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Rosen: What Really Happens in Preseason Games

They used to be called “exhibition games,” and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the NBA was struggling to survive and every extra dollar was precious, teams played two dozen of them.  Moreover, for the first few NBA seasons, the players’ contracts didn’t kick in until the season began — so the paltry per diem money was all they received.

Nowadays the proper nomenclature is “preseason games,” and each team plays only seven or eight. But however they might be identified, their value is extremely limited.

So let’s take a look at what really goes on in these all but meaningless contests.

With only a few rotations to impress their coaches, the rookies and marginal, non-guaranteed players will definitely have their chops up. Watch these guys play like their lives are at stake — diving headlong for loose balls, running and rebounding with a furious energy, all the while trying to remember when they’re supposed to zig and when they’re supposed to zag. Trying to compensate for their inevitable brain lock by playing harder, faster and with more desperation.

The problem with virtually every rookie, however, is that when they do become confused, they invariably revert to the moves and mindsets that have been so successful throughout their high school and college careers. Thereby compounding their confusion and piling mistake upon mistake.

As a rule, the coaches are extremely enthusiastic about the initial unfolding of the new season. True, they’ve only installed perhaps 20 percent of their offensive and defensive packages, but turning on the lights after a long offseason and several strenuous two-a-day practices usually engenders optimism. There’s still sufficient preseason practice time to correct whatever misplays and inconsistencies that these contests have revealed.

Only the veterans are subdued. Sure, they’re happy to have the chance to beat on strangers after those two-a-day practices and increasingly mean-spirited intrasquad scrimmages. After all, when teammates are running the same offenses and defenses, body contact is maximized. And the familiarity of the matchups also breeds irritation.

Even so, those veterans with guaranteed contracts and guaranteed minutes are satisfied to cruise through their 20-plus minutes and work up a sweat. They’re totally unconcerned with what the scoreboard may show when the final buzzer sounds. The most important consideration for these guys is to avoid an injury. That’s why, no matter what the score or the situation, their guiding principle is to stay as far away as possible from the crazed and wild-eyed rookies.   

The most passionate witnesses to these games are the advance scouts from the other NBA teams. Will the two teams on the court run the same stuff as they did last year? Are their calls the same? What, if anything, is different? The scouts are also obliged to evaluate those players who might be cut as well as those who might eventually become trade bait.

The relationships between the refs and the players are also worth noting. Veteran players will be friendly and even jocular with the refs.

“Hey, that was a good call, Joe.  I thought I got away with one there.”

“Good call, Bernie.”

“Good call, Lou.”

This repartee actually has nothing to do with friendship. Instead, the idea is to ingratiate one’s self with the refs in order to hopefully get the benefit of a close call somewhere down the line.

Even the coaches will get into the act. At game’s end, they’re liable to extend to the refs the same platitudinous praise that the winning coaches routinely grant to the losing coaches: “Nice job.”

Somebody will win and somebody will lose, and nobody but the most maniacal fans will care.

Outside the arenas in the northern climes the yellow leaves are twirling, flying, already dead. Slowly the cooling earth is turning to stone. Elsewhere, the sun shines a promise of a hopeful tomorrow. And for all but the predestined bottom-dwellers, playoff time is a long, wishful dream away.

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