In China, searching for a late night snack is kind of like going into 7-11 at 11:45pm to see that the guang dong zhu is still bubbling: Technically it’s available, but it’s probably best avoided.
That’s how we would best sum up the NBL (National Basketball League). Yeah, it’s around. And in the Chinese basketball summertime, where the non-national team pickings are generally slim, that counts for something. But it’s still not very good.
Nor is it very productive towards anything. Officially, the NBL operates as China’s second-tier professional basketball league and like it’s distant relative, the CBA, it is governed under the all encompassing umbrella of the Chinese Basketball Association. And oh, there’s quite a bit of on-court brawls, too. But what it actually is or what it actually does, has largely remained a mystery to anyone who actually cares enough to ask those questions.
The NBL as we know it has been around since 2005, when its named was changed over from the CBL (Chinese Basketball League). Before, the league was used as a “B-League” to the CBA’s “A-League;” a place where teams had the chance to be promoted into the big time if they won the league title.
Post-2005, its purpose has become less clear. Now, the NBL has its own “A” and “B” division; but to what aim, nobody really knows. The league has no relevant television package, little sponsorship and even sparser fan support. With all teams operating at huge losses, there is little meaningful investment in players or facilities. Thus, the overall quality of the league remains dismal. A few years ago, Kenny Huang, the same guy who bought and then didn’t buy a stake in the Cleveland Cavaliers, joined up as a sort of psuedo-commissioner. But one year later, Huang left for reasons unknown.
Basketball-wise, the NBL salso struggles. Either too old, too injured to too bad to play in the CBA, the league is generally comprised of fourth and fifth-rate local talent. And the level of foreign players are generally at a below average level. Aside from a few cases (Cui Wanjun, Zhu Yanxi), nobody from the NBL ever gets signed up to the CBA.
One thing that the NBL has done, though, is provide the CBA with expansion teams. Zhejiang Guangsha, Tianjin, Qingdao and DongGuan are all teams that were added to the CBA, with the latest round of additions being in 2007. But in the six years since, despite many rumors, there’s been absolutely nothing on that front as the CBA has stood pat at 17 teams. That’s been problematic for the NBL: With the annual promise of promotion, clubs have beared heavy losses attempting to build a winning team. Last September, 2012 league runner-up, Guangzhou Free Man, disbanded entirely due to heavy losses and lack of support from provincial government after their expansion bid was denied once again.
This season, however, the probability of another round of expansion is very real: Last year, the CBA announced plans to expand the league to 20 teams by 2014-15, with one team to be added for the 2013-14 season. We’ll see it when we believe it, but the talk around China is that it’s legit.
Perhaps even more telling, the action suggests that it’s legit as well. With promotion on the line, teams are splashing record amounts of money, both on Chinese and on foreigners, in an attempt to win the league and give themselves the best chance. Just look at some of the names who will be playing in China this summer: Craig Smith, who played six years in the NBA with the Timberwolves, Clippers and Trail Blazers, signed on with Shaanxi. Hilton Armstrong, who spent time with the Hornets, Rockets, Kings, Wizards and Hawks, is with Changsha and Josh Harrellson, who had a cup of coffee with the Knicks and Heat, is with Chongqing.
The somewhat good news for the NBL — at least it matters this season, and maybe next season too. But beyond that, the same question will remain: Aside from a random feeder system into the CBA, what the heck is this thing?