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NBA’s ties with China, worth billions, now under strain

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — It wasn’t even a month ago that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver sat overlooking center court at an arena in Beijing, watching the gold-medal game at the World Cup with other basketball dignitaries.

That night was all smiles.

Silver’s return to China later this week will be much different.

The relationship between China and the NBA – a multibillion-dollar marriage that involves media rights, streaming, merchandise sales and much more – is strained right now in ways unlike any other since the league first began planting roots there in earnest three decades ago. A since-deleted tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey that showed support for Hong Kong anti-government protesters prompted an immediate backlash, complicated further by the timing of the NBA having two preseason games in China this week.

“We apologize,” Rockets star James Harden said in Japan on Monday. “We love China. We love playing there. I know for both of us individually we go there once or twice a year. They show us the most support and love. So we appreciate them as a fan base and we love everything they’re about and we appreciate the support that they give us individually and as an organization.”

That support is being sternly tested, be it from tweets that were deleted, uproars over an NBA statement that had some of its meaning lost in translation when posted in Mandarin and even the cancellation announced Monday of two G League games to be played in China between the minor-league affiliates of the Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks.

At least one Chinese sporting goods company said it was no longer cooperating with the Rockets and Tencent Sports, a major media company with NBA broadcast rights in China, said it was no longer covering the team.

“There is no doubt, the economic impact is already clear,” Silver told Kyodo News in an interview Monday. “There have already been fairly dramatic consequences from that tweet, and I have read some of the media suggesting that we are not supporting Daryl Morey, but in fact we have.”

The NBA is enormously popular in China: Oft-cited figures from basketball executives in both the U.S. and China say that 300 million people play the game recreationally there and that about 500 million Chinese watched at least one NBA game last season.

And the Rockets are among the biggest team brands there, no doubt because Chinese star Yao Ming – a Basketball Hall of Famer – spent his NBA career with Houston.

Yao is now president of the Chinese Basketball Association, which announced over the weekend it is suspending its ties with the Rockets in retaliation for Morey’s tweet. While Yao has not shared his personal feelings on the topic, it’s clear that the relationship between Yao and his only NBA team is currently, at best, rocky.

This is a clash for the NBA, which has staked out a position as a progressive league where players are encouraged to speak out on social issues, and the league’s business interests. No doubt part of the fast and harsh reaction from China to the Morey Tweet is concern in China that LeBron James or other very popular figures in the NBA — players known for their social activism — would wade in on the issue and side with the protestors in Hong Kong.

Silver will address the matter at a news conference Tuesday in Japan, where the Rockets are playing this week. He then is scheduled to speak in Shanghai on Thursday, in advance of two preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Lakers, led by global sports icon LeBron James, and the Brooklyn Nets, now owned by Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

“What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues,” Tsai wrote in a lengthy open letter posted late Sunday. “The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.”

And in China, discussion of the Hong Kong protests is one of those issues, Tsai said.

The NBA’s relationship with China dates back about 30 years to the time when former Commissioner David Stern struck a deal with Chinese television to show games on a tape-delayed basis. Stern even talked about having an NBA-sponsored or branded league in China. The first league office there had three employees and flimsy furniture.

Now, about 200 NBA employees work in China in offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Games are streamed live and Chinese media cover all the league’s biggest events such as All-Star weekend and the NBA Finals. The league has played preseason games there for years, has three NBA academies in the country – designed to find the next star prospect – and big-name players go there every offseason to promote their brand.

Retired Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade has a lifetime contract with Chinese apparel company Li-Ning. Golden State guard Klay Thompson has a 10-year deal with another Chinese shoe company, Anta. Five-time champion Kobe Bryant has been visiting China annually for about two decades and is a massive star there, even now that his playing career is done.

The league has navigated its way around one thorny issue related to the U.S. and China in recent months: a trade war between the nations that includes back-and-forth tariffs. The Hong Kong tweet, though, is likely to present a much bigger test for the NBA.

“What I can tell you for sure is it’s not going to erase the decades of work that, you know, myself and everyone else in the NBA has put in in building a tremendous base for basketball in China,” Golden State Warriors COO Rick Welts said Monday in an appearance on CNBC. “And I think this will pass. And I do think our future in China is probably pretty remarkable.”

 

With long endorsement list, LeBron James remains highest earning NBA player

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LeBron James came to Los Angeles not just to chase another title and some legacy with the Lakers, but to position himself off-the-court now and for when he retires. It was a business move, not just a basketball one.

Business is good.

Counting salary and endorsements, LeBron will make $92.4 million this season, making him the highest-earning NBA player, according to Forbes Magazine. This is the sixth straight season LeBron has topped their list.

Here are the top 10 earning NBA players as calculated by Forbes:

  1. LeBron James, $94.2 million ($37.4 million salary, $55 million endorsements)
  2. Stephen Curry, $85.2 million ($40.2 million salary, $45 million endorsements)
  3. Kevin Durant, $73.2 million ($38.2 million salary, $35 million endorsements)
  4. Russell Westbrook, $56.5 million ($38.5 million salary, $18 million endorsements)
  5. James Harden, $55.2 million ($38.2 million salary, $17 million endorsements)
  6. Kyrie Irving, $51.7 million ($31.7 million salary, $20 million endorsements)
  7. Klay Thompson, $47.7 million ($32.7 million salary, $15 million endorsements)
  8. Chris Paul, $46.5 million ($38.5 million salary, $8 million endorsements)
  9. Giannis Antetokounmpo, $45.8 million ($25.8 million salary, $20 million endorsements)
  10. Damian Lillard, $43.8 million ($29.8 million salary, $14 million endorsements)

No real surprises on that list, just expect Antetokounmpo to climb it fast as more endorsements roll in and he gets a bump to a new supermax salary in a couple of years (five years, $247 million). With LeBron and Durant both having production companies, they likely will stay e up at the top for as long as they keep playing.

Will LeBron’s stumbles with China impact his bottom line much? That’s an unknown and something interesting to watch, but it’s not slowing him down yet, and probably won’t be more than a small dent.

Also, don’t be shocked if Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Anthony Davis start to appear on this list after their moves to Los Angeles. While being in a big market doesn’t help as much as endorsements as it used to, being in that market on elite teams is going to add to the exposure, and that’s what companies will be drawn to.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: If Bucks underperform whether to re-sign ‘becomes a lot more difficult’

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Around the league, the consensus among team executives is Giannis Antetokounmpo is almost a lock to sign a super-max contract extension with the Milwaukee Bucks next summer.

Almost.

Which is why other teams are keeping an eye on the situation, just in case.

The Bucks are a contending team and the only home Antetokounmpo has known in the United States — the only place he has ever been able to live comfortably and happily with his family — but he keeps leaving the door just a little open. He did that at the end of last season. He did it again over the summer speaking a Harvard University professor who was researching the Bucks turnaround and the challenges of a small market team in the NBA. Via the Journal Sentinel.

“I want the Bucks to build a winning culture,” Antetokounmpo is quoted as saying. “So far, we have been doing great, and, if this lasts, there’s no other place I want to be. But if we’re underperforming in the NBA next year, deciding whether to sign becomes a lot more difficult.”

Define “underperforming.” Do the Bucks need to make the NBA Finals? What if they lose in a close seven-game Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia? Anything short of the conference finals — barring a major injury, of course — would be a disappointment. Is this Antetokounmpo just keeping pressure on the organization to spend and put together a winner?

Leaving Milwaukee would mean leaving a lot of money on the table — only the Bucks can re-sign Antetokounmpo to a five-year, $247 million supermax contract next summer. Bucks GM Jon Horst said Milwaukee will offer it (then got fined for saying they would offer it, even though it’s obvious). If Antetokounmpo doesn’t sign it, the Bucks will be forced to consider trading him (or lose him for nothing), or find a way to win him over before his contract ends in 2021.

Because of money, comfort level, and playing for a contender, most teams don’t think Antetokounmpo is going anywhere as a free agent next summer.

But they are watching. Just in case.

Jamal Crawford makes not-so-subtle pitch on Twitter for spot on Lakers roster

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The Lakers have made LeBron James their point guard this season, the shot creator with the ball in his hands.

That worked with limited success in a season-opening loss to the Clippers. LeBron tried to force-feed the ball to Anthony Davis much of the night (leading to five turnovers). The Clippers adjusted to defend LeBron/Davis actions as the game wore on — switching but having the big man stay back and daring LeBron to shoot or blow past the defender, neither of which he did well. When Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee was on the floor, the Lakers had no spacing, so the Clippers clogged the paint. In the end, LeBron and Davis combined to shoot 15-of-40 on the night, including 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.

Laker coach Frank Vogel was stuck because he didn’t have another good playmaking option (his next best guys for that, Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma, are both out injured).

Free agent Jamal Crawford has an idea and voiced it on Twitter.

Crawford is one of the best veteran free agents available

And no, this is not going to happen.

The Lakers have 14 guaranteed contracts already and the one non-guaranteed they are carrying is Howard (teams can only carry 15 players). If the Lakers waived Howard they would need to replace him with another center. The Lakers could eat the contract of Troy Daniels or Jared Dudley to create a roster spot for a free agent, but they are nowhere near making that kind of move yet. Even if they were, Crawford might not be the guy, he creates shots more for himself than others.

Crawford could help the right team, the man can still get buckets off the bench. He averaged 7.9 points per game last season and lit it up for the depleted Suns at the end of last year. There are downsides — Crawford is 39, has slowed in recent years, and his defense is not good — but in the right role he can help.

Just not the Lakers.

Good try, though.

Draymond Green opens up about, takes blame for last season’s rift with Kevin Durant

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At the time last November, some wondered if Draymond Green‘s on-court, over-the-top argument with Kevin Durant — which extended into the locker room, where Green reportedly called Durant a “b****” and questioned his commitment to the Warriors because of KD’s pending free agency — would doom the Warriors down the line in the playoffs.

Green was more worried about what it would do to his friendship with Durant.

That’s what Green said on The Woj Pod with Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, a  joint interview with Green and Warriors GM Bob Myers. Green also said the team suspending him for a game ultimately forced him to step back and think about the incident.

“I started to tell myself in my mind, ‘Wow, [Myers is] flipping on me,’ and it just felt like, ‘Wow, OK, is this not the guy I’ve known for all these years? Is he turning on me?’ And I started to tell myself all of these things, and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh my God, the Warriors sided with Kevin Durant.’…

“I just had to accept the fact that I was wrong. And once I was able to get over my stubbornness and accept the fact that I was wrong, I was able to move on. I lost [Durant’s] trust. How do I get that back? Not so we can win a championship or we can win some games … but I actually loved this guy, like that’s really my brother. And so not knowing what’s next in our relationship bothered me more.”

Green said he eventually apologized to Durant and he thought the relationship was repaired. However, Green added that Durant’s comments to the Wall Street Journal this summer that he never felt he fit in with the guys in Golden State really bothered him.

The Green and Durant incident ultimately did not cost the Warriors a title, worn-down ligaments and tendons that snapped did that (as well as an outstanding Raptors team).

Did what Green said push Durant out the door, ultimately to Brooklyn? Only Durant knows the answer to that, but it felt like KD was eyeing the door before Green got in his face.

As for their relationship, if Shaq and Kobe can get along now there’s no reason to worry about Durant and Green.