Chinese Basketball Association 2020-21 season preview

Society & Culture

Just two months after the conclusion of the last CBA season, which was interrupted by COVID-19, the Chinese Basketball Association has tipped off once again. What are the storylines, who are the players to watch, and will the Guangdong Southern Tigers win their 11th CBA title?

Guangdong vs Zhejiang Golden Bulls in CBA opener 2020-21 season preview
Zhejiang Golden Bulls upset the defending champions in the CBA season opener.

Don’t look now, but the CBA started up again over the weekend after what feels like the shortest off-season ever.

Zhuji in Zhenjiang Province will host this season’s action, with the whole league remaining in a COVID-bubble. The teams and staffs will be following the same protocols as last season.

But while the bubble remains from last season, the Bayi Rockets do not.

Chinese basketball’s most historic team — though not one that has done much recently — looks like it may have dissolved. It no-showed its opening game against the Beijing Ducks — who were handed a 20-0 forfeit victory.

Bayi was China’s most successful team, with 34 titles to its name, after members of the People’s Liberation Army founded the club in 1955.

The club joined the CBA in 1995 and dominated the competition’s early years, winning the first six championships.

But the last time the club won the title was in 2007. It’s been a steady decline since then for Bayi, which has notably refused to sign foreign players. Last season, the Rockets finished bottom of the CBA with a 6-40 record.

Despite no official announcement of the club’s closure, it is expected that this is the end of the line.

There will be plenty of teams that will be playing, however. Each team will play 56 games in an extended regular season, 10 more than last season. The top 12 teams qualify for the playoffs.

The Guangdong Southern Tigers are once again the favorites — they always will be until someone knocks them off. The defending champions dominated last season, finishing an incredible 44-2 in a coronavirus-interrupted regular season on its way to a record 10th CBA title.

Guangdong wins 10th CBA title

Boasting the best stock of Chinese players and excellent overseas pros, the Southern Tigers have the best roster without any real weaknesses. Coached by the vibrant Dù Fēng 杜锋 and led by captain Zhōu Péng 周鹏 and last season’s MVP, Yì Jiànlián 易建联, Guangdong has a leadership group that has been crucial to the squad’s success.

But Guangdong might be suffering from a championship hangover. The team was stunned in its season opener on Saturday by the Zhejiang Golden Bulls, losing 138-113.

Or maybe they were weighed down by the rings that CBA chairman Yáo Míng 姚明 presented them before the game.

Jimmer Fredette

Jimmer Fredette’s return to the Shanghai Sharks could not help them avoid an opening day disappointment, losing 122-94 to the Zhejiang Lions.

Fredette played 22 minutes but was bottled up all game, scoring only 14 points. Known for his long-range sharpshooting, he connected on just one of five three-pointers.

On the other side, the Lions were led by the electric Sūn Mínghuī 孙铭徽, who topped all scorers with 41 points.

Fredette, a 2011 NBA lottery pick out of BYU, played three seasons in the CBA, from 2016 to 2019, averaging 37 points per game. He won the league’s international MVP in his first season.

The 31-year-old guard briefly played for the Phoenix Suns in 2019. He announced his return to China this season via social media:

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Things to look out for

Du Feng: The Guangdong Southern Tigers head coach announced himself to the basketball world after leading his team to a record-breaking season. Young, progressive, and tactically astute, the former Guangdong player is great viewing during the game. The 39-year-old’s short fuse with players and referees is always fun.

A decline in the overreliance of foreign players: Guangdong proved last season that if you can put together a side of good domestic players, then you have a chance to do well throughout the season. COVID-19 has made it difficult to sign players from overseas, meaning a strong group of Chinese players will be essential for teams that want deep playoff runs.

Joe Young: Last season, Young scored 74 points in a CBA game — in a losing effort.

He absolutely carried the Nanjing Tongxi Monkey King — yes, some CBA team names are weird — and played with abandon. The former Indiana Pacer will now be in the comfortable surroundings of the capital city, playing for the Beijing Royal Fighters under coach Stephon Marbury — who likely sees a lot of himself in the 28-year-old point guard. It could make for must-see TV.

Bayi Rockets: Everyone in Chinese basketball accepts that the club has gone. However, the army club has yet to confirm its disappearance. This feels like a story that could rumble on a little while.

Sun Minghui: The national team guard made a strong opening statement with 41 points, 7 assists, and 7 steals in a win. The former NBA Summer League attendee was the top Chinese player for assists last year, and at 24, he now has enough experience to start leading the Zhejiang Lions.

The return of fans: Fans will be allowed in limited numbers to watch games from the stands. While the bubble still exists for now, commissioner Yao Ming raised the prospect of the league allowing fans back into arenas with the potential for a return to home stadiums.

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Stephon Marbury Beijing Royal Fighters

Predictions

Regular season winners: Guangdong Southern Tigers

Champions: Guangdong Southern Tigers

But barely. The extended regular season and a short offseason could see the champs running into serious fatigue around the playoffs. Both Beijing clubs, the Xinjiang Flying Tigers, and Liaoning Flying Leopards will be nipping at their heels.

Playoffs: Guangdong Southern Tigers, Xinjiang Flying Tigers, Zhejiang Lions, Liaoning Flying Leopards, Beijing Royal Fighters, Beijing Ducks, Qingdao Eagles, Shandong Heroes, Zhejiang Golden Bulls, Nanjing Monkey King, Shanxi Loongs, Shenzhen Aviators

MVP: Sun Minghui

Sun can score — witness his 41-point opening game effort — but what makes him special is his passing ability, as he was 9th overall — No. 1 among Chinese players — in assists per game last season. The 24-year-old, who was last season’s most improved player, can push his game to new levels this year.

Foreign MVP: Joe Young

The 28-year-old Texan averaged a league-best 38.3 ppg last season playing for Nanjing. Check out these highlights, especially this one where he lands on his face after a dunk:


The China Sports Column runs every week on SupChina.