NEW YORK (NBA/Olympics) - After their first-ever NBA title last season, the Dallas Mavericks made some squad adjustments, adding players like Yi Jianlian to the team.
The 24-year-old forward, now in his fifth NBA season, signed a one-year contract with the Mavericks last January after helping the Chinese national team to gain a spot in the next Olympic Games and spending a short spell during the lockout playing for the Guangdong Southern in the Chinese League.
Before London’s tournament, Yi will do his best to help the Mavericks defend the title they clinched last year after the epic NBA Finals against the Miami Heat.
That will be this season’s main challenge for a team that went through some important changes in their roster since last June.
As soon as the lockout ended, the Mavericks lost key players from last season’s winning line-up such as Tyson Chandler – the Mavs’ 2010-2011 starting center and a member of the USA’s preliminary squad in this summer’s London Olympics- was traded to the New York Knicks and Puerto Rican guard José Juan Barea left for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
However, by recruiting veterans like forwards Lamar Odom and Vince Carter, the team led by German superstar Dirk Nowitzki is still in the run for the title this season.
After recovering from a knee injury that obliged him to play two games for the Texas Legends of the D-League right after signing for the Mavericks, Yi is trying to get into the reigning champions’ rotation.
Fiba.com caught up with Yi Jianlian to talk about his season so far and his perspective for next summer’s Olympic games.
FIBA: Yi Jianlian, how is the experience so far with the Mavericks since you arrived last January?
Yi: I’m very happy to play for the Dallas Mavericks. It’s one of the best teams in the NBA and I’m proud to wear this jersey. I feel lucky to play for the reigning champions. I arrived in Dallas with a knee injury, but now I feel a lot better physically. I’m working hard to improve my game and try to help the team whenever I’m on the court. I’m really enjoying the experience.
FIBA: After winning the title last year, the team has been irregular since the start of the season.
Yi: Yes, but there are still a lot of games to play before the end of the regular season. The roster changed a lot since last year but we also had some problems with injuries. For example, Jason Kidd, one of our key players, has missed more than ten games due to a physical problem. Also, as our team is one of the oldest in the NBA, we probably need more time to get things going on. We still have a lot of work to do before going to the playoffs, but I’m pretty confident for the rest of the season.
FIBA: Do you think that the Mavs can still be considered a contender for the title this season?
Yi: Yes, sure. Some people say that our team is getting older, but I think that we can win the ring again. Even if the team has changed a bit since last year, we’re still among the best in the league.
How many teams in the NBA have players like Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter, Jason Terry in their roster? Not that many. A lot of people were surprised by the fact that the Mavericks won the championship last year, but not me. With the group of players we have, we can win the ring again.
FIBA: How does it feel to play with future NBA Hall of famers such as Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd?
Yi: It is so great to practice and play with two of the best players in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd are part of the history of this sport. I’m learning a lot from them. They know the game so well.
Honestly, they make basketball so simple that you improve your game just by watching them play. Apart from being very good players, Dirk and Jason are also great teammates. They have been helping me a lot since I arrived in Dallas.
FIBA: You signed a one-year contract with the Mavs. What is your goal for this season?
Yi: First, I will try to do my best to help the team win the championship again. The other goal is to try to get into the rotation. Even if our roster has plenty of talented players, I’ll work as hard as I can to be an important player on the team. I have to prove to the Mavs’ staff that I deserve to be in here.
FIBA: Speaking of goals, another one is to lead the Chinese national team in London next summer. What is your expectation for the Olympics?
Yi: Even if a lot of people don’t consider our team among the favourites, I think that we can do great things. We’ve been working well for a few years and we proved by winning the last Asian Championship that we can play very good basketball. The Chinese national team has very good players and I’m sure that we can fight for a medal. Don’t count us out.
FIBA: Can you talk about the work being done by Bob Donewald Jr. since he was named head coach of the Chinese national team in 2010?
Yi: Coach Bob Donewald Jr. is helping us a lot. We are a young team and we’ve been improving a lot since he was named as head coach. Having him as our coach is a great opportunity for us to be a better team. The group is still very young and he knows exactly how to work with young players.
FIBA: Since the retirement of Yao Ming last summer, you’re the leader of the Chinese national team.
Yi: I know that I have more responsibility since Yao retired, but I feel confident about the future. As one of the most experienced players on the team, I need to be an example for the youngest and do my best for my country. I don’t feel any pressure about that.
FIBA: You will play at your third Olympic games in London next summer. How does it feel to represent your country in this global event?
Yi: I feel very proud wearing the jersey of China, no matter what. Competing in a huge event such as the Olympics is an honour. It’s one of the best competitions for a basketball player. Not everyone can make it. As I did during the Athens Olympics in 2004 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, I’ll do my best to help my country to reach a medal.