This embryonic N.B.A. season has already given us Trae Young dribbling through J.J. Redick’s legs, Ben Simmons swishing a 3-pointer as if he always makes them and Zion Williamson rumbling for 29 points in his second pro game — with only one miss in 13 shots.
The problem with preseason basketball, of course, is that none of it actually counts. The problem with this preseason, in particular, is that the tension and chaos emanating from China all week very much counts.
It won’t show up anywhere in the standings once the N.B.A.’s highly anticipated regular season begins Oct. 22, but the fallout from the league’s sudden conflict with its second-most important market is sure to linger. The pros and cons of doing business in China are a matter of public debate like never before, with cultural, political and potential multimillion-dollar financial implications and far too much heft to fade as quickly as gaudy preseason statistics.
Perhaps under different circumstances, a Twitter post supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters wouldn’t have sparked such fury. But the message from the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, to “fight for freedom” and “stand with Hong Kong” landed amid the animus of a monthslong trade war between the United States and China. Morey also decided to press send right before the Brooklyn Nets, the Los Angeles Lakers and a cadre of league officials, led by Commissioner Adam Silver, headed to China for the league’s annual exhibition series there.
An extensive sponsor and media boycott of the Rockets soon spiraled. China’s punitive response could cost the Rockets around $25 million in sponsorship losses this season, according to one person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to discuss it publicly. It didn’t take long for a number of rival teams to start besieging the league for estimates of how much they stand to lose, too. Yahoo Sports reported Wednesday that at least five unnamed teams fear that the $116 million salary cap projected for the 2020-21 season could drop by as much as 10 to 15 percent.
The league, hopeful as it is that the conflict is indeed thawing, understands all too well how fragile its relations with China are after nearly 40 years of harmony. That was evident on Thursday, when local officials let the Lakers and the Nets play an exhibition in Shanghai — but only after scrubbing all Chinese sponsors from the event and removing the broadcast from state-run television.
The Rockets, largely because of Yao Ming, were essentially China’s team throughout the Hall of Fame center’s career. Various factions in China, in response to Morey’s tweet, initially sought two conciliatory gestures they appear increasingly unlikely to get: a public apology from Silver and/or Morey’s ouster (or resignation).
Yet there were some signs, leading into the Nets-Lakers rematch on Saturday in Shenzhen, that outrage from the Chinese government had begun to soften. The Chinese authorities, typically relentless in coercing American businesses to publicly apologize in such disputes, no longer appear quite so determined to make the N.B.A. grovel and squirm in fear of losing what has been conservatively estimated at $500 million in annual revenue.
As The New York Times’ Keith Bradsher and Javier C. Hernandez reported Thursday, government officials in China had begun to “tamp down public anger” aimed at the N.B.A. “after three days of fanning nationalistic outrage.” Chinese officials apparently fear that too much rhetoric could damage the country’s image ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics outside Beijing. The dispute has spread awareness in the United States of the ongoing Hong Kong protests; one player on the China tour who requested anonymity estimated that “90 percent of the league didn’t even know what was going on a week ago.”
The whole league is aware now. But deciding how to handle questions about China is merely one matter for players to contemplate.
While front offices fret over potential lost revenue, star players inevitably wonder how the N.B.A.’s fraught relationship with China will affect shoe sales and promotional summer tours there that the likes of Stephen Curry (Under Armour), LeBron James (Nike) and James Harden (Adidas) are known to make. Curry said that he was not yet sure, after six consecutive off-season trips, how soon he will return — while further uncertainty surrounded the handful of players who endorse Chinese shoe manufacturers.
That group includes Curry’s teammate Klay Thompson, who earns an estimated $9 million per season from the Chinese brand Anta. Several players command between $2 million and $10 million annually from Chinese companies such as Anta, Li-Ning and Peak, according to two people familiar with shoe contract negotiations who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.
“The presumption that there’s been an immediate loss — I think that number is much lower than the crazy numbers that have been thrown around,” said Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University’s Falk College. “The fact that a preseason game was pulled from being on air in China, or the fact that some sponsors have temporarily pulled out, I think that amount is relatively small. The bigger question is what’s the long-term ripple effect here.”
How soon Chinese media outlets will resume their blanket (and lucrative) coverage of the league is a primary issue diverting attention from on-court matters. Discourse about widespread silence in a league that prides itself on its social activism and awareness is another.
Curry and Warriors Coach Steve Kerr are among the high-profile N.B.A. personalities who have absorbed considerable domestic criticism for curbing their usual willingness to speak out on social issues — prompting cries that they are doing so to avoid further damage to the league’s business interests.
The National Basketball Players Association has likewise opted for silence since the controversy unspooled. Notably quiet are the shoe company giants Nike and Adidas, who rely on robust sales in China for a healthy chunk of revenue.
“Our presence in China is a different conversation than Coach talking about gun violence or gender equality or things that for us are being spokespeople for people who can’t speak for themselves,” Curry said when asked about Kerr’s reluctance to discuss the China controversy in depth. “Within our communities, that makes a huge impact.
“This situation has a huge weight and gravity to it and so many things that need to be sorted out, but I just don’t know enough about Chinese history and how that’s influenced modern society enough to speak on it. That’s where we’re at today. I’m sure this is not going away, so we’ll come back to it.”
Burton, more than most, may understand the complicated factors at play, and the diplomatic needle Silver is trying to thread. Burton was the commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League for four years and the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
“Somebody at the highest levels of the Chinese government is angry with the N.B.A., so this is not like dealing with an owner, where you’ve got to deal with Mark Cuban or Steve Ballmer,” Burton said. “This is having to figure out: ‘Can I reach the people in charge of the country and assure them that this will never happen again?’”
These are the sorts of questions suddenly smothering this league. Opening night is less than two weeks away, but Simmons’s quest for his first official N.B.A. 3-pointer and the Zion phenomenon are not yet primary sources of curiosity. Neither is the most wide-open championship chase in years — not even after the wildest off-season of roster upheaval ever.
As close as we are to the games that do count, geopolitical questions dominate the floor.