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Fixing The Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets have some big choices ahead of them this summer and onward, writes Buddy Grizzard.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Long Rebuild

In the summer of 2013, the Brooklyn Nets tried to cut in line for an NBA championship. The team sent Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Kris Joseph, Keith Bogans and first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 — as well as the right to swap picks in the upcoming 2017 draft — to the Celtics for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White. The Nets likely thought those picks would be late first rounders since the team was set to contend for years to come. Instead, Brook Lopez suffered a broken foot 17 games into the 2013-14 season and the assembled core peaked with a 4-1 second round playoff series loss to LeBron James and the Miami HEAT.

Paul Pierce departed to the Washington Wizards the following summer after Brooklyn declined to offer him a contract. Thus began one of the most painful and prolonged rebuilds in NBA history. The Celtics used the 2014 pick to draft James Young 17th. But with the Nets refusing to commit to the core it invested so much in, Brooklyn finished 21-61 last season and surrendered the third pick, which Boston used to draft Jaylen Brown.

The Youth Route

Oddly, despite not owning its first round pick outright until 2019, the Nets are still having some success in building through the draft.

Last summer, Brooklyn traded starting power forward Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for the 20th pick, which was used on former Michigan shooting guard Caris LeVert. As Basketball Insiders’ Ben Dowsett noted Wednesday, LeVert has flashed huge potential on both ends of the court. He leads the Nets in deflections per minute while contributing to gaudy efficiency numbers for roll men and spot up shooters he connects with. As Dowsett noted, his 30 percent three-point shooting isn’t all that was hoped, but he shot 40 percent from three from his sophomore season onward. There’s a strong possibility that his shot will round into form at the NBA level.

LeVert was considered to have lottery talent ahead of last summer’s draft, but recurrent foot issues caused him to drop and allowed Brooklyn to get him late in the first round. It seemed like a risky strategy to trade a known quantity in Young for a college prospect with an extensive injury history, but LeVert has played so well as a rookie that Nets’ GM Sean Marks’ decision is looking better by the day.

In addition to LeVert, one positive holdover from former GM Billy King’s regime is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a 6-foot-7 small forward who finished fifth in defensive real plus-minus among NBA small forwards as a rookie. Known as a defensive specialist, Hollis-Jefferson is shooting only 23 percent from three-point range for his career. But with the opportunity to play for Kenny Atkinson, a coach famous for his talents in player development, Hollis-Jefferson could eventually develop a reliable shot that would open up the game for him and unlock his full potential.

Besides identifying wing contributors late in the first round, the Nets also had success in targeting undrafted free agent shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick. In one of Marks’ first acts as Brooklyn GM, he signed Kilpatrick to a three-year deal in March of last year. Kilpatrick is currently third on the team in scoring behind Lopez (20.4) and Jeremy Lin (13.8) with 13.5 points per game on 34.4 percent shooting from three. Free agency has otherwise been a mixed bag for Brooklyn, as Lin has only been available for 21 games and power forward Trevor Booker has failed to take a major step forward, languishing in the bottom five of the roster in net rating.

Looking Forward

Several big questions face the Nets in the coming months. The team already traded Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards for a lottery-protected first round pick that will almost certainly convey for this summer’s draft. That gives the Nets a pair of first rounders when combined with the late first rounder the team will receive from the Celtics via the previously-mentioned swap. With those picks in hand, Marks should continue what he’s already done by seeking more hidden gems outside the lottery. The team must also decide if it wishes to seek additional draft assets in a Lopez trade or enter next season with Lopez on an expiring contract. The Nets have already explored the market for Lopez, and retained him, in part, because no sufficiently attractive offer was presented. That could change as the draft approaches.

The Nets may have dodged a bullet when Portland and Miami matched massive offer sheets on Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson last summer. Since both teams retained their players, the Nets are faced with the decision to either continue to gun for free agents this summer or hoard cap space for 2018’s spectacular free agent class. The class of 2018 could include Isaiah Thomas, LeBron James, Paul George, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge and Derrick Favors. If two or more of those stars want to congregate on a single team — as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did in Miami — Brooklyn could position itself as the most viable destination.

Lopez and Booker are set to expire after 2017-18. If Jeremy Lin declines his player option for 2018-19 and the Nets make no major salary commitments beyond next season, Brooklyn could hit the summer of 2018 with Andrew Nicholson’s $6.6 million as the largest contract on its books. The Nets might be able to trade Nicholson’s contract to a team seeking to reach the NBA’s salary floor, leaving enough cap space to court multiple stars.

It might sound like a pie-in-the-sky strategy, but Brooklyn’s front office must decide by the end of the season if it wants to shoot for the stars in 2018 or continue firing off huge offers to free agents this summer. It’s a valid question as, by committing $145 million to Crabbe and Evan Turner, the Trail Blazers have become a cautionary tale about how the sort of unrestrained spending Brooklyn attempted last summer can go wrong. Only Noah Vonleh had a worse net rating last season than Crabbe among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes of action. Crabbe has failed to take a significant step forward this season, remaining firmly in the bottom half of Portland’s roster in net rating. Meanwhile, Turner’s contract was even more questionable after he posted the second-worst net rating for Boston last season (minimum 500 minutes). Turner is a known quantity. This season only Ed Davis has a worse net rating among Trail Blazers with at least 500 minutes.

Crabbe might have made a leap with a bigger role in Brooklyn, or he could have been the same cap-clogging underachiever he currently is in Portland. Johnson would likely have been a more positive addition, but since he stayed in Miami, the Nets can explore their options. Even if Brooklyn avoids long-term salary commitments this summer but fails to attract stars in 2018, the team could retain full Bird rights for Lopez and early Bird rights for Lin. A core of Lopez and Lin along with a corps of developing wings and whatever impact free agents are inevitably attracted by cap space is a foundation Brooklyn can build on. The Nets are in the NBA’s top media market with a top five arena. If the Warriors win another championship after obtaining Kevin Durant, the super team trend could continue and Brooklyn would be poised as a potential destination.

More Conservative Options

One thing that would undoubtedly help the Nets would be doing a better job of recognizing the talent that’s already on the roster. Yogi Ferrell’s success in Dallas has been salt in the wounds of a Brooklyn fan base already robbed of talent by King’s disastrous trade. But in addition to Ferrell, the Nets also waived Willie Reed, who is exactly the sort of young, rim-protecting big man the franchise desperately needs.

If the Nets want to throw a big contract at a wing coming off his rookie deal, the franchise could do a lot worse than current Atlanta Hawk Tim Hardaway Jr. Once derided for his defensive shortcomings as a Knick, Hardaway has become one of the Hawks’ most consistent two-way players. His plus-5.4 on-court net rating through 64 games is second on the team. Bench players often benefit from playing fewer minutes against opposing starters. But when Thabo Sefolosha lost time to injury and Hardaway was pressed into service as Atlanta’s starting shooting guard, his net rating improved. Opponents are shooting just 39.7 percent overall when guarded by Hardaway, per optical tracking data on NBA.com, and only 32 percent on three-pointers.

But if the Nets go the route of hoarding cap space, the biggest short-term need is a physical power forward who can rebound but also stretch the floor. There are several undervalued options to fill this role for Brooklyn that include another current Hawk, Ersan Ilyasova. Linsanity happened when — with Carmelo Anthony out — Mike D’Antoni surrounded Amar’e Stoudemire-Lin pick and rolls with three-point shooters. Ilyasova fits that configuration and he defends and kills opponents’ possessions with his rebounding.

Other options could include Nikola Mirotic, who has struggled mightily this season. Despite these struggles, Mirotic has a better on-court net rating than any Bull except Jimmy Butler this season. For all his struggles, the Bulls are still performing better as a team with Mirotic on the court than almost any other player. This speaks to the value of stretch big men in the pace-and-space era. Even with Mirotic shooting a career-low 30 percent from three, he still pulls an opposing big man away from the basket, opening the driving lanes that Lin thrives in. If there was ever a player whose value seems so low that his team might let him walk rather than match a modest offer in restricted free agency, Mirotic is that player. Brooklyn could steal Mirotic on a bargain contract and then watch him flourish in a new role away from Chicago’s dysfunction.

Two other players that could get overlooked due to their current teams’ salary cap crunch are Clipper forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and current Raptor forward Patrick Patterson. Mbah a Moute would be an exceptional addition for the Nets as he can play either forward position at both ends. Known as an elite defender, he has worked on his outside shot and is currently hitting a career-best 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. This makes him a perfect frontcourt partner for Lopez and an ideal candidate to improve Brooklyn’s porous defense.

Patterson isn’t exactly the banger that Brooklyn needs, but he’s another under-the-radar commodity that could be available. Toronto made a major commitment to Serge Ibaka by trading away Terrence Ross, a legitimate rotation piece. With Kyle Lowry possibly commanding the max and the luxury tax looming, Patterson will almost certainly change teams this summer. Toronto is plus-11.5 per 100 with Patterson on the court, easily a team-best among Raptors to play meaningful minutes.

Finally, two players the Nets should consider are a pair of teammates on the Serbian national team. Miroslav Raduljica (rad-oo-LEETS-uh) is an overlooked, bruising big man who would give the Nets the enforcer it needs. He doesn’t stretch the floor to the three-point line like countryman Nikola Jokic, but he absolutely has a face-up game. As seen in these highlights, Raduljica can pull up from the elbow and baseline, has a dribble-drive game, and a penchant for thunderous dunks and the occasional highlight assist. In 53 career games for the Milwaukee Bucks, Raduljica averaged 14 points and eight rebounds per 36 minutes. Don’t let the snarling biker look fool you: Raduljica speaks or understands five languages.

The other Serbian national team member the Nets are already rumored to be interested in is current CSKA Moscow point guard Milos Teodosic. His contract expires July 1, and he has expressed interest in making the jump to the NBA. Teodosic gained wide acclaim by leading Serbia to the silver medal in last summer’s Rio Olympics. Serbia fell to the United States 94-91 in the gold medal game and Teodosic has been coveted by NBA teams ever since. Sportando recently reported that the Nets are among the teams that plan to pursue him. Teodosic is not noted for his defense but he has a flair for dramatic passes and an elite feel for the game.

This summer’s free agent class isn’t as star-studded as 2018’s, but it’s fair to ask if Brooklyn should pass up so many players that could help now to chase a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. So, should the Nets continue to hoard cap space and keep the sheet clear for the summer of 2018 or look more toward short-term improvement via players who are more attainable? If Marks has the right answers, he could transform the Nets from one of the NBA’s most painful fan experiences to an unexpected success story. But if he chooses unwisely, history is unlikely to let him or Brooklyn’s fans forget.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: Daniel Hamilton Hopes to Stick in OKC

Oklahoma City’s Daniel Hamilton speaks to Basketball Insiders about his time at summer league and sticking in the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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There are usually two main categories of guys who participate in the NBA’s summer league.

The players who are armed with guaranteed contracts are usually looking to expand on their game and test out new skills. Then there are the players who don’t have that kind of security, the ones who are looking for an opportunity to earn an invite to training camp in hopes of securing a coveted roster spot in the NBA.

For Daniel Hamilton, he kind of falls into both of those categories.

Hamilton just completed his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was signed last summer to a two-way contract and he split time between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He joined the Thunder’s summer league team in Las Vegas, his third consecutive summer with them.

“I’m working on getting stronger, lowering my turnovers, and continue getting reps up in the gym,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting shots up and different things like that.”

Hamilton was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 56th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to the Thunder. He didn’t play with the Thunder right away though. He spent the entire 2016-2017 season with the Blue.

This past year was his second in the G-League. He finished the season as the Blue’s second-leading scorer with 16.9 points per game, behind Dakari Johnson’s 23.3. While he was on a two-way contract, he only saw action in six games with the Thunder. Most of his time was spent with the Blue.

“It was good, my first year doing the two-way deal. I had a lot of good times playing up with the pros and going down to the G-League,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “The G-League was real good, being able to just go out and play and work on your game, and get wins as a team. We had a great team this past year, we finished top in our division. It was just a fun experience overall.”

This season was a bit different for Hamilton, however. It was also his first year playing a different position. Up to that point, he’d been a shooting guard. He played shooting guard as a standout at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA. He was a shooting guard during his two years at UConn.

But the Thunder asked him to do something a bit different when he joined the team. They asked him to play point guard. He used his second season with the Blue to test out playing a new position. He averaged 7.8 assists with the Blue, but also 4.9 turnovers as he got used to being a playmaker. He used the Las Vegas Summer League to continue that adjustment.

“It’s been pretty good. My first year of playing point guard was this past year. It’s just something that I’m trying to get used to. Just trying to stay focused on whatever happens next,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I think it helped me expand my game, being able to do more than just one thing, to be versatile.”

In Las Vegas, Hamilton came close to averaging a near triple-double. Over the course of five games, he put up 7.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s got the skill and physical tools to be a playmaking guard at the NBA level. He’s been impressive both in the G-League and Summer League.

However, it remains to be seen what happens with him come the end of the summer. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition of both Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it brings their roster to 15 guaranteed contracts. They’re allowed two two-way contracts, but have already used one on Deonte Burton.

They’ve got decisions to make regarding P.J Dozier, who was on a two-way last season, and rookies Hamidou Diallo and Devon Hall. Unless the Thunder can clear up a roster spot or two, it appears Hamilton will be fighting for that last two-way spot. He hopes he’s done enough to warrant strong consideration.

“The main thing is just continuing to get better and continue growing,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just the number one thing to being here at summer league.”

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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