Former NBA lottery pick Jimmer Fredette recently talked to HoopsHype about his experience playing in the Chinese Basketball Association. Halfway through the conversation, he mentioned that fellow players are constantly reaching out to him to ask how they can compete in the CBA too.
“That actually happens all the time,” Fredette said. “[Over] text, Instagram, Twitter… A lot of guys want to know how they can get over to China. I try to help them find a Chinese agent because they won’t talk to you if you don’t have one… China is a great place to be. I think it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
This got us thinking: When a player wants to sign in China, what should they do? Should players hire an overseas agent to start the process? How is the CBA’s free-agency process different from the NBA’s?
HoopsHype turned to several agents and players who explained everything in detail.
Before getting into specifics, there are some basic things to know about the CBA. There are 20 teams in the league and each franchise can sign two foreign players (also known as imports).
This season, the list of imports includes former NBA players such as Fredette, Donatas Motiejunas, Brandon Bass, Marreese Speights, Jason Thompson and Andrew Nicholson among others. Imports are typically asked to play a major role on their respective team, but league rules state that the duo can only play six quarters collectively (and only one import is allowed to play in the fourth quarter).
Of all the non-NBA leagues, Chinese teams have the most money to offer free agents, which is why so many big-name players have surfaced in the CBA over the years. For example, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, Metta World Peace and Steve Francis have all played in China.
“If you talk to players who aren’t in the NBA, just about every player’s first choice is China,” said one agent who asked to remain anonymous since he discussed sensitive information. “The vast majority of players outside of the NBA want to sign in China. There are a lot of players who make seven-figures in China. Even the smaller deals are solid, paying at least $300,000 after taxes. It’s also a relatively short season compared to other leagues. The Euroleague season is 9-to-10 months long, but the CBA season is closer to six or seven months. When the CBA season ends, players can try to join an NBA team for the remainder of the season. It’s attractive for many reasons.”
While playing in the CBA is currently a no-brainer for most former NBA players, the arrival of standard contracts and a fight over guaranteed salaries may prompt some of these big names to leave China in the near future potentially (but we’ll get to that in a bit).
How much money do these CBA teams have to offer? Over the summer, the Zhejiang Golden Bulls reportedly offered Dwyane Wade a three-year deal worth $25 million. Considering Norris Cole reportedly signed a one-year deal worth $5 million with the Shandong Golden Stars in 2016, it’s no surprise that a future Hall of Famer like Wade could’ve earned over $8 million annually.
Other former NBA players like Donald Sloan (who reportedly earned $2.7 million) and Andray Blatche (who reportedly earned $2.5 million) made a lot of money in past seasons too, proving CBA teams will hand out huge paychecks if it allows them to land a star player – especially if that player has National Basketball Association on his résumé.
Every agent we interviewed mentioned the same thing: Chinese teams love former NBA players. There are a total of 38 roster spots for import players in the CBA each season since one team – the Bayi Rockets – is affiliated with the Chinese military and therefore has no foreign players.
“The only players whom I have done deals for in the CBA have had NBA experience,” former agent Matt Babcock said. “I know there have been some players who signed in China without NBA experience, but it isn’t very common. [Chinese teams] certainly favor former NBA players.”
“CBA teams are almost exclusively looking for players with NBA experience,” another agent added. “They think, ‘If this guy played in the NBA, he must be good.’ They also understand that fans will be more interested in a player if they can use the word ‘NBA’ to market him. It helps them sell tickets and things like that. I always tell players if they want to sign in China, they either need NBA experience or they need to be absolutely dominating wherever they’re currently playing.”
Assuming a player checks one of those boxes, the next step is finding a team and negotiating a deal.
CHOOSING AN AGENT AND STARTING THE TALKS
Pierre Jackson has experience playing in the NBA and Europe, but this is his first season in China. Calling his transition successful is an understatement considering he’s currently leading all CBA players in scoring with 42.9 points per game. Jackson says the negotiations with CBA teams were unlike his past free-agency experiences when he was in talks with European teams or NBA teams.
“This is my first time playing in China and the contract negotiations were kind of different,” Jackson said. “They didn’t know exactly how I would adjust over here, so they just threw a number out there and then they wanted to see how I felt about it. I’m used to signing in Europe, in the G-League or in the NBA, so I wasn’t super involved in the process. My [US-based] agent handled most of it. When I signed in the NBA, I was one of the lower-tier players, so I was just trying to get in where I fit in. That was the biggest difference. The process is different when you’re weighing your options overseas.”
During the NBA’s free-agency process, players largely make their decision based on things like each team’s personnel, head coach, front office and city. The player is knowledgeable about the NBA and that informs their decision.
However, those factors typically don’t play big roles during CBA negotiations. Most former NBA players who are signing in China for the first time don’t know much about the various teams competing for their services. Jackson admits he didn’t know any of his teammates until he first met (and Googled) them, and he’s still trying to learn about opposing players.
“Honestly, I still don’t really know the other players and who plays on each team,” Pierre said. “I’m still scouting all the different teams. The only player I knew when I went up against him was Jimmer Fredette.I didn’t know any of the guys on my team either.”
Some players hire an overseas agent to handle their negotiations since that individual specializes in that specific market. Overseas agents are knowledgeable about the different cities and franchises and decision-makers, and they typically have relationships with executives and coaches around the league.
For example, Matt Beyer is an agent who works out of China and he has represented a ton of players who have suited up in the CBA. Some US-based agents continue to represent their clients when they sign in China – relying largely on translators or individuals within the franchise who speak English – Beyer points out that it can help to have someone who’s an expert on that specific region and culture.
“China is a very large country and it’s very different from Western countries,” Beyer said. “There’s the language barrier and cultural context is important too; sometimes, the words you say don’t convey the [correct] meaning. If you’re an agent that wants to get into the Chinese market, you probably want to have someone who’s working with you who can build a relationship with the club and also help you navigate the cultural context.”
After the player signs with his new team, Beyer also helps with day-to-day tasks that a US-based agent couldn’t handle because they’re so far away. Not all overseas agents remain this involved after a deal is completed, but Beyer prides himself on being “very hands-on” and helping the player get acclimated.
“Once a deal is done, [the overseas agent] makes sure it’s executed smoothly – [ensuring] timely payments, resolving disputes and things like that,” Beyer explained. “We’ll take on a lot of managerial duties that wouldn’t fall in the lap of the US agent – things like figuring out his living situation, picking up food he’ll like – which is an issue many players have in a new country – and just making sure all of his needs are met off the court.”
Beyer stressed that players need to do their homework when they are weighing their CBA options, especially if they don’t have a Chinese agent to guide them away from franchises that will take advantage of their ignorance.
“I would just tell every player to know what you’re getting into beforehand,” Beyer advised. “Look at the club and their history, and ask people about [their experiences]. How often do they change foreign players? If you have an injury, how will they deal with it? If you have two or three off games, is this team going to cut you or do they tend to be more sympathetic? Who is the coach? Who is managing the team? What foreign players have they had in the past? Just do your homework because these things are important to know.
“If you’re in the NBA, you know that you’ll be fine and treated well regardless of which team you join. If you join the Milwaukee Bucks, you won’t be abused. It’s not like NBA players are only fine and treated right if they join the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s standard across the board! That’s not the way it is in China. There isn’t the same professionalism from club to club. There needs to be standard across the board, and there needs to be parity.”
Sometimes, US-based agents will collaborate with an agency in China, allowing the local agent to handle the bulk of the negotiations with CBA teams due to the language barrier. This is what Babcock, the former agent, did whenever he had a client who was nearing a deal in China.
“They would market all my clients to the teams in the country and when a team would show interest in one of my clients, they would translate for us and essentially serve as an intermediary throughout the entire negotiation process,” Babcock explained. “When doing a deal in the NBA, I would do all of the communicating with teams directly. When doing a deal in China, I leaned heavily on my collaborating partner due to language barriers.”
In 2014, Babcock and his collaborating partner helped former Los Angeles Clippers center Miroslav Raduljica ink a lucrative deal with the Shandong Lions. When it came time to finalize the contract, Babcock was thankful the Chinese agent was there to walk him through the intricate final steps of the process.
“First, in order to fully execute the contract, Miroslav and I needed to sign the contract and apply our fingerprints in red ink to each page,” Babcock said. “Then, the entire ownership group of the team, which consisted of many members, would do the same. Just a few days later, I received the fully-executed contract. It was completely covered with red fingerprints all over it!”
Some agents prefer to work alone, though. The anonymous agent explained that he would handle the negotiations himself, getting help from translators or English-speaking team employees. He said these days, most people in the business of basketball speak English so he doesn’t run into many issues.
“One thing I’ve noticed in recent years is that almost everyone seems to speak English,” the agent said. “If [the GM] doesn’t speak it, there’s always someone who speaks it in the organization. I don’t mean to sound like an a**hole, but there really are a lot of people who speak English! A contract in China is 50-pages long because it’s written in both Chinese and English. We have a clause that says the English portion of the contract supersedes the Chinese portion. That way if there’s ever a dispute, the English portion is what prevails.”
Beyer said that some clubs insist that the Chinese portion supersedes the English section. Oftentimes, he says, this is because they’ve had a bad experience with a sleazy agent who changed terms in the English portion and proceeded to screw them over. However, most teams and agents are professional and just want to ensure everyone’s on the same page regarding the contract’s terms.
And in China, just about every contract will inevitably include a list of incentives and protective clauses.
NEGOTIATING INCENTIVES AND PERKS
Chinese teams love to fill contracts with performance-based incentives.
“Pretty much every player and coach contract in China has an incentive for individual wins – and road victories typically pay out a larger bonus since it’s harder to win on the road,” Beyer said. “There are also team-record bonuses as well as bonuses for making the playoffs, getting to the quarterfinals, getting to the semifinals, getting to the finals and winning the championship. Some of the teams that don’t have a chance of making the playoffs won’t even put the incentive in the contract.
“Individual-performance bonuses exist for some teams, but that seems to be sort of a philosophical split: Some teams give them out, some teams don’t want to encourage the foreign players to jack up shots and try to score too much. That just depends on the team. Typically, the team must win for the player to receive their individual-performance bonuses for that game. If you score 50 points in a loss, you aren’t getting a bonus. There are also bonuses for awards like league MVP and Finals MVP, but those are less common.”
Every incentive is negotiated during the contract talks, and they depend on the player and his strengths. Teams don’t want to offer bonuses that will encourage the player to focus on his own statistics rather than the team’s success. The player wants realistic, achievable incentives so he can make extra money.
A center may get bonuses for averaging a certain number of rebounds, averaging a certain number of blocks and totaling a certain number of charges. The team would likely be in favor of this arrangement since the big man is incentivized to make hustle plays. The center would likely appreciate this because it’s a way to make some extra cash on top of his salary and the bonuses are well within reach as long as he plays hard.
“Incentives are very common in CBA deals. There are incentives included in some NBA contracts, but it’s not quite as common,” Babcock said. “There is not a standard set of incentives to include in contracts for players, so it is all negotiable. The incentives are mutually agreed upon by the agent and the team, and they differ depending on which player it is and what the realistic expectations are for that player.”
“Some guys really obsess over these bonuses too,” an agent told HoopsHype. “I mean, it makes sense. Let’s say a guy is making $1 million and then his team is paying him $200 for every offensive rebound he grabs, which is how some teams structure their bonuses. If he plays in 40 games and grabs five offensive rebounds in every game, he’s earning an extra $40,000. Guys get really into it.”
The agent added that it’s pretty rare to see a team offer incentives for hitting a certain scoring average or for, say, leading the league in scoring. This is likely because they don’t want to encourage bad shots and shift the player’s focus away from the team’s success.
Pierre Jackson says he’s focused on performing to his full potential rather than worrying about specific incentives during the heat of battle. With that said, he does appreciate the bonuses.
“There are a lot of incentives in my deal, but I think that’s the case with every foreigner,” Pierre said. “You have to make sure you’re getting [as much as possible]. We carry a big load here; a lot of the game depends on us. They put those kind of things in your contract to give you some extra motivation, to make sure you’re giving it your all. I don’t pay really attention to [the bonuses] since I have such a big load over here and I’m just trying to do whatever I can to win. But they do add up and, especially with me having a family, every dollar helps!”
Aaron Jackson is apparently one of the few foreigners who doesn’t have many stat-related incentives in his deal, but his agent did negotiate certain perks into his contract. This is where CBA teams go above and beyond in an effort to make foreign players feel comfortable.
“One of the biggest benefits to players signing overseas is that, generally, all of their expenses are covered,” Babcock explained. “Housing, transportation, extra flights for friends or family and, oftentimes, food. Again, this is all negotiable.”
Most foreign players have these perks included in their deal, and teams are willing to pay for just about anything the imports want.
“American players typically live in five-star hotels during the season and the team pays for that,” one agent said. “Typically, the team provides the player with their own driver who will take them wherever they need to go. That’s pretty standard. Usually, the driver also serves as a translator; he’s sort of a jack-of-all-trades to help the player. Think of the driver almost as the player’s personal assistant. Their primary task is to drive the players around, but they often help with other stuff too. They also give each player extra plane tickets, so their family can come visit whenever. And if their family visits, the team will pay for another hotel room for the player’s guests. In the NBA, teams won’t just give a player five plane tickets so his family can fly in to Miami and stay with him. But in China, that happens all the time. That’s, like, 100 percent standard in China.”
For meals, the team has a chef at the facility cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner – all free. On top of that, some teams give foreign players a monthly allowance of $1,500 for eating out at restaurants, according to one agent.
Pierre has played for the Dallas Mavericks, Fenerbahçe and Maccabi Tel Aviv, while Aaron has been on the Houston Rockets and CSKA Moscow. In other words, this isn’t their introduction to a luxurious lifestyle. But even they have been really impressed by the way their CBA teams have spoiled them.
“They really take care of us; they do what they can,” Pierre said. “And when you’re playing really well, they take care of you a little bit more (laughs). That aspect has been really cool so far.”
“You get the free housing, the driver who gives you rides all year, the cafeteria – which is similar to the NBA – where they have a chef after games or practices,” Aaron said. “I’ve heard so many stories about guys having a difficult time overseas or stories about guys being in a nightmare situation, but I’ve been really fortunate.”
Oh, and there are some perks for agents as well.
“When Miroslav finalized his deal with the Shandong Lions, the agent fees were paid by the team in full instantly,” Babcock said. “I got 10 percent of the entire contract immediately, without having to ask once!”
CHINA ISN’T FOR EVERYONE
Perhaps the biggest issue for foreign players is that there’s a ton of turnover when it comes to imports. Things are great while they’re under contract, but teams tend to go through foreign players very quickly. Whenever you hear news of an American player nearing a deal with a Chinese team, it means another import player is about to be released.
Even though there are only 38 imports in the CBA at any given time, the number of Americans who sign in China each season is closer to 60 or 70 since teams are quick to replace their imports if they aren’t living up to their contract or meeting the club’s expectations.
“Through 16 games, 11 teams have already made a total of 16 import switches and only three were injury-related,” Beyer said. “That shows how fast teams are pulling the trigger on these switches.”
Al Jefferson, Trevor Booker, Chris McCollough, Russ Smith and Adreian Payne are among the former NBA players who have been replaced so far this season.
Jefferson made headlines over the summer when he decided to sign with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers rather than continue to weigh his NBA options. After just 10 games, the team released Big Al (replacing him with Nick Minnerath) since the 33-year-old was only averaging 15.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.
If a former All-NBA selection like Jefferson only has 10 games to prove himself – after playing 915 NBA contests – imagine how anxious a lesser-known player must feel when he’s struggling early in the year (all while he’s trying to get acclimated to a new country, new league, new team and new lifestyle).
Remember Norris Cole and his $5 million contract with Shandong back in 2016? He was released after just nine games because the team felt he wasn’t living up to the deal. They signed AJ Price instead and Cole went on to sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder three months later. That’s right: CBA teams have no problem cutting an NBA-caliber player if he’s making too much money or struggling to carry the squad.
“You have to make sure to play really well because otherwise, they might get rid of you,” Fredette acknowledged.
This just shows how much competition there is for a deal in China. Even after a notable player has secured a contract, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there very long.
Many players who are hoping to one day play in the NBA will talk about signing in China as “a backup plan,” as if it’s as easy as joining a YMCA team. Remember, it’s extremely difficult to land in the CBA without any NBA experience.
“The vast majority of players have no chance of signing a deal in China; that’s just the reality,” one agent said. “When teams have this much money, when they have the ability to hand out seven-figure deals, they have a ton of options and they can afford to be picky. A lot of guys think they’re good enough to play in China, but the truth is they aren’t.”
To make matters worse, the agent pointed out that when players are released by their Chinese team early in the season, it can be difficult for the player to find another opportunity right away. They’re now a free agent in the middle of the season, when most teams are done making moves and much of their money is committed. Also, the fact that the player struggled in China and was released so early in the season may be seen as a red-flag by some decision-makers.
This puts an enormous amount of pressure on foreign players. Even if an individual gets off the strong start, there’s the fear that one slump could lead to unemployment.
“I like to call China ‘the Wild West of basketball.’ It can be crazy, man,” said one agent. “If you’re American, you have to put up monster numbers or you’ll be replaced. Some of the scoring numbers coming out of China are absolutely insane. I’ve been to CBA games and it’s very interesting to watch because the game is extremely fast-paced, there are so many three-pointers and defense isn’t stressed. Darius Adams is one of the top scorers in China and he averaged 14.7 three-point attempts per game last season! He had one game where he took 24 threes! That’s just viewed as normal over there. China can be very lucrative and great for players, but it can also be chaotic.
“There’s so much pressure on these players. Every year, we see former NBA players go to China, struggle and then get released. There are quite a few players in the NBA right now who wouldn’t do well in China since they want you to put up insane numbers and play a certain style of basketball to thrive there. You need to be able to get buckets. Most of the NBA’s glue guys and great defenders wouldn’t last long in the CBA.”
Agents believe the reason there’s constant turnover among foreign players this season is due to the non-guaranteed and partially-guaranteed contracts that have become more common in China as of late. They feel that most teams wouldn’t constantly release imports if they had to pay each player their fully-guaranteed salary after waiving them, which they had to do until recently.
What changed? The CBA introduced standard contracts for players, which created an opening for teams to start negotiating how much of the deals are guaranteed.
“As of this year, there’s now a standard contract in effect in China,” one agent said. “In this standard contract, there are basically blank spaces throughout the contract that are filled in depending on the terms of the deal. The standard contract makes it easier for teams to sign players to a non-guaranteed contract. In the past, almost every contract signed in China was fully guaranteed. When you’d hear about a player getting cut in China – and it happens a lot – the player would still be entitled to all their money. Now, more and more players are signing a non-guaranteed or partially-guaranteed deal in China. That means if a player doesn’t put up crazy numbers, they may not get their money.”
“At the end of the day, I think the top playing talent will go to China if it’s an option,” Beyer said. “If the teams want these players, and if they can pay for these players, then there will be a way for deals to be guaranteed in a way that the players feel safe about signing in China. If it gets to the point where there are no guarantees whatsoever, then I think we’re going to see a reduction in the caliber of talent on the market.”
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