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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.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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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.

Drew Maresca

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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.

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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.

Matt John

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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.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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