Is Andray Blatche Staying in China for Good?
Andray Blatche is not like other basketball players, and followed the well-tread basketball goofball's path to China. Is he about to turn down the NBA to stay there?
Two weeks ago, Von Wafer elbowed an opponent in the nuts on live television. This was in the Chinese Basketball Association, although eventually video made its way stateside. It helped that Wafer later threw a chair against the wall and then led his Shanxi Dragons teammates into multiple confrontations with opposing players, their supporters, and even stadium security. This is worth mentioning for the same reason that all Von Wafer-related news is worth mentioning, but also because—even as Wafer gets dragged in front of the CBA disciplinary committee—another member of the 2005 NBA Draft's second round is prepared to do something even more surprising. Also in China, naturally.
Andray Blatche, one-time Brooklyn Net and full-time (honorary) Filipino-American superstar, has spent most of the winter lighting up Chinese basketball to the tune of 31.1 points and 14.4 rebounds a game. He also finished with the third most steals in the league and his assists per game were half a percentage point less than the starting point guard on the Chinese national team. So yes: pretty good, as basketball seasons go.
Even adjusting for Chinese Basketball Association inflation, those are impressive numbers, and a reminder that, despite his long track record as a goofball, Blatche is the sort of player who could help almost any NBA team if used in the right role. But while there are plenty of teams that could consider adding Blatche for the stretch run, Blatche himself is perhaps considering something different—he is reportedly ready to walk away from American basketball entirely if he doesn't get a deal he deems worthy of his abilities. Indeed, Real GM's Shams Charania has reported that Blatche is 'seriously considering' returning to the CBA instead. Considering that Blatche spent Valentine's Day brazenly macking away on Chinese social media, the center already appears to be laying the groundwork for this move.
While several CBA teams are interested in locking Blatche up to a big deal, there is really only one organization that can offer a deal lucrative enough to make Blatche shrug off postseason NBA basketball. That team—perhaps the only team in the world that's both willing and able to pay Blatche what he believes he's worth—is also the big man's most recent employer: the Xinjiang Tigers.
Owned by Sun Guangxin, one of the world's richest men, the Tigers have repeatedly shattered records for player salaries in a bid to entice free agents to come to Xinjiang, an otherwise grim province in the far west of China. In 2007, they gave former San Antonio Spurs big man Mengke Bateer a then-record $500,000 salary to join them. Four years later, they paid Kenyon Martin close to $3 million for his services. Recently, the Tigers also gave 17-year-old big man Zhou Qi a $640,000-a-year deal to leave his old team. The contract immediately made Zhou the third highest paid Chinese player in the CBA, before the teenager had even played a professional game.
If Blatche does come back to Xinjiang, it would not only make him very wealthy but also reunite him with a kindred spirit in Sun, who remains the most unpredictable owner in the CBA. Famously obsessed with both basketball and tigers—an image of the big cat adorns the logo of almost every business the billionaire owns—the third key element to Sun's personality is his intensity. As a Chinese army officer during the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war, Sun reportedly bit off his fingertips in a display of nationalist fervor so that he could be fast tracked to fight on the front lines.
This kind of dedicated/semi-insane fervor has defined his reign over the Tigers, which has looked about as strange as it sounds. Coaches have been sacked a third of the way into their first season on the job. American imports have woken up on the eve of the playoffs to discover a better foreign player who suddenly became available in free agency has replaced them. If someone can't help Sun win right away, that person is clearing his locker at Xinjiang within 24 hours.
In an irony that's less of a mystery to others than it appears to be to Sun, Xinjiang can't quite seem to win despite all this furious motion. From 2009 to 2014, they lost in the CBA Finals four times and twice in the semi-finals. Three weeks ago, Xinjiang were squeezed out of the play-offs following the tightest CBA regular season in history. Overnight, an expensively assembled Tigers roster that at various points also included Jordan Crawford and Sebastian Telfair became a punching bag for Xinjiang's many critics, who criticized Sun's attempts at trying to buy a CBA title.
Having spent a lot of money this year, only to end up with nothing, Sun regrouped, re-examined priorities, and decided that the solution to Xinjiang's disastrous 2015 campaign is to spend even more money next season. There is already growing speculation that the Guangsha Lions' 7'2", 310-pound center, Wang Zheng, will join the Tigers via free agency. Others are expected to follow.
Given that Blatche was one of the few to have made it out of Xinjiang this season with his reputation intact, it's not surprising that the Tigers have made re-signing him one of their top priorities. Blatche's absurd numbers are a big reason for this, but he also made for an imposing twin-tower tandem with Zhou, the 7'1", Nerlens Noel-esqe shot blocker.
At times, there was no better front-court in China, with Zhou using his tremendous rim protecting ability—he earned that record salary, as it turned out, and led the league in blocks in his first year as a pro—and Blatche cleaning up on the boards. On offense, the American ran the show, but when the defense began to close around him, Zhou showed a knack for making perfect cuts to the basket for easy buckets. Sun's offseason shopping list is always vast, but this part of the roster is set—Xinjiang's task is reuniting their two big men, not replacing them.
Even though he's 28 and has several NBA suitors, there is a sense in which it would be perfectly logical for Blatche to return to China, although all of them are mostly logical in the logic-free context of #Baltche. At various points in the season, Xinjiang let Blatche take six or more three-point shots a game. If he were to try that in Memphis, it would take a week before Tony Allen and Zach Randolph had Blatche kidnapped and locked in a cellar for the rest of the season. In China, he can expect more of the same for as long as he's interested in it.
In essence, Chinese basketball needs Andray Blatche and Andray Blatche needs Chinese basketball. There are only so many leagues in the world in which he can play with full and unbridled Blatche-ness, and he has found himself in the only league that enjoys big men taking pull-up threes and running the fast break for no logical reason as much as he does. Even without knowing how things worked out for him trolling for dates on Chinese Facebook, Blatche's first season in Xinjiang was a beautiful love affair. If Sun Guangxin is willing to put the dowry together, it just might wind up a happy marriage.