It’s early February, and in the NBA world, that means it’s deadline time. With just a few short weeks to go until the NBA’s trade deadline, any talks which are going to take place before the offseason will begin to intensify over these next several days.
The Northwest Division is a fascinating place to start when assessing where various teams might look as the deadline looms. The division is chock full of young teams, and with the possible exception of Minnesota, each group still has at least a puncher’s chance at the postseason (even the Wolves aren’t entirely out of it). Let’s break down each team in the division, in order of record, and see what their stock looks like headed into the deadline.
Utah Jazz (1st in Northwest, 33-19 record)
The Jazz have mostly equaled or surpassed decently high preseason expectations and sit atop the division. They also currently have a home playoff seed for the first time in over a half decade. They’re doing so with perhaps the deepest roster in the entire league – so deep, in fact, that it’s begun posing real questions about certain future elements, even as the Jazz have once again been hit hard by the injury bug.
Whether any of these major questions materializes into an active approach around the deadline remains to be seen, but given this team’s management and history, it feels unlikely.
Guys like Derrick Favors and Alec Burks have been whispered as potential trade pieces, but that’s mostly by media types; little has been substantiated publicly, and the Jazz are among the most conservative teams out there. Don’t rule them out for certain, though, as the big moves they have made in recent years have mostly come out of nowhere and won’t hit the rumor mill too far before they actually happen. But safe money on Utah is that they either make no moves, or simply look to offload one of their extra point guards for a small return.
Names to Watch:
Shelvin Mack: Mack was rumored as a potential fit in Cleveland as a backup, with the same report stating that he was “definitely available” from Utah. Mack’s contract expires at the end of the season, and inconsistent production this year has led to him barely seeing the court in recent weeks. If he’s moved, the return should be minimal.
Raul Neto: Same story, only Neto hasn’t been specifically rumored in any deals, and likely has even less value than Mack. Frankly, there might be a greater chance Neto is cut than traded, if the Jazz really need that spot.
Gordon Hayward: Hayward’s name only appears on this list because he’s a likely expiring contract, with a player option for next season he’ll certainly decline. But that’s the extent of it – Hayward will not be traded under any circumstances. The Jazz are confident he will re-sign in the offseason. Ditto for George Hill.
Jeff Withey: Withey is another expiring who might fetch the Jazz a very limited pick or some other consideration, but even though he’s mostly in DNP territory when both Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are healthy, he’s been a valuable security blanket if one of those guys goes down – which has been often over the last 12 months. It seems likely his value to Utah is greater than what they could get in return before he hits the open market.
Oklahoma City Thunder (2nd in Northwest, 30-23 record)
The Thunder is one of the toughest teams to read come deadline time. They’d certainly like to improve on the wing, but whether they have the assets to get there is questionable, and one of their top rumored targets in Rudy Gay is now out for the year. Russell Wesbrook’s future in town hangs over any moves they might make.
They also have a few future first round picks tied up in some complicated pick swaps, which could make any deals that don’t sacrifice current rotation players hard to find. Their only young assets who seem able to fetch a real return are point guard Cameron Payne and big man Domantas Sabonis, but the former is the Westbrook successor should Russ ever leave, and the latter was a big part of the investment the Thunder made by trading away Serge Ibaka over the offseason. It’s tough to see the Thunder swinging big unless a team has major interest in a guy like Enes Kanter, which feels unlikely at his salary range and given his recent hand injury.
Names to Watch:
Anthony Morrow: Morrow is only on the fringes of the rotation, but he’s a cheap expiring contract who can shoot. Some contender always seems to find themselves in need of a guy like this, and with Alex Abrines and his own shooting prowess locked up long term, maybe the Thunder would entertain moving Morrow for a pittance, or as part of a larger package.
Joffrey Lauvergne: Lauvergne is a young, promising big whose restricted free agency is still ahead, but it’s difficult to know whether he has any real trade value.
Kyle Singler: Not a particularly attractive piece, but could be useful for salary matching, if it was needed.
Enes Kanter: Highly unlikely, but only on here because he would appear to be the only high-dollar contract the Thunder might be okay with separating from if the right return was on the table. Guys like Westbrook, Oladipo and Adams all are completely off the table.
Denver Nuggets (3rd in Northwest, 23-28 record)
If they’re so inclined, the Nuggets could likely be the most active team in the league around the deadline. They have the pieces to move in whichever direction they want: They could send some young assets and picks for an established player, go in the opposite direction and send one of several vets for a younger package, or pick some hybrid route.
Complicating matters somewhat is the West’s ridiculously weak race for the eight seed. In a normal year, this sort of record would make Denver’s decision easy: They could sell of one of their higher-priced veterans, get the young guys even more time on the court together and be happy with a good lottery pick.
But entering play on February 7, the Nuggets sit in the final West playoff seed. How will that impact their thinking? Will general manager Tim Connelly view this as a chance to accelerate his rebuild, or will he take the patient approach and prioritize development over the right to be massacred by the Warriors in round one? He could always stand pat and do very little – the Nuggets are in a great future position almost regardless of what they do, barring a disastrous move.
Names to Watch:
Wilson Chandler: Chandler has long been considered one of the most likely trade candidates, and he recently expressed at least some level of displeasure with his fluctuating role in Denver. He has another year left on his deal after this, plus a player option for 2018-19, meaning he’s more than just a rental. As a versatile swingman who can hit the three and play two-way ball, he’s one of the most likely individual names in the league to move before the deadline.
Kenneth Faried: Faried is another of the trifecta of Denver veterans who has been rumored as a trade piece for multiple years now. He still has two full years left on his deal after this one, and though he’s a moderate overpay at this point, there’s still room for his role in the league. To some degree, though, it feels like this move would already have been made if it was going to happen.
Danilo Gallinari: The third member of the Vet. Trade Rumors crew. Gallo only has this year left on his deal before a player option he seems likely to decline, so he’s a pure rental if anyone will pony up for him.
Jusuf Nurkic: As star youngster Nikola Jokic continues to light the world on fire, there’s less room for Nurkic in a crowded frontcourt. He’s young enough that he could still fetch a real return, or be part of a larger deal.
Will Barton: Same goes for Barton to some degree, who is less useful with guys like Gary Harris and Jamal Murray filling similar roles. He has another year on his deal after this one, so he could be more than a rental.
Portland Trail Blazers (4th in Northwest, 22-30 record)
The Blazers are another team with a ton of potential options. After spending a whole boatload of money over the offseason for a collection of parts that hasn’t really fit as well as one would have hoped, the Blazers are left with several guys who are theoretically close to fair value on their contracts. They could get involved in some fireworks.
Of their summer spending projects, it seems like only Evan Turner is truly un-moveable. Allen Crabbe is close, but with tons of years left for a relatively young guy, some team with space to fill (think 76ers) might take a shot at him for the right considerations. The Blazers have about six other guys who could fit into a hypothetical deal, and you have to figure they’re willing to listen to fair offers. These pieces haven’t quite fit, but the right shuffling of this deck might change fortunes.
And then, of course, there’s the potential for something that’s only been whispered to this point, and never with any connection to a real move: A true tear-down, a.k.a. a trade of either Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum.
The pair is devastating offensively, but their defensive liabilities together have begun to make some wonder if this pairing can ever be a true contender given their huge combined salaries. Both would fetch a huge return in a trade, though these sorts of things rarely happen at the deadline – even if the Blazers were looking this route (highly unlikely, it’s just too early), it seems like we wouldn’t hear about it until the offseason. McCollum’s goofy salary under extension rules also makes a trade involving him tough to consummate without a third team involved.
Names to Watch:
The mid-tier glut: We won’t even separate them, because from a value standpoint, so many of these guys are relatively close together. Each of Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Festus Ezeli (unlikely given injury status), Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh and Mason Plumlee could conceivably fetch some value from the right team. Each have years left on deals that range from fair to moderate overpays, and while the Blazers are over the cap currently, their flexibility makes tons of potential deals realistic. Don’t be surprised to see any of these guys move.
Minnesota Timberwolves (5th in Northwest, 19-33 record)
The Wolves were making their own charge at that sad West eight seed, but the wheels may have fallen off that train with the devastating news of Zach LaVine’s season-ending injury. The Wolves don’t really have anyone capable of duplicating his 19 points a night, nor the spacing he provides to a team that desperately needs it when Ricky Rubio is in the game.
Speaking of Rubio, he’s by far the most likely piece to move out of Minnesota. The Wolves don’t really appear poised for too many other big moves, unless a rebuild-accelerator like a Jimmy Butler became truly available, and even then, one of their best chips for such a deal, LaVine, now has a slightly more uncertain future. The Wolves could make a few other moves on the margins, but with LaVine done for the year and a high lottery slot seemingly well within reach, it seems most likely Minnesota lets the chips fall this year before re-assessing over the summer.
Names to Watch:
Ricky Rubio: The source of trade rumors for multiple seasons, Rubio now also has a true successor behind him in the form of Kris Dunn. The Wolves seem ready to hand the keys to Dunn for the future, and they’ll be willing to take a reasonable return for Rubio if one becomes available. It hasn’t yet, though, and he’s reportedly been on the market a long time.
Shabazz Muhammad: Muhammad was recently linked to Phoenix’s P.J. Tucker by Basketball Insiders’ Michael Scotto, and he still has enough team control and skill to perhaps interest a suitor. He’ll be a restricted free agent after this season.
Nikola Pekovic: Pek is out for the year and off most radars, but he does have another year on his deal left, and some team might try to buy super low on him. Unlikely, though.
With the race for the Western Conference’s eighth seed quite competitive, the Northwest Division might see a shakeup.
Stay tuned, as the 2017 NBA Trade Deadline is only 16 days away.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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