The Chinese Basketball league is now 18 years old, just entering its state in adulthood. And in its 18th season, the league took another big jump into respectability, featuring a better-than-ever mix of new superstar players and well-coached teams. But by the time the dust settled and the CBA Finals came to an end, the glory belonged to one of the league’s traditional powerhouses again. The Guangdong Southern Tigers, in their 11th consecutive trip to the CBA Finals (!), won the title in a dominating 4-0 sweep over the Shandong Lions. This victory gave Guangdong their eighth CBA Championship, tying them with the Bayi Rockets for most championships won in China.
After a surprise loss to the Beijing Ducks in the Finals last year, Guangdong made sure that there will be no upsets this time around. Guangdong beat Shandong by an average of 13 points per game in the four-game sweep. Yi Jianlian of the Southern Tigers – who was named the domestic MVP of the league – also won the Finals MVP award, averaging 20 points and 11.3 rebounds per game in the Finals. In the clinching game at home in Guangdong, Yi had 24 and 13 to lead five players in double figures to win the game 94-74 and lift the trophy.
The result was never in doubt. Guangdong have been the most consistently dominant team in China for over a decade, and after a surprise loss to Beijing in the Finals last year, bounced back this season on a mission for redemption. Guangdong went 28-4 through the course of the season, finishing at top place in the league. Guangdong have the advantage of featuring the top Chinese players, many of whom comprise the backbone of China’s national team. Returning from an unsuccessful NBA stint, Yi Jianlian was back to becoming the poster-boy of the league and the best player for Guangdong. The team also featured Wang Shipeng and Zhu Fangyu. Unlike many other teams in China, Guangdong made better use of the foreigners in their squad, who weren’t asked to dominate but asked to become a part of the system. In the playoffs, Ike Diogu and Donald Sloan became an important part of their rotation, while Terrence Williams was cut at the end of the season and joined the Boston Celtics.
Guangdong continued their dominant run into the post-season, going undefeated throughout to win a championship, defeating Zhejiang and Xinjiang 3-0 and 3-0 in the first and second rounds respectively before the Finals sweep over Shandong.
It was the end of a fairytale season for Shandong. The Lions ended last season as one of the worst teams in the league, but the addition of Jordanian Zaid Abbas to the core of American players Jackson Vroman and Pooh Jeter helped this team finish in second place in the season and pull an surprising 3-0 victory over the defending champions Beijing in the semi-finals of the playoffs.
Guangdong’s victory once again highlights the disparity of talent and coaching in the league. Out of the 18 CBA seasons, two teams – Bayi and Guangdong – have won 16 of the titles. Bayi dominated the league in its early days, but ever since other teams began to pay big money to talented foreign players, Bayi – the Army team who doesn’t allow foreigners – slowed down. And ever since, the championship has mostly belonged to Guangdong. The only other teams in China to lift the titles have been the Shanghai Sharks with Yao Ming back in 2002, and the Beijing Ducks led by Stephon Marbury last year.
This season, which began with the hype of former NBA All Stars like Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas joining the league, finally belonged to a Chinese player, Yi Jianlian. Yi, who got his start in Guangdong, tried his luck in the NBA, and then returned to Guangdong and to glory again. The scary thing about Guangdong’s dominance is that the team and the system seem to have gotten stronger as the season progressed, and there is no reason why they wouldn’t be at the top of the hill once again this time next year. Even a potential loss of Yi to the NBA (if he gets a chance to return) may not stand in their way.