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The NBA’s controversy with China hits the Wizards and Capital One Arena

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Several protestors wore “Free Hong Kong” t-shirts before and during the Wizards’ game against the Loong Lions. The controversy could affect their free agency needs as well.

A protestor wears a “Free Hong Kong” t-shirt outside Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.
Stephen Whyno, Twitter

China is the NBA’s biggest market worldwide. And the Washington Wizards have hosted the Guangzhou Loong Lions (previously the Long Lions) for three consecutive years. The Wizards won 137-98, but it came in the midst of an international controversy involving the NBA and China.

Though this story was big around the NBA, we didn’t cover it here since it didn’t affect the Wizards right away last weekend like it did for the Rockets. So here is a very abbreviated gist of what happened between the NBA, one of its teams and China.

Last Saturday, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong, an autonomous region of mainland China. That tweet was deleted, but here are some snapshots of it and initial reaction:

That sparked an international controversy. It angered the Chinese government, where businesses suspended or severed ties with the NBA and/or the Rockets. Ultimately, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver supported Morey’s right to free speech while also apologizing to Chinese fans this week.

The Lakers and Nets had a preseason game in Shanghai on Thursday evening (or morning Washington time) after some uncertainly whether it would happen at all. While the game was televised in the U.S., it was taken off the air in China. Most fans in Beijing were just NBA fans who wanted to see a game. But there were certainly protests. And some were profane.

Now, let’s tie how that international incident affected the Wizards.

There were scattered groups of protestors coming to yesterday’s game with “Free Hong Kong” t-shirts. Some also held signs protesting the NBA’s support of mainland China.

I went to the game just to watch it. Greydy Diaz came as well. Both of us were hearing and seeing fans routinely yell “Free Hong Kong!,” whether after the Chinese national anthem or when a player was shooting free throws.

Some of the protestors were arguing with people who were presumably mainland Chinese though they never got too serious. But we never saw anyone physically escorted out of the arena from our vantage points.

But in other areas, some fans were asked to leave.

Both Greydy and I saw Loong Lions trainers get irritated when they heard “Free Hong Kong” chants behind their bench and players had to calm them down. Ultimately, the arena security were trying to thread a needle between letting people say whatever they wanted and keeping the peace.

In the second half, these chants still went on. But by then Guangzhou tuned them out, though Loong Lions forward (and Wizards alumnus) Andrew Nicholson could be visibly seen asking a protestor to calm down.

Yesterday’s “Free Hong Kong” protestors were just the beginning of the impact the Wizards have from the NBA’s controversy with China.

According to Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports, the 2020-21 NBA salary cap projection was estimated to be $116 million, before the controversy. However, that figure could drop by 10 to 15 percent after. This means the Wizards (and every other NBA team) would have $11.6 million to $17.4 million less to spend before hitting the soft cap figure.

This also effectively means that reserve center Ian Mahinmi, whose $16 million salary cap hit expires this year, could be effectively negated due to a lower cap number. In other words, the Wizards’ hopes to rebuild and use additional cap space from Mahinmi’s expiring contract would be hampered.

The Wizards were certainly not at the heart of last weekend’s controversy. But they certainly have felt and will feel more of the situation’s side effects as it plays out.