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The future of the NBA’s relationship with China has 2 real options

Where does the NBA’s relationship with China go from here?

2019 NBA Global Games - Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA is out of China. Well, for now: the LA Lakers and Brooklyn Nets have completed their preseason sojourns to the nation, and commissioner Adam Silver is back stateside. If the NBA were waiting to extricate its players from China before saying much more about the events of the past week, that’s done.

Something tells me, though, that the NBA won’t be champing at the bit to talk more about what happened in the aftermath of Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet.

But where the NBA’s relationship with China and its 1.4 billion people goes from here won’t need to be explicitly said. We’ll know based on whether the league goes back to China next spring, and based on whether NBA games this season can be watched by Chinese fans.

Here are the two paths ahead I see as reasonably likely based on what we know about the situation, the history, and the opportunities at play.

A thaw

We have already seen evidence that China’s view of Silver’s defense of free speech for NBA officials is softening, at least enough to make Silver feel like he doesn’t need to back down to merely stay in business with China. The New York Times reported last week that Chinese officials told journalists to tamp down on heavy criticism of the NBA after the first preseason game between the Nets and Lakers happened.

How does a thaw happen? A few steps:

First, the Chinese government continues towards a detente, feeling as though it has made its point, no matter what continues to happen in Hong Kong or Xinjiang.

Then the NBA’s most notable political personalities — Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, LeBron, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, even Silver — continue to avoid criticizing China directly.

NBA players and officials see what happened with Morey and realize the benefit of speaking out is highly disproportionate to the penalty they, their teams, and the league will suffer for doing so.

Tencent and CCTV continue to broadcast NBA games per the terms of their contracts with the NBA, ensuring that revenue comes in but perhaps working out a deal to block the Rockets from appearing before Chinese audiences.

The NBA continues to schedule Chinese Basketball Association teams to come to the United States for preseason games. The NBA eventually sends teams back to China for preseason games. (I have to imagine it won’t happen next season just because the planning must happen so early for those events and the cool-off period in the best of circumstances will be months long.)

China acknowledges having a pliant NBA on its side is more useful than using the league as a global corporate piñata. Joseph Tsai, billionaire co-founder of Alibaba and Nets governor, assists by ensuring that China gets what it wants from the NBA without much criticism.

NBA fans in China keep buying jerseys and watching games, of course.

Other American corporations start taking heat for deals in China that come with a side order of free speech repression, taking the singular focus off of the NBA.

Eventually, the Morey tweet becomes a footnote, a blip on the path of mutual profit for the NBA and the commercial arms of Chinese government.

Deep freeze

There’s another way this could go.

Silver could remain defiant, and perhaps triumphant after apparently getting the Chinese government to back down a little by Saturday’s game. Kerr and Popovich, wise and conscious of their images as worldly truth-speakers, could decide now that all NBA players are out of the country, they can be more critical of China.

Reporters could continue to ask questions of NBA players and officials about China and what just happened.

Fans could continue to bring signs and chants to NBA games in support of Hong Kong protestors and draw attention to the reported mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. Teams could stop confiscating signs now that the Chinese basketball teams have left the United States.

The NBA could abandon its training academy in Xinjiang province due to stateside heat, sparking a brand new news cycle and drawing negative attention to what the Chinese government is allegedly doing to the Uyghurs.

Players without commercial interests in China could speak out about Chinese oppression in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang, and the treatment of journalists and dissidents who don’t toe the party line. Tencent and CCTV could pull those additional teams from broadcasts.

Tsai could press the NBA to crack down on any criticism of China.

Tsai could draw criticism from within the NBA, either other governors or players.

Kyrie Irving, who plays for Tsai’s Nets, could say something to set off a dispute and a media cycle.

The Chinese government could decline to send Chinese Basketball Association teams to the United States next year, and decline to invite the NBA to play preseason games in China.

The Chinese government could seek the comfort of another Western sports league (perhaps e-sports) to fill its NBA-sized hole.

The revenue hit to the NBA from this episode — all sparked by a single deleted tweet, mind you — could convince the league that it doesn’t need to put its eggs in this particular basket and should re-invest in the American market instead. (Or India, which just has us repeating this episode in like 10 years.)

In either case ...

This will all likely cool down for now. Everyone involved, especially on the NBA side, must be exhausted. But what happens next in the saga should set the tone the relationship. Needless to say, it will have a massive impact on what the NBA will be as a global concern going forward.