Li Chunjiang and winning have gone hand-in-hand since he took over as the Guangdong Southern Tigers head coach in 2001. So it came as a shock today when team management announced that the seven-time champion coach is taking an indefinite leave away from basketball.
In his stead, longtime Southern Tigers forward, Du Feng, who has been on the bench as an assistant for both club and country the last two years, will be promoted to interim head coach. Former China National Team head coach, Lithuanian Jonas Kazlauskas, will return to China to join the team as an assistant coach/consultant.
Kazlauskas is in Guangdong with the club for their game tonight against Shanxi.
Citing undisclosed health reasons, Li will not rejoin the club at any point this season. It is unclear if or when he will resurface, either with Guangdong or with another team.
Li’s sudden departure from the team he helped mold into the powerhouse it is today comes as a huge surprise, and the true reasons behind the move are unclear at this point. Health is a common and generic reason given by teams in Chinese basketball circles when a coach leaves the team, and while that certainly could be the case for Li, it’s more likely that there are other factors involved.
After having won seven championships, nobody can argue with the tremendous results Li has achieved while with Guangdong. But with his overall approach, fiery temper and occasionally abrasive style, it’s possible that team management saw it fit to make a change. Whether that change was forced or not, we likely won’t know officially. But the ultimate result is likely due largely to last year’s failure to win the CBA Finals; their first loss in the last four years.
Heavily favored coming into the 2011-12 season, the Southern Tigers remained as the majority favorite to win their fourth straight championship last April when they met the Beijing Ducks in the Finals. But from the onset of Game 1, Guangdong was thoroughly outclassed by a superior Ducks team and ended up losing in five games. Li, who took poorly to Guangdong’s blowout loss in the Finals opening game, garnered national criticism for ordering his players to shang tui — “sweep the leg” — during the second half of Game 1.
That incident in Game 1 combined with Guangdong’s loss ultimately may have caused what some people inside Chinese basketball circles foresaw as an inevitable conclusion. The Southern Tigers’ core consists of several longtime National Team players, two of which, Zhu Fangyu and Wang Shipeng, have reached the advanced stages of their career. In addition, Yi Jianlian, after spending five years in the NBA, returned to club this off-season. With the mix of aging talent and a returning superstar who has become used to Western coaching methods, a more relaxed atmosphere might help the team’s win-a-championship-at-all-costs goal this season.
And while the team, sitting in second place at 14-3, is playing well, that ambition to win a championship is apparently greater than loyalty to their longtime coach. Armed with is without a doubt the league’s deepest and most talented roster, Guangdong has been far from its usual dominant self that historically blows out teams round-to-round. And though they haven’t been playing terribly, the individual performances of the Southern Tigers’ foreigners, Terrence Williams and Ike Diogu, have been largely used as role players in Li’s system this season and have thus been underwhelming in their overall impact. In years past, it was possible to rely mostly on the team’s superior core of Chinese players to overpower opponents. But with the overall talent-level of both Chinese and foreign players having improved dramatically over the last several years, Guangdong will need their imports to step into more of a prominent role.
Kazlauskas, a coach who has the unique mix of having experienced high-level international basketball, both at the domestic level in Europe and more relevant to his new job, with the China National Team, will be the man that management will ultimately rely on to smooth over all of these issues. Kazlauskas, who first served as an assistant for Team China under Del Harris in 2004, acted as head coach of the National Team from 2005-08 including during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he lead the team to an appearance in the quarterfinals and thus has the immediate respect of every player on the club. Although he is listed as a consultant/assistant coach, expect him to be heavily involved inside the coaching staff.
Kazlauskas spent last season with CSKA Moscow. He is currently the head coach of the Lithuanian National Team.
Entering tonight’s game against Shanxi, Guangdong currently sits in second place at 14-3.