand: McGrady. In two games, he’s played at a high level, compiling 34 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists in his first game away at Fujian SBS before following that up with 32-5-5 last night. Though his turnover on the last possession on Sunday against Fujian has been on non-stop loop on Chinese news, nobody is questioning his overall performance thus far.
There are those, however, who are concerned whether McGrady’s body is going to hold up to the intense pressure Qingdao has put him under so far. In both games, McGrady has logged over 40 minutes; numbers that have been well over his workload in the NBA the last several seasons. McGrady’s injury history is well known, as is his age of 33 years. Expecting a player with that much mileage to shoulder the offensive load as primary playmaker and scorer with minimal rest is a difficult task for anyone to carry out, no matter what country that player is playing in. And when you further consider that the CBA is far behind NBA and Western practices in post-game rest and recovery, ensuring that McGrady’s minutes are kept at a reasonable number will be paramount to the club’s success this season.
Which opens up another issue for the Eagles: McGrady’s teammates and how much they can contribute. This off-season, the club saw a total seven players leave the team, an extremely high number in a league that generally does not see a lot of summer player movement. At the top of the list of outgoing players was 2012 CBA All-Star Game MVP, Li Gen, who signed as a free-agent with the Beijing Ducks. Li was second in scoring average last year amongst Chinese players and quickly became a player that opposing teams consistently had to game plan for. Without his services this year, the Eagles have been forced to rely on McGrady to facilitate almost everything on the offensive end as the team’s overall quality in their Chinese roster is very much below par compared to the rest of the league.
The Eagles are also not getting anything from their second import, D.J. Mbenga. Mbenga, who was signed as a defensive presence who could contribute offensively off of pick-and-roll, dump-offs and putbacks, has struggled severely to take pressure off of McGrady. In two games he is averaging 11 points and 7.5 rebounds while playing only 26 minutes per night, numbers that are all well below the norm for foreign big men. Considering the lack of Chinese talent, some felt that acquiring an inside player who can score in isolation would have been a better bet. If Mbenga continues to struggle, those people might just get their wish as Chinese teams are quick to bring in new foreign players if the current ones aren’t getting the job done.
At present Qingdao’s problems are many, which makes firing Kang seem nothing more than a superficial change at best. Going with a new coach may be a step in the right direction, but if their Zhang can’t get a handle on the underlying problems — lightening McGrady’s gameday load, getting something out of his Chinese players and figuring out if there’s anyway to salvage Mbenga then the team’s biggest problem at hand , their 0-2 record, is likely to only get worse.