The Chinese Basketball Association league will tip off its new season this weekend boosted by the return of some star attractions and the prospect of a return to its traditional home-and-away format.
After missing out on the Olympic stage in Tokyo this summer, China's top basketball players are itching for action as the CBA's 20 teams lace up for the opening of the 2021-22 season on Saturday in Zhuji, Zhejiang province.
Citing continuing vigilance against COVID-19, the CBA has decided to play at least the first 13 rounds of the regular season through Nov 14 inside a bio-secure bubble in Zhuji, where players and all team staff will be confined to their hotels and two competition venues as part of a protocol that has been adopted since the league's resumption in June 2020 following its pandemic break.
However, local fans in Zhuji will be allowed to watch live games inside the arenas, starting from the opening night when the defending champion Guangdong Southern Tigers face the Shenzhen Aviators.
Pending no change to the nation's successful containment of COVID-19, the league will reconsider the policy later this season, perhaps allowing teams to return to their home cities toward the end of the regular campaign.
"I hope that with the collective effort of everybody involved, our games will be back to the fans in our teams' cities sooner rather than later," CBA president Yao Ming said at the new season's launch ceremony on Tuesday.
Entering the league's 27th campaign, each team will play 38 regular season games－down from 56 last year. The schedule is divided into three stages, with two long breaks-Nov 15-Dec 24 and Jan 29-March 29－to accommodate the national team's FIBA World Cup qualifying campaign and the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics respectively.
The top 13 teams will advance to the playoffs, starting on April 24, while the CBA Finals will conclude no later than May 20.
Big names back
Fans, meanwhile, are stoked by the return of fit-again stars, such as Guangdong center Yi Jianlian, Beijing Ducks' Asian-American guard Jeremy Lin and Shandong Heroes forward Ding Yanyuhang.
Yi had surgery on a ruptured Achilles tendon in his right foot in August. The veteran, who turns 34 later this month, made an impressive comeback on Monday in a preseason game against the Shanxi Loongs, notching 14 points and six rebounds in his first official action in over 400 days.
Despite losing 85-62, the Southern Tigers will enter the new season as the hot title favorite, with national team stalwart Yi expected to gradually shake off the rust.
"Overall I feel pretty good. I still need time to pick up my game and get used to the pace. But it's a good start," Yi said.
As another ambitious title contender, the Ducks have welcomed back playmaker Lin after the former NBA star recovered from a COVID-19 infection in early August.
Lin tested positive for the virus upon landing in China from the United States. After undergoing treatment in Shanghai, followed by a long quarantine period, he got the all-clear to return to action. He practiced on his own at the Ducks' training facility on Monday, and appeared eager to get the action underway in his second stint with the franchise after playing for the capital club in the 2019-20 season.
After averaging 22.4 points and 5.6 assists in 43 games to help Beijing reach the semifinals during that campaign, Lin played in the NBA G-League but ultimately failed to secure a return to the NBA proper.
"Still got a lot of basketball left in me and we will see where this road goes. Beijing Ducks, excited to be back!" Lin wrote on social media earlier this year after announcing his return to China.
Ding, Team China's top scorer at the 2018 Asian Games, is back with the Shandong Heroes after recovering from a knee injury that has sidelined him for almost three years. However, he has been a no-show during preseason and appears to be carrying some excess bulk, suggesting that the 28-year-old forward still has a long way to go to return to prime condition.
As part of the CBA's continuing emphasis on the development of domestic talent, the new season will continue to limit the use of imported players. Teams are permitted to play only one of the maximum four foreigners allowed on their rosters at any time on the court in each game.
Zhang Xiong, CEO of the CBA, said that after nearly three decades, the CBA has grown into one of Asia's top professional basketball leagues.
According to Zhang, a series of measures will be undertaken next season to boost the league's profile among hoops fans.
Apart from the traditional New Year and Spring Festival schedules, the CBA will introduce a new concept of "Saturday Evening" prime-time games to maximize exposure.
The CBA will also launch a social media project dubbed "My Home Team, My CBA," using platforms such as Weibo and Hupu to forge a stronger bond with fans.
According to the CBA, 391 domestic players, including 65 newcomers, have registered for the 2021-22 season, the largest number of homegrown players in four seasons.