After the 73-86 loss against Nigeria in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, China concluded its run in the FIBA tournament with a 2-3 record, and ended up as the second-best Asian team in the competition. Despite being in an “easy group”, China lost to both Poland and Venezuela in the group stage, ultimately failing to qualify for the round of 16, and losing the chance to directly qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics through this tournament.
China fell behind Iran despite having the same tournament record. Iran had a +7 plus/minus points, which exceeded China’s -10 after losing by 13 points to the Nigerians. This is the first time that China failed to directly qualify for the Olympics in 36 years.
China’s quest to enter the Olympics is not completely dead. Despite missing the opportunity to qualify through the FIBA World Cup tournament, team China may try their luck in the upcoming 2020 FIBA qualification tournament. The top 16 remaining teams in the World Cup tournament that did not qualify for the Olympics can sign up for the qualification games. Together with two different teams from each region, there will be four tournaments in total for the final four spots in the 2020 Olympics Men’s basketball games.
However, the likelihood of China becoming the winner through these qualification games is rather low. China will be facing tougher opponents in this worldwide qualification tournament. Teams such as Canada, Brazil, Greece, and Italy will all be interested in seizing their final chance to get into the Olympics. It is unlikely that China can defeat those teams given the lack of depth and talent in the current Chinese squad.
Despite team China having a theoretical opportunity to qualify for the Olympics, Chinese media are pessimistic about the team’s future. Many are comparing the Chinese basketball squad to the underwhelming Chinese Men’s football team. The Chinese national football team is once again on their quest to qualify for the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar. With several naturalized players in the team led by legendary coach Marcello Lippi, the Chinese may have a better shot in the Asian qualification games, starting with the game against Maldives.
Yao Ming failed his major test
Speaking of the losses in this FIBA tournament, basketball hall of famer and former NBA player Yao Ming said he will be taking major responsibilities for these failures.
Acting as the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, Yao implemented several significant reforms to the country’s professional basketball league and adopted a new national team system. By dividing potential prospects into two different national teams led by two different coaches, Yao increased the quantity of talent that can be exposed to international tournaments. It is also a great opportunity for Chinese basketball players to get valuable experience playing for the national team.
However, it is hard to blame Yao for China’s fiasco. Yao did not turnover the ball on court, nor did he struggle to hit free throws. His changes to the national approach to basketball are not directly related to the losses against Poland and Venezuela.
While voluntarily taking all the blame for the losses, Yao is trying to protect the vulnerable players from further cyberbullying and media questions. However, as the president of the Chinese Basketball Association, Yao failed in his first major test. Not qualifying for the Olympics might be a major setback for his career in the Chinese system. At the end of the day, it is a system that cares more about Olympic results, rather than the development of basketball as a sport.
Maybe, this Chinese team is just not good enough
Many in China believed that defeating the Ivory Coast, Poland, and Venezuela in the group stage would be an easy feat, and the Chinese national team would have a chance to go beyond the round of 16, and even reach the quarter-finals.
However the reality was very different. The Venezuelan team defeated China three years ago in the Olympics. The Polish team not only advanced through the group stage, but also reached the quarter-finals after defeating Russia in the second round. While teams such as Spain, Greece, France, and Poland lack in prominent players, it does not make them weak. With strong discipline and a previously successful record, the Polish team defeated China at the last minute capitalizing on the key turnovers from the Chinese players.
Chinese basketball fans are very supportive of their players, who, sadly, might not be as good as some of the other basketball talents from around the world. In the 12-man Chinese roster, only two of the players have played in either the NBA or the European basketball leagues, and neither of those two players are still active in those leagues.
The rest of the team is composed of Chinese domestic leagues players. Despite having good stats in their league, they nevertheless are not truly the most important players on the team, since clutch shots, last minute plays, and the majority of the offense are usually done by foreign recruits of the CBA teams.
And even for players who had previous NBA experience, their performances were not as inspired as expected. Former second round pick Zhou Qi fouled out early in the game against Nigeria, finishing the game with only two points. Zhou Qi was also responsible for the crucial turnover in the game against Poland, which ultimately led to the huge disappointment that the Chinese basketball team now faces.
Compared to other struggling teams in this tournament, China obviously has more resources allocated to the country’s basketball program. Its domestic league is tailor-made for the Olympics and preparing for international competitions. The nation’s program ensures that the team gets the best players, coaches, and logistical resources. The country’s basketball program even has strict policies that could potentially undermine player’s professional careers to ensure their commitment to the national team. Chinese basketball player Wang Zhizhi was once denounced as a national traitor for merely asking for an opportunity to play in the NBA Summer League.
This is a privilege that other basketball programs in the world do not have. Take Canada, for example. The Canadians finished with the same record as the Chinese in the FIBA tournament, due to the lack of participation of NBA-level talents such as Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett, or Tristan Thompson. Despite having more than a dozen NBA players that could potentially play for the team, Canada only managed to successfully recruit and retain two of them to join the FIBA World Cup squad.
After unsatisfactory results in the FIBA World Cup tournament, Nick Nurse, the head coach of this Canadian basketball program, even pitched the idea of helping the Canadians in recruiting players to play for the national program. The United States basketball program, on the other hand, suffered from the same problems: top-level NBA stars are once again showing little interest in playing in the FIBA World Cup. While basketball programs around the world are trying to tackle the challenge of not having the best available players on their teams, China is having issues developing their own talents despite having resources and administrative support.
Yi Jianlian’s concerning future
Despite suffering from inconsistent shooting percentages and rebounding, the Chinese team captain Yi Jianlian provided some extraordinary performances during the tournament. On average, Yi put up 17.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game. Yi is the most consistent player on the Chinese team and is believed to be the core performer despite the team’s mediocre results.
For the 32-year-old Yi Jianlian (ESPN reported on Yi’s age controversy in 2008, stating that Yi was actually born in 1984), this might be his last opportunity to go to the Olympics for the fifth time in 16 years. Yi made his debut in the Chinese national team at the 2004 Olympics and has been a consistent member since. Despite facing criticism for his struggles while in the NBA, Yi Jianlian is now the most reliable player that the Chinese national team could count on in the case of clutch moments and difficult possessions.
Having scored 27 points in the game against Nigeria, Yi said he was treating it as the last game of his career. Later in the post-game conference, Yi clarified that he had no intention of leaving the Chinese national team. ”I don’t even know what I am going to do tomorrow,” he said.
But time is certainly not on Yi’s side: In 2016 Yi Jianlian made an attempt to go back to the NBA. Having no luck with the Los Angeles Lakers, Yi returned to his home team Guangdong and has played for the team since. We do not know if Yi still has enough gas left in his tank to wait for another four years, and potentially missing out on the upcoming Olympics will certainly be a huge shame for China’s best performer in recent years.
There is no doubt that Yi is the best player in the Chinese team, and he will be the No. 1 person on the team in the following years. But on the other hand, this Chinese team will be facing Yi’s retirement. The new generation of Chinese basketball players does not seem to be ready for the challenge. And the question is, how will the younger players prepare themselves for future competitions?
Will the Chinese team have an opportunity to bounce back?
While the likelihood of winning an Olympic qualification tournament is small for the Chinese, the upcoming tournament would be a valuable opportunity for the Chinese team to play against elite national teams from around the world. And unlike the friendly matches against random teams, the value of those matches can be great for young basketball players who can gain valuable experience.
One key issue that the current Chinese squad faces is the lack of experience in competing in fast-paced, high-pressure, and intense games. The intensity of CBA league games is nowhere close to that of FIBA, let alone the more competitive NBA. Dominating the CBA league does not correlate to the players’ performances in the FIBA World Cup.
These factors explain the inconsistent performances from key Chinese players on the team. Zhou Qi, Guo Ailun, and Fang Shuo all had great games at different points of the tournament, but they all suffered in other games, leaving the Chinese team vulnerable in different areas.
In the long run, the Chinese basketball overseers might consider easing up their restrictions on foreign players. Currently, foreign players are playing dominant roles in each CBA team, and domestic players rarely have the opportunity to handle high-pressure situations, or develop leadership skills within the teams.
While it is hard to recruit a completely different team to become more competitive in the short run, it is crucial for this Chinese squad to seek better opponents and experience more high-intensity games to become accustomed to the rhythms of FIBA basketball. If the ultimate goal of the Chinese national basketball program is to dominate the Olympics, it needs to own those games, instead of focusing solely on its domestic leagues when it comes to talent selection and other developments. The Chinese basketball program needs to find a way to develop players who can handle pressure in clutch possessions and step up to a new level. Time is not on its side, and the Chinese need to act quickly.