And everyone is wrong.
The preseason is supposed to be when coaches are evaluating their offensive and defensive schemes and players are familiarizing themselves with their teammates. Veterans sit out entire games. Journeymen on make-good deals fight, scratch and claw for minutes to show they deserve that final roster spot.
Games are played in exotic faraway places like Taiwan and Rio de Janeiro and domestic outposts from Biloxi to Boise and Asheville to Jacksonville. Referees overuse their whistles to illustrate the “points of emphasis” for the upcoming season.
Nobody really pays much attention to which teams win and lose, and which teams look good or look bad. The games don’t count, everyone says. Call me when the games count.
OK, we will. It’s Tuesday, in case you were wondering.
But if you think how a team does in the preseason has no bearing on how they will do in the regular season – at least in the margins – you would be gravely mistaken.
But don’t take our word for it. Listen to an actual NBA player.
“We have to figure it out,” said Milwaukee Bucks guard Gary Neal, whose team dropped its first five preseason games by an average of 10.4 points before notching its lone win. “These aren’t close losses. We are 0-5 in the preseason. We have to figure it out.”
Neal is right. Since 2003, teams that don’t figure it out in the preseason almost never figure it out in the regular season.
Conversely, over the same period teams that hum on all cylinders through the preseason almost always end up playing in the postseason.
We tossed out the 2011 preseason, which followed a lockout and saw teams play just two games apiece. But since 2003 (the LeBron Era?), there are some very telling numbers in the margins.
We looked at the teams at or near the top or bottom of the final preseason standings. We tracked every team that made it through its preseason schedule with just one or zero losses and every team that managed only one or zero preseason wins.
From 2003 through 2009, there were 17 teams that fit those categories – nine with really good records and eight with really bad records. And all but one landed right where their preseason records said they would.
The nine teams who lost one or zero games in the preseason all made the playoffs that season. And seven of the eight teams who won one or zero games in the preseason all missed the playoffs that season.
The only outlier was the 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers, who were 1-6 in the preseason but won 50 games in the regular season and reached the NBA Finals behind some guy who had an era named after him.
Another outlier didn’t show up until the 2010 preseason. That year, Memphis (8-0), Orlando (7-0) and Boston (7-1) all made the playoffs, while the Los Angeles Clippers (1-7) ended up in the lottery.
However, the Utah Jazz (8-0) missed the playoffs with a 39-43 mark. They started 27-13 that season but traded Deron Williams, watched Jerry Sloan resign and unraveled. And the New Orleans Hornets (1-7) shook off a lousy preseason to make the playoffs in Chris Paul’s final season in The Big Easy.
Perhaps that was the start of what Wall Street likes to call a market correction. In the 2012 preseason, four teams had records in the margins – Toronto (6-1), Philadelphia (6-1), Charlotte (1-7) and the Los Angeles Lakers (0-8). But the Raptors and 76ers missed the playoffs and the Lakers scrambled to make the postseason.
Only the woeful Bobcats followed the recent trend. God bless ‘em.
The bottom line? Since 2003, there have been 27 teams who have finished the preseason with either a very good or very bad record. Of the 15 teams with one or zero losses, 12 made the playoffs. Of the 12 teams with one or zero wins, nine wound up in the lottery.
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