Yesterday, the Los Angeles Lakers agreed to a one-year, $8 million contract with forward Yi Jianlian. Yi has managed to be pretty much every kind of disappointing player wrapped up into one package: he is simultaneously a post-Yao Chinese wonder flop, a combine athlete who was sloppy and undisciplined on the court (you may recall his dominant play against stationary chairs), and a malcontent who feuded with the team that drafted him because he didn't want to play in Milwaukee. Yao Ming was publicly disappointed in him. There exists no greater pain than that gentle man looking down at you and frowning, sadly.
Under normal circumstances, no team in the NBA would have their eyes and hearts set on Yi as a basketball solution. But Yi isn't a normal circumstance. He's a Chinese star, the most prominent active player from a gigantic country that loves basketball. The country's wildly ineffective player development scheme—too much practice; not enough emphasis on creativity; too much emphasis on size; very little incentive to change, even if they keep losing in the Olympics over and over and over—has kept their players out of the NBA for the past decade or so, but that doesn't mean that there's not an audience for the best player from the world's largest country playing in the world's best basketball league, even if he does ride the bench.
The Lakers are young, shallow, and weird. Their belief that their own prestige would get them what they needed in free agency was dismantled when none of the league's major free agents signed or even gave them more than a passing glance. It must have been humbling, or depressing, to see a new NBA drift away from their grasp during their past few years of convulsing, vomiting Kobe madness.
What is a once proud team turned Warriors divisional whipping rock to do? You have all this prestige, an overflowing fountain of self-regard, a gaping chasm between the amount of attention you want and the amount you're going to receive. You have to fill the gap. No one's available. Coaches aren't interesting enough, even if they are bringing the chillest possible vibes. Trading all available assets for a marginal superstar would just fuck you for years to come.
The only feasible solution, the only rational thing you could do, is to sign Yi. He is the ultimate steer-into-the-skid signing, a brazen deal. Even if the move is a comic blip on the radar of you, your family, your friends, and every other person in America, it stirs the hearts and minds of the people of China, who thirst for the emergence of the next great player from their country. They deserve it:
And who knows? Maybe Yi will get it together. He's been terrible, but it's not like he doesn't have tangible skills. He's tall and he can shoot, kind of; his dribble is experimental but could possibly have some utility, somewhere, at some time. Maybe his time in the CBA has given him an appreciation for the good life of the NBA, and he'll bleed and die to stay on an NBA court. Maybe the next Chinese NBA star just needed to ferment in his own juices for a while, and he'll be back and thirsty for glory, a pickle to be proud of. Probably not, though.
The Lakers and Yi needed each other. They found each other. It's beautiful and true, two disappointments propping each other up in the short term, while they thirst for a truer greatness. It's as inspiring as a basketball signing can possibly be in these cynical times.