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Meanings and Gleanings

The inbox is abuzz about the Blazers' pre-season start.  We've got everything from championship predictions to offensive schemes drawn from scratch to rotation musings.  Most of all I've read e-mail after e-mail about the HUGE topic of the month:  G...W...O.

What does that stand for?  Multiple choice:

  1. Gregory Wayne Oden
  2. Gigantic Winning Opportunity
  3. Going WAY Overboard
  4. All of the above, wrapped into one.

Naturally it's #4.  Greg's play (Greg World Order?) is lighting people on FIRE.  I haven't heard people this excited since the Pippen and Smith acquisitions back in the day.  Which begs the question (one that a couple people even asked):  How much can we tell from these games?  Is this for real?

Short answer:  Yes...and maybe.

Pre-season is really good at revealing some things, not so reliable when forecasting others.  The Oden topic straddles the line between the two and thus is a great springboard into the discussion.

Pre-season is usually a good barometer when used to measure players against themselves.  One of the most obvious factors on display is whether a guy came in shape.  Its fraternal twin is what kind of shape he came in...the same or a new look.  You can instantly tell whether a guy is heavier or lighter, slower or quicker.  With even a little bit of time on the court stronger also shows up.  In Oden's case he clearly came with a new (or old, depending) physique which lends him more speed and makes him look exponentially better than he did entering last season or even at the end of it.

With some reasonable court time whatever facets of his game a guy worked on (or failed to work on) over the summer also start coming through.  You can also tell when a player has learned something over the summer, either by drilling with coaches or assimilating last year's experience.  In this case Oden's offensive game and defensive positioning provide examples.

The pre-season also reveals a fair amount about synergy and on-court chemistry, though allowances must be made for rookies or new acquisitions.  Coaches really do test out lineups to see how they will function together.  Even if the competition isn't as heavy as in the regular season you can still evaluate timing, style of play, and affinity for teammates and schemes.  If Andre Miller and Greg Oden look good in the pre-season they're going to work decently in the regular season and vice-versa.

The pre-season is not nearly as useful when measuring individuals or teams against opponents, however.  Just because a guy looks good against Kobe Bryant in a pre-season contest doesn't mean he will do the same once the games count.  There's always doubt.  If you're up against a star he might not be putting much stock in this game.  If you're up against a scrub then you're not facing the same competition you're going to get later.  That's not to say indication is absent entirely.  A great performance could be replicated in the regular season.  It could well be a harbinger of enormous growth and dominance.  But you never know and you never will know until the actual games start.  The safest thing to say is that bad performances usually indicate something is wrong but good performances don't necessarily mean all is right.

Team performance means even less, I'm afraid.  All of the uncertainty is multiplied by every player who gets warmups off and then squared by the lack of consequences for the final score.  You have no idea if the opposing coach was playing his best guys or evaluating marginal players.  You have no idea if they were running their strongest plays or working the kinks out of variations.  You have no idea if they showed all of their cards or are keeping some in reserve.  You have no idea how seriously the players as a group, the coaches, or the organization value the win (as opposed to the process).  There's just no analogy to meaningful wins and losses in the exhibition season.  Going undefeated in the pre-season means bubkus.  You still start the season with a 0-0 record.  Nobody cares what the record was before opening night.  Not even you.

Sum it all up and what do you have, at least in Oden's case?  The speed is for real.  The defensive awareness is for real.  The improved offensive game is for real.  Whatever skills he's mastered and concepts he's worked into his game aren't magically going to disappear when the games start counting.  Yes, Greg Oden really is a better player than he was last year and, health allowing, he's likely to remain so.  But two games against the Kings don't show you how productive he's going to be over the course of the season, nor do they show you that he's going to dominate games, nor do the two victories put the Blazers any closer to the division championship or a playoff series win or any other goal they have set for themselves.  They aren't bad signs, of course.  But they're not indicative either.

The best way to put it, from a gut level anyway, is simply, "Yay!  Whee!  This is awesome.  I am excited.  I want to see more."  And more is exactly what we need to see.

--Dave (