Big guns scramble to retain stars

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Jeremy Lin has been linked with a move to the Guangzhou Loong Lions after the Beijing Ducks opted not to re-sign him. XINHUA

With uncertainty mounting over the future of star players, a turbulent summer has signaled a power shift in the CBA landscape as the league gears up for an unpredictable title race.

For the first offseason in a long while, intrigue abounds over where several out-of-contract All-Stars will suit up next term.

CBA rules dictate that players cannot simply choose a new club by themselves. Even if a player's contract has run its course, he cannot leave that team if it offers him a max extension-a controversial rule designed to protect franchises and encourage the development of homegrown talent.

Leading the glittering cast of "restricted free agents" are national team players Guo Ailun, Zhou Qi and Zhao Rui, who are all expected to don new jerseys in the 2022-23 campaign but remain subject to the decisions of their former clubs-respectively, defending champions the Liaoning Leopards, perennial powerhouses the Xinjiang Flying Tigers and 11-time league title winners the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

None of those teams appear willing to release their key assets, with negotiations in stalemate with only two weeks to go before the Aug 31 registration deadline.

Keen for fresh challenges, point guard Guo strongly suggested earlier this month he wants to leave Liaoning, having played with the franchise for 12 years and helped the Leopards claim a second league title in June.

Liaoning, however, has so far refused to let go of Guo, who averaged 21.5 points, 6.5 assists and 3.7 rebounds last season. The club insists it will stick to the CBA rules to hang onto the 28-year-old unless he opts for a move overseas to play in the NBA or Euroleague.

"Guo was cultivated and promoted from our own youth system …he has already become a symbol of this team. We hope he can stay with us and fight for the next championship," Liaoning said in a statement.

"We believe the NBA and Euroleague can offer Guo better chances for development, which will benefit the Chinese national team. To this aim, we will give him our full support despite the loss of our club's interest."

Both Guo and Zhou Qi are currently in France as part of a national team training tour as the squad prepares for the 2023 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifying window later this month.

Zhou in limbo

Star center Zhou was in a similar sticky situation to Guo last summer when Xinjiang blocked his attempts to be released from his contract, prompting a move to the Australian league with South East Melbourne Phoenix.

Still, the Flying Tigers have claimed they are legally the only rightful destination for Zhou should the former NBA player return to the domestic league, citing the "max extension" terms.

A request for arbitration has been reportedly filed by Zhou's agency team to the CBA company to settle the disagreement, shedding light on labor rights in a league that does not have a players' union.

"Players as the labor force in the league have not enjoyed enough respect in the league, where the clubs have all the say in deciding everything from salary to the length of contract. I hope the league management can make the rules fairer for both sides," Sui Ran, a former CBA player and founder of Zhou's agency, Newlevel Sports, wrote on Weibo.

As the most successful franchise in CBA history, the Guangdong Southern Tigers have also been weakened after former captain Zhou Peng left for crosstown rivals the Shenzhen Aviators.

The Aviators confirmed on Tuesday that they have signed Zhou Peng, a versatile forward and one of the league's best perimeter defenders, from Guangdong after paying an extra fee as "compensation" to acquire the veteran, who has completed his contract with the Southern Tigers.

However, the status of the Southern Tigers' starting playmaker Zhao remains unclear, with negotiations yet to yield a solution.

With the big guns busy trying to hold onto their prized assets, several ambitious franchises like the Beijing Ducks, Shanghai Sharks and Guangzhou Loong Lions are reloading in a bid to muscle in on the wide-open title chase.

The Ducks signaled their intent this week by recalling young talent Zeng Fanbo from a one-year stint in the NBA G-league while waiving their rights to re-sign American guard Jeremy Lin.

Zeng, who was developed in the Ducks' youth system and had played in the US high-school league since 2017, was part of June's NBA Draft but failed to secure a contract.

He later joined the Indiana Pacers' summer league roster and played four games-registering a total of 20 points, four rebounds and two steals-before deciding to return to Beijing to continue his career in the CBA.

"I started with the Ducks, went out from here and now it feels like I've come home," said Zeng, a 2.11-meter forward who boasts all-around athleticism, a soft shooting touch and solid defensive coverage.

"Training and playing in the States for the past year opened my eyes. To experience the draft and the summer league competing against players who are on the next level helped me to improve a lot-both on and off the court.

"I am looking forward to sharing responsibilities with veterans on our team and make my own contributions," added the 19-year-old.

Already boasting competitive local rosters, the Sharks and Loong Lions have signed ex-NBA players Michael Beasley and Jordan Bell respectively to bolster their title hopes despite a league rule requiring each team to play only one foreigner at any time in a game.

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