Farewell, Tianjin Golden Lions

Post by Leon Zhang 

March 7, 2013

Chinese Basketball Association (CBA)

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The regular season is over and for the eight teams who finished with a good enough record to participate, the month of March will one of hope and optimism… unless you’re playing Guangdong or Beijing in the first round (as Guangsha and Zhejiang both found out). Then, maybe it’ll just be a month of collecting first-round playoff bonuses. But for those nine teams who are already relaxing at home, you’re not forgotten. Leon Zhang says goodbye to the second-worst team in the league, the Tianjin Golden Lions, in his ongoing series of CBA Farewell Letters.

It was the best half season anyone could’ve expected, and then abruptly, it was the worst. The first part of the season saw Tianjin, high upon the standings, looking to preserve a low playoff seed as a pleasant surprise — a Cinderella story in the making, a testament to what good coaching and solid import selection can do. The second was, in short, a massive flop towards the finish line.

And at the end of the season, the inevitable question is raised: Just what were you, Tianjin? Borderline contender or a historic failure?

Let’s start with the good first, because let’s be honest, most if not all of it came in the beginning. Nobody expected Tianjin to make any sort of noise and the expansion team, in its fifth year, looked to be headed for a series of capitulations before the structured talent development programs and glitzy overseas stars of its more established counterparts. Yet behind the strength of a focused coaching squad, most noticeable of which was eccentric pracitcal-head-coach-but-officially-titled-assistant coach, Gary Gaspard, the team pulled off a number of victories with a revamped and stingy defense. The perennial cellar dweller picked up three solid imports, all of whom led the league in some key stat: Osama Daghles’s playmaking netted him 9.1 assists a game, Donnell Harvey made his home in the paint with 16.6 rebounds, and Hamady N’Diaye was an imposing defensive force with 3.9 blocks a night. Workhorse Zhang Nan was his usual stellar self with 20.3 points a game on 41.4 minutes a game, and 22-year old swingman Zhang Zhihan had a breakout season of sorts, chipping in 12.1 points, an oasis compared to the eyesore of the rest of Tianjin’s lackluster supporting cast.

All this came to a head on January 6, 2013. On that day, Tianjin was 10-8, with statement wins against Beijing, Zhejiang, and Shanxi. They made it to the top without much fanfare, trading wins and losses, a methodical Daghles making the most out of his weapons offensively, their two import centers smothering any intruder on the other end; their defense allowed just 3 opponents in 17 matches to score over 100 points. Yet from then on, the team won just one game, going 1-13 to end the season.

It’s worth taking a look in closer detail, if only because of the complete incongruity of the two halves. Tianjin played Jilin and Liaoning, their Round 20 and 21 opponents, respectively, and though they put up a respectable showing, Daghles’s injury, which hampered him in one game and made him sit out for another, was too much to overcome. It then took on the defending champs, proving to be Beijing’s nemesis as the squad, led by the two Zhangs, swept the season series and notched its only victory of 2013. Then came the 11-game slide, of which six losses came against teams in the playoffs; a tough schedule for any team to navigate. One came against a at-the-time red-hot Qingdao team that dropped an awesome 140 points which leaves a competitive loss against Jiangsu and two tilts where they were without Donnell Harvey.

Dang it, you’ve got us making excuses for you every which way, Tianjin.

With complete honesty, all this has led us to a verdict that you won’t like (someone restrain Coach Gaspard!). You’re just not a very good team. We can find all sorts of excuses for you and many have pointed, with reason, to injuries. But in the end, all teams face these pitfalls and what separates the wheat from the chaff is if they can struggle through these problems and still come up with wins. Tianjin simply did not have the depth of a contender, and their imports were more specialists than the scoring machines that most CBA teams need. In fact, their inconsistency was a product of their flaws, a team that played well if and only if their few productive players were at 100%.

Tianjin will start next season with a talented youngster in Zhang Zhihan, a franchise icon in aging Zhang Nan, along with many problems: will it spend much needed effort and time developing its youngsters? What imports will it find for its three slots next year, and what direction will the team take? In the end, we’re still left with more questions than answers. Tianjin, a Cinderella season might be on your horizon, but just as the prince had to fit the golden slipper on every misshapen foot, so you, too, will have to do some work before we can see Zhang Nan and company in the playoffs for the first time in a while.

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