Commentary

Sealing the deal: Yi assured rotation role with Bucks

Originally Published: September 4, 2007
By Ric Bucher | ESPN The Magazine

Now that Yi Jianlian has signed with the Milwaukee Bucks, there is no doubt he will play for them -- a lot. Owner Herb Kohl apparently has guaranteed it.

Yi Jianlian
NBAE via Getty ImagesOne big happy family: (from left to right) Chen Haitao, Herb Kohl, Yi Jianlian, and Larry Harris.

Kohl publicly downplayed his role in last week's signing of Yi, the Chinese star Milwaukee selected No. 6 in June's draft against Yi's wishes, but only personal guarantees by Kohl on how Yi will be handled ended the stalemate, a source intimately familiar with the negotiations said.

Those guarantees, according to the source, include Yi averaging more than 20 minutes per game and possibly as many as 25. Only such an assurance by Kohl eased concerns that with coach Larry Krystkowiak facing his first full season and GM Larry Harris under pressure to win now to keep his job, Yi would spend much of his rookie year on the bench.

Considering the dynamics, it's a reasonable concern. Kohl is not happy that his team was never in the hunt to make the playoffs last season with a $60 million payroll. Harris has to be hoping that Bobby Simmons and Dan Gadzuric will warrant their fat, long contracts and that Charlie Villanueva will justify he was worth acquiring from Toronto for T.J. Ford (Harris did not immediately return a phone call asking for comment). All three are capable of playing power forward in the Bucks' small-ball style. And Krystkowiak, an unexpected choice to get his first crack at an NBA head coaching job, has to feel beholden to Harris and eager to win.

Kohl is not likely to be shy about pushing both Harris and Krystkowiak to make good on his assurances after going to the wall to win Yi and his representatives over. First, it's all the rage these days. NBA owners are increasingly involved directly in basketball matters, most publicly Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks) and Joe and Gavin Maloof (Sacramento Kings).

Kohl also put his reputation on the line with anybody and everybody connected to basketball in China, which could create far-reaching benefits and consequences for a U.S. senator, considering China's growing political and marketing presence in the world. Kohl wrote a letter to Guangdong Tigers owner Chen Haitao, invited agent Dan Fegan to a dinner meeting in Washington, D.C., and then flew to Asia to meet with Haitao, various Chinese sports ministry officials and Yi and his parents. While Harris and several other Bucks officials made the trip as well, the source said the vital negotiations occurred exclusively between Kohl and Haitao.

Count both the failure of Wang Zhizhi, whose game Yi resembles far more than Rockets center Yao Ming, and the looming of next summer's Olympics in Beijing as the motivation behind the Chinese to get Kohl's assurances. Haitao and the Chinese officials consider it paramount that Yi develop as rapidly as possible and play for a quality team, the source said. They are well-versed in the disparate tales of, say, Toronto's Andrea Bargnani staying in the rotation despite struggling early on and former Piston Darko Milicic, who barely played as a rookie.

Although concerns about Milwaukee's small-market size, cold climate and lack of a significant Chinese population were also raised when Yi initially balked at being drafted by the Bucks, those topics were hardly addressed in the negotiations. (Yi's weather issues are born of the fact that the Tigers are based in the southern city of Guangzhou; also, he spent the three months leading up to the draft in Los Angeles.)

So what happens if Yi doesn't get the minutes promised? Kohl, the source said, has assured Yi he can come to him directly to discuss going elsewhere.

There's always the chance that minutes won't be an issue. Yi could make it a no-brainer to keep him on the floor. Perhaps the Bucks will flourish with a healthy Michael Redd dropping nearly 20 pounds and center Andrew Bogut entering his third season, which is about when most big men learn the NBA ropes.

But it won't be hard to know if Yi feels compelled to bust a move to Kohl's office. It'll be written all over the stat sheet.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer