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Predictive or Predicament? Three Teams Poised for Regression

Despite mostly maintaining their respective rosters, these three teams may regress next season.

Ben Dowsett

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As with nearly every major team sport worldwide, win-loss record in the NBA can be an imperfect measure of true team quality. A simple yes/no result over 82 attempts lacks deeper context. It’s more than enough to separate the best from the worst in a 30-team league, but can be much less reliable for parsing teams grouped more closely together in the standings.

More importantly, through an offseason lens, raw wins and losses often fall well short in predictive power for future seasons. They don’t offer enough data points with which to accurately judge teams and players, and that’s before considering more obvious year-to-year factors like personnel movement and development, or decline from guys at various stages in their careers.

A few candidates for moderate to severe regression from their 2015-16 performances might surprise you. Note that “regression” here doesn’t necessarily mean playoff teams sliding to the high lottery – at least two of our top examples will still be in the postseason next April barring major catastrophe. There’s evidence to suggest each could take a step back overall, though, and perhaps a bigger one than surface factors would ever indicate.

San Antonio Spurs

There’s no danger of a playoff miss provided Kawhi Leonard stays healthy, but the usual ink we use to mark down the Spurs as elite title contenders might be better swapped with a dark pencil this year.

Personnel moves are the most obvious indicator, and allow us one final (okay, probably not final) ode to Tim Duncan here: He will be missed for more immediate reasons than legacy and culture. Duncan entered the league as one of its best defenders and left it the exact same way, with ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking him as the second-most impactful per-possession defensive player in the NBA last season after controlling for team and opponent quality. Figures from Nylon Calculus continued to rate him among the league’s 10 best rim protectors even as he rarely ever left the ground to contest shots.

True to form, Duncan’s impact was felt on the floor even during plays he wasn’t directly involved in. The Spurs’ famous “anti-Moneyball” defense became markedly less so when he sat down: they allowed more attempts near the rim and a higher conversion percentage, and gave up nearly five more three-point attempts per-100-possessions, per NBAwowy.com. With Duncan out there, they were the NBA’s stingiest defense against the consensus “best” shots in the game.

San Antonio was still great defensively without Duncan so long as Leonard was on the floor, but dropped back to league average or even slightly below when both sat. Those minutes made up just over a quarter of the team total on the year, a figure that could nearly double this season if Kawhi’s minute load, already high for any recent Gregg Popovich player, remains similar. Neither LaMarcus Aldridge nor Pau Gasol has ever proven capable of approximating Duncan’s impact defensively.

There are concerns surrounding current roster players as well, namely fellow future Hall of Famer Tony Parker. Dragging around a 40,000-minute ball and chain that’s only further weighted by years of international play he’ll add to this summer in Rio, it’s worth wondering how much Parker has left in the tank. His jump shooting numbers have been exceedingly positive the last two seasons given his age and history here – so positive, in fact, that speculation as to their sustainability is justified. It’s tough to imagine a career 33 percent three-point shooter continuing to bang home over 40 percent from deep for much longer, and he won’t keep matching his career highs from longer midrange areas every year. It’s never fun to forecast a decline from such a crafty and likable player, but the smoke signals are there.

Does Manu Ginobili have another renaissance year in him, particularly gaudy jump-shooting numbers that blasted his career averages out of the water at 38 years old last year? Manu shot a ridiculous 54 percent on all midrange shots 16 feet and further from the hoop last season, per basketball-reference, nearly 20 points higher than his career mark.

Can Gasol fit alongside Aldridge on either end of the floor with both now over the age-30 threshold? David West and Boris Diaw were far from stars last year as both showed their age, but can San Antonio’s depth maintain with David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon in their place? Leonard is among the game’s best all-around players; is he really one of the five best shooters in the league, though, or simply a very good one, as the rest of his career before last season would indicate?

Look, these are the Spurs, and this is Gregg Popovich. They’d need guys playing on broken legs to miss 50 wins or the playoffs. They’re not winning 67 again, though, and it’s fair to wonder whether a more precipitous drop back into the West’s middle might be on the horizon.

Toronto Raptors

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a two seed that reached Game 6 of the conference finals running it back the following year. In practice it’s all about the details, and a few are suspect north of the border.

First and simplest: Toronto’s two best players both had career years last season, and that sort of thing just doesn’t happen all that often. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both great-to-elite players at their positions, but at 30 and 26 respectively are unlikely to improve much. In fact, history – both personal and league-wide – suggests one or both could slide back a bit.

Lowry is a success story who blossomed from an overqualified backup into an All-Star in his late 20s, and he’ll deserve every cent of the mammoth deal he signs next summer after giving the Raptors three years of value that wildly exceeded his dollar figure. He’s also a guy with a history of running out of gas late in the season, and even the high-level peak he reached last winter feels a bit like fool’s gold.

Lowry topped his career high in three-point attempt rate last year; he can keep doing that pretty easily, but will his career-best success rate continue? It seems especially unlikely from the corners, where he shot nearly 50 percent on the year. Likewise with a free-throw rate that was steadily declining every season in Toronto before a sudden resurgence last year – like several elements of his game, it dropped off a cliff late in the season and into the playoffs. Undersized 30-year-old guards don’t often sustain this kind of single-season production when prior multi-year trends suggest they’re outliers, and Lowry’s style offers few distinguishing factors from these types.

DeRozan’s case is a bit murkier. He did post career bests in typically high-variance areas like jump-shooting, but the optimist sees a 26-year-old just entering his prime who can sustain those figures. His peripherals mostly remained solid or improved slightly.

But while this is less scientific, doesn’t it feel like the book is out on DeRozan after his first deep postseason run? His shooting and free-throw rate both dropped sharply against top defenders leaning on his weaknesses. Most teams don’t have Paul George and days to devote purely to scouting the Raptors, sure, but it’s not exactly tough for coaches to emphasize the sort of sell-out, under-every-pick approach that often turned him into a non-factor in April and May. The playoffs can be a harbinger of things to come in future years – even if DeRozan himself maintains last year’s value in a vacuum, the way he’s defended could strain his production.

The Raptors were dead last in the NBA for percentage of baskets assisted last year, relying heavily on Lowry and DeRozan to work their magic, and it could spell trouble in River City if either takes a step back. They’ll hope for better health from Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, but injuries masked the fact that even once they returned, Toronto was a better team while both sat on the bench.

This is understandable for Carroll, who may have strained himself getting back in time for the stretch run, but it’s a more worrying trend for Valanciunas. Frankly, departed Bismack Biyombo was pretty clearly the more effective center within Toronto’s most used lineup combinations. Valanciunas is a highly skilled beast in the right situation; whether this is that situation is a valid question with DeRozan back on the books long term and limited touches to go around. Don’t be shocked to see the Raptors quietly gauge his trade market on a fair contract if they underachieve.

It’s all a bit concerning for a team that already exceeded their Pythagorean expectation (based on point differential) by three wins, then added precisely zero new talent in the offseason. Biyombo’s departure hurts, especially on defense, where the Raptors would have been a bottom-half team during the minutes he sat. Patrick Patterson and Corey Joseph are nice players who have nonetheless probably reached their value ceilings. Dwane Casey has proven capable of connecting with and motivating his team, but he is also relatively incapable of adjusting his approach when better teams clamp down on Lowry and DeRozan.

Like San Antonio, the Raptors are at least one major injury away from being in any danger of finishing outside the playoff picture. Most simply penciling them in for a home playoff series could be in for a surprise, though, especially if moves from a few of their chief rivals behind Cleveland in the East pan out.

Portland Trail Blazers

Forecasting the Blazers after a pleasantly surprising 2015-16 comes down mostly to this: Do you believe the team that beat Golden State and Oklahoma City on the way to the league’s best record from mid-January through the end of February is the real thing, or is it the sub-.500 group we saw the rest of the year?

Sustainability isn’t an issue for Portland’s star guards, with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum both following traditional developmental paths and both young enough to expect continuation. Like the guard duo in Toronto, though, smarter teams poked holes in their shooting-driven style as the year went on last season, forcing the supporting cast into larger roles in which they mostly succeeded – and that’s where issues of continuity rear their heads.

Al-Farouq Aminu was a career 29 percent three-point shooter heading into last season; he nearly matched his attempts from those previous five years combined, and still managed 36 percent. Gerald Henderson likewise posted career highs in attempts and percentage from deep (he’s now in Philadelphia). Mason Plumlee hadn’t averaged even a single assist per night in his first two seasons until defenses began blitzing Lillard and McCollum up high last year, forcing the ball into Plumlee’s hands and tripling his output (it nearly doubled again from there in the playoffs as the Clippers and Warriors trapped even more aggressively).

These were non-trivial factors in Portland’s seventh-ranked offense, a unit that conveniently masked a bottom-10 defense. The Blazers did nothing in the offseason to dissuade teams continuing to aggressively hedge their pick-and-rolls; can the supplementary guys, now featuring Evan Turner, ostensibly in Henderson’s place, continue performing?

With the right tinkering from Terry Stotts, it’s certainly possible. Turner is a non-threat from three, but could be smartly staggered with Allen Crabbe to inject a bit more spacing if things tighten up – he’s a solid bench prop-up piece when Lillard or McCollum (or both) sit. Meyers Leonard is around as a spacing option, though he’s been a weakness on the other end. Noah Vonleh is running out of time to prove himself, and it feels like one of Vonleh or Maurice Harkless could become redundant and fall out of the rotation (or be traded). If Lillard and McCollum maintain their level and at least a couple of these guys shine, maybe there isn’t much cause for concern.

Even for glass-half-full types, though, big issues remain on the other end of the court. Portland picked up Festus Ezeli on a below-market deal, but getting a good price isn’t always the same as getting a good player. A return to the promise of a year ago could put Ezeli on track as a defensive anchor, but the 770 minutes he logged in Golden State last year (in an elite defensive culture, no less) offered little convincing proof that he can get back there.

Outside that, it’s tough to see where this group finds organic improvement defensively. Aminu is a wonderful universal jack, Crabbe is solid on the wing and Harkless did his best last year, but this team is devoid of much other defensive talent, especially in the backcourt. There’s only so much Aminu can do to cover for McCollum and especially Lillard, and slotting Crabbe onto tougher guards either opens up a mismatch with a bigger small forward or forces one of the studs to the bench. Rim protection will be a big issue if Ezeli isn’t the answer. It’s basically impossible to post even a league average defense with sieves on the perimeter and no one reliable to clean up inside.

None of this considers injury luck, either. The Blazers were among the league’s healthiest teams, particularly among their top guys – each of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Aminu, Plumlee and Harkless played in at least 75 games, and Henderson logged 72.

Stotts is a proven wizard, and Lillard has made a habit of silencing doubters in his career. Still, it’s tough to shake the feeling that a bad break or two could doom a team that was four games from the ninth seed last year. The Blazers have to prove their streaky group can hit last winter’s level consistently.

 

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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