With seven more games to go in the Chinese Basketball Association regular season, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler, Patty Mills and Aaron Brooks’ NBA return from a one-year stint in China is approaching its end. But, with all of their teams in good position for the CBA playoffs, that end may not come until after February.
The anticipation behind each of their individual returns is pretty obvious — the five players, all of whom signed in China during the NBA lockout, will be highly coveted free-agents whenever they are eligible to sign with NBA teams. The question isn’t whether or not they’ll sign back in the NBA — all wil receive high levels of interest from a number of different teams — but rather when they will legally be able to put pen to paper on a contract. And depending on the success of each player’s individual team in China, the answer will likely be sometime in March.
The reality comes as the result of the decisions of both the league and the American players made prior to the start of the CBA regular season. In an effort to avoid the instability of a mass NBA exodus to China, CBA officials passed two rules back in August to limit the effect of the NBA lockout on the Chinese league: The first barred teams outright from signing players under NBA contract, the second restricted players from including back-to-the-NBA out-clauses that would have granted a free release from their Chinese team whenever the work stoppage ended.
Though the first rule was very black and white, many basketball insiders doubted the CBA’s ability to enforce their edict on no opt-out clauses. True to their word, however, the league has kept it’s promise. Two players who have been released mid-season, Martin and Mills, both of whom played for the Xinjiang Guanghui Flying Tigers, have not received their FIBA letters of clearance. Per their agreement with their team and the CBA, both must wait at home until Xinjiang’s season is completed. Martin severed ties with the team and was bought out of his contract in late December, while Mills was released after a controversial dispute regarding a hamstring injury.
So when will the season actually be over and when will NBA players in China be allowed to play in the States? The answer will be dependent not on when the league’s season ends, but rather on when each team plays its last game of the year.
The official end of the CBA regular season is February 15th. But contrary to what some may believe, that’s not the set date for players to be eligible to sign back in the NBA. The rule on back-to-the-NBA releases has always been specific to each individual team’s season, not the league calendar. That is, players can return to the NBA only when their team plays its final game of the year — regular season or playoffs — which means different players will get their letter of clearances at different times.
For better or for worse, most, if not all, of the teams featuring the players mentioned above will all be participating in post-season play, and thus will be playing CBA basketball into the month of March.
The eight team playoffs start on February 22nd. After the best-of-five first round series are completed, the semi-finals, also best-of-five, will start on March 4th. The best-of-seven finals will start on March 16th. If necessary, game seven will be played on March 30th.
To give an idea of when each player will be allowed to sign an NBA contract, here’s an update on how everybody’s team is currently fairing:
Chandler’s Zhejiang Guangsha are currently in fourth place and are considered as a team primed for a deep run in the playoffs. In 25 games, Chandler is averaging 26.3 points, which ranks as 11th in the league, and 11.2 rebounds.
Zhejiang Chouzhou, Smith’s team, was once positioned towards the top of the league, but have since slipped out of the playoff picture after losing six of their last eight. But, only one game out with a very easy remaining schedule, the Golden Bulls could very easily put themselves back in with a few wins. Smith leads the league in scoring with 34.2 points per game.
Martin and Mills’ team, Xinjiang Guanghui, like Zhejiang Chouzhou, is also one game out of a post-season position. With five of their last seven games at home, a place where they’ve lost once all year, Xinjiang could also be in the playoffs as well.
Two players who have not been mentioned thus far, Rodney Carney and Josh Powell, both of whom play for Liaoning Hengye, who are currently in fifth place at 14-11, would be playing playoff hoops if the season ended today. But their 2-9 road record will be under the microscope when they travel to play five of their last seven away from home, four of which are against teams with winning records.
Finally, at 22-4, Brooks’ squad, Guangdong Hongyuan, became the first team to clinch a playoff birth almost two weeks ago and barring any major catastrophe will lock up the top seed for the playoffs. Guangdong are the reigning four-time CBA champions and are heavily favored to take down their fifth straight, which means that Brooks will very likely be the last player to be allowed to sign back in America. Brooks is currently averaging 20.4 points per game.
Of course, if any team does not finish in the top eight, then all of their NBA free-agents will be allowed to sign with an NBA team starting on February 16th. Otherwise, they’ll have to wait until their team is either eliminated from the playoffs or goes all the way to win a championship.