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Courtney Lee on Free Agency, Knicks’ Roster, Expectations

Courtney Lee discusses his decision to join the Knicks, his new teammates, expectations for next year and more.

Alex Kennedy

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Shortly after free agency began on July 1, Courtney Lee received a call and immediately recognized the voice on the other end. It was New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. The Hall of Famer was the first person to express interest in Lee, and the 30-year-old shooting guard was extremely flattered. Soon after, Joakim Noah (who agreed to a deal with the Knicks) was also recruiting him to New York.

It didn’t take long for Lee to make up his mind and commit to the Knicks on a four-year, $50 million contract. He made the decision around 6:30 p.m. ET on July 2, choosing New York over teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks (who discussed the possibility of adding Lee to replace Kent Bazemore when it looked like he might sign elsewhere).

Lee is a strong addition for Jackson and the Knicks in what has been a very busy summer for the organization. The team also hired Jeff Hornacek as their new head coach and added Noah, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings and Willy Hernangomez among others. Jackson and his staff have assembled some intriguing talent around cornerstones Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, and the squad will look drastically different next season as they try to end their three-year playoff drought.

While the addition of Lee didn’t make as many headlines as the Rose trade or Noah signing, there’s no question that Lee will have an enormous impact on both ends of the court.

Lee has averaged 9.6 points over the course of his nine-year NBA career, shooting 45 percent from the field, 38.4 percent from three-point range and 84.6 percent from the free throw line. Last year, he spent time with the Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Hornets, averaging 9.6 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 29.5 minutes. In Charlotte’s first-round postseason series against the Miami HEAT, Lee averaged 8.6 points while shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range.

But Lee is the type of player who does plenty of important things that don’t show up in a box score. He makes hustle plays, does the dirty work and makes his opponent work for every point. To get an idea of how hard he works when he’s on the court, consider that he ran an average of 2.64 miles per game during the playoffs (ranking fourth among all players, behind only C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and Paul George).

In today’s NBA, the ‘3-and-D’ role player has become very valuable and Lee is a perfect example. He’s a two-way threat who will knock down efficient threes and then lock his man down on the other end of the court. Lee is also an excellent locker-room presence, leading by example while knowing his role and playing within it. On a Knicks team that features scorers like Anthony, Rose and Jennings, it’s important to have individuals like Lee and Noah surrounding them (and holding everyone accountable).

Last season in Charlotte, Lee ranked first among qualified players on the Hornets in offensive rating (111.4), net rating (+6), true shooting percentage (57.6 percent) and assist ratio (18.9 percent). In the playoffs, Lee contested 12.1 shots per game, which not only ranked first among all Hornets but ninth among all postseason players. Charlotte’s top three lineups in terms of plus/minus in the playoffs all had one thing in common: Lee playing on the perimeter, either at shooting guard or small forward (when they went small). In fact, Charlotte had two of the top five lineups of the 2016 postseason and both featured Lee.

Now, Lee will join a talented Knicks lineup and try to duplicate his success under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.

Basketball Insiders caught up with Lee to discuss his free agency process, why he decided to join the Knicks, what he thinks of New York’s other moves, the expectations for next year, how much we’ll see the Triangle Offense under Coach Hornacek and more.

Alex Kennedy: You told me that the Knicks were the first team to show interest in you, with Phil Jackson contacting you shortly after free agency started. What was it like receiving that call?

Courtney Lee: “Man, hearing from Phil and it being the Knicks, it was an incredible feeling. It took me back to all of the things that Phil has accomplished, and it also took me all the way back to my childhood because I grew up in Indianapolis so I used to always watch the Pacers and Knicks battle against each other. It just brought back so many memories. For them to be the first team to call me, it was a good feeling. I mean, it’s Phil Jackson. It’s New York. You’re playing in the Mecca.”

Kennedy: Did you have any discussions with Jackson or Coach Hornacek about how they plan to use you and what they want to see from you?

Lee: “We spoke about that briefly. First and foremost, he wants me to bring energy on the defensive end. I kind of feel like me and Noah will be similar in that standpoint, bringing that energy. He’ll be a rim protector and I’ll be a perimeter defender, and we just want to cause as much havoc as possible for opponents. Then, on the offensive end, they just want me to be able to spread the floor, knock down open shots, get out in transition and play freely within the offense.”

Kennedy: You mentioned Madison Square Garden being the Mecca and spoke highly of New York. What will it mean to put on that Knicks jersey and play in front of those fans?

Lee: “It’s still sinking in, man. I wake up every day and I have butterflies in my stomach, ever since I made my verbal commitment to them. Being in the NBA for going on nine years, I’ve played in the Garden a lot and there’s a special feeling when you play there. There’s so much history. The fans are there night in and night out. Even during tough times in the past when they didn’t have the best seasons, the fans were still there and supporting their team. If they’re down 20 points, you may hear some boos in there because the fans are so passionate, but then if someone makes a play or shows that they’re giving maximum effort, the fans will cheer non-stop. That’s exactly what you want. You want the fans to be just as passionate as you, so that when you’re fighting through fatigue or battling through an injury, those fans are right there cheering you on as you try to make a play or get a big stop. New York definitely has those type of fans.”

Kennedy: The fans are really excited now because of the offseason acquisitions. What are you expectations for this upcoming season?

Lee: “We’re contenders, man. They didn’t make the playoffs last year, but we’re looking to change that and win big. The ring is the ultimate goal for everybody on the team; I know it is for me. When they talked to me and told me about the pieces they were adding alongside the players who were already there, I didn’t think anything less than a championship [was the goal]. We’re trying to get the Knicks back into the playoffs and win big.”

Kennedy: Did any of the players on the Knicks recruit you as you were weighing your options?

Lee: “Before free agency, I was talking with Noah and it’s great seeing how passionate he is. This offseason, he’s getting out of breath just being on the phone – like he’s running sprints – but it’s because he’s talking about the city, talking about the fans, talking about the team and talking about everything we can accomplish together. He’s excited and he was recruiting me pretty much the entire time, telling me that I was the missing piece and what not. He kept telling me, ‘Let’s get it done!’ Noah was in my ear a lot.”

Kennedy: There have been questions about Noah’s recent production and injuries, just as there has been talk about Rose’s injuries. How do you think the team can hold up and what do you say to the people who are concerned about the team’s potential health issues?

Lee: “It’s part of the game. When you play 82 games, plus eight to 10 preseason games, plus playoff games, you’re looking at around 100 games a year. We’re all human, so there are going to be injuries. It’s just about whether they’re serious injuries and whether you can bounce back from them. It’s a long season and we all know that injuries occur, but they probably have one of the best training staffs in New York. I think they’ll help us stay on the court as much as possible. All of the injuries from previous years are behind us. That’s the past. We’re looking forward to the future and the future looks bright for New York.”

Kennedy: You’re known for your perimeter defense, and you’ve spent time matched up against some of your new teammates like ‘Melo and D-Rose. What is it like guarding those guys and what makes them so effective offensively?

Lee: “Well, ‘Melo is one of those players who makes things tough for a guy like me since I’m 6’5 and he’s standing 6’8 or 6’9. He can play on the wing, but he’s also able to play in the post. He gave me mismatch problems a lot of times. But playing on this team, it’s going to be fun because he’s going to draw so much attention. Most nights, he’ll probably draw double teams and that’s just going to open things up for everybody else and make the offense flow that much easier.

“With D-Rose, I feel like he’s hungry. He’s been criticized a lot in his hometown. He’d been in Chicago his whole career and then he’s hearing things like, ‘He’s not the same player. He’s injury-prone.’ The city flipped on him. He was the guy who was taking them to the playoffs and he was the MVP, so people can’t forget about that. As a player, I will never forget how talented that man is. I think he’s eager and hungry, and he’ll use all of that as fuel. This is his fresh start in a new location. He’s going to come out with a chip on his shoulder.

“And it’s not just D-Rose. Noah has a chip on his shoulder. Carmelo has a chip on his shoulder because he’s eager to win a championship. KP (Kristaps Porzingis) is still learning, but he’s a dog so he’s going to go out there and compete. Brandon Jennings, every time he touches the ball he wants to score 50 so I know he’ll compete. And as far as myself, I’m always hungry and I’m always ready to scrap. We’re going to try to get the job done night after night.”

Kennedy: That’s an interesting point. Can a team come together and bond over something like that, the fact that you’re all trying to prove yourselves and are motivated by these slights?

Lee: “Yeah, no question. Our core group of guys who will be battling together, in the locker room together, on the plane together, we have to stick together and make sure everybody’s confidence is at an all-time high. If one person falls down, we have to be right there to pick them up. Everybody is hungry and everybody has their own motivation or chip on their shoulder. We just need to come together, get that chemistry and see it click. Once everybody is together and everybody is hungry, I think we can be very scary.”

Kennedy: Fans in New York were very excited when you chose the Knicks because the fit makes a lot of sense. What’s it like to get that kind of reaction and support from the fans?

Lee: “It’s a good feeling. Throughout my journey, I’ve been on a lot of different teams. Teams always say they want me and then I end up getting traded or whatnot. Now, to get a nice contract and the chance to play for Phil Jackson and Jeff Hornacek, and the chance to play in the Mecca, it’s rewarding. But even before I committed to New York, the fans were getting in touch with me on social media. Everybody was telling me, ‘Go to New York! New York! New York!’ Then, once I committed to the Knicks, my Instagram went nuts. The fan support here is like no other.”

Kennedy: Have you discussed how much Coach Hornacek is going to use the Triangle Offense? Will he only use some elements of it, or will it be used less?

Lee: “The only thing that Phil has told me is that he’s going to let Coach Hornacek have the [say] and be able to do what he wants to do. Phil may have some input and we talked about the Triangle a little bit, but I don’t think that Phil’s going to stress it too much.”

Kennedy: Now that you’re playing with Kristaps Porzingis, what do you think of his game and potential? Could we see a breakout season for him during his sophomore year?

Lee: “You should never judge a book by its cover. I remember when he was first drafted, there were a lot of people unhappy that they picked him. Then, when he got on that court, he let his game do the talking. He’s going to be a good player for years to come. The guy is 7’2 or 7’3, can shoot the ball, can dribble the ball and has moves. He’s going to be huge for us. Never judge a book by its cover.”

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 4/24/18

The deadline for early entry into the 2018 NBA Draft has passed, so Basketball Insiders Publisher Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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The Deadline for early entry into the 2018 NBA Draft was April 22, however, the NBA hasn’t yet released the full list of eligible players. There appear to be more than 153 underclassmen that have declared to “test the waters” according to reports. By way of comparison, last year there were 137 players from college and an additional 45 from international basketball that declared early, with 73 of those players pulling out after going through the process.

The 2018 Draft class could be shaping up to be one of the biggest, especially when you consider the volume of highly draftable seniors.

There are still some dates to keep in mind:

The NBA Draft Lottery will be held in Chicago on May 15. The annual NBA Draft Combine will get underway on May 16, also in Chicago. In any given draft year, roughly 70 percent of players invited to the Combine end up being drafted into the NBA, so a Combine invite is a significant draft milestone.

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college, however, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

Here is this week’s 2018 NBA Mock Draft, based on the final pre-draft lottery draft order:

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. Based on the final regular-season standings should convey to Philadelphia if the draft lottery holds true to the standings.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade. The pick is top four protected and would convey if the draft lottery holds true to the standings.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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NBA

NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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NBA

The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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