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NBA Sunday: The Trail Blazers Mean Business

What rebuild? Despite losing LaMarcus Aldridge, the Trail Blazers are still a contender on the rise.

Moke Hamilton

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How far can Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum carry the Portland Trail Blazers?

If you’re general manager Neil Olshey, the answer appears to be to infinity and beyond.

In the contemporary NBA where teams routinely admit themselves to be down with O.P.P.—other people’s property—the Trail Blazers deserve some credit for taking a page out of Sam Presti’s playbook and loving the ones they’re with.

Lillard and McCollum have proven themselves to be the type of young superstars in the making whom a shrewd general manager would dream of drafting. In each their own right, Lillard (taken sixth overall in the 2012 draft) and McCollum (taken with the 10th selection the following year) have already proven to be keepers.

Olshey and his staff obviously bought into that. Last season, the Blazers signed Lillard to a maximum five-year extension worth $120 million. Re-signing Lillard was a no brainer, but this summer, owner Paul Allen proved (yet again) that he isn’t afraid to spend through the roof. With all that is said about ownership groups in Oakland and Cleveland, something needs to be said of Allen and his willingness to spend in the pursuit of winning. It has arguably never been more present than this past offseason.

With a net worth estimated at greater than $18 billion, it’s fairly obvious that Allen gave Olshey the keys to his safe. This past summer alone, the franchise committed about $350 million to its roster.

McCollum was signed to a maximum four-year extension worth $106 million, while the franchise also invested heavily in signing free agents Evan Turner (four years, $70 million) and Festus Ezeli (two years, $15 million). Meyers Leonard (four years, $41 million) and Moe Harkless (four years, $42 million) were each re-signed, and the Blazers simply refused to allow the Brooklyn Nets to pry restricted free agent Allen Crabbe away from them. Matching the four-year maximum offer sheet extended to Crabbe from the Nets cost an additional $75 million over four years.

Will it be enough?

Only time will tell, but maybe that’s a good thing.

* * * * * *

We are embarking on a new economic era in the NBA. Between now and next year, we will see and hear a lot as it relates to the next collective bargaining agreement and, the truth of the matter, is that nobody knows exactly what that deal is going to be.

Fortunately, for NBA fans, one can rest assured that an owner such as Allen would not be a proponent of any sort of catastrophic changes to the NBA’s cap system. We have heard rumblings about a “hard” salary cap, more oppressive luxury tax and even rules related to restricting the amount of eight-figure earners on one roster.

Even without knowing it, the Blazers have somewhat painted themselves into a corner. They are one of a whopping 15 teams in the league that will enter the 2016-17 season with a payroll exceeding $100 million and join the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies as teams that have payrolls exceeding $110 million.

When the representatives from the league and the players union continue their negotiations into the autumn and winters months, the simple truth is that the league will have to understand that it cannot go backwards. After the contracts and monies that were doled out this past offseason, building in any sort of retroactive mechanisms into the collective bargaining agreement to curb spending or redistribute talent across the league is going to face substantial opposition from the teams that have already committed hundreds of millions of dollars into their current rosters.

Agreed, Kevin Durant taking his talents to Oakland is a black eye to the competitive balance that the league hoped to build into the prior collective bargaining agreement, but the conversations I have had with league sources and agents yield a completely different attitude this time around than when LeBron James decided to head to Miami.

First, nobody seems to think that the Golden State Warriors are unbeatable. That was the prevailing sentiment as it related to the HEAT.

Secondly, with Durant’s departure to the Warriors, those whom I spoke to had an attitude more of resignation than contempt, with one agent in particular simply proclaiming, “Players who want to play together are going to find a way. There’s no way to foolproof the system without hamstringing every other team’s ability to improve themselves.”

So if there is a reason to be optimistic about a work stoppage being avoided, it would be that a few in the know believe it to be possible. What it may hinge on is the extent to which the players are collectively willing to fight for removing restrictions on individual maximum player salaries and whether they will insist on reacquiring some of the basketball-related income they agreed to relinquish during the negotiations that led to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement.

As we look toward the 2016 collective bargaining agreement, we look off into the distant future. And it is that distant future that has fans of the Portland Trail Blazers giddy with excitement.

* * * * * *

Again we ask, how far can Lillard and McCollum take the Blazers?

At this point, we don’t know. But what we do know is that, so long as the mechanisms governing team payroll restrictions and player movement remain the same, we will have an opportunity to find out. Lillard just recently celebrated his 26th birthday while McCollum is only a few weeks from his 25th birthday. Entering their fourth and third seasons, respectively, Lillard and McCollum’s “advanced” ages more represent the fact that Lillard spent four years in college while McCollum spent three. Their ages do not represent the amount of NBA wear and tear on their knees and, with the improvements in medical technology and player recovery, there is no reason to think that either won’t be able to play at a high level for the next 10 years.

In terms of the younger teams in the league, even those with the brightest futures—the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves immediately come to mind—are several steps behind the Trail Blazers. Their advancing out of the first round and getting some playoff experience this past spring will only pay dividends in the future.

And if things break right for them, so will the heavy investments that were made into the roster this past summer.

In an NBA where fans, owners and front offices are constantly obsessing over which superstar is unhappy with his current situation or who can be had, it’s refreshing to see a franchise double-down and commit to those that are homegrown talents. Over the years, things have changed fairly dramatically in the NBA, but the key to building a winning franchise always has and always will be drafting prudently, investing in talent and augmenting them with the right auxiliary pieces that make the sum greater than the individual pieces.

As it currently stands, the Blazers have $100 million worth of salary commitments for each of the next four seasons. In other words, Olshey has not only firmly committed to the nucleus of Lillard and McCollum, he has already doubled-down on their potential and what they could be. In the wake of Durant’s departure to Oakland and the continuance of the NBA’s modern talent arms race, there is something to be said for a general manager keeping his head down, staying the course, and committing to the players who he himself thought worthy of carrying his legacy.

So no, we don’t know how far Lillard and McCollum will be able to carry the Blazers, but in all likelihood, we will have the opportunity to watch and find out.

Credit Paul Allen and Neil Olshey for ensuring that to be the case.

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The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns

Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.

Moke Hamilton

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Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.

On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.

Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.

For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.

Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.

“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.

“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.

So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.

What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.

Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.

Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.

With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.

Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.

On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.

The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.

So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.

After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.

Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.

Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.

Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.

“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.

“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.

“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”

* * * * * *

When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.

It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.

So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.

As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.

Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.

If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.

That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.

* * * * * *

Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.

And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.

Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.

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Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve

While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.

Dennis Chambers

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In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.

The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.

Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.

For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.

“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”

Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.

Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.

Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.

In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.

“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.

“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”

From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.

Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.

“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”

With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.

After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.

“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”

Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.

Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.

“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”

Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.

The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.

So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.

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First Quarter Grades: Southeast

David Yapkowitz breaks down each Southeast Division team at the season’s quarter pole.

David Yapkowitz

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We wrap up our latest series here at Basketball Insiders with the Southeast Division quarter grades.

There was one brief surprise in the division during the first quarter of the season when the Orlando Magic started off looking like a playoff team. Since then, they’ve come back down to earth. The Washington Wizards are the obvious cream of the crop here, but even they have been up and down. Here’s our final installment of each team’s first quarter grades.

Atlanta Hawks 5-19

It was only a couple years ago that the Hawks were emerging into a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. In Mike Budenholzer’s second year as head coach during the 2014-15 season, they won 60 games and made a conference finals appearance. Since then, they’ve either traded away or allowed the key players from that team to sign elsewhere, entering a full rebuild.

Bright Spot: When teams start down the rebuilding path, getting draft picks right goes a long way to regaining prominence. The Hawks’ front office certainly got this last draft right with John Collins. Although the promising young rookie is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury, he’s been the biggest bright spot for Atlanta. Prior to his injury, he had been inserted into the starting lineup. He’s put up 11.5 points on 59.2 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds so far. As the Hawks reshape their roster, Collins is proving he’s part of the future.

Areas to improve: During Budenholzer’s first couple of years with the Hawks, they were always one of the better defensive teams in the NBA. This year, the 108.6 points per game they’re giving up is all the way down at 25th out of 30 teams. They do have players on the team capable of being good defenders. Collins is one, and so is second-year forward Taurean Prince. Dewayne Dedmon is a solid rim protector. A lot of it comes with improvement as well as more effort on that side of the ball.

First Quarter Grade: D+

Charlotte Hornets 9-15

When the Hornets acquired Dwight Howard in the offseason, they looked like a team trying to get back to the playoffs. They haven’t played like it, though. The two worst teams in the league are clearly the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but the Hornets are not all that much better. They’ve had two extended losing streaks, one of six games and one of four. Nicolas Batum was injured to start the season, but his return hasn’t managed to turn things around.

Bright Spot: Sometimes it takes a few seasons and a change of scenery for players to emerge into legit contributors. Such was the case for Jeremy Lamb. He started in place of Batum early on and was having the best season of his career. Coming off the bench now, he’s still kept up his solid production. He’s come off the bench for ten games now and scored in double figures for nine of those games. To date, he’s averaging 15.3 points on 44.7 percent, 35.7 percent from three, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.

Areas to improve: Defense has also been an issue for the Hornets. In Steve Clifford’s first year as head coach during the 2013-14 season, they gave up 97.1 points per game, good enough for 4th in the league. They’ve been slipping a bit each year since then and this season they’re down at 16th. Their defense hit rock bottom on Friday night when they gave up 119 points to the Bulls in a loss. The Bulls scored 56 points in the paint and had been on a ten-game losing streak. This isn’t a young team anymore so you can’t just chalk it up to being green. If they want to turn their season around and make the playoffs, they’ll need vast defensive improvement.

First Quarter Grade: D-

Orlando Magic 11-16

As the season began, the Magic looked like they had finally turned the corner. They revamped the front office, and the team was playing inspired basketball. At one point, they were even sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Things can change fast in the NBA, however. The Magic were 8-4 when they hit a rough patch that saw them lose nine games in a row. Since snapping their losing streak on Nov. 29, they’ve played .500 ball and suffered some critical injuries.

Bright Spot: Although he often played out of position, Aaron Gordon has always been a power forward. This season, he was moved back to his natural position full-time. He’s responded with the best season of his career to date. He’s averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game on 49.5 percent from the field and 8.3 rebounds. What’s most impressive, however, is his 40.6 percent from downtown. He’s definitely performed at an All-Star level.

Areas to improve: Rebounding-wise, the Magic could do a lot better. Their 42.0 rebounds per game are 22nd in the league, and they’re giving up 46.7. They have guys on the team in Gordon and Nikola Vucevic who should be capable of averaging double figures in rebounding. They also could stand to improve defensively. They’re giving up 110.8 points per game, right smack at the bottom of the NBA, 28th to be exact. For the Magic to regain that early season momentum, it would do them well to take a look at these areas.

First Quarter Grade: C-

Miami HEAT 11-13

Last season, the HEAT surprisingly finished with a .500 record at 41-41, and just missed the playoffs. This season, they’re on track to finish in a similar position. Considering they pretty much brought back the same group, it shouldn’t be too surprising. They’ve got the talent to make the playoffs in the East, but they also could just as easily finish on the outside looking in once again. They’re an average team.

Bright Spot: They have seen crucial development from some of their young guys, which is key to how they end up finishing the season. As detailed by our own Spencer Davies here at Basketball Insiders, Josh Richardson has emerged as a defensive anchor of sorts for the HEAT. He’s their best perimeter defender and he can score too, as evidenced by his 10.1 points per game. Starting center Hassan Whiteside has been out recently due to injury, and rookie Bam Adebayo has also shown defensive flashes with increased minutes due to Whiteside’s injury. He’s a multi-position defender, capable of patrolling the paint as well as switching off onto wings.

Areas to improve: The HEAT could stand to improve offensively a bit. They are averaging 100.2 points per game, which puts them down at 27th in the league. Better ball movement on the perimeter could help with that. They’re currently near the bottom half of the league in assists. It would also help if they were able to make more of their shots from the three-point line. They take a high number of threes per game at 32.6, third most in the league. But efficiency-wise, they’re down at 14th (36.7 percent). To be near the top of the league in three-pointers attempted, you should be hitting at a higher efficiency.

First Quarter Grade: C

Washington Wizards 14-11

Coming into the season, the Wizards were seen as a potential threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. They haven’t really looked the part, however. They’re only three games above .500 and 5-5 in their last ten. They look like an average playoff team, not one hoping to challenge the defending conference champs. That said, they’re still far and away the best team in the division.

Bright Spot: This may finally be the year that Bradley Beal makes an All-Star appearance. He’s overtaken John Wall as the leading scorer on the Wizards with his team- and career-high 23.8 points per game. His three-point shooting is down a bit at 36 percent, but he’s getting to the free throw line with more frequency. He’s always been a great outside shooter since coming into the NBA, so as the season goes on look for that improve.

Areas to improve: What the Wizards need to do is to stop being just average. They’re pretty much in the middle of the pack when it comes to every facet of the game from scoring, to defense, rebounding, assists, three-point percentage, you name it. They don’t really do any one thing exceptionally well. If that’s the goal, to be an average playoff team, then by all means, continue. But this was a team that was supposed to be in the upper echelon of the East. They can’t have a 6-5 record at home as they currently do.

First Quarter Grade: B-

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