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Dreaming of a Larry Bird Kicker…

April 20, 2012 Leave a comment

If you were playing a poker game with the modern U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team members as the cards, would you rather flip over LeBron or a Magic? A Stockton or a Paul? A Kobe or a Jordan?

Last month, in a pair of BS Reports, Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons asked Chris Mullin and Magic Johnson what would happen if the famed 1992 team was sucked up into a time portal vacuum and deposited into the modern day to play this year’s U.S. Olympic team – think of it like Terra Nova, but with actual viewers.

Bill felt that despite the Dream Team being, uhm… well, the Dream Team, they would fall at the hands of the modern squad. He lays the foundation for this on two principles:

  1. That despite their gaudy names, Bird and Magic weren’t exactly Bird and Magic.
  2. That Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and the rest of their cohorts would create match-up problems that the Dream Team couldn’t overcome.

Frankly, that sounds logical. Bird’s body was older than Moses, and Magic was barely beyond the Announcement. And there is no denying that this year’s Olympic squad is going to be otherworldly. By my count, there are 14 locks for a 12 man roster:

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard*, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, and Russell Westbrook.

That is an obscene collection of basketball talent, and I can see how it might induce one into thinking that this is an unbeatable team, but is that really the case? Could the 2012 team defeat even the vaunted Dream Team as Bill suggests, or would the Dream Team prevail as Magic Johnson contends?

*This was written before the news broke yesterday that Howard will miss the Olympics, so for the purposes of this piece, we’ll pretend he isn’t a whining, coach sabotaging, quitting on the team” super” star injured.

As Bill points out, the Dream Team wasn’t really a full 12 man roster: they had a crippled Larry Bird and an overmatched Christian Laettner. There is no doubt that by 1992 Bird’s body was being held together with bobby pins and scotch tape. In 1990-91 he played in 60 games and in 1991-92 he managed a barely standing 45; the 1992 Olympics were his swan song. So, ostensibly he’s not really on the roster, at least not as LARRY BIRD, Basketball Jesus. But, there is a place for him and we’ll get to that in a couple thousand words.

For reasons unknown, or at least for reasons I don’t give a crap about, the Dream Team brass decided to hand a free trip to Barcelona to a token college player; selecting Christian Laettner to serve as the team’s gopher and lame duck whipping boy. Obviously if the Olympic committee had been selecting the most talented collegiate player, they would have picked a sprightly young giant by the name of Shaquille O’Neal, but they instead paid tribute to then assistant coach – and current head coach – Mike Kryzyzzzzzzzzzzyzski by taking his best player.

While it’s obviously an absurd decision in hindsight, Laettner was the star player on the two time defending champs and he was the collegiate player of the year. In the context of the era – and of wanting a collegiate player – it’s defensible; in hindsight it’s as dubious as making Ozzie Guillen the face of your franchise, but here’s the thing: if the 1992 Dream Team was playing a serious 7 game series, there’s no point when coach Chuck Daly would look down the bench and call upon the 12th man. Nope, Chuck would go ten deep and even then, only for brief spurts.

With the 11th and 12th men out of our way, lets get to the meat of the debate, by breaking down the starters. Other than Michael Jordan, no player started every Olympic game for the Dream Team, but if they were transported to today and forced to play in a barbaric Hunger Games style death match, I think we can safely say, that this would be their starting five:

PG – Magic Johnson

SG – Michael Jorden

SF – Scottie Pippen

PF – Charles Barkley

C – David Robinson.

In contrast, we can reasonably assume that the 2012 team will start:

PG – Derrick Rose

SG – Kobe Bryant

SF – Kevin Durant

PF – Lebron James

C – Dwight Howard.

There is no denying that the 2012 team is a monster, but better than the Dream Team?

One of the pieces that makes the 2012 team seem so unstoppable, is that other than Kobe, those starters are all at the peak of their powers, but guess what? So were the Dream Teamers. Sure, Magic was 32 (a year younger than Kobe), but Robinson and Scottie were 26, while Barkley and Jordan were 28.

Lets start with a pair of obvious match-ups: center and shooting guard. Dwight Howard is the no-brainer, go-to best center in the NBA, but how great is he historically? Doesn’t his standing as the preeminent center have a little more to do with the paucity of quality pivots? Really, look at the landscape of the league, guard play is out of control, but I’m starting to believe that my Grandma could make the Eastern All Stars as a center, and she’s a 4’11” Scottish lady.

As dominant as Howard is, is he appreciably better than a pre-glomerulonephritis (and yes, I copy and pasted that) Alonzo Mourning? In Zo’s last season with a fully functioning liver, he averaged 21.7/9.5/1.9 on 55% shooting, with 3.7 blocks and a 25.8 PER. In contrast, last year old wishy wash Dwight’s line was 22.9, 14.1, 1.4 on 61% shooting, with a 26.0 PER and 2.4 blocks per game. Both men won Defensive Players of the Year awards, Howard was obviously a far superior rebounder, but Zo was the better shot blocker. Overall, the numbers are pretty close. And, here’s the rub: as good as Zo was, he resides on a tier well below the peak of 1990s centers.

It was just a different era. Throughout his career, offensively, Robinson had to score against preeminent defensive centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Mark Eaton, and Mourning. Defensively he had to battle the Dream, Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty, and that precocious young kid, Shaq. In contrast, Howard has made a name for himself defending such offensive luminaries as Brook Lopez, Al Horford, and Andrew Bynum. As good as Bynum has been, I don’t think he’s a threat to drop 71 as the Admiral did to win the 1993-94 scoring title. On the other end of the floor, Howard’s had to throw down on defensive stalwarts like Kendrick Perkins, Joakim Noah, and Tyson Chandler. We all love Chandler’s tenacity and Noah’s pluck, but nobody’s confusing those two for Mount Mutombo or the Dream.

As ESPNs John Hollinger continually points out, one of the reasons that Orlando has had so many problems with Atlanta in the playoffs the past few seasons is the presence of the big bodied Jason Collins. Let me repeat that for effect: JASON FREAKIN’ COLLINS. If Howard can’t lead his team past the Atlanta Hawks because Jason Collins is thwarting him, what the heck is he going to do against David Robinson?

Howard’s great, obviously, but his offensive game has all the elegance of a Republican debate: big slams and one way spins. Robinson spent his days dealing with Hakeem’s myriad shimmies, spins, twists, floaters, and, of course, his Dream Shake. After Olajuwon, Robinson could guard Howard with one hand, while saluting the flag with the other.

At shooting guard you have Michael Jordan against Kobe Bryant. And to that, all I can say is… DAMN. The greatest player of all time against the modern incarnation of his game is worth the price of admission all on its own. Kobe’s awesome. He’s a five time champion, an MVP, a two-time finals MVP, a 2 time scoring leader, a nine time All-NBA Defensive 1st Team selection, and a better 3pt shooter than Jordan, but Michael’s a six time champion, a five time MVP, six times Finals MVP, a ten time scoring champion, a nine time ALL-NBA first team selection, and a defensive player of the year winner. And, sure, Kobe was a better three point shooter, but ask Clyde Drexler how well Jordan was shooting the 3 in 1992.

Kobe’s a career 45% shooter (who is currently shooting 43%), Jordan’s a career 50% shooter (who shot 51% in 1992). You know the old song, “anything you can do I can do better?” Well, Michael would just be walking up and down the court singing that to Kobe, while dropping 37 on him on one end and forcing him into a 6 for 24 on the other. Seriously, Kobe’s a top ten player all time, but Jordan’s a top ONE player all time. Plus, we’re talking about 1992 Jordan (28) against 2012 Kobe (33). It’s a no brainer, so lets put this one to bed.

Now it gets interesting: at power forward, you have LeBron James who is the best basketball player alive. But, lets be honest, despite being the best basketball player alive, LeBron has demonstrated a flaw or two. Namely, he shrinks in the moment and despite being the biggest boy in the playground, he can get bullied into taking crappy jump shots. So, who does the Dream Team have to cover him? Well, if Jordan wasn’t on Kobe duty, that might be an interesting challenge for Mr Air, and Scottie Pippen is probably the greatest perimeter defender of all time, so he’d get some run, but the man to shut down LeBron is none other than Charles “After losing 70lbs I can finally wear color again” Barkley.

This is where living in the moment does us a disservice. Today, April 12, 2012, LeBron is the best player in the NBA and Barkley is the goofy, opinionated, still overweight, SNL hosting, tortured golf swing having, TV pundit. We think of him as a small whale, or large seal, racing a 97 year old referee. We forget that before LeBron was a once in a generation athletic marvel, there was Charles Barkley.

Sure, he wasn’t as big as LeBron, but Chuck was a bulldog. Conservatively 6’6″, Barkley was one of the leading rebounders during an era of dominant big men. He fought for balls, his tenacity around the hoop and dogged determination evidenced by his grabbing 2600 offensive rebounds in his first 8 seasons (or, about 400 more than Dwight Howard has grabbed over the same time span). And Sir Charles could score; known as the Round Mound of Rebound, Charles was an athletic freak. Sure, he wasn’t on LeBron’s level, nobody is, but in the five seasons leading up to the 1992 Olympics, Charles averaged 26 points per game, on 58% shooting. His PER ranged from 24.5 to 28.9 and he led the league in True Shooting Percentage in four of those years. Charles was a beast.

And here’s the thing, was Barkley as good as LeBron? No, but he sure as hell would annoy the crap out of the King. This is the first year that LeBron has taken advantage of smaller defenders and shown some semblance of a post game, but do you think he’s backing down Charles Barkley? Really? No, I didn’t think you were that foolish. He’s going to have to drive past him and at some point in the first game, as LeBron went past Charles, he’d end up with an “unintentional” mouthful of knuckles, and in the same way that Jason Veritek emasculated ARod in July of 2004, LeBron would spend the rest of the game settling for 18 footers; shots that will fall in quarters 1-3 and then roll out in the 4th. If I were doing advantages, this is a win for the 2012 team, but not an overwhelming one.

When Bill was talking to Mullin and Magic, he guessed that against Derrick Rose, the Dream Team would have to hide Magic on D. He mused that the Chuck Daly would play Scottie on Rose and Magic on Kevin Durant. This would make sense (as would using Jordan on Rose, and Magic on Kobe – who’s by far the least athletic member of the modern Olympic squad), but I don’t think you have match up that way the whole game. Rose is awesome, no doubt, but he’s still not a lights out shooter. And at 6’9″ Magic TOWERS over him. Looking at the 2012 squad, Kevin Durant’s their scariest scorer and I’d rather force Rose to beat me. I’d put Scottie on Durant (which would be an awesome battle, the game’s best current scorer against its greatest defender) and have Magic sag off Rose, daring him to shoot. Even sagging off of Rose, is Magic going to get beat sometimes? Sure, but this is where the presence of David Robinson and the 4.5 blocks a game he averaged in 1992 come into play.

With Scottie and Jordan locking down Kobe and Durant, with Barkley annoying LeBron, and with Robinson negating Howard, you’re left with Rose attacking Magic, and that’s fine, because it’s a two way street. Assuming that Kobe covers Jordan and Durant covers Scottie, the 2012 team has to decide between LeBron guarding Magic and Rose being ABUSED by Barkley, or LeBron shutting down Barkley and Rose having to cover the six inch taller Magic.

Now, you could argue that a recently HIV diagnosed Magic wasn’t Magic, but go back and watch the 1992 all-star game, or find tapes of the Dream Team games. Magic was just fine. As the man himself said to Bill, “sure, we’d have problems with Rose, but we’d just come right back at them on the other end.”

Both starting lineups are awesome and the match-ups are drool inducing, but ultimately, this battle becomes about who’s going to flinch first. And who are you picking to flinch? The starting five that has five rings (all from Kobe), or the starting five that has 19 rings? (admittedly, they only had 11 in 1992, but still). A starting five where the no-brainer best player is Michael Jeffrey Jordan?  Or a starting five where the best player is LeBron “2011 NBA Finals 4th Q LVP” James? A starting five where LeBron, Dwight, and Durant have all shown themselves to be a little too interested in pre-game photos, capes, and post-game backpacks, or a starting five where Magic, Scottie, and Michael cared only about demoralizing you as they drove their foot into your ass?

Seriously, who you got? Yeah, I thought so.

With the starters out of the way, lets take a quick look at the pine. The second unit of the 2012 team will look something like:

Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and Tyson Chandler.

The most obvious edge for the 2012 squad is at the two guard spot, where Wade would be going against Clyde the Glide Drexler, but we’ll get to this one in a minute.

At the point, it’s Paul against John Stockton, which would have been a solid “W” for the 2012 team three years ago; yet as great as Paul remains, he’s playing on a knee and a half, and there’s no disputing that he’s lost a step. Stockton’s a five time ALL-NBA 2nd team defender, who throughout his career covered Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Mark Price, Gary Payton, and Allen Iverson.

Is Paul a harder match-up than Hardaway or the Glove, let alone Thomas? Don’t be fooled by the fact that he looks like a choir boy in short-shorts, Stockton was tough as snot. He wouldn’t shut Paul down, but he’d make Paul work. Besides, Paul would also have to stop Stockton and here’s the thing about the Dream Team:

Stockton to Malone is COMING OFF THE BENCH! D-Wade might be the greatest sixth man ever, but that’s in large part negated by the Dream Team just having a two man, automatic, punch the clock, two point machine on their bench.

Karl Malone might be overrated, gaining a career boost by outlasting the golden age of players (ie. the Dream Teamers and their ilk) and dominating the late 90s “Me-Stars”, and he obviously wasn’t clutch, but for 20 minutes a game? You’re telling me that with 3 minutes remaining in the first and third quarters and for the first half of the second and fourth, you couldn’t bring in Stockton and Malone and run that pick and roll until the 2012 team is dizzy? Malone, coming off a season in which he averaged 28 and 11, wouldn’t have to be clutch, because when the game gets tight and late, he’d come out and Jordan, Magic, Scottie and the rest would take over. He could just roll to the basket, take the easy pass from Stockton, throw some elbows and count the bucket.

Kevin Love is awesome and what he did before getting hurt, with a 51-14 and 30-20 in the same weekend, is straight up stupid, but he has yet to play on a team that finished .500 in a season and he’s not exactly known for his lockdown D. Are Paul and Love stopping the Stockton to Malone pick and roll? No, I didn’t think so.

Even if the Mailman is waylaid, Stockton has other options. Ewing is being guarded by Tyson Chandler (PUH’lease), Chris Mullin is out on the wing to drain open threes, and if they need someone to create a basket, Clyde could get into the lane.

Defensively, this isn’t a lights out unit, but Ewing, Malone, and Stockton were above average defenders, and while Mullin was a turnstile, so is the man guarding him: Carmelo Anthony (and wouldn’t that just be another delectable match up). Sure Anthony might drop 40 on Mullin, but as Mullin showed against Magic in the 1991 playoffs, he’ll just come right back with 40 of his own.

So, as I said above, the only spot in the second unit that the 2012 team has a clear advantage is at the two, but a) The Olympic pay scale might preclude Wade from even showing up; b) Clyde’s probably a little underrated because he played in Jordan’s shadow; and c) if push comes to shove and this spot’s killing his team, do you think Chuck Daly’s really leaving Jordan on the pine? No. He’s going to bring in Jordan (or even Pippen) to neutralize Wade.

In a tight game, the starters are going to play the lion’s share of minutes. A coach will really only go eight, maybe nine deep. So, assuming that Jordan’s going to play 38 or 39 minutes and that Scottie might take a couple minutes covering Wade, Clyde’s only going to play 8ish minutes. Same thing really for Mullin. So the Dream Team can survive the Wade mismatch without Daly losing any sleep.

All of which brings me back to the 11th man on the bench: Larry Joe Bird. Sure, he was a broken down version of himself. His prodigious talent betrayed by a decaying back, but… on this team, even to win a seven game series over the 2012 team, Larry wouldn’t have to play meaningful minutes. He’d be a veteran presence on the pine, a co-captain, and source of the Basketball Son of God like wisdom. But… if the game was tight and the Dream Team needed a basket, a floor spacing shooter, or a decoy, you’re telling me that there’s someone better than the Legend?

Honestly, lets put the question to the man who started this whole thing: Bill, in the closing minutes of the game, with one team needing a basket and Coach K or Chuck Daly looking down the bench for the 11th man to drive a dagger into the hearts of the opponent, who’d you rather have, a barely standing Larry Legend, or Chris “I’m Getting a 115 million to be an inferior version of Horace Grant” Bosh?

Yeah, I thought so.

A seven game series between the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team would be epic and the 2012 team has perhaps the best chance to beat the 1992 squad as any other collection of basketball talent in history, but in the game of trumps, there’s just no getting around the fact that whoever you flip over in 2012, the Dream Team can always come back with a little Magic, a lot of Michael and a Larry Bird kicker.

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Who Won What?!? The Knicks, Anthony, and all those Nuggets…

January 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Chris Bernucca of Sheridan Hoops postulated in an article yesterday that if the Knicks lost last night’s affair against Denver, it might be coach Mike D’Antoni’s last game at the helm of the listing ship SS Knickerbocker. Much like the Italian captain who this week spurned the nobility of captain going down with his vessel and instead leapt straight into the nearest life raft, getting off the boat right now might just be opportune.

After all, the highly lauded Knicks are 6-9, and 9th in the middling Eastern Conference. As a point of contrast, their opponent last night, the Denver Nuggets are 12-5 and 2nd in the Western Conference. This only really matters in that the Nuggets seem to have a roster mostly made up of D’Antoni’s castaways: Danilo Gallinari, Tomofey Mozgov, Corey Brewer, and Al Harrinton all suited up for the Nuggets last night, and each in turn suited up for the Knicks. Well, actually that’s not entirely true, Brewer was acquired by the Knicks as part of the Den-NY-Minn. Anthony trade, but they thought he wasn’t even worth a roster spot and just waved him. He signed with the eventual champs in Dallas.

And this is the problem for the Knicks as they look to turn around their season, they’re a misshapen roster lacking the requisite parts  – cough guards cough – to win games in the NBA. And while D’Antoni’s certainly not helping matters, can the blame for the roster really be laid at his feet? In acquiring Anthony, the Knicks swung for the fences and seemingly came up lame. Since the trade New York’s 20-24, the Nuggets are 30-12, that probably has something to do with coaching, but it also has something to do with roster construction and the value placed on the star player.

Last night Carmelo Anthony scored a very respectable 25 points. Of course, he required 30 shots to get those 25, and he only made it to the line 6 times. His counterpart scored 37 points (in two overtimes), on 19 shots. With 20 – yes, TWENTY – attempts from the charity stripe. Galinari took bold advantage of the free shots too, converting 18 of them. Now, it’s one game, and Carmelo has done a lot for the Knicks, but remind me which player was the premier piece of that trade?

Conventional NBA wisdom says that the team that acquires the best player in a trade won that trade, but in the case of that deal eleven months ago, I’m not so sure. I think the writing’s pretty clearly on the wall, the New York Knicks lost the Carmelo Anthony trade. Acquiring Anthony cost the Knicks cap room, it cost them flexibility, and it cost them four players. It also, seemingly, will cost them Mike D’Antoni (which most knicks fans would probably chalk up as a win). When this trade was made, I listed the Knicks as both winners and losers of the deal, writing,

On its face, this is a slam dunk win for the Knicks, but it also has the hollow ring of a flashy deal that garners BIG headlines but doesn’t actually make the team appreciably better.

It hasn’t made New York better, but it has improved the Nuggets. Armed with a roster of ex-pat Knicks, the Nuggets sit in the NBA’s penthouse; the perfect place to watch the SS Knickerbocker list and sink…

Paul to the Clippers, Too Much? Too Little? Too Soon?

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

I think, maybe, just maybe, that Chris Paul has finally been traded. The news broke Wednesday, it hasn’t yet been rescinded, so perhpas we can assume it’s good. Although, you know, at this point I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to wait until July 1st before making any firm proclamations.

Oddly enough, the hold up stopping this deal from going through earlier in the week was Eric Bledsoe… uhmmm… ok. Don’t get me wrong, I like Bledsoe, I think he’s got some real upside potential, but he’s a backup point guard. Still, I guess that was the breaking point for the Clips, so the league backed off forcing him to be in the deal and accepted a package of Eric Gordon, Chris “About to be Flipped Somewhere Else” Kaman, Al Farouq Aminu, and an unprotected Minnesota T-Wolves draft pick.

Now, first of all, I like this trade for the Hornets. I like it, I don’t love it. There are still a couple variables in play before I can give it the all important “blogger thousands of miles, that nobody’s ever heard of,” nod of approval. First, what’s Stu Jacks, er… I mean Dell Demps going to do with Kaman? The Cro-Magnon center is a free agent after this year, which means if they aren’t flipping him, then it’s really a two player plus pick deal. Second, where’s that Minnsota pick end up?  The last first round pick the Clippers traded away ended up being the first pick in the draft (more on this in a second), and of course the Wolves have a propensity for picking at the top end of the draft – from 1989 through last year the Wolves drafted in the top five nine times. Twenty-three drafts nine top five picks and, oh yeah, they lost three #1s at the start of the millennium because of Kevin McHale’s free agent subterfuge – so, that’s a pretty good chip in a loaded draft, except…

I’m not convinced the Wolves will be so horrible this year. Despite David Kahn’s desire to stock his team with 37 point guards, there’s actually a solid chance the Wolves are respectable. They fired the overmatched Kurt Rambis and replaced him with Rick Adleman, who is a seasoned, professional coach. They have the makings of a decent roster, and they have a slim-fit Kevin Love. Lets be clear, I’m not suggesting they’re a playoff team, but I wouldn’t be horribly shocked to see them finish .500 and provide the Hornets with a 11-14 pick, instead of a top five pick.

If the Hornets don’t flip Kaman for anything, then a year from now their package for Chris Paul could be the 13th pick in the draft, Aminu, and Eric Gordon (more on this too).  At that point, I’m not sure its a win for the Hornets. Of course, if they flip Kaman to Sacramento for a pick and Minnesota sucks, then it’s a different story.

I’m not sure I love it for the Clippers either. Well, no, that’s not true.  This is a major win for the Clippers. They’re bringing one of the top five players in the game to the Staples Center. They basically snatched him out of the Lakers finger tips, and he’s a player who will work perfectly with their current star Blake Griffin. So, it’s a big, BIG win, but… did they really have to give up Gordon?

Now, lets not make Gordon out to be the second coming of Pete Maravich. He’s good. He might even, as Bill Simmons keeps saying, be the best shooting guard  in the league under the age of 25, but that statement says more about the dearth of great young two guards than it does about Gordon. He’s a borderline all-star who’s never sniffed the playoffs. Great players take their team to the playoffs, even if they don’t go far after that (see Paul, Chris). Like I said, Gordon’s good and he’s young enough to get better, but his upside is more Joe Johnson than Kobe Bryant.

That said, I’m not sure that the Clippers had to give Gordon up for Paul – and if they don’t lose him in the deal, well… damn.  The Hornets had to deal Paul, and since the league had already sabotaged one good trade, there just weren’t a lot of other deals out there for the Hornets.  First of all, PG might be the deepest position right now. Second, most teams are afraid of putting themselves in the same position the Hornets were in.  So, you basically had the Clips deal, the Warriors offering pieces that weren’t Steph Curry, and…?!? I mean, if Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, and Lamar Odom wasn’t enough, then the Knicks weren’t getting Paul with Iman Shumpert, Landry Fields, and James Dolan’s band.

It seems like the Clippers could have told the NBA’s negotiating team that the deal was the T-Wolves pick, Aminu, Bledsoe, Kaman another Clippers 1st and take it or suck our left… That’s how it seemed the Clippers were going to play it earlier in the week when they balked at the league’s asking price and then put in a bid for Chauncey Billups.  Billups wasn’t going to be a long term replacement for Paul, but LA certainly could have gone into the season with a backcourt rotation of Chauncey, Eric Gordon, Mo Williams and waited for the Hornets’ panicked calls around the trade deadline.

And, speaking of Williams, doesn’t this deal make the Clippers’ trade for Williams last year even worse?  I know it was a long, long time ago, but LA gave up their first rounder to Cleveland in exchange for a league average PG.  That pick of course ended up beating the lottery odds to become the top ping pong ball.  It was a bad pick when they made it, a worse pick on lottery day, and an even worse pick now.  Don’t you think that the Clippers package for Paul could have used that #1 pick (Kyrie Irving)?

With Gordon going to the Hornets, the deal is still a win for the Clippers and it does set them up for a nice little run, but I think they could have waited and kept Gordon. A Clippers starting lineup of Paul, Gordon, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, with Billups a super sixth man, would have pushed the Clips to challenging for the Conference title.  Instead, I’d put them behind (in no particular order) the Mavs, Zombie Sonics, Grizzlies, and – for at least one more year – the Lakers and Spurs.  So, a win for LA, but in typical Clipper fashion, a bumbled victory.

David Stern, Chris Paul, and the Big Market-Small Market Conundrum…

December 13, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s easy to get caught up in the hysteria of this hyper compressed NBA offseason; after all, in less than a week we’ve had Chris Paul traded to the Lakers, Chris Paul not traded to the Lakers, Chris Paul possibly almost traded to the Lakers again, the Lakers trading Lamar Odom to Dallas and thus ensuring that Chris Paul will not be traded to the Lakers, Chris Paul about to be traded to the Clippers, Chris Paul not about to be traded to the Clippers, Chris Paul about to be traded to the Clippers is still possible, and, as of this morning, the Clippers no longer pursuing Chris Paul about to be traded to the Clippers.  It’s exhausting.  And, frankly, if you’re a fan of Chris Paul’s Hornets, it’s probably a little nauseating.  While it feels like something HAS to happen with the Chris Paul hysteria this second, in reality there are still several months for the Hornets brass to gather and sift through trade offers.

At least that would be the case if it were Hornet officials who were actually in charge of deciding the future of Chris Paul.  Instead that luxury seems to fall to David Stern.  Proving himself to be a hands-on owner in the mold of Michael Heisley, Stern has inserted himself front and center in the Paul circus.  Reports of possible trade scenarios no longer begin with, “New Orleans GM Dell Demps is asking for…” but rather begin with, “the NBA front Office is asking for…” And what should be frightening to fans of the Hornets, well besides the thought that former Grizzlies GM Stu Jackson is leading negotiations for Stern, is that the price being demanded by the league is so exorbitant, that nobody can meet it.  That might be fine if there were a chance the Hornets could resign Paul this summer, but there isn’t.  He’s gone.  So, the best thing the franchise can do, is make a good trade and get back some pieces in exchange for their departing superstar.

The first trade that Demps lined up would have been a good deal, it would have kept the team competitive and in contention for a playoff spot.  The league nixed it, ostensibly because it didn’t include enough young talent, but in reality becuase it involved sending a big star to a major market immediately after the end of a lockout theoretically about restricting the ability of the big market teams to poach all the big stars.  Now, the problem is that Stern was so widely lampooned for turning that deal down, he has to actually kill in whatever trade the Hornets accept.  So, instead of approving a realistic and good offer from the Clippers – one that probably had more upside than the Lakers deal, although a dimmer immediate future – the NBA just keeps asking for more and more and more…

I think they’ll find a deal, and I think they’ll find a deal this week, but the longer this stretches on, the uglier it potentially gets.  What I still don’t understand, is how sending Paul to the Clippers is not sending him to a large market, when last I checked they play in the same building – let alone market – as the team that Dan Gilbert went apocalyptic about acquiring Paul.

This underscores what I mentioned the other day, that the large market-small market thing is really just a red herring.  What this is actually about is protecting the incompentent organisations from losing the talent that came to them through the fluke of the draft.  Take the five most notorious examples from the past two years:

  • LeBron James
  • Chris Bosh (and yes, we can quibble over him, but the Raptors thought of him as a franchise guy)
  • Carmelo Anthony
  • Dwight Howard
  • Chris Paul

Now, the only thing that their organisations did to “deserve” them, was be shitty enough to earn a pick in the top 4 of the NBA draft.  That’s how they earned these guys, so lets not make it out like these desperate small market teams have scoured the earth, found these rare looking lumps of coal and sat on them for 90 years until they became top ten basketball players.  No, they were crappy organisations, who were lucky enough to get a top pick in a good year (versus say in a year when Kwame Brown or Andrea Bargnani is the top prospect).  This sense of entitlement that Gilbert and the “small market” owners have to these players is misplaced and slightly asinine.

Then there’s the whole defecting the small market for the large market problem, which of course wasn’t a problem until last year.  But can we look closer at this problem?  What do all five of those teams have in common?  With the possible exception of Denver, outside of their superstar, they suck.  Not like, oh we’re probably not winning a title this year, but outright we might not win 20 games suck.  The year Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls (the first time), they still won 55 games.  How could they do that when they lost thier superstar?  Well, they still had Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, and Phil Jackson stalking the sideline.  In other words, they’d actually, you know, assmebled good players around their superstar.

Last year, after LeBron left the Cavs, they surged all the way to 19 wins.  The Raptors?  Well they just tore through the league, on their way to 22 wins.  Don’t tell me that the Cavs and Raps had put good players around their stars.  And then there’s Orlando.  Look at some of the moves made by Orlando GM Otis Smith over the last five years in an attempt to build a winner around his Superman.  You tell me which one you looked at, the day it was announced, and thought, “wow, that’s a great deal for the Magic.”

  • 2007 – Signed free agent Rashard Lewis to massive 118.2 million – 6 year contract.
  • 2007 – Signed restricted free agent Jameer Nelson to 35 million – 5 year contract.
  • 2007 – Traded Trever Ariza to the LA Lakers for Brian Cook and Maurice Evans.
  • 2009 – After making the NBA finals, allowed Hedo Turkoglu to leave via free agency and instead used that space to trade Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, and Tony Battie to New Jersey for Vince Carter.
  • 2010 – Signed backup to your backups, backup Chris Duhon to a 15 million four year deal.
  • 2010 – Signed the ghost of Quentin Richardson for 7.5 million over three years.
  • 2010 – Traded Rashard Lewis’ bloated contract to the Washington Wizards for Gilbert “The Gun-toting Clown” Areans’ bloated contract.  This might have been a lateral move, except of course that Arenas has an extra year and 20 million on his deal (since amnestied).
  • 2010 – Tried to make up for the mistake of two years ago, by trading Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter, and Mkael Pietrus to Phoenix for Jason Richardson, Earl Clark, and the bloated, stubbed out cigarette remains of Hedo Turkoglu.

None, right?  And it’s not like I’m some master talent evaluator, I can barely find matching socks in the morning.  No, these were just blatantly bad deals from the get go.  What the Cavs and Magic did, was make it rain like Patrick Ewing at the Gold Club, assuming that giving large contracts to middling talent – or fading talent – was the same thing as building a championship squad around your star.  For all of their current cries of being “small markets,” each has had a payroll in excess of 90 million in the past five years.  That’s New York Knicks territory.

So, the problem arose, not because they weren’t able to spend, but because they weren’t able to spend intelligently.  Thus, their star wanted out.  It’s not like big markets don’t have the same problems.  At the start of the 2007 season Kobe Bryant famously demanded to be traded, and he was a phone call away from being shipped off to Chicago.  Instead the Lakers fleeced (sort of) the Grizzlies in a deal for Pau Gasol and well, you know the rest.  Did the Lakers keep Kobe because they’re a big market?  No, they kept Kobe because they made a smart move to surround him with a top fifteen talent.  And yes, it helps when you’re trying to stop your star from leaving if you can find Chris Wallace to trade with, but…

On the reverse side of the coin, you have three small market teams that managed to keep their stars: San Antonio, Portland, and Oklahoma City.  Tim Duncan’s obviously the poster boy of staying with a small market team and small market whiners say that he’s a special case, but why?  He was courted as a free agent and he chose to stay with the Spurs, because they’re a wicked smart organization that gave him the best chance to keep winning titles.  Pretty simple really; perhaps if they’d surrounded him with the likes of Mo Williams and Anthony Parker instead of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, maybe TD leaves for the big money deal offered to him by – gasp – the Orlando Magic.

Kevin Durant, well the press has made him out to be the anti-LeBron because he re-signed with the Zombie Sonics last year, but that’s unfair to both guys and, frankly, just a lazy narrative.  First, LeBron re-signed his first time up too, and second if Durant’s team wasn’t being run by Sam Presti, he might have made a different choice.  The point is that he’s on a team with Russel Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Eric Maynor, and Kendrick Perkins.  Plus, the Zombies haven’t destroyed their cap structure to assemble that talent.  So, Durant stays because there’s something worth staying for.

Finally, three years ago, before his knees when tits up, when Brandon Roy was a free agent, he didn’t flee Portland for a larger market, why?  Because they were young, they were talented and they were building something (and sure it’s since come crashing down, but despite that they to win 48 games last year with their best player a shell of his former self).  Now, you could counter that Roy wasn’t a superstar, and maybe he wasn’t in name recognition, but between 2007 and 2009 he was better than Carmelo or Bosh.  So, even if his name lacked the cache of those other guys, there were plenty of smart GMs who would’ve loved signing him.

To say that those five superstars left their teams because they’re small markets misses the point – especially as Miami is a mid-market franchise, albeit in a desirable location.  It wasn’t the size of the market, but rather stupid team management that led to the superstar wanting to leave. I’m sorry Minnesota, Sacramento, Washington, Cleveland, and whoever else is crying poor, but it’s true.  If you want to compete with the Lakers, you need to be smarter than them (given that mind boggling Lamar Odom trade this really shouldn’t be that hard)

Which brings us back to the Hornets, who were a second round playoff team last year.  Now, admitedly they just lost thier second best palyer as well, but if they lose Paul for nothing, how many games do you think they’d win next year?  15? 18? 22?  It’d be Charles Dickens bleak.  The Hornets Paul problem isn’t because they’re a small market, and it’s not because New Orleans isn’t a desirable place to live – it’s New Orleans for f***s sake – it’s because Paul watched the team sign a washed up Peja Stojakovic, trade away Tyson Chandler twice, and acquire freaking Willie Green.  They were poorly run and then bought by the league.  What’s the upside of hanging around for more?

All of which makes this Paul trade the most important deal in Hornets franchise history.  So, I can understand Stern holding out for a great deal, what I can’t understand is having Stu Jackson negotiate that deal.  That’s the sort of bush-league move that a small market team makes…

The Trade that Wasn’t, or How David Stern stepped in Poop..

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Oh the NBA, how I missed you.  I mean, even when you somehow manage to salvage the negative publicity of a lost season, you still manage to shoot yourself in the foot with an audaciously absurd and stupid move to cancel the proposed trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers.  I get it, really, I do… your ownership group almost sabotaged the season on the pre-text that you wanted to implement competitive balance (which is a bit of a red herring anyhow, but that’s another story, for another day…), when in reality what you actually wanted was to ensure as much money in your pockets as possible.

Now, basically minutes after the deal was ratified, the team that you collectively own – in a small market – is trying to send its best player to basically your league’s biggest market (in terms of combined size and success).  If you let it pass, then your rhetoric about small market teams is shown to be what it was: bullshit.  So, I can see how the knee jerk reaction is to torpedo the deal – especially when you have this moron sending subversive emails.

On the other hand, this actually was a good deal for the Hornets (not to mention the Rockets), and – despite picking up one of the top five players in the league – an odd trade for the Lakers.  I don’t know that I’d go quite as far as ESPNs John Hollinger in trashing it (insider), but he’s right that leaving your team with only the unrelaible Andrew Bynum as a big man is a huge mistake.  Now, maybe the Lakers were going to swap Bynum for Orlando’s Howard, but if the Magic were going for that, then the league has bigger problems than this Paul deal.

An even greater mistake is the league stepping in to sabotage the deal for “basketball reasons.”  Honestly, I don’t even know what basketball reasons are, and if you follow any NBA writers on twitter, neither does anyone else.  It’s like David Stern just stepped in a flaming bag of poop on his front stoop, only he’s the one who put the bag there.  I’ve argued in the past that Stern, while one of the three greatest sports commissioners of all time, desperately needs to step down and I think that the last five months only compound that fact.  The best example of this was a tweet yesterday (that I can no longer find, so I apologize to the author) that compared the damage done in the last two years by Stern to his legacy to a certain narcissistic indecisive, self photographing football player.

Stern’s league now has three teams grieving the cancellation of a perfectly legal – and legitimate – trade, another team accusing a fifth team of tampering and a sixth team whose owner cannot stop sounding like an ungrateful and petulant toddler when his toy was taken away.  Worst of all?  None of these shenanigans involve Donald Sterling – which should serve to remind Stern of the words of wisdom from the great philosopher Calvin, “That’s one of the remarkable things about life.  It’s never so bad that it can’t get worse.”

Ah Calvin – the 6 year, not the protestant – always there to remind us of the salient points in life.  The NBA looks pretty stupid right now, but hey, it can always get worse!

Oh NBA, I missed you.

5 Things I Could Care Less About

September 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Wait, didn’t I write a sports blog once upon a time?

Sadly, like the poor first child when the new baby comes home, Sports on the Brain has become neglected over the past three months, as my writing has been focused on baby, food, and all things Food and Fatherhood.  But, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about sports!

What’s unfortunate, is that while there have been things I wanted to write about since June 16th, I don’t really feel like I’ve missed out on anything.  I mean, honestly, hasn’t this been a particularly lame Summer for sports?  The biggest stories have involved two lockouts, 684 collegiate sports scandals, and a baseball season where the closest race heading into the last month is the Angels 3.5 back of the Rangers.  The whole summer’s been so (athletically) bleak it almost makes me long for the good old days of the Brett Farve retirement, unreitrement dance.

With that said, I figure the best place to begin is with a list of the five sports stories I care the least about:

Five:

Tiger Woods.  It’s sort of sad what’s happened to Woods, but it’s even more sad how much enjoyment people are taking from his demise.  It’s strange, I’ve never seen an athlete go from beloved iconic figure to pariah faster and that includes Kobe who was accused of raping a woman.  I know Tiger’s arrogant and controlling of his image, but the unadulterated joy over his demise is a little frightening.

Four:

The NFL lockout… and return.  I told my Father months ago that there was ZERO chance that the NFL would miss games and it’s not like I’m some master prognosticator; seriously, I can’t even predict whether I’m going to have breakfast every morning, but the NFL and the players settling was so patently obvious, the whole thing just felt like an arrogant publicity stunt:

Roger Goodell – “Hey Maurice, what should we do for fun this offseason?”

DeMaurice Smith – I don’t know?  Nothing to crazy, I mean we wouldn’t want to screw up our pubic support.

Goodell – “Screw up our support?  Don’t be daft we’re more popular than Charlie Sheen, the NFL could get caught in a hotel room with a bunch of hookers and blow and the public would still love us.  Hell, I bet we’re so popular that we can have a protracted labor dispute in uneven economic times and the fans will still run up to sniff our butts when we get back.”

Smith – “You think?”

Goodell – “Hells yeah.”

Smith – “I bet I could even de-certify the union and the public would lap it up.”

Goodell – “See, now that’s the attitude!”

Three:

The NBA lockout.  Sigh.  This lockout actually seems real, but it’s still just so banal I cannot bring myself to care.  I almost always side with players in labor disputes.  It’s one of the things I find most interesting about sports, the way that fans begrudge players making the money they make, when it’s either they make the money or the billionaire owners make it.  I guess it’s an economic misunderstanding, fans think that higher salaries drive ticket prices, when in reality ticket prices are entirely driven by (fan) demand.  Anyhow, in this case, I’m not quite as lefty leaning as I normally might be. The median NBA salary last year was 5.356; this is a system that has DeSagana Diop earning 6.925 million, there’s obviously something broken here.

If the NBA season takes place this year, the Orlando Magic’s payroll will be 74 million and just look at the breakdown:

G. Arenas 19.269 million
D. Howard 17.885
H. Turkoglu 10.6
J. Nelson 7.305
J. Redick 6.500
B. Bass 4.0
C. Duhon 3.46
Q Richardson 2.446
R. Anderson 2.244
D. Orton 1.105

So, basically they have an underpaid Howard and EVERYONE else is overpaid at best, or horrendously overpaid at worst. And yes, Orlando GM Otis Smith is a moron who’s spending money like a teenage socialite with her father’s credit card, but still something needs to be done.

What bothers me though, is that the solution to these problems is always, ALWAYS a salary cap.  And frankly, I hate salary caps.  They restrict market value for players, ensure greater profits for owners, and… restrict young, potentially great teams from keeping their players.  I mean really, imagine if the Celtics of the 80s had lost McHale because the Celtics couldn’t spend above a certain amount?  Or what about the Lakers without Worthy?  The Bulls without Bill Wennington?  Bad example?  There’s just no way that with a hard cap the Oklahoma Zombie Sonics are keeping Russ Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Eric Maynor together on a team with Kevin Durant over the next seven years.  And, I like dynasties.  I know the vogue thing in sports is parity and I comepltely understand why David Stern needs to sell to each of his owners the idea that anyone can win, but parity’s boring.  Give me the Lakers of the 80s, the Bulls of the 90s, the Spurs of the 00s, the Memphis Grizzlies of the 10s.

I just want to watch greatness.

Two:

The MLB all star game.  It was a few weeks back, but remember the hullabaloo about the MLB all star game?  God, it’s just stupid isn’t it?  The first problem is that leagues want their all star games to mean something.  MLB’s the worst for this, because everybody remembers Pete Rose destroying Ray Fosse at the plate and wants that sort of intensity in the modern games.  This of course ignores three things:

  1. Not all the old allstar games were like that.  Rose was a hyper competitve arse
  2. Fosse was never the same player after that play.  People hold that up as though it were a good thing, but it wasn’t.  We should never want that play to happen again.
  3. It actually DOESN’T mean anything, so for a team to lose a good player for the rest of the season because of a collision in an all star game is actually asinine.

At this point, the all star game is so bloated, with 389 players being selected from each franchise by everyone from the fans, the players, the managers, the commissioner, my Aunt Mildred, and her pet monkey Reginald.  It’s so dumb it could have been concocted by government.  And, speaking of dumb things that baseball’s doing, what about this extra wild card?  I know that as a Jays fan, I should be in favor of this move, but… m’eh.  I hate it when sports leagues have a freak occurrence happen one time and then react like the sky is falling.  Trust me, I wish there were pennant races this year too, but this is the first time in the Wild Card era that there haven’t been any races and really it’s just a big fluke.  Get over it.  If it happens again next year and the year after that, then worry about the state of the division races, but lets not get hysterical here.  Having said that, it’s inevitable.  There’s a lot of money in playoff games and they will add another team, perhaps two, or four.  After all, what can we learn over 162 games that we can’t learn in a single elimination game?

One:

The NCAA.  Is there anything worse than this greedy, self serving, inherently hypocritacal organization?  I could write a 1,000 words about why they’re so ridiculous; actually, I think I’m going to do just that…

The Dallas Mavericks, Truly Deserving…

June 13, 2011 Leave a comment

And there it is… after 11 years of Mark Cuban being basketball’s (sports?) most iconic, outspoken, bad boy owner, his franchise has finally come away with the prize.  And good,

Mark Cuban

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

he deserves to win.  Has any owner – other than the eponymous James Dolan – spent more money on his franchise over the last decade?  No, probably not, and unlike Dolan, Cuban has done some very heavy lifting when it comes to advancing the NBA generally and his franchise’s status in north Texas specifically.  While Dolan has continually embarrassed basketball, bringing scandal and incompetence to one of the league’s premier franchises, Cuban’s greatest (only?) crime is caring about his team so much that he bitches and moans from the sidelines, in the press room, and on his blog (well, until recently that is…) – well… that and he’s got a thing for overpaying plodding centers (maybe he’s just been trying to find the “next” Shawn Bradley?).  Meanwhile, he built one of the NBA’s premier arenas, has been beloved by his players and has presided over a team that has won 50 or more games every season in which he’s been the owner.

That’s what Cuban has been responsible for: establishing the Mavs as a premier franchise, one of the NBA’s elite teams, who we expect to be in the playoffs every year.  It’s hard to remember now, but the Mavs used to be like the TWolves, or (gulp) the Clippers, a team you just expected to be bad.  In the ten years before Cuban bought them, they won 40 games exactly once (his purchase season).  They lost a lot.  In 1992/93 they lost 71 games.  The following year they lost 69 times.  It was that offseason that they drafted a young point guard out of Cal.  Kid by the name of Jason… Kidd.  But despite Kidd, the Mavs continued to lose and eventually they traded him.  They were known as losers, a laughing stock as a franchise, and a team nobody expected to amount to much.

Cuban changed all of that.  No, not single handedly, but if we’ve learned anything from James Dolan, Donald Sterling and Bob Johnson/Michael Jordan, it’s that organizational incompetence resonates from the top.  It is no different with organizational strength.  Cuban has been on the cutting edge of basketball’s stat movement, he’s invested in the very best facilities, and he’s spent to get the very best players.  Cuban’s club has won 620 games over his full 11 seasons in charge, more than any other team in hoops except the Spurs, and that success starts at the top.  Mark has brought the Mavs to the mountaintop and this year, they managed to scale the peak.  No owner deserved this title more than Cuban.

Speaking of deserving, you have to be happy for Rick Carlisle.  I’ve long thought that he got a raw deal in Detroit.  His first year in charge of the Pistons, he won 50 games and led them to the second round.  The following year, he again won 50 games and this time he went to the Eastern Conference Finals, but then in a Riley decapitating Van Gundy kind of move, Joe Dumars canned Carlisle for the suddenly available Larry Brown.  Brown’s a legend, and he did lead the Pistons to a title, but it always seemed like Rick got a raw deal.

His star was bright however and Larry Bird believed in him, so he was quickly hired to lead the Pacers, where he again drew the short stick.  He took over a young talented team and in his first season in charge they won 61 games.  They lost in ECF to his former team, still the following year were seen as favorites.  But on November 19, 2004 his Pacers defeated the defending champion Pistons in the Palace of Auburn Hills.  The same Pistons team that he had coached only two years before.  The same Pistons team that had somewhat unreasonably tossed him aside.  The same Pistons team that had defeated his Pacers in the playoffs the previous Spring.

Carlisle’s Pacers won handily.  The budding rivalry between the two teams got chesty, a skirmish broke out… and a fan tossed a beer on the combustible Ron Artest.  And that was it.  That was the end of Carlisle’s championship aspirations in Indiana.  He dragged that suspension laden team to 44 wins, which might have been his most impressive coaching feat ever, but the baggage of the Malice in the Palace was too much for the franchise to overcome.  Carlisle lasted two more years, but eventually a parting became in the best interests of both parties.

Carlisle’s star somehow, some way, was diminished.  When Cuban hired him, it was reported as an underwhelming, uninspired choice, which is bizarre given how professional sports franchises give second, third, and even fourth chances to coaches with far worse records than Carlisle’s.  It was not – however – an uninspired choice.  Once again, Cuban was ahead of the curve and Rick Carlisle was just the man to lead a Mavericks team centered around one superstar and eight role players.  The Mavs victory is going to be presented as a return to old fashioned team first basketball.  It’s the lazy narrative: “The Mavs are the good old fashioned team who bested the evil superstar laden Heat.”  It’s a lazy narrative and it’s also a narrative that diminishes what the Mavs actually accomplished.  The Mavs aren’t a return to anything, they are unique in the annals of NBA history.  A team that won with only one great player: Dirk Nowitzki.

The closest comparison might be that Pistons team that haunted Carlisle.  They won without any superstars, but they also had five players who likely start on this Mavs team.  Their starting five was perhaps the deepest in recent NBA history and what they lacked in upper echelon talent, they made up for in the next tier.  That’s not the case with these Mavs.  What they accomplished is all the more impressive.  Picked by many pundits as the most likely first round upset, the toppled Portland, swept the two-time defending champs, demoralized the young upstarts from OKC, before exacting their revenge form 2006 by extinguishing the Heat.  They did it by riding a player unfairly maligned in recent seasons, a player no longer considered among the elite, who clearly was this year’s best player.  They did it with hard nosed team defense.  And they did it by moving around the court, swinging the ball and knocking down open shots.  They were a true team and they deserve to be celebrated as such, but don’t try to harken back to something noble in past, because these Mavs were more interesting, more unique than that.

From top to bottom, these Mavs were truly deserving of the crown.

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