Thursday, April 25, 2002

SHANGHAIED: Okay, so apparently Yao Ming will be available to be drafted by an NBA team and to play next season. Leaving aside questions about whether he is actually that good and not, like, Georghe Muresan 2K, there are off-the-court complications with this guy. The codgers that comprise the Chinese government, for one:

Yao's team, the Shanghai Sharks, has said it will support his participation in the N.B.A. draft in June after blocking him in previous years. But Beijing has yet to approve any move by Yao, 22, who led his team to the China Basketball Association championship last week, and the government published strict new regulations today for Chinese athletes who want to play professionally abroad.

Chief among the new rules, clearly crafted with Yao in mind, is one requiring Chinese athletes abroad to turn over at least half their pretax earnings, including endorsement income, to Chinese government agencies for the length of their careers. That could cost Yao millions of dollars a year.


Beyond the issue of any N.B.A. contract, there is little doubt about the pressure China could bring to bear on any companies that want Yao to endorse their products.

China has already demonstrated its ability to force companies to drop endorsements by people it does not like. The Coca-Cola Company stopped using a Taiwanese pop star in its mainland advertising two years ago after she provoked an uproar by singing Taiwan's anthem at the inauguration of the island's president. China claims Taiwan as one of its provinces and objects to any suggestion that it is an independent nation.

In what appeared to be a veiled warning to N.B.A. teams, today's newspapers also carried a brief editorial stating that FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, of which both the China Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association are members, has the power to cancel contracts between players and N.B.A. teams.

The guy's not even here yet and already Beijing is making an ass of itself. So that's problem one, whatever team gets Yao is going to have to deal with the Chinese government on some level. Then there's problem two: Yao (or his handlers) wants to play in a city with a large Chinese population and one that has a chance of making the playoffs in the next three years. So here's the teams in the lottery this year, along with their chances of getting to pick number one:

Golden State, 22.50%
Chicago, 22.50%
Memphis, 15.70%
Denver, 12.00%
Houston, 8.90%
Cleveland, 6.40%
New York, 4.40%
Atlanta, 2.90%
Phoenix, 1.50%
Miami, 1.40%
Washington, 0.70%
L.A. Clippers, 0.60%
Milwaukee, 0.50%

On that list, the teams that have a chance of making the playoffs in the next few seasons are probably the bottom five teams --Phoenix through Milwaukee. The teams that play in the cities who play in cities with large Chinese populations are Golden State (who really needs to follow the Anaheim Angels and change their name to Oakland so the rest of the country knows where the hell they play; that playing to a state-wide audience stuff doesn't work anymore, fellas), Chicago, New York, Houston, and the Clippers --who have about no chance at picking first. But they're also the only team that meets both criteria, so maybe Stern will work his lottery mojo to get the big guy in Los Angeles, where hopefully he won't be demoralized by playing Shaq all the time. Or maybe Stern will work a slightly more convincing lotto mojo and get Yao in New York, something that will kill his credibility and is completely unnecessary; the league isn't in any trouble money-wise or competition-wise, and does not need a strong Knicks team to get people watching. So one would think the lottery will be less fixed than usual and the Warriors, Bulls, Grizz, or Nuggets will end up with the top pick. If it's the Nuggets, they already have one of the other two Chinese NBA players --so maybe that'll be a help to signing Yao, even though the Nuggets are always going to stink. He would seem like a good fit for Chicago or the Warriors in terms of Chinese populations, which is the knock Memphis will have against it. And yet, ultimately, won't Yao be the best fit for the Grizz in competitive terms? They have Battier. They have the rookie of the year, Pau Gasol, who --as Bill Simmons pointed out-- is "coming off one of the greatest seasons by any 21-or-under player in the history of professional basketball...Seventeen and a half points a game, nine boards, 2,800-plus minutes, a sterling 52 percent shooting[.]" And they're publicly courting Jerry West. Do you think this might be an effort on the part of the Grizz to allay Yao's fears (or Jason Williams, or Dajuan Wagner's, or anybody else's) about playing for them? It's like they're saying: yes, we know we've always stunk but we've turned things around and it's okay to come play for us now --in fact, we encourage it. And with Yao there they would have a true center to play with the 7-foot forward Gasol. And it's a marketer's dream: The Yao & Pau Connection. There's t-shirts and bucks to be made here, and if Commissioner Stern is really cooking the books with the lottery, Memphis is the obvious choice. It'll take some convincing of the Chinese authorities, but if they really want to highlight their guy, the Grizz just might be the team, and Memphis the place.

By the way, is it an NBA rule that franchises never ever change their names when they move? The Grizz, the Jazz, the Los Angeles Lakers; I guess we'll know for sure when the Hornets move --the New Orleans Hornets does not really roll off the tongue. It's quite the opposite of the NHL, where apparently you have to change your name when your move, even when it's something as innocuous as the Jets (now the Coyotes) or the Whalers (now the Hurricanes.) I can see, though, why they thought "the Colorado Nordiques" was a bad name for a franchise.

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