Yi could be donning a Bucks hat again very soon. He might even smile!
An end to the Yi Watch? It's looking increasingly likely. I mentioned the other day that Chinese fans were talking about a supposed press conference being held by Yi's club team Guangdong on Wednesday that would address the Yi situation, but it wasn't clear what would be announced--a reiteration of trade demands, or a willingness to negotiate with the Bucks? Gery Woelfel then speculated--perhaps based on inside information, perhaps not--that Bucks' owner Senator Herb Kohl had become directly involved in the negotiations and that Yi would be in a Bucks uniform come the open of training camp. Then Sean Deveney at the Sporting News broke the story tonight that a contingent from the Bucks including Kohl and Larry Harris had flown to China with an eye on moving the negotiations forward.
Deveney stops short of saying a deal is imminent, but it's important to remember that contractually there's not much to negotiate. The Bucks will certainly offer Yi the maximum allowable 120% of his rookie salary scale for the next two years ($2.78 million in 07/08 and $2.99 million in 08/09), after which the Bucks would have team options for two additional seasons. Assuming those options are picked up and Yi doesn't sign an extension, Yi would be a restricted free agent going into his fifth season, at which point he could sign a long-term deal with the Bucks, sign an offer sheet with another team that the Bucks could match, or play one year at the qualifying offer and then be an unrestricted free agent. It would also seem obvious that the Bucks are further willing to offer Guangdong the maximum $500,000 buyout allowed by the NBA's collective bargaining agreement. Deveney rightly notes that Guangdong and especially Chinese basketball officials will want assurances about Yi's role with the Bucks and his availability to the national team, but that shouldn't be a hard sell given the Bucks' lack of depth in the frontcourt and their experience with international players. Beyond that Guangdong might further want to negotiate some sort of agreement whereby they get to send some of their coaches to work with the Bucks and vice versa, but the important pieces of the negotiation simply aren't very negotiable.
Two contingents are scheduled to be at the meeting. One will be from the Bucks and will notably include Kohl, the team's owner. General manager Larry Harris and two lawyers representing the team also will be there, but Kohl's involvement in the negotiations is expected to be the key to unlocking the Yi stalemate. As the weeks have passed, Kohl has gotten more involved in finding a way to bring Yi to Milwaukee.
Scheduled to meet with the Bucks is Chen, who received a letter two weeks ago from Kohl, paving the way for this Yi summit. Representatives from the Chinese Basketball Association are expected to be in the meeting, too. Yi's agent, Dan Fegan, will be there.
The Bucks could not be reached for comment Tuesday for an update on the negotiations, but the discussions are expected to go all day Wednesday. The chief topic will be Yi's development. Salary, marketing agreements, endorsement opportunities -- a source says that all will be secondary to the basic problem of playing time. Yi has gotten accustomed to the fact that he will be playing in a cold-weather city with few citizens of Chinese descent. He didn't have much choice. The Bucks, barring a trade, would hold his NBA rights as long as he continues playing professionally overseas.
Some Chinese friends over at RealGM have been working overtime to translate Chinese press articles about the situation, some of which are going so far as to say that Guangdong has finished their negotiations and the deal is all but done. Take that with a grain of salt considering the inaccuracy of previous Chinese press reports, but it's certainly promising. After all, Guangdong currently has Yi under contract, meaning that their approval is the first and most important step in getting Yi to Milwaukee.
Guangdong's press conference is scheduled to take place in the early morning hours on Wednesday (a couple hours from now) in Hong Kong. Why Hong Kong and not Guangdong for the press conference? Well, one Chinese source pointed out that Harris and Kohl wouldn't need visas to travel to Hong Kong. I also have to wonder why they'd have a press conference if they're still going to need weeks of negotiations as Deveney suggests. So it might be that Guangdong--the owner of which is effectively acting as Yi's Chinese agent going forward--will use the conference to endorse the Bucks as Yi's next destination, pending an official signing in the coming days. Or perhaps they'll delay the press conference until they've had a chance to iron out the details. Either way, who said the offseason had to be boring?