Andrew Chin is in Shanghai, so he knows a lot about the CBA…

One of the biggest twists in last summer’s protracted lockout was the way playing in China emerged as one of the player’s strongest threats. From Kobe to a pre-Linsanity Jeremy, virtually every player was linked to a Chinese team at some point during the lockout. Although the Chinese Basketball Association’s decision to prohibit opt-out clauses dried up interest, a few players took the plunge. While the player’s decision and its impact on their careers and the league have been scrutinized, no one’s really looked into how their moves impacted this year’s entertaining CBA season.

Game 3 of the CBA Finals is set for this Sunday in the Southern Chinese city Dongguan as the Aaron Brooks led four-time defending champs Guangdong Southern Tigers try to overcome a 2-0 deficit by the Starbury fueled upstart Beijing Ducks. So far the Finals have been a raging success. The Finals opener in Beijing sold out 18,000 seats in an unprecedented eight minutes and the series has been crazy: the Guangdong coach instructing players to take down Marbury, the raucous Beijing crowd serenading Guangdong players with “sha bi” (translated: “stupid cunt”), a 10-point fourth quarter comeback, and a strong possibility that Beijing becomes only the fourth team to win a CBA title in the league’s 16 year history. In preparation for this pivotal Game 3 we look back at Aaron Brooks, the last NBA player “trapped in China.”

The CBA Final has kicked off and as expected it’s been dominated by the point guards. The twist has been the upstart Beijing Ducks led by two-time NBA All-Star and Chinese vet Stephon Marbury taking a 2-0 lead against four-time defending champs Guangdong Southern Tigers. Guangdong is essentially the CBA’s version of the Bill Russell Celtics, winning seven of the last eight titles. The Southern Tigers have their own point guard with an NBA pedigree in Aaron Brooks who has shone in the Finals averaging over 30 points in the two games.

Eight days after he became the last of the NBA free agents to sign a China deal the NBA lockout ended. It was yet another weird turn of events in what had been a bit of a down year for Brooks. His memorable 2010 season netted him a Most Improved Player award and enough swag to wear this. The next year was the opposite — struggles with injuries, Kyle Lowry’s ascension and a mid-season trade to Phoenix.

His start in China wasn’t much better. While peers like Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith were essentially their teams, Brooks was expected to fit into a championship Guangdong squad. He wasn’t even the biggest NBA star on his team, as native son Yi Jianlian returned to play for his hometown team during the lockout. In his first game, he was held to four points in an early eye-opening loss to Beijing that signaled the Ducks’ contender status. Two games later he was roundly outplayed by Lester Hudson, the point guard he replaced on Guangdong in yet another early season upset.

While Brooks struggled to fit his score-first game into a team loaded with CBA All-Stars, including this season’s MVP Zhu Fangyu, the talent eventually won out. Even though they lost Yi to the NBA (unlike import players, domestic players were given an opt-out clause to join the NBA, otherwise known as the “Yi Jianlin Clause”), Guangdong righted the ship. Brooks began to fit in, leading the team in a revenge victory over Beijing in January en-route to an All-Star season and a 21.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, and 3.1 rpg line in under 30 minutes per.

Unlike the other NBA free agents, Brooks wasn’t swayed by NBA free agency, continuing to play at a high level in leading the Southern Tigers to a 27-5 record and the top of the league standings. He’s been even better in the playoffs, helping Guangdong roar through with two straight sweeps before dropping Wednesday’s Finals opener to Beijing. In his CBA Finals debut, Brooks shouldered the scoring load by leading the team with 31 points on 7-12 shooting with 5 boards, 3 assists but offset by 8 turnovers. He’s adjusted to the CBA well and TNT recently did a nice video about his experiences. With the CBA season set to conclude in two weeks, Brooks will be available to re-sign with the Suns, possibly with a CBA title in hand.

Although the Southern Tigers rolled into these Finals as heavy favourites, this season has undoubtedly belonged to Stephon Marbury and the upstart Beijing Ducks. The story of Starbury and his hubris has become a warning for young NBA players. His fizzled partnership with KG and the disastrous end to his stint with his hometown Knicks have been well documented. Perhaps less known is his rebirth in China.

When he first arrived three seasons ago to the coal mining Chinese city of Taiyuan to start his Chinese career with the Shanxi Brave Dragons, nobody was sure how he would react. With a reputation for petulance in the NBA, Chinese fans quickly embraced the Coney Island point guard who spread the love back. Fans flocked to his Taiyuan hotel for support after his first CBA season ended in a spat with management and his transformation has been well documented in this excellent GQ piece.

Where that story ends is at the start of this season where he joined his third CBA team in as many seasons with the middling Beijing Ducks. It’s been a perfect fit for the metropolitan Marbury, whose already huge popularity in China soared. He’s penned a regular column for China Daily, inspired sick children, relaunched his Starbury shoe line with Chinese retailers, rode the subway, acted as a hoops whisperer to players like J.R. Smith adjusting to their new surroundings, and is spreading his mantra of “Love is Love” on the current edition of Sports Illustrated China.

On the court, Marbury’s game also changed. He’s sublimated his Starbury score-first mentality in leading a surprisingly balanced Beijing squad to a season opening 13 straight wins and a second place finish with a 21-11 record. No longer expected to be the offense, Marbury still made the CBA All-Star season with averages of 24.2 ppg, 6.4 apg, and 5.3 rpg. In his first real foray through the CBA playoffs, Marbury has been on a tear. In a tense semi-final series against his ex-Shanxi team, Marbury dropped back-to-back 50-plus point games and would describe the clinching win as “the best feeling I’ve ever had playing basketball.”

While it was expected that an NBA star will lift the CBA’s Mou Zuoyun Cup, few expected that it would be the 35-year old Starbury. In his CBA Finals debut, Marbury would match his counterpart Brooks with a game-high 36 points, plus six rebounds, five assists and four steals in the Ducks’ win and follow that up with an efficient night of 23 points, nine assists and four rebounds in Friday’s comeback win.

On the world’s biggest basketball market, this season has undoubtedly been Showbiz’s year. Imagine that.

Game 3 of the CBA Finals is Sunday, March 25 in Guangdong. Follow the series with Niu B-Ball, the best English language CBA site online.