Yi Jianlian: Redemption or commercial pawn?
Yi Jianlian is a jack of some trades, master of none. He does a few things on the court, and then there's some he won't touch.
He's a shooter, except he isn't. Yi shot a strong 41% from long two-point range in his NBA career and, although Chinese Basketball Association statistics of the same type do not exist to my knowledge, the eye test suggests it was about the same there, but also took about the same percentage of his total shots from there.
Yi has never developed 'true' three-point range (he hit only four three pointers in the whole of the 2013/14 CBA season, all while averaging 23.5 points in 42 games), and does not do any work off screens in a bid to become a better shooter. He can shoot off the dribble about as well as any seven-footer that isn't Dirk Nowitzki, but he also insists on trying to do so far too often.
He's big, but doesn't play like it. Yi's 7'0 height and 7'3 wingspan are significant measurements, particularly when playing the faceup power forward spot. This man is far bigger than other face-
up fours (Mirza Teletovic, Ryan Anderson or Anthony Tolliver, to name three random people), with the height and length measurements of a centre, along with a decent level of athleticism to match.
Yet Yi seems to only use his physical tools to get jump shots off. He lacks for core strength and attacks neither contact around the basket nor rebounds, a finesse player limited by his frailties and seemingly quite content with being so.
He's also soft, disinterested in defense both interior and perimeter, inefficient, doesn't pass much, takes some bad shots, is not as fast laterally as he is in a straight line, is a poor rebounder, and, supposedly, has a lackadaisical work ethic belying his talents.
So basically, he's Tim Thomas.
Yi has rejoined the NBA this week, signing a one-year pact with the L.A. Lakers, back to the world's best league after four years away and with the team who supposedly tried to sign him innthe two previous summers as well. The Lakers will hoping that the version of Yi they are signing is far developed from the version of Yi drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks nine years ago – if not a superior version of Tim Thomas, then at least his equal.
In his first stint in the NBA, Yi struggled. He struggled with the physicality and with fouls, shot only 40.4% from the field, and showed little if any improvements in five years. He had upside, but did not fulfil it, and he is not being signed for his upside now.
Considering the situation – Yi entered the US barely able to speak English, and had to learn the language and an entirely new culture while also on a nightly basis playing a brand of basketball vastly unlike any that he had played before, further weighted by the expectation of his high draft position; these struggles were perhaps inevitable. Multiple injuries didn't help. Nor did the perception that, by being rather meek, low energy and shothappy, he was entirely disinterested in the game even as he played it.
That was all a while ago, however. The Yi of Now is the face of his country's basketball program and its hopes in the wake of Yao Ming's retirement, a grown man, a grizzled veteran, and at least has more control over his NBA situation than when being shoveled around on a rookie contract.
The Yi of Now, Los Angeles is hoping, is not the Yi of Back Then. Watching China in the Olympics, Yi stood out. Of course he did; he had the name recognition, after all, but also because he is seven-feet tall and was taking on the majority of the scoring load.
However, the style by which those points came was mildly disconcerting. Yi is not the spotup shooter you would wish for him to be, nor does he score from the post in any way other than turnaround baseline jump shots (which to be fair are unblockable and sometimes go in), and nor does he do much without the ball in his hands. All too often, he lacks for a motor.
When he has the ball in his hands, however, Yi intrigues. He handles as well as any seven-footer, can get to the basket, and can pull up for a midrange two-pointer, with a level of footwork and smoothness that few others have. Tall, fluid with the ball in his hands, skilled and with a scorer's instincts, there aren't many Yis out there, and that makes Yi valuable by default.
From the Lakers' point of view, signing Yi has commercial benefits. The enormous Chinese NBA fan market has been without a hero since Yao retired (2016 draftees Zhou Qi and Wang Zhelin will not bridge this gap), and they have had a whole lot of merchandising money to spend without having anyone to spend it on. They have now. Just as Arsenal keep buying extremely mediocre East Asian players they then never play in a bid to win some fans and develop business in that part of the world, the Lakers will certainly make their money back on Yi. In that respect, he's a freebie.
Notwithstanding those commercial interests, however, Yi will still need to bring some value as a player. And it is extremely unclear what value the Lakers have thus far determined him to have. The deal Yi has signed with the Lakers was reported as being "creative". Specifically, per TWC
Sportsnet's Mike Bresnahan:
This cannot be right, on account of the fact that this is not actually possible. The maximum amount of any bonus in a contract is 15% of the base value of the contract; that is to say, if your contract calls for a $5 million annual salary, then the amount available via bonuses is limited to an extra 15% of that, or an extra $750,000. Additionally, when signing a player to a contract, the amount of the full deal including bonuses must fit into (and thus take up) the amount of cap space or salary cap exception used to sign the deal.
So even if the Lakers signed Yi to a deal that would have meant an $8 million cap hit only if all incentives were met, that would still have cost them $8 million in salary cap space to do. The idea therefore that it is a circa $1 million that can grow to $8 million (and any conclusion in the mind of the reader that this was a "creative" way for the Lakers to maximise their cap space) is, unfortunately, incorrect on the points of fact.
Without knowing the specifics of the deal at this time, what Bresnahan will almost certainly be referring to (albeit without realising it) is a one-year, $8 million deal that is largely if not fully unguaranteed to begin with, but with conditional guarantees included. While it is possible to include conditional guarantees for things other than the simple passage of time - a former Laker, Derrick Caracter, had a contract which guaranteed him more money if he weighed in at certain weights on certain days - these are almost always in practice date-based. Essentially, then, Yi likely has a one-year unguaranteed contract just like any other.
The difference is that his could go on to be pretty large. Even in this everyone's-a-winner market, $8 million is still a lot of money, especially for an eighth or ninth man as Yi figures to be. It is unclear then why such an uncertain and unguaranteed deal is so large. One argument says it is for use as a potential trade chip, but this is far-fetched; few if any teams will want to trade for Yi the player, and while an $8 million partially guaranteed deal has some use in trades, this is not 2006 anymore, and no one needs these now.
More than likely, this is the top value the Lakers have assigned Yi as a player. They have done mindful of his flaws as a player, of his situation, of his age questions, and in the hope that any overspend will be redeemed through the business interests. But if they haven’t signed him to be a key player, they just spent money, time and a roster spot on a noncontributor with no upside, and who has never shown much in the way of leadership. (Yi’s body language on the court, even as the token senior on recent Chinese teams, does not inspire much confidence that he can become one. Considering he still has so much about the NBA and NBA life to learn himself, he is hardly in a position to teach it.)
This, then, is a confused situation. Yi Jianlian rejoins the NBA while he still can, but as a deep bench player on a team whose draw is its legacy not is current fortunes, on which he might not contribute much of note, on which his presence is at least partially financially motivated. The Lakers meanwhile are either paying a decent amount of money to a player who might not want to be there for long and who will not be of any more use than Random D-League Call-Up Guy unless their offense is tailored to suit him, or are going to cut cheaply and early someone who didn't work out, thereby wasting their cap space.
Yi will be 29 by the time the season starts (or 32 if the rumours are true), nine years removes from his draft night, with five years of NBA experience, four years of CBA experience and many many summers of international experience, and yet the Lakers still cannot decide if he is worth $1 million or $8 million.
It is riskfree for Yi in the sense that, although he walks away from enormous CBA paychecks and redoubtable stardom in his homeland, he can walk back into both any time he chooses (Yi's contract with Guangdong has an NBA-out clause that will see the contract resumed whenever he returns).
Yi will immediately become the most popular role player in the NBA, a league arguably better suited to his skill set now than when he left, and where he might have a chance of become the decent NBA perimeter player China has always needed. Older and wiser, Yi will be better with the language and cultural differences than he was as a youth, and can perhaps be remembered as a decent NBA player after all.
It is also mostly riskfree for the Lakers in the sense that the deal is unguaranteed, or at least mostly guaranteed. Between now and January 10 (the date all contracts become guaranteed, assuming Yi’s own deal does not have its own guarantee date before then), they can give an extended runout to a player they have long coveted, and who has talent even if it is a very inefficient talent. Yi should not inhibit the development of the pieces who matter in any way, and if nothing else, the brand might strengthen in Eastern markets.
However, Yi is getting older, will likely want to back to his homeland very soon, and isn't here for the continuing Laker rebuild. There is no way this will be a long or medium term commitment, hence the one year nature of the deal. So why make it at all? Do the minutes behind Luol Deng, Jerome Randle and Brandon Ingram matter that much?
Does the money generated from the business interests justify the expenditure of assets on him that might be better spent elsewhere, on a young player with potential or on a veteran who can help develop the culture Los Angeles badly needs?
The Chinese basketball machine wants Yi in the NBA, and, given the ignominy under which he left it, Yi seems to want that too. Either entering his prime years or slightly past them - depending on which birthdate you believe - it's now or never for him. But why do the Lakers want this?
There are not many free agency options left in mid-August, but spending between $1 million to $8 million on the between 29 to 32-year-old Chinese Tim Thomas is a bizarre one. And try as they might, "bizarre" and "creative" are not synonyms. It can’t go wrong, but unless Yi quickly becomes a shotmaker of the calibre he has never previously been, it also can’t really go well.