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NBA AM: D-League Not So Minor Anymore

The NBA’s D-League is becoming a bigger part of the story… Short-term deals as good as they seem?

Steve Kyler

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Not So Minor Any More:  The D-League, the NBA’s developmental league is becoming a bigger part of the basketball discussion, especially for some of the fringe guys in NBA training camps this season.

For the first time in its 14-season history the D-League will feature 17 single-affiliation partnerships. Eight of those teams are owned and operated by their parent NBA club, while nine teams operate under what’s called a “hybrid” affiliation where the parent NBA team runs the basketball operations side, while an independent owner runs the business and sales side.

A quick run of the math: There are currently 18 D-League teams featuring 17 D-league single affiliation teams versus 30 NBA teams, meaning there is a lone “independent team” that the remaining 13 NBA teams will be affiliated with and that is the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

NBA teams are permitted to “assign” up to four players to their D-League affiliate at any one time, but no more than two players at any one position.

The Mad Ants will have a slightly different set of rules this year because of their 13 affiliated NBA teams. To accommodate assignments to Fort Wayne, a flexible assignment system will be utilized this season. If an independent NBA team assigns a player to the Mad Ants and they already have either the maximum of four NBA players on assignment or have two players assigned at the position of the NBA player who is being assigned, that player will either be allocated to one of the direct affiliated teams, with mutual consent, or that player will be assigned to one of the non NBA-owned single affiliate teams using a lottery-type system.

For the first three years of a NBA player’s career he can be sent to the D-League an unlimited number of times, however, players with more than three years of experience can only be sent to the D-League with their and the Player’s Associations’ consent.

The NBA and the Player’s Association have been more flexible about the D-League over the years, allowing teams to freely move players in and out. This has become extremely helpful for franchises like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who use their D-League team to get valuable playing experience for their younger guys.

As more teams take control of their minor league teams, additional focus is being put into the daily operation of those teams. The Thunder and the Spurs run virtually the same offensive and defensive systems in the D-League as the parent club, going as far to install the same processes and terminology to better acclimate the switch from one team to the other.

The proximity of the owned D-League teams is playing a bigger factor in how often and in-depth NBA teams use their affiliate. Most teams that are owned by a NBA team are less than 90 minutes from their parent team, making it logistically easier for the front offices to meaningfully participate in the D-League process. It also makes it more reasonable for players to be sent down to the D-League team for playing time and then immediately brought back to the parent team.

The NBA also adjusted the assignment rules for the D-League this season, which is playing out in training camps this year. Players that are in a team’s camp now can have their D-League rights retained after they are waived by the NBA club and clear the waiver process.

The meaningful exception is those players who played in the D-League last season.

While all D-League contracts are one-year deals, if a player played for a team last season, that team has that player’s rights for the upcoming season if that player chooses to play in the D-League this year. The exception there is a drafted player. Thanasis Antetokounmpo played in the D-League last season for Delaware, but was drafted by the Knicks. His D-League rights remain with the Knicks by virtue of the draft.

However, Orlando Magic camp invite Seth Curry played in the D-League last season with Santa Cruz, so they would retain his D-League rights despite being brought into camp by the Magic with eye on him playing for their D-League team. What’s likely going to occur there is some type of trade between Santa Cruz and the Erie Bayhawks if Curry opts to play in the D-League and does not make the roster in Orlando.

A number of teams are also figuring out ways to navigate the D-League’s extremely low salary system.

The NBA and its teams don’t talk about the D-League salary system, but it’s been reported numerous times that the D-League employs a salary cap system where each team is capped at roughly $173,000 per team, and employs slotted salary tiers for player contracts. Top level players earn roughly $25,000 per season, while second tier players earn$19,000 per season with lesser named guys earning $13,000 per season.

The work around some teams have found is to offer guaranteed money in their initial NBA contract offers, knowing that those players would be cut after camp and sent to the D-League. Some teams have gone as far as using their 15th roster spot and the NBA wage associated with it as a means to work around the limited salary available in the D-League, simply signing the player and assigning him to the D-League for the bulk of the season. The third mechanism is the 10-day contract option teams have available starting in January.

Last season current Pacers’ camp invite Adonis Thomas signed with the Atlanta Hawks, who guaranteed him $50,000 to come to camp. He was released and landed in the D-League for 34 games before getting a series of 10-day contracts from the Philadelphia 76ers and the Orlando Magic. All told, Thomas earned roughly $150,000 last season despite playing most of it in the D-League.

Changes to the D-League’s economic structure are coming. With more teams owning their own teams, and the eventuality that there will be one D-League team per NBA team in the not so distant future, increasing the funding and salaries in the D-League is on the horizon. The NBA has been pushing to increase the age limit to enter the NBA and increased D-League funding could be part of an age limit increase compromise between the NBA and its players.

NBA teams are charged an affiliation fee if they do not own a team. That fee is said to be north of $250,000 per team. The teams that own and operate their own team are spending anywhere from $1.5 million to $2 million a season to fully run a team. When you factor in that the NBA’s salary cap could reach $70-$80 million inside the next two seasons, the D-League is going to play a bigger role going forward. With 17 teams now in control of their D-league teams, you can expect a lot more movement between leagues as well.

The D-League opens regular season play the second week of November and plays a 50-game schedule, with the D-League showcase set for January 15-19 in Santa Cruz. This year the Showcase will feature a tournament style format called the Showcase Cup, featuring the top eight teams in the D-League.

Short Term Deals?:  The biggest fear among NBA teams competing for something is that the players they sign to big contracts fade out before their contracts are finished. The worst years of a player’s contract are usually those last years. When guys like Atlanta’s Paul Millsap and Charlotte’s Al Jefferson signed with their respective teams, their age played a factor.

As each enters their second season with their respective teams, the deals they signed last season are starting to become problematic for their home teams.

Jefferson had questions marks. Most around the league liked Jefferson, but was he a guy you invested a ton of money into? The Hornets thought so, inking him to a three-year, $40.5 million deal. The problem for Charlotte is that the third year was a player option and Jefferson has arguably out-played his $13.5 million salary, or at least played himself into a few more guaranteed years.

This puts the Hornets in a tough spot. Jefferson can and likely will opt-out of his deal in July if only to sign a new deal. There is also the possibility of another team poaching Big Al away.

The Hornets and Jefferson are saying all the right things, that they both want to continue the relationship beyond the current season, but the Hornets will have little control over the process, by virtue of the shorter term deal. So instead of entering season two with Big Al as the cornerstone, there will be questions and inevitably rumors, especially with as many at 15 NBA teams having ample cap space next July.

The Hawks find themselves in the same place with Millsap. He agreed to a two-year, $19 million deal last summer. Millsap earned an All-Star berth last season and led the Hawks to the postseason, clearly outplaying his $9.5 million salary this season.

Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent and while the Hawks can do a new deal, Millsap will be free to explore his options.

Hawks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer, who is also handling the personnel moves on an interim basis, has said his team and Millsap have been talking and while an extension of the existing contract is not an option, both parties would like to continue the relationship.

Like Jefferson, he too could stay, but with Millsap being unrestricted, he too is going to face constant questions from the media and ultimately rumors, especially if the Hawks struggle to compete.

Sometimes the short-term deals make sense. Sometimes players who don’t get the larger payday the first time want the chance to hit free agency again, so some of this is simply the byproduct of shorter term or lower dollar deals. But for both the Hornets and the Hawks, those shorter term deals will create storylines neither team really wants to deal with. While it’s likely both guys ink new deals right where they are, their potential for unrestricted free agency is going to keep their names in the news.

The K.J. McDaniels Contract:  So 76ers second round draft pick KJ McDaniels opted to sign a one-year, fully non-guaranteed tender contract instead of the four-year deal the 76ers put on the table.

While some may point to that decision as risky, it’s actually really smart, especially for a player that could see significant playing time.

The 76ers offer was a four year deal, which featured some guaranteed money in year one, a little bit of guaranteed money in year two and no guaranteed money in years three and four. It in essence fully protected the 76ers, locked in McDaniels’ rights and insured his cost was low.

That would have been a great deal for the 76ers; it’s a terrible deal for the player.

Agents with second-round picks are being asked to agree to these massively one-sided deals. For players that may not play or are bubble guys, a four-year deal sounds great, until you outplay your deal.

In McDaniels’ case, he was a borderline first-rounder. If he plays well this year it’s likely as a restricted free agent in July a team offers him a three or four year deal worth $4 or $5 million. That’s not the home run payday of a marquee free agent, but it’s almost twice what the Sixers were offering and it’s likely to be fully guaranteed.

The smart money says if McDaniels plays well he’s back with the 76ers on a better deal next season. If he plays really well, he could see a market for his services in free agency. If he doesn’t play well the 76ers release him and he can pick his next team based on fit. To retain his rights the Sixers would have to issue a qualifying offer, the value of that offer is likely better than what was in the four year deal, so there are lots of options for McDaniels.

There is risk of injury, but it’s likely that his agent has secured an insurance policy to protect against that.

While most teams do find middle ground with their second-round picks and get them signed, what’s playing out with McDaniels and the Sixers isn’t new. A number of agents have presented this option to their clients who usually buckle to the allure of a multi-year deal. If McDaniels gets a hefty payday next summer you can expect more second rounders to use this tactic, especially if their teams won’t guarantee the dollars.

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA AM: Dwight Howard’s Quest For Redemption Begins

Dwight Howard says he has been unfairly blamed for previous shortcomings. In Charlotte, he gets a chance to prove it.

Buddy Grizzard

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Prior to the start of training camp for the Charlotte Hornets, newly-acquired center Dwight Howard made an appearance at a charitable event for the Boys and Girls Club at a local elementary school. At that event, Howard laid out the stakes for his first season in Charlotte.

“This [is an] opportunity for myself to really get back everything that I would say has been taken away,” said Howard, according to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.

In an August interview with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Howard seemed to imply that the primary thing that had been taken from him was a major role in the offense of teams he’s played with since he left Orlando, noting that his shot attempts had decreased from double digits to about six per game in Atlanta.

“I think it’s all opportunity, the system,” Howard told Wojnarowski. “I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Earlier this week, Hornets GM Rich Cho told NBA.com that Charlotte was the right place to give Howard that opportunity because of his relationship with coach Steve Clifford, who coached Howard as an assistant at two previous stops.

“With the relationship that Cliff has with Dwight, I know ‘Cliff is going to get the best out of him like he has done with past players,” said Cho. The Charlotte GM also went into detail about how the trade for Howard fit the goals the organization set for the offseason.

“When we entered the offseason, there were a number of things we wanted to accomplish,” said Cho. “One was, we wanted to get a rim protector and some shot blocking. Two, we wanted to add some more physicality. And three, we wanted to add a lot more depth overall and improve our bench play.

“So with Dwight, I think we’ve added all those things. He’s a great rim protector and shot blocker. He’s averaged a double-double every year he’s been in the league. It adds a lot of physicality with him going to the starting lineup and moving Cody [Zeller] into a backup role. It also increases our overall depth.”

Controversy has followed Howard after every NBA stop, and his brief stint with the Hawks was no different. ESPN’s Zach Lowe said on a podcast that he was told that a former teammate of Howard celebrated when informed he had been traded to Charlotte. If Lowe’s story is true, it only shows how divided and factional Atlanta’s locker room was last season. Several of Howard’s younger Hawks teammates took to Twitter to refute Lowe’s account, and Howard was voted Best Teammate by Hawks players in the NBA Players Association’s 2017 Players Voice Awards.

With so many contradictory accounts, it’s understandable why Howard sees a fresh start with the Hornets as an opportunity to counter the narratives that have followed him from stop to stop.

“Throughout all the mess that has happened the last couple of years, this is a great opportunity for me to prove to myself that I know exactly who I am — to just shut people’s mouths,” Howard told Wojnarowski.

With that goal in mind, Howard’s quest for redemption got off to a rocky start in Detroit in Wednesday’s season-opening loss to the Pistons. Howard came close to the double-digit shot attempts he craves, hitting five of nine for 10 points and 15 rebounds. Only Kemba Walker (13) and Jeremy Lamb (10) shot the ball more for Charlotte. But Detroit’s Tobias Harris erupted for 27 points, 10 rebounds, and three assists to help the Pistons open the new Little Caesars Arena with a win.

“We’re going to get it right,” Howard said after the loss. “We’ve just got to stay together, stay focused and get Game 2.”

Awaiting the Hornets in that second game for tonight’s home opener are the same Atlanta Hawks that cut him loose after just one season. In addition to trading Howard, Atlanta allowed All-Star forward Paul Millsap to depart to the Denver Nuggets as a free agent. The Hawks appear to be rebuilding, but Atlanta didn’t look like a team aiming for lottery balls in Dallas Wednesday as the team won its season opener. Point guard Dennis Schroder led the team with 28 points and seven assists while rookie John Collins scored 14 with five rebounds off the bench — the highest-scoring debut by a Hawks rookie since Rumeal Robinson in 1990 — including several thunderous dunks.

In the preseason, Collins addressed the low external expectations for the young Hawks.

“It’s on us to do what we need to do to get these wins,” said Collins. “The chemistry’s great. I’m not really too worried about it.”

While chemistry could help the young Hawks exceed expectations, it will play a key role in Howard’s quest to prove that he was not the root of all the ailments of his past teams. Zeller had a breakout season for the Hornets before the Howard trade moved him to the bench. With Cho declaring that Howard addressed most of the team’s offseason goals, Charlotte should be much closer to a finished product than the retooling Hawks.

Howard is in the best possible position to succeed, with a coach that believes in him and the central offensive role he says he’s been denied in the past. Howard has stated his case, and now it’s up to him to prove it on the court.

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Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid Are Trying To Run Into The Playoffs

The Sixers are going to get out and run. If they want to make the playoffs, Joel Embiid will have to start catching up.

Dennis Chambers

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“We were up on the NBA champions 19 to zero,” Brett Brown said as he recalled his first game as the Philadelphia 76ers head coach back in 2013.

Brown continued his recollection of the events that night, Oct. 30 to be exact, of how a ragtag roster upended LeBron James and the Miami Heat on opening night.

“We won three in a row,” Brown said. “I felt we surprised ourselves and the league. We were in great shape. We were in great cardio shape, we ran.”

Despite a three-game winning streak to start that season, Brown’s Sixers would end the year with just 19 victories. But the head coach kept his team in shape and running, all the way to being the fastest paced team in the league that season.

Present day, nearly four years after the events of Brown’s first night manning the sidelines for Philadelphia, and much has changed with the team. There are new faces, a new attitude, and certain expectations that are developing within the walls of the Sixers’ training facility.

But on the court, not much is changing.

“I feel like that part of it, and the base of it, this year is far superior because of the pieces,” Brown said referring to his offense. “We’ve had however many years to try to have our system in place and coach the coaches. I think from a ‘how do we do things’ perspective, we’re far advanced than that timeframe.”

As Brown kicked off his fifth season at the helm of the Sixers on Wednesday night in the nation’s capital against the Washington Wizards, his team’s play embodied the notion of being superior to years past.

Despite a 120-115 loss to arguably the second best team in the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia flashed the promise of the new pieces the team’s head coach boasted about. Making his NBA debut as a 6-foot-10 point guard, Ben Simmons quickly asserted himself in the game and displayed his affinity for grabbing a rebound and beginning a fast break—just as his coach preached.

Against the Wizards, a team with a point guard in John Wall who is known for running himself, the Sixers outscored Washington in fast break points, handily. Although Philadelphia forced just 10 turnovers, they managed to score 23 points off of their opponent’s mistakes. On top of that, they pushed the paced and outscored Washington 19-4 in fast break points.

Things aren’t perfect for the team, however. Regardless of their superiority in comparison to the team and personnel four years ago, the Sixers still feature a rookie point guard in Simmons, as well as another in Markelle Fultz. Youth leads to mistakes. Whether directly caused by the newcomers or not, a bit of sloppiness led to 17 turnovers by Philadelphia on Wednesday night’s opener.

“I still want to have Ben play with a higher pace,” Brown said. “I want to act responsibly at the end of the break where we can be a little more organized, a little bit more disciplined at the end of a break. But putting up 115 points, and I don’t think we played that well offensively, 13 turnovers in the second half, four or five to start the third period. We have the answers to the test. When people say what’s it going to take for you to get into the playoffs, it’s Joel Embiid’s health and we gotta care way better for the ball.”

The biggest question mark for this Sixers team is obviously Embiid’s health. Starting the season on a minutes restriction, Embiid logged just 27 minutes. Still, that was more time than either Embiid for Brown expected.

During the early stages of this season, Embiid’s minutes will be dictated primarily on the big man’s conditioning. For a team that likes to get out and run the way the Sixers do, that could present a few bumps in the road from the get-go in getting Embiid adjusted to the pace of their game.

Monitoring Embiid’s minutes intelligently and effectively is always at the forefront of Brown’s mind, though. Just like the pace of his team’s play.

“I sat down with the sports science people this morning, and they’re very thoughtful with how they come up with this decision in relation to the loading,” Brown said in reference to Embiid’s minutes. “You can judge the loading scientifically in blocks. There was only one section of his loading, his chunk of minutes, that they deemed to be in the high area. It was torrid pace up and down. The other times he came in he played at a reasonable pace.”

Should the Sixers find themselves in a run-and-gun game, be it by their own doing or their opponent’s, Brown thinks Embiid’s minutes could see a drop off from the opening night number in those instances.

“We’ve done two things,” Brown said. “We still have his health at the forefront, and selfishly for me, and the team, and Jo, you’re able to get maybe eight more minutes than you thought you were gonna get from him.”

While the Sixers look to progress through the season, so will Embiid and his minutes total. Brown isn’t going to change the principles of his offense, with Simmons at the helm he’ll look to enhance the pace at an even higher rate. For the 7-foot-2 center, getting back into game shape so he can consistently run with his team is the most important thing for Philadelphia at the moment.

“It was all on me,” Embiid said about his minutes total. “The way I looked, if I wasn’t tired I was going to play. It’s just about the way I feel. If I look tired, they’re gonna take me out. If I don’t look tired, I’m gonna stay in and keep playing. I thought yesterday I was fine. There was a couple stretches that I was a little bit tired, but it’s all about pacing myself.”

As Brown mentioned, Embiid is Philadelphia’s answer to the playoff questions. For the 76ers, and Embiid himself, pacing will become the staple of their study guide over the course of this season.

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Sooner or Later, Everyone Will Realize LeBron Is Chasing Kareem

If LeBron continues at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before he surpasses Kobe, Karl and Kareem.

Moke Hamilton

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As he stood at half court, the shot clock ticked downward from 10.

His nimble center set a high screen for him, and he wisely utilized it.

With Al Horford guarding him, LeBron James sized up the big man before taking a step back three that had just too little muscle behind it.

With the Celtics trailing by three points, rookie Jayson Tatum grabbed the rebound and wisely handed the ball off to Kyrie Irving, who instinctively (and surprisingly) tossed it ahead to Jaylen Brown.

As Brown brought the ball up the floor, he noticed that he had the numbers—there were three Celtics and only one Cavalier.

LeBron, however, was the one Cavalier.

In a split second, Brown took inventory and wisely decided to take his chances with a pull-up, game-tying three pointer.

Brown’s three was a tad long and James, who was out of position, couldn’t stop Horford from tipping the ball out. As it caromed off the rim, it made a beeline toward the courtside seats. Poetically, magically, the ball ended up in Kyrie Irving’s hands.

Irving turned toward the basket to fire the shot his team needed, but, to nobody’s surprise, James was in his face.

Irving necessarily took one escape dribble to his right and forced an off-balance three-pointer that caught nothing but air.

In 41 minutes, James scored 29 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and had nine assists and two blocks. During the game’s final 20 seconds, he was everywhere he needed to be and everywhere necessary to thwart everything the Celtics tried to do.

And to think, he had the nerve to call himself out of shape.

* * * * * *

Sure, the 102-99 victory that the Cavs earned over the Celtics on opening night is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but it serves as a stark reminder as to just how truly dominant James can be. As he enters his 15th season, its beginning was quite appropriate.

As written about in this space before, as James attempts to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive year, the arguments over his place among the game’s greats persist. Some say he’s one of history’s top five players, while some say he’s the greatest ever.

Others don’t think he’s better than Kobe Bryant.

Regardless where you stand on LeBron, something that was written in this space last season warrants revisiting: if he continues to be as durable, as skilled and as talented as he has been over the course of his career, we may eventually be calling James’ name not alongside Kobe or M.J., but Kareem.

Entering his 15th NBA season, James had accrued 28,787 total points—seventh in history.

He trails only Dirk Nowitzki (30,270), Wilt Chamberlain (31,419), Michael Jordan (32, 292), Kobe Bryant (33,643), Karl Malone (36,928) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), who rank sixth to first, respectively.

What has been most startling about James’ climbing through the ranks of the game’s best scorers, though, has been that he’s seemingly done it naturally.

All six of the greats ranking ahead of him were deemed “scorers” more than anything else. Meanwhile, James has always ranked behind the likes of someone—Kobe, Carmelo, Durant, Curry or Harden—when the deserver of that title was argued.

Meanwhile, slowly but surely, James entered his 15th season on Tuesday night trailing Kareem by 9,571 points. Most would deem him too far away from to be able to challenge for that top spot, but if LeBron stays healthy, he will have a serious shot.

Through 14 NBA seasons, James has played in 1,061 of a possible 1,132 games—93.7 percent. As the only other contemporary player to crash the top five, it is Bryant who remains his measuring stick.

Through his first 14 NBA seasons, Bryant played in 1,021 of a possible 1,116 games—91.5 percent. During those 14 seasons, Bryant scored a total of 25,790 points. James scored 28,787.

What made Bryant special was that he was able to continue to be an elite scorer right up until he tore his Achilles tendon at the age of 34. The miles eventually got the best of him, and during his last three seasons, he managed to score just 18.9 points per game.

Consider this about the top three scorers in NBA history, though: Kobe and Kareem each played 20 seasons. Malone played 19.

James’ first 14 seasons have resulted in more total points than Bryant, and only about 150 less than Malone’s (28,946).

Unsurprisingly, through 14 years, Kareem was far away from James, having scored about 1,100 more for a total of 29,810, but over the final six years of Kareem’s career, he averaged just 18.2 points per game.

Kareem turned 34 years old right as his 12th season ended. From there, he showed his age and began to slow down considerably.

To this point, LeBron has done no such thing.

* * * * * *

The discussion as to where James truly belongs in the eyes of history will persist.

Those that see the glass as half-full will reason that the mere fact that he’s been able to sustain his greatness for so long—much less the fact that he has made it to the NBA Finals eight times—will resonate.

Others will point to his record in those Finals (3-5) as evidence of his inferiority to the likes of Jordan (6-0) or Kobe (5-2).

Those are arguments for a different day.

What is fact is that seemingly without even trying, LeBron is one of the greatest scorers in the history of the NBA. And if he manages to play 19 years like Malone or 20 years like Kobe or Kareem, at the end of the day, he’ll be the greatest one of them all.

Whether he continues to score the 27.1 points per game he has over the course of his career, scores 25 per night from here on out or, for some reason, becomes merely a 20 point per game scorer, it’s only a matter of time.

And as we saw on opening night, particularly in the game’s final 20 seconds, LeBron still has plenty of it.

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