Preseason: What you see is what you’ll get

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Last Wednesday I was over a friend’s house watching Roy Halladay’s no-hitter when he asked me if I saw the Lakers’ recent loss. (He was referring to the Lakers’ 111-92 loss to the Timberwolves in London.) My initial response was “Eh, it’s only preseason.”

It was a knee jerk response, hammered into my head from years of others downplaying the preseason’s importance. As soon as I said it I knew I had misspoke. Regardless of whether or not preseason success has some indication of regular season success, I suspected that I should have focused on the fact that it was just one game and that the Lakers’ top four starters played only 46 combined minutes.

Does preseason basketball really mean anything? And if so, how well does preseason performance predict regular season success? If you read the title, there may not be much suspense to the first question. Yes, teams that do well in the preseason also tend to succeed in the regular season.

Roland Beech touched on this subject a few years ago. His article indicated that preseason performance is a solid indicator of regular season record, especially for poorer teams.

Although the data was limited, teams coming off a very good season did not seem to show the same tendencies. With over four additional years of data available since Roland’s study and the preseason upon us, I’d like to revisit the question.

Comparing Preseason and Regular Season Data

In order to test for signs of future regular season performance, I assembled a table sorted by last year’s record, with a few pieces of information that help present a more meaningful comparison. Instead of using actual win totals, I prefer to use estimated Win% based on team points per game and opponent points per game. (Scoring margin is a more reliable predictor of future winning percentage than win-loss record.) In addition to regular season wins, the following table includes the estimated winning percentages for last year, the preseason, the first eight regular season games and the last 74 in order to place the preseason into proper perspective.

Preseason Team Performances

YearTeamWinsLast Year
eW%
Preseason
eW%
First 8 Gms
eW%
Final 74 Gms
eW%
2008/09BOS6282%61%74%75%
2009/10CLE6179%60%68%72%
2007/08SAS5678%72%82%65%
2005/06SAS6377%32%77%73%
2001/02SAS5877%88%72%72%
2004/05SAS5976%58%81%76%
2008/09DET3975%70%64%46%
2003/04DAL5275%29%68%64%
2009/10BOS5075%76%90%59%
2002/03SAC5974%70%77%71%
2007/08DAL5174%67%76%64%
2006/07SAS5874%30%67%79%
2009/10LAL5774%60%72%65%
2002/03LAL5074%40%34%61%
2006/07DET5373%52%41%68%
2008/09LAL6573%60%89%72%
2007/08PHO5572%67%69%66%
2009/10ORL5972%92%67%75%
2008/09UTA4872%65%73%58%
2004/05DET5472%42%40%67%
2005/06PHO5472%73%58%69%
2002/03SAS6072%75%63%70%
2005/06MIA5272%32%62%64%
2003/04SAC5572%58%50%68%
2004/05IND4471%55%50%53%
2006/07DAL6771%31%41%77%
2004/05MIN4470%63%60%55%
2001/02SAC6169%59%73%74%
2003/04SAS5769%52%54%78%
2005/06DAL6069%51%61%72%
2003/04NJN4769%67%47%61%
2009/10POR5068%52%73%60%
2008/09ORL5968%85%71%72%
2008/09NOH4968%91%63%55%
2006/07PHO6168%55%50%74%
2007/08CHI3367%68%28%40%
2007/08HOU5567%77%65%67%
2008/09SAS5467%67%39%66%
2004/05SAC5067%14%41%59%
2008/09HOU5367%63%59%65%
2001/02UTA4467%71%40%55%
2008/09PHO4666%62%66%55%
2001/02PHI4366%8%41%58%
2008/09DAL5066%66%37%59%
2001/02POR4965%49%49%62%
2007/08DET5965%39%74%75%
2002/03NJN4965%73%77%68%
2005/06HOU3465%70%42%44%
2001/02DAL5765%66%69%63%
2004/05DAL5865%54%82%67%
2005/06DET6464%61%87%71%
2009/10HOU4264%59%63%47%
2003/04DET5464%59%69%72%
2007/08CLE4564%11%35%51%
2006/07MEM2264%39%34%33%
2002/03DAL6064%63%90%73%
2004/05LAL3464%83%38%40%
2006/07MIA4464%24%16%51%
2009/10SAS5063%62%57%68%
2001/02MIL4163%48%61%48%
2003/04IND6163%34%60%73%
2001/02LAL5862%65%77%73%
2008/09DEN5462%74%50%63%
2002/03MIN5162%74%35%60%
2009/10DEN5361%64%65%63%
2002/03SEA4061%56%71%47%
2002/03POR5061%70%35%62%
2001/02NYK3060%48%41%35%
2008/09TOR3360%45%44%40%
2007/08UTA5460%56%77%71%
2003/04POR4160%49%50%44%
2004/05NJN4260%46%13%48%
2009/10UTA5359%75%36%70%
2001/02MIA3659%22%30%46%
2003/04UTA4259%78%42%46%
2006/07LAL4259%48%51%50%
2004/05MEM4559%75%59%59%
2005/06MEM4959%77%57%65%
2003/04LAL5658%37%63%64%
2002/03BOS4458%51%59%47%
2003/04PHI3358%44%55%39%
2001/02HOU2858%56%46%31%
2001/02PHO3658%63%54%47%
2005/06SEA3558%41%19%43%
2001/02CHH4458%58%37%56%
2006/07CLE5058%30%66%64%
2001/02TOR4258%88%56%48%
2003/04NOH4158%56%50%50%
2002/03DET5058%79%64%64%
2003/04MIN5858%48%63%70%
2005/06SAC4457%50%40%57%
2006/07IND3557%31%38%42%
2005/06DEN4457%71%56%50%
2004/05HOU5157%45%50%66%
2008/09GSW2957%75%41%38%
2009/10DAL5557%60%72%58%
2006/07WAS4157%58%46%48%
2002/03PHI4856%39%60%58%
2009/10PHO5456%52%66%65%
2006/07LAC4056%43%63%46%
2009/10ATL5356%57%68%66%
2006/07SAC3356%66%55%43%
2007/08DEN5056%72%67%61%
2003/04HOU4556%46%83%54%
2002/03ORL4256%46%61%49%
2009/10NOH3756%19%39%42%
2005/06MIN3355%42%60%41%
2006/07NJN4155%36%64%46%
2001/02MIN5055%65%86%58%
2005/06CHI4154%50%35%54%
2003/04PHO2954%32%47%36%
2004/05DEN4954%82%25%61%
2002/03NOH4754%16%67%57%
2001/02ORL4454%51%58%55%
2004/05MIL3054%37%45%39%
2007/08TOR4154%86%65%60%
2002/03UTA4753%47%40%61%
2005/06BOS3353%38%43%45%
2005/06IND4153%68%52%58%
2007/08ORL5253%91%71%68%
2005/06CLE5053%67%78%55%
2004/05MIA5952%67%56%73%
2006/07CHI4952%74%62%68%
2008/09PHI4151%58%54%50%
2002/03IND4851%48%79%61%
2009/10MIA4751%51%73%57%
2003/04MIL4151%51%68%52%
2006/07DEN4551%66%56%56%
2009/10PHI2750%59%40%36%
2003/04ORL2150%24%20%27%
2001/02SEA4550%63%40%63%
2007/08LAL5750%42%62%74%
2004/05NOH1850%46%28%25%
2002/03MIL4249%55%53%50%
2001/02IND4249%37%72%49%
2003/04SEA3749%74%62%46%
2009/10CHI4149%63%34%45%
2005/06WAS4249%32%70%55%
2008/09CLE6649%39%72%79%
2007/08GSW4849%64%34%60%
2008/09WAS1949%12%20%27%
2002/03LAC2749%27%37%35%
2003/04BOS3648%37%53%44%
2002/03TOR2448%42%28%29%
2007/08LAC2348%45%48%24%
2009/10DET2748%36%60%30%
2007/08WAS4348%35%37%50%
2007/08NJN3448%66%27%33%
2004/05SEA5247%19%79%56%
2002/03PHO4447%49%47%55%
2004/05GSW3447%49%17%45%
2005/06PHI3847%49%47%43%
2005/06LAC4747%80%67%54%
2008/09POR5447%69%43%71%
2007/08MIA1547%10%27%22%
2006/07MIL2846%35%37%35%
2009/10IND3246%37%57%38%
2003/04WAS2546%35%60%28%
2009/10MIL4646%49%65%55%
2006/07ORL4046%80%54%53%
2003/04GSW3746%65%58%46%
2006/07GSW4245%69%60%47%
2008/09IND3645%54%64%45%
2004/05UTA2645%43%80%30%
2003/04NYK3945%18%30%46%
2009/10CHA4445%38%27%58%
2004/05POR2745%59%51%34%
2004/05BOS4545%52%72%51%
2002/03WAS3745%61%70%44%
2006/07BOS2445%56%47%37%
2004/05NYK3344%35%31%43%
2005/06NJN4944%49%47%56%
2007/08NOH5644%47%76%67%
2005/06TOR2744%58%16%43%
2002/03MIA2544%35%19%33%
2006/07HOU5244%82%71%67%
2007/08SAC3844%51%23%45%
2001/02DET5044%74%85%54%
2008/09ATL4744%50%70%54%
2006/07PHI3543%47%49%38%
2006/07MIN3243%64%39%37%
2005/06GSW3442%51%65%43%
2008/09SAC1742%21%28%23%
2005/06ORL3642%58%31%48%
2001/02BOS4942%32%68%57%
2009/10NJN1242%49%16%22%
2005/06NYK2342%51%38%28%
2009/10NYK2942%56%24%39%
2001/02DEN2741%30%57%27%
2007/08IND3641%72%34%47%
2004/05CLE4240%77%72%51%
2006/07UTA5140%64%75%58%
2004/05PHI4340%62%45%47%
2006/07TOR4740%67%33%56%
2007/08NYK2340%42%39%27%
2006/07SEA3140%57%60%38%
2007/08SEA2040%32%19%23%
2009/10TOR4040%30%48%44%
2006/07NOK3940%25%55%43%
2001/02LAC3940%60%56%48%
2005/06LAL4540%37%47%60%
2005/06MIL4040%46%41%47%
2008/09CHI4139%46%47%49%
2007/08PHI4039%44%36%53%
2003/04MEM5039%81%56%59%
2009/10GSW2638%61%44%38%
2002/03CLE1738%31%18%20%
2007/08BOS6638%73%90%81%
2004/05TOR3338%47%50%44%
2003/04ATL2837%53%31%34%
2007/08MIN2237%33%22%28%
2007/08CHA3237%29%30%36%
2004/05PHO6237%91%86%70%
2006/07CHA3336%27%31%38%
2005/06POR2136%13%27%19%
2007/08MIL2636%22%42%26%
2002/03NYK3735%34%21%48%
2003/04LAC2835%46%39%33%
2008/09CHA3535%17%35%46%
2007/08POR4135%50%40%47%
2002/03ATL3535%66%52%36%
2005/06UTA4135%38%51%39%
2001/02CLE2935%17%18%41%
2004/05LAC3734%25%74%44%
2006/07ATL3034%52%59%31%
2009/10MIN1534%35%13%22%
2007/08ATL3734%68%42%44%
2007/08MEM2233%54%34%30%
2004/05ATL1333%16%14%20%
2002/03HOU4333%60%59%55%
2008/09NJN3433%31%30%43%
2003/04CHI2332%52%13%30%
2001/02NJN5232%52%74%64%
2002/03GSW3832%57%31%48%
2001/02ATL3331%63%26%36%
2009/10MEM4031%40%22%48%
2003/04MIA4231%48%13%57%
2004/05WAS4530%42%38%50%
2008/09MEM2430%29%39%31%
2005/06CHA2630%38%39%36%
2009/10OKC5030%23%63%62%
2002/03DEN1730%22%31%21%
2001/02MEM2330%28%13%26%
2003/04TOR3329%65%31%38%
2006/07NYK3329%47%28%42%
2008/09NYK3228%50%51%41%
2004/05CHI4728%19%18%59%
2008/09MIN2428%71%34%34%
2008/09MIL3428%11%43%47%
2001/02WAS3727%31%31%46%
2004/05ORL3627%67%53%41%
2009/10WAS2626%34%33%34%
2008/09LAC1926%46%12%24%
2005/06NOK3825%43%43%39%
2002/03MEM2825%47%18%42%
2009/10SAC2524%38%45%34%
2008/09OKC2323%26%21%31%
2009/10LAC2922%63%39%28%
2008/09MIA4322%42%64%50%
2002/03CHI3022%29%28%33%
2001/02GSW2121%30%59%30%
2003/04DEN4321%59%49%54%
2001/02CHI2120%30%8%24%
2003/04CLE3520%60%38%41%
2005/06ATL2620%42%16%36%
2006/07POR3219%33%38%35%
2004/05CHA1826%23%31%

The following table displays the averages of the above data for four segments selected according to last year’s expected winning percentage:

eWinsLYLY eW%Pre eW%1st 8 eW%Last 74 eW%
50+69%58%60%63%
41-4955%54%53%53%
32-4045%49%49%44%
<3330%42%37%39%

Observations

Not only do good teams play better in the preseason, but, after accounting for the number of games played, the preseason isn’t much worse at gauging regular season success than the regular season itself. (Note that although the preseason appears to be a better predictor of regular season success than last year’s performance, this is in part because I sorted on last year’s expected winning percentage and teams tend to regress to the mean, or become closer to average each year.)

Independent of the 82 Games study, I suspected that teams with poor records last year would have preseason records that would be more meaningful than better teams. This is because poor teams would be more likely to spark personnel turnover and to rebuild their roster. Thus, they have younger players and higher draft picks, who play more minutes in the preseason.

In instances of significant player movement, such as what the Heat experienced this year, preseason performance can paint a much clearer picture of future expectations. This is because the team’s performance last year becomes much less meaningful to estimate the current year’s record. If Wade wasn’t hurt this preseason, watching him play with Lebron and Bosh could be very telling.

Differences in Preseason and Regular Season Player MPG

Another factor that must be considered is that preseason playing time is about 70% similar to regular season playing time. This would roughly mean that players who play 30 MPG in the regular season would be expected to play 21 MPG in the preseason and the remaining playing time would be made up by players who play limited or no time in the regular season. Clearly regular season success can only be approximated if the players who play in the preseason also play in the regular season.

The Spurs’ player’s preseason MPG were only 56% similar to their regular season MPG. This figure was the second fewest in the NBA, ahead of only the Charlotte Bobcats, at 52%. The Magic were tops in the NBA at 84%. Therefore, the Spurs’ and Bobcats’ preseason records would not indicate regular season success as well as teams like the Magic.

Not surprisingly, the Spurs and Bobcats combined to win only 40% of their preseason games and over 57% of their regular season games. Meanwhile, in last year’s preseason the Magic went unbeaten and were the NBA’s best team by a long shot. By many standards, they were also the best team in the regular season. After adjusting for differences in player minutes, I estimate that the preseason is approximately 90% as effective of a predictor as the regular season.

Conclusion

The preseason is a significant factor for predicting regular season success. In fact, preseason performance is comparable to regular season performance for predicting future wins and losses. After accounting for the number of starter minutes played, the difference becomes even smaller.

With all this being said, don’t get too caught up with the Spurs preseason record, but instead focus on the performance of the players. Pay attention to whether or not Richard Jefferson seems to fit into the team’s scheme better. See if Tony Parker has the same burst as in years past. Focus on the performances of the promising young players such as DeJuan Blair, James Anderson, George Hill and (hopefully) Tiago Splitter. Even the performances of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan should be considered when they play.

But remember the preseason is only eight games long (six or seven in the Spurs’ case) and don’t forget to place the players performances in the context of how many minutes each played. A good preseason is certainly reason for optimism, because although the games don’t count, they do matter.

  • zainn

    i think that the preseason really measures how your bench will play out during the regular season, and how deep it is, for the spurs atleast. or with smart coaches that rest their stars until the regular season/playoffs (boston/san antonio)

  • Jacob

    I can see why this is true, but when you look at pre-season games like we played vs Houston, I have to disagree. Our regular rotation players easily outdid the Rockets regular players in that game, and would have almost certainly resulted in a win for the Spurs had they both stayed in the game to it’s conclusion. IF we take the players and the stats in context, I would agree 100%, but if one just looks at an overall record and tries to make the same assessment, I think there would be a level of disconnect that would lead to some shortsided conclusions.

    I can only hope that pre-season is an indication of coming success for the Lakers this year because we need all the help we can get. : )

    Love the article.

  • http://fundamentally-sound.blogspot.com Jaceman

    While it’s a useful tool for measuring trends, I don’t necessarily think it a great indicator of precise performance. What I generally look for more in terms of preseason performance is generally more out of the box score, so I can’t say I’ve gotten a whole lot since I haven’t seen a whole lot of preseason action. I think what is good to note from preseason mostly are mesh issues. For example, figuring out that DeJuan Blair and Tim Duncan can really play next to each other well in game-time and then tinkering with the backcourt to best fit with that. I think it’s more to figure out a more precise rotation (though with Pop we might not have one until March), who to sub in when, for who, etc…

    That being said, it’s still nice to see certain trends, how players approach the game, how they approach each possession, etc… I do enjoy seeing a more aggressive RJ, and I think his shots will start falling eventually, and while he may no longer be the stellar scorer he once was, I think he’ll hit a couple of big shots for us to remember him by.

  • Gorditadogg

    Looks like the teams who play their starters the most have the best pre-season records. Who’d have thought?

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  • http://SeattleBallers.com Seattle Basketball

    Check out Jashaun Agosto. He is a future #1 pick

  • rob

    Pre-season wins can bolster hope for regular season success. It wouldn’t be out of the question that teams that play their starters majority minutes during the pre-season that they would win those games.

    In terms of the Spurs. The staff already has a good idea of what to expect from their starters during the regular season. What they don’t know at this time is what to expect from the new players and/or second year players. I would suspect a heavy dose of minutes attributed to those players that the Spurs already believe will be on the team. Excluding starters, limited or no playing time I would assume means those players either be cut or become Toros.

    In that sense…I might expect the Spurs to have a good regular season if the rookie to second year players garnishing the most minutes during pre-season manage to help the Spurs win pre-season games as this might be a good indication how our bench players will perform against another team’s bench during the regular season.

  • Ezell

    Hopefully the Preseason is a great indicator of a team’s chemistry.

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  • Jim Henderson

    http://www.mysanantonio.com/sports/spurs_popovich_seeks_small_forward_to_spell_defense_or_shoot_104681669.html

    “If I had my druthers, and it was a perfect world, I want Bruce Bowen to be 28 years old and back on our team,” Popovich said.”

  • rob

    Jim Henderson

    Thanks for the link. I had mentioned earlier (2 months ago) that I thought Anderson would be tried at SF.

    Anderson was voted by his peers (other rookies) as one of the best defenders out of this years rookie squad. And his already sharp shooting ability combined with an ability to defend may just put him in the lead as this team’s b/u SF.

    What I find strange is Pop’s comment that if the player in question cannot defend that they should at least be able to shoot like Peja. Neither (defensively or offensively) is a Jefferson strong suit. Would this mean Jefferson’s starting role may be in jeapordy if Anderson proves to be better in one of those categories if not both?

  • td4life

    @rob

    There is no chance that Anderson well prove a better Spurs defender in his rookie season than RJ. If he shows to be a great shooter within the offense, then he will allow RJ a few extra minutes to rest, that is all.

    Not even Tony Parker got clutch minutes in the playoffs his rookie year, not even when everyone else had given up in Los Angeles. That’s a basketball coach for you, just ask DeJuan.

  • rob

    td4life

    “There is no chance that Anderson well prove a better Spurs defender in his rookie season than RJ”

    Granted it was only a pre-season game. But he already has. And IMO…did a better job of defending LeBron than RJ and has a better shot than RJ.

    We’ll see. Parker took over starting duities from Daniels. Anderson may have those same qualities to do the same. At least I think he does.

    “Not even Tony Parker got clutch minutes in the playoffs his rookie year, not even when everyone else had given up in Los Angeles. That’s a basketball coach for you, just ask DeJuan.”

    I can’t argue that. But that’s the coach’s decision and not the player’s ability. Will this team be about winning another title before Duncan doesn’t have anything left? Or will it be about putting the best team on the court in order to make that happen this year?

  • http://fundamentally-sound.blogspot.com Jaceman

    I don’t see anyway though that RJ doesn’t play, especially since Hill, arguably the best perimeter (proven) defender on the Spurs right now isn’t long enough to play outside of an undersized SG. Personally, I see George Hill going back to more of a back-up ball handler role and Manu, RJ, and Anderson platooning the wing spots. Hill would take more of a Brent Barry type role while Anderson would be closer to that combo guard-forward wing that perhaps Pop was looking for, maybe Stephen Jackson minus the handles/passing or Michael Finley with improved defensive tendencies? Here’s my initial take on James Anderson: Kelenna Azubuike plus.

  • Jim Henderson

    rob
    October 11th, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    “Would this mean Jefferson’s starting role may be in jeapordy if Anderson proves to be better in one of those categories if not both?”

    Anderson would have to end up being an awfully special rookie to supplant RJ as the starter. I find it highly unlikely.

  • miggy

    One interesting note is that in evaluating the talent in the pre-season, the talent is being evaluated within an existing (Spurs) system. Here the coaching staff and coaching philosophy is not being evaluated. So in a proven winning system, like the Spurs, I would expect a winning percentage in the pre-season to reflect that of the regular season.

  • Alex

    Hi,

    where can I find the statistic, how many preseason MPG were similar to their regular season MPG?

    thx

  • http://www.versacourt.com/ Backyard Basketball

    I just can’t wait for regular season play to begin.

  • spursfanbayarea

    After putting in a lot of time with Popovich this offseason, Jefferson will get the starting nod. But if he plays like he did last year for an extended time, then Anderson will have a chance to take away the starting job if during his limited minutes he plays very well. The spurs have had rookies come in and end up starting. As rob stated, parker took over daniels, duncan came in and started right away. I know duncan was the number one overall pick. but parker was the one of the last picks in the first round. Anderson was drafted at 20.

    But as of right now, Jefferson will get the nod.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Scott Sereday

    A couple notes:

    Preseason does mean more (in predictive terms) for certain teams (such as teams who play their starters more) just as certain regular season games are better indicators of how the team will do. The thing to remember to put everything in perspective is that a similar amount of regular season games is also not all that reliable (but is useful).

    Last year 25 NBA teams fell within the range of 65% to 80% “similar minutes”. These rates were more consistent and slightly higher, on average, than similar minutes from the prior year to the current year. I determined similar minutes by the sum of all players [Minimum of 100% and (PreseasonMP/PreseasonTeamMP)/(RegeasonMP/RegSeasonTeamMP)]. The following are the approximate rates from last year’s preseason (there might be some error for players who were traded mid year).
    ORL 84%
    DEN 80%
    NYK 80%
    PHO 79%
    BOS 79%
    IND 78%
    MIN 78%
    MIA 78%
    SAC 77%
    POR 76%
    TOR 76%
    DET 75%
    PHI 74%
    WAS 74%
    MEM 73%
    LAC 72%
    MIL 72%
    UTA 72%
    NJN 72%
    DAL 71%
    LAL 70%
    CHI 68%
    HOU 67%
    OKC 67%
    GSW 67%
    ATL 65%
    CLE 64%
    NOH 63%
    SAS 56%
    CHA 52%

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Scott Sereday

    Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem obviousto me that older teams really played their starters less (look how high Boston is). It’s also interesting to not that the 2nd and 3rd best records were from Boston and Utah, who both had pretty good years themselves (when healthy). The average was 72%, since I only did this for 1 year, I rounded to the nearest 5%.

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  • Titletown99030507

    You may as well use the first 10 games of the regular season and that’s what you’ll get. Pre-season is for those trying to make the roster and fit in as a role.
    And I hate to say it but, not really…Anderson will take Jefferson’s spot in the rotation as the season progresses and this will lead to a Jefferson/Parker combo trade come before all-star break if the season starts off disastrous. This could either catapult the Spurs into top 3 contention with a Gallinari/Wilson Chandler for Jefferson/Parker. But then again the numbers don’t add up. Wish they did.

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  • Searching for Slava

    So, historically speaking, are the Lakers’ preseasons the exceptions that prove the rule?

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