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NBA Daily: First Quarter Grades: Southwest Division

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “First Quarter Grades” series with a look at the Southwest Division.

Shane Rhodes

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As November draws to a close, the NBA has broached the quarter-season mark. Twenty games may not seem like a lot, but there is plenty that can be taken away from the play of any team through this point in the season.

The 2018-19 season has been quite a surprising one so far, even more so for the teams that reside in the Southwest division. Up and down, the Southwest hasn’t played out how anyone expected it to.

So, how have these teams performed to this point in the season?

Memphis Grizzlies – B+

Grit and Grind hasn’t made a comeback, but the Memphis Grizzlies started this season like it was 2013.

While they have come back down from a surprising start, the 12-8 Grizzlies sit at the top of the division and look much improved from the 22-60 squad they ran out onto the court last season. Mike Conley, who has averaged 20.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 1.2 steals in 20 games, has rebounded after he missed most of last season due to injury, and his return has galvanized his veteran partner in crime, Marc Gasol.

Gasol has boosted his numbers after an underwhelming 2017; the Spaniard is one of five players this season to average at least 18 points, nine rebounds, one steal and one block per game. Meanwhile, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson and Shelvin Mack have proved capable additions as well.

Rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has also played at a high level; the former Michigan State Spartan has averaged 12.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, one steal and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 34.9 percent on 2.2 three-point attempts per game.

The Grizzlies weren’t expected by many to lead the division at the quarter mark, or maybe any mark, this season. But, with the New Orleans Pelicans and Houston Rockets underperforming to a significant degree, this is where they have found themselves. They may not hold onto that division all season, but they can consider their year a success thus far.

Dallas Mavericks – B

Luka Dončić has been a marvel to watch this season. The rest of the Dallas Mavericks? Not so much.

The Mavericks suffered an uninspiring 3-8 stretch, with losses to the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks to start the season. However, after a torrid November, featuring wins over the Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Mavericks find themselves at 10-9 and second in the Southwest Division. The team would seem to be well ahead of schedule if you asked anyone other than Mark Cuban.

Yes, they have their issues. Dennis Smith Jr. hasn’t taken the step forward many hoped for in year two; his scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are all down. DeAndre Jordan and Harrison Barnes have both taken a production hit as well. As a team, they are middle of the pack in terms of their offensive and defensive production.

But, with Dončić running the show, there is a lot to like here. The Mavericks may not play this well the whole season, but there is a solid foundation here and they are clearly on the path back to contention.

New Orleans Pelicans – D

Is it time for the Anthony Davis rumor mill to start up again? Now may be as appropriate of a time as any.

The Pelicans sit at just 11-11 on the season and ninth in the Western Conference standings. After a promising 4-0 start, New Orleans went on to lose six straight and have just about managed to tread water in their last 10 games (6-4). Davis, meanwhile, has seen some of his best basketball wasted; in the seven losses that he has played in, Davis has averaged 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, four assists, 1.7 steals and 2.7 blocks.

The issues lie on the defensive side of the ball, where the Pelicans have been one of the worst teams in the league this season. While they boast a high-octane offense based around Davis, Julius Randle, Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic, the Pelicans are just 26th in the NBA in defensive rating (111.6).

Not the best look when you tout two First Team All-NBA Defensive players like Davis and Holiday.

After a dominating sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers and a somewhat competitive series against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors last postseason, the Pelicans have been a big disappointment this season, to say the least. There is plenty of time to right the ship, but the Pelicans will need to move quickly if they want to avoid the Davis-chatter come February.

San Antonio Spurs – C

With the Kawhi Leonard Saga over and done with, most expected the San Antonio Spurs to be a moderately competitive team out in the Western Conference. They added DeMar DeRozan to a roster that managed a 47-35 record last season without Leonard. On paper, at least, the team seemed capable of matching that effort if not improving on it.

Then came the injuries.

San Antonio has already seen and will continue to see Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker miss significant time. Meanwhile Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay, Derrick White and others have been in and out of the lineup due to injury. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have managed to hold things steady and, while the Spurs sit at an unspectacular 10-11, they sit just five games behind the Los Angeles Clippers, who hold the top spot in the conference.

Still, while there isn’t much they can do about injuries, the Spurs were just expected to be better. In the face of adversity and with Gregg Popovich at the helm, they always have been. While Murray is a big loss, the team has been mediocre on offense and bad on defense — the Spurs rank 13th (108.7) and 24th (110.9) in offensive and defensive rating this season — despite having their best players, DeRozan and Aldridge, on the floor for every game this season.

The Spurs have been bitten by the injury bug hard. But, barring some drastic turn around, things may not get much better this season.

Houston Rockets – F

If the Pelicans have been a disappointment, the Rockets have been an unmitigated disaster.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Houston has this season. The Carmelo Anthony experiment was a short-lived disappointment. The team has looked awful on both sides of the ball; the Rockets are just 28th in defensive rating (112.6), just 20th in scoring (108.2) and, while they lead the league in three-point attempts per game (42), they are just 24th in three-point percentage (33.8). At 9-11, the Rockets have sunk like a stone to the bottom of the Western Conference, floating just above the lowly Suns.

The Rockets were a game away from the NBA Finals last season. Between Mike D’Antoni, James Harden and Chris Paul, they have enough veteran experience and leadership to turn things around and get back to their winning ways.

But at the season’s quarter mark? It couldn’t get much worse than this.

The NBA regular season is a long one and, at just the quarter mark, there is plenty of time left for every team to either figure things out. Likewise, while the Southwest hasn’t played out as many predicted it to thus far, there is still plenty of time for the standings to shift around.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 3/19/19

With the field of teams set for the 2019 NCAA March Madness tournament, things should get noisy over the next few weeks on the NBA Draft front. Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft before all the zaniness begins.

Steve Kyler

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Let the Madness begin.

The basketball world will shift its attention to college basketball’s biggest stage over the next few weeks, especially this weekend’s opening round of 64.

While the tournament doesn’t necessarily make or break a player’s draft stock, this will be the first time some notable draft prospects will face elite talent and, more importantly, the pressure of the big stage. You can check out march madness predictions 2019 here.

Expect things in the draft world to start to percolate, not just because of the magnitude of the games, but also because a lot of NBA scouts will be in the same places, which is where the draft chatter originates.

Equally, a lot of NBA teams will watch games together in the conference rooms this week, so more group discussion on players will happen inside NBA teams’ front offices, and that could lead to new preference information flowing into the NBA Draft information bubble.

Here is this week’s 60-Pick Mock Draft, based on NBA games played through 3/18/19:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the standings, it will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the standings, would convey.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the current standings, the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the current standings this pick would not convey. If the debt is not settled this year, the pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

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NBA Daily: Fixing The Cleveland Cavaliers

Spencer Davies starts Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with the rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers.

Spencer Davies

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Can you believe that the NBA regular season is less than a month away from concluding? It’s March 18, and teams are gearing up for the final stretch run before the playoffs get here. Thus far, there have been three teams to solidify their spots—the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers—while the rest of the league looks to jockey for postseason positioning.

On the flipside, there are four organizations that have begun to look towards the future with their immediate futures already decided, and 10 more will join them in the coming weeks as they become eliminated from playoff contention.

Basketball Insiders is bringing back its annual “Fixing” series to provide a blueprint of how to get each of those teams back on the right track moving forward. We’ll get things started with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

What Is Working

In the second half of the season, the Cavaliers are 5-7. Yes, that is two games under .500 and should not be something to celebrate—but it’s how they are playing that deserves praise. Aside from a couple of clunkers against the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic, they’ve been a resilient young group that has clearly matured under the direction of head coach Larry Drew.

The return of Kevin Love coinciding with Cleveland playing its best basketball all year is not a matter of happenstance, either. As detailed a couple of weeks ago, his impact on Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman has made both inexperienced players significantly better. As the team’s “go-to guy” as Drew likes to put it, everybody can play through a legitimate All-Star in a number of ways—feeding him on the block, finding him on the perimeter or even allowing him to dribble drive and create for others.

The Cavaliers are quite excited about the determination of their guys, specifically Sexton and Osman. It’d be foolish to base the projection of a rookie’s career off playing alongside multiple two-way and 10-day contract players, and some did when Sexton had his fair share of struggles. The same could be said for Osman, who’s really turned up the playmaking and shooting as of late. It takes talent and consistency to be in the NBA, which is a lesson they’re learning every night. And the optimism should go beyond just those three, too. There are a number of players who could be a part of the team’s core in the future.

Experiencing perhaps his best season as a pro, Larry Nance Jr. is becoming a vocal leader on and off the floor. Ante Zizic has taken his opportunity as a starter and run with it, averaging nearly 12 points and eight rebounds in 20 of such situations. Drew has constantly praised David Nwaba’s efforts when he’s needed a guy to step up and defend opponents’ top players, even when out of position. Jordan Clarkson thrives as the sixth man and Matthew Dellavedova is the perfect mentor and floor general off the bench.

What Needs To Change

Now comes the harsh part—Cleveland has been a horrific defensive team for a number of years. They’ve ranked among the worst in basketball for the past three years, and that includes the last two seasons they had with LeBron James. It begs the question: Is it scheme or is it personnel? In the case of the Cavaliers, the answer is probably a little bit of both.

There is often confusion with the coverage calls. Blown assignments, miscommunication and difficulty with the pick-and-roll can best describe the mess that is on the floor. There isn’t as much finger pointing as there was at the beginning stages of the season, but it’s paramount that the team drastically improves in this area. Considering the number of injuries, inexperience and lack of continuity that they’ve had this year, it should get better.

While shot selection has gotten better throughout the season, the Cavaliers have to move the basketball better on a consistent basis. Again, Sexton and Osman felt that they had to carry the load in the absence of Love as the primary scoring options—and Tristan Thompson’s injuries didn’t help—so there was a lot of hero ball going on. At least in the last month, these totals have gotten higher.

Cleveland may take the cake in scoring droughts as well, which leads to other teams taking games over. A scenario we’ve seen all too much this season: Cavaliers take the ball down the floor, pass it maybe once or twice and don’t find the open man, which leads to a rebound and numbers for the opposing team that almost capitalizes in every instance. Stagnancy is a killer for the wine and gold, which is a group that needs to play in a transition-heavy, free-flowing type of game to succeed.

Focus Area: The Draft

Currently owning the third-worst record in the association, the Cavaliers would have the same 14 percent odds to land the first overall pick in the NBA Draft as the two teams behind them, the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks. If the standings locked, Cleveland would be guaranteed a top-seven selection—although the percentages indicate they’d have a good chance to land in the top four and likely drop no further than sixth. They also are going to convey a draft pick in the mid-to-late 20s from the Houston Rockets via the Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss trade.

There is no singular focus area with the Cavaliers. They could use any talent they can get to add to this developing core and set the tone for the future. Obviously, the buzz surrounding Duke superstar Zion Williamson is real. If you were to pigeonhole him as just a dunker or a highlight reel, you’d be completely mistaken. Though needing to work on a reliable jump shot, the 18-year-old phenom is loaded with an incredibly versatile skill set at his age and a build that is tailor-made for the NBA. Positionless basketball is the future, and Williamson fits the bill.

If Cleveland lands another first overall pick, they’d be foolish to pass up on such a potential franchise changer. Just imagine the speedy Young Bull and bulldozing Williamson on a fastbreak opportunity with Love just waiting on the elbow. That’s quite a triple threat.

Say the Cavaliers end up second, third or fourth—this writer would jump at the opportunity to add Temetrius Morant, a man whom the basketball world knows simply as “Ja.” Set to be a top-five pick in the upcoming draft, the 19-year-old point guard is an absolute blast to watch play the game. He scores the basketball at will. He distributes at a high rate and shares the wealth with his teammates. He excels in transition. Morant lacks some size and will likely need to put on some weight, but forming a tandem with Sexton—who’s found a real groove playing off the ball—could work out famously.

Willamson’s teammates at Duke—RJ Barrett and Cameron Reddish—also have plenty of intrigue about them at those spots. If Cleveland gets put in the worst case scenario, talented wings like De’Andre Hunter and Keldon Johnson might be the way to go.

However, regarding the Rockets’ pick, there might be some diamonds in the rough. Here’s a list of names that could be attractive depending on the draft results: Bol Bol, Jontay Porter, Kevin Porter, Tre Jones, Matisse Thybulle, Luguentz Dort, Ashton Hagans.

Focus Area: Free Agency

With nearly its entire roster returning in 2019-20, Cleveland will not be much of a player in the free agency period. Nik Stauskas and Chriss have expiring contracts and Channing Frye is retiring.

General manager Koby Altman is going to be active in finding a trade partner for J.R. Smith, whose $15.68 million contract fully guarantees on June 30. If the Cavaliers can do so before that day, the team that traded for him can waive him and will only be on the hook for $3.87 million. It seems as if draft night—June 20—would be the most logical time to try this. If Altman is successful in moving Smith, the organization will have opened a roster spot.

Considering the team has been more than pleased with Nwaba’s contributions when healthy, it’s probable that he’ll be tendered a qualifying offer. If he is, then the 26-year-old guard would become a restricted free agent, meaning Cleveland could match any offer he’d receive. If Nwaba doesn’t get any bites, then it’s plausible he’d accept the $1.89 million one-year offer to stay.

Altman did yeoman’s work this year as a front office executive. He took what was a horrific financial situation loaded with unhappy veterans and turned it into something much more manageable, all while bringing in future assets and players on flexible deals. We don’t know whether those additions—Dellavedova, Knight and John Henson—are going to be a part of the future or used in potential trades down the line. The same could be said of Thompson and Clarkson, who also are going to be on the last years of their respective deals.

Other than the potential two rookies, there probably won’t be too many new faces around the Cavaliers in the summertime. It might change as we get into the 2019-20 campaign, but that’s down the road. Don’t expect a lot of change roster-wise going into the new league year.

Of course, coaching wise is a completely different story. The prevailing thought is that Cleveland is going to want a first-year head coach to grow and develop alongside their core players. Reports indicate the front office might prefer a person who has previous connections to the franchise in some capacity.

There are two assistants on other teams who have been the head coach of the Canton Charge—Denver’s Jordi Fernandez and Utah’s Alex Jensen—that could make sense. Toronto Raptors assistant and former player Adrian Griffin is a potentially appealing name as well, per Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com.

If Larry Drew decides he doesn’t want to stick around, finding the right person to lead this Cavaliers team into the next era is going to be crucial.

The “second first” year without LeBron didn’t go as planned. Firing Tyronn Lue six games into the season didn’t make matters easy, nor did Love going down with a toe injury to miss two-thirds of the season. Yet through the bad times, this Cleveland bunch has refused to mail it in and has earned a deal of respect from its competition.

They’re embracing the role of playing spoiler as the year winds down. It’s all about meaningful minutes for these guys, and until the clock hits zero on April 9 at Quicken Loans Arena, the work on the floor won’t be done.

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NBA Daily: Is Starting That Big Of A Deal?

It’s easy to conclude that a bench player should replace a starter in the lineup if the former is outplaying the latter, but Matt John explains why that may not be the best idea.

Matt John

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Of all the topsy-turvy things that have happened to the Boston Celtics this season, Jaylen Brown’s sudden decline and subsequent comeback might just be the topsiest-turviest thing of them all.

And that’s saying something.

There may not have been a starter in the league who played as badly as he did when the season began. In his first month and a half as the starting shooting guard, Jaylen averaged 11.1 points on 39.8 percent shooting from the field and 25.3 percent from three. That was quite the drop off from his numbers the previous season, where he averaged 14.5 points on 46.5 percent shooting from the field and 39.5 percent from three.

Advanced metrics showed that Brown’s struggles were hurting the Celtics too. Boston was minus-11.9 with Brown on the floor, which was the worst on the team among players who played at least 100 minutes. By December, Brown was benched in favor of Marcus Smart, where the Celtics not so coincidentally started picking things up from there.

Since his move to the bench, Jaylen has regained his footing, averaging 14 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting and 36.3 percent from three. This most recent stretch has been really encouraging for him, as he’s put up 16.4 points a night on 49.5 percent shooting and 40.5 percent from three. Best of all, his play is benefitting the Celtics, as they are plus-6.9 with him on the floor, good for third-best among players who have played 97 or more minutes behind only Al Horford and Gordon Hayward.

His timing couldn’t be better, as the playoffs are just around the corner. Brown playing his best basketball of the season could really help the Celtics’ chances. So one question remains – why not put him back in the starting lineup?

It would make sense. The uptick in Brown’s production has coincided with the diminishment of Marcus Morris’ production.

Morris and Brown have come from opposite ends this summer. While Brown has worked his way up after falling so far down, Morris has descended quite a bit since his brilliant start.

“Mook” was playing the best basketball of his career when the season began. In fact, he was one of the few positives in a season that started as underwhelmingly mediocre as the Celtics had. Through the first two-and-a-half months, Morris was playing like a borderline all-star.

In that time, Morris averaged 15.5 points on 50.1 percent shooting and 44.1 percent from three. The Celtics were plus-5.5 with Morris on the floor, with all of the positivity coming from the offensive end, where the offense was plus-11.6 with him on the floor, second only to Kyrie Irving.

Since then, Morris’ production has tailed off. There was bound to be some regression in Marcus’ case, but since the all-star break, he’s playing what could very well be the worst basketball he’s played since becoming a Celtic.

Since the return from the All-Star break, Morris has averaged 13.1 points on 40 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from three. The Celtics are minus-17.1 with him on the floor during that span. In other words, he’s hurting them badly on both ends.

So, subbing the slumping Morris for the thriving Brown in the starting lineup would seem like an obvious move to make. The Celtics could do it, and no one would bat an eye, but in this time of the season, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with the lineups this late into the season, or more specifically, it wouldn’t be smart to mess with what’s been working for Brown.

Though it took longer than Boston would have liked, Jaylen Brown has found his stride with the second unit this season. Even if Morris has struggled over the last month or so, taking Brown out of a situation where he’s playing at his best and putting him back into a lineup where he struggled could mess up his mojo. It’s unlikely that Brown will be coming off the bench through the duration of his career, but this season, he was meant to play in the second unit.

There are certain players who, despite having the talent to be a starter, are put in the NBA for the sole purpose of ruling over the second unit. Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry fit that certain mold, but there may not be a player that fits that description better than Lou Williams.

At the age of 32, Williams has already done enough to cement his status as one of the best microwave scorers of all time. The 13,135 points that Williams has scored in his NBA career is good for No.194 among all-time points scored. Last week, he surpassed Dell Curry for the No. 1 all-time scorer off the bench. That is impressive whether he started or not. However, if Lou had been a starter for his entire career, those numbers wouldn’t have as much meaning as they most definitely do as a sixth man.

It’s not as much about having as high scoring numbers in his case. It’s more about the purpose of what those numbers do for his team. Williams’ scoring abilities off the bench give his teams an edge that a fair amount of second units don’t have. His impact offensively is so strong that, like Brown over the past month, he usually winds up finishing games. That’s why having guys like Williams or Brown off the bench is important – They bring an advantage.

Another example would be Williams’ teammate, Montrezl Harrell. Doc Rivers, who has a very solid case for Coach of the Year, has elected to start then-Clipper Marcin Gortat and recently acquired big man Ivica Zubac over Harrell at center this season despite it being very clear that Harrell is his best player in the frontcourt.

He does this because Harrell gives LA an edge in the second unit much like Williams does with the energy he brings to the court. Harrell influences the game so much that again, like Williams, he’s usually out there finishing games as well. His skill set makes him a perfect fit in the second unit, and he could very well be Lou’s best competition for Sixth Man of the Year.

Those are examples of players who could be starters if their team wanted them to. They just play better when they come off the bench, but are there players who – despite being a starting-caliber player – are not a good fit in their starting lineup?

As it turns out, Derrick Favors is one such player. It’s been a much-debated controversy in Utah now about whether Favors should be starting in the frontcourt alongside Rudy Gobert for the Jazz. Honestly, those two aren’t bad together, but they play so much better when they pair up with a floor spacer in the frontcourt instead of each other.

In two-man lineups, Favors and Gobert are a plus-1.4 together. Defensively, the two of them are great together, giving up 98.3 points per 100 possessions. Alas, they only score 99.7 points per 100 possessions. Compare their two-man lineup to one with either Joe Ingles or Jae Crowder.

Favors and Ingles: +6.1
Favors and Crowder: +2.6
Gobert and Ingles: +4.5
Gobert and Crowder: +4.1

To be clear, Favors is good enough to be a starter. He just might not have the best frontcourt partner to be paired with.

When you take all of this in, it’s fair to say that to a certain extent, starting is overrated because it has no bearing on who plays the most minutes. What’s most important really is who finishes the game. Sometimes it’s the starters while at other times, it’s one or two bench players. It all comes down to who is the most reliable.

Because of this, in the Celtics’ case, the more accurate conclusion is that Brown should be getting more minutes than Morris rather than he should be replacing him in the starting lineup. That is, if he keeps this up.

No matter what Boston decides to do, one final question must be brought to our attention – Does anyone else think it’s an odd coincidence that Brown’s and Morris’ productions both started trending in opposite directions after the two of them got into that skirmish back in January?

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