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NBA AM: Ranking the Top Young Cores

Which NBA teams have assembled the best young cores? Ben Dowsett ranks the league’s up-and-coming squads.

Ben Dowsett

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Part of the mass appeal of the NBA is its cyclical nature. The postseason begins in a couple weeks, showcasing the league’s elite, but the calendar year has hardly stopped for the 14 teams on the outside looking in. Eliminated teams become free to make personnel moves even as the playoffs wear on, and the ever-vital NBA Draft takes place just days after a champion is finally crowned. Before anyone knows it, eyes will once again be looking ahead to the future.

With that in mind, before we reach playoff time, here’s a nod to the franchises – a few of whom will still be playing in late April – who have put themselves in the best position for sustained runs over the next half-decade or more. Let’s take a look at the top young cores in the NBA.

Our list will stop at five, meaning many potentially qualified situations will be left out. A brief look at some of those who didn’t make the cut (others weren’t even quite worthy of a runner-up list, including groups like Brooklyn and Phoenix who are incredibly devoid of overall future assets).

Honorable Mentions

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis’ presence alone likely would have qualified the Pels for a top-five spot in these rankings a year ago, but a campaign from hell has set the franchise back. Davis is shut down for the year, trying to finally catch up with maladies plaguing him for years, and New Orleans has been so thoroughly decimated by injuries that assessing them realistically is virtually impossible. Jrue Holiday, another clearly injury-prone player, is their only other young-ish piece with a positive outlook if he can stay on the court, and while Davis’ potential still gets them in the conversation, the prospects are much bleaker than they once looked.

Orlando Magic: The right guys making leaps could easily see the Magic threaten for a spot in the top five on this list next season. In Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton, Orlando has a deep core that will have a chance to blossom together. None is quite a blue-chip superstar in the making, but all five have significant potential, with Gordon and Hezonja’s ceilings still mostly untapped and potentially very high.

Los Angeles Lakers: Putting aside ludicrous team turmoil, the Lakers do have a solid core including D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. A completely untenable organizational situation could shake things up in a hurry, and even if not, Los Angeles will need to add at least one more name to compete with the big boys in terms of core potential.

Philadelphia 76ers: The league’s most rampant tanking has yielded a number of high picks, but only lukewarm results. It’s tough to gauge whether any members of the current roster outside Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid are truly part of the long-term core, and each of these guys has their own set of questions. Overseas star Dario Saric may or may not be in the NBA soon. The 76ers have a war chest of picks still upcoming, but until these turn into actual prospects with bright futures, they can’t crack the top five.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis is a great start, but they have a long way to go. Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway might be the only other worthwhile future pieces on the current team, and neither is exactly blowing anyone away. Whether the Knicks will have the patience to rebuild fully remains to be seen.

Boston Celtics: There’s a temptation to put Boston on the list due to their unmatched stockpile of picks and movable contracts, but this doesn’t really qualify as a “core.” Boston absolutely could acquire a young centerpiece with their assets, but until that time they don’t really qualify. They could just as easily use those picks to add a veteran and speed up their rebuild. With that said, this is a very good team with a terrific head coach in Brad Stevens (as I recently wrote).

Alright, onto the true contenders.

  1. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are in something of an interesting place. Their young core is supplemented by three guys in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried who don’t really fit within the same age timeline, but also have clearly defined roles on the current team. It’s tough to imagine more than one of them playing a major role when this group is truly contending, though, so we’ll consider their young foundation separately.

They’re not exactly lacking in that department, to be fair. Savvy drafting and a bit of trade poaching have put GM Tim Connelly in a fantastic position, with pieces at nearly every position: Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and sophomore Gary Harris in the backcourt, Will Barton (sneakily obtained in the Arron Afflalo trade that also netted Denver a first-round pick) as a swingman of sorts, and a triumvirate of talented young bigs in Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne. The Nuggets lack that superstar, yes, and it feels unlikely any of these names outside perhaps Mudiay could reach that perch, but they have capable, high-ceiling guys up and down the roster.

They don’t get credit for it for the same reasons as Boston and Philly, but the Nuggets are also incredibly well-positioned draft-wise on top of an already-impressive collection of talent. Denver is a favorite to be in possession of three first-round picks in the 2016 draft as of this writing: Their own (which they have the right to swap with the Knicks, if New York’s is more favorable), Portland’s (will convey unless the Blazers tumble out of the playoffs, which is highly unlikely) and Houston’s (again, assuming the Rockets don’t miss the playoffs).

They’re unlikely to grab a fourth that was possible earlier in the season – a Memphis first-rounder, but that pick becomes only top-five protected in 2017 and 2018, making it possible the Nuggets are owed yet another lottery pick in the near future. They don’t owe anyone a single first-round pick moving forward, and their flexibility might top any team in the league outside of Boston.

They still have to capitalize on that potential, but they have a strong group already in place even if things don’t go perfectly. This could be the last year the Nuggets rank even this low on this list.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have a similarly deep collection of young talent. Mason Plumlee, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh are all in their third NBA season or earlier, each with varying degrees of potential still left.

Where they differ from the Nuggets, though, is in top-end talent. The combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum as core foundational pieces separates Portland from other groups that have similar depth but lack the star power. Even if a couple of the supplementary pieces don’t quite pan out, the Blazers have the cushion of two elite shooters and playmakers to fall back on.

The Blazers also have a ton of cap space available and are a sneakily desirable destination, meaning they could make the leap from up-and-comers to true contenders in a big hurry with one or two signings this summer or thereafter. Their pick situation isn’t as robust as Denver’s, but they don’t owe any further first-rounders after likely sending this year’s mid-teens pick to the Nuggets. This team has made more noise than nearly anyone expected this season, and will be primed to take yet another big step next year if they have a productive summer.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

We’re likely picking nits from spots two to four, but the Bucks take the middle spot among this group. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker aren’t quite the sure thing Lillard is in Portland, but both are far younger with very high ceilings. Khris Middleton remains only 24 and locked into a long-term deal. John Henson and Michael Carter-Williams both likely have their best years ahead of them, and who knows what rookie Rashad Vaughn, just 19, could turn into.

Ceiling-obsessed folks could easily make a case for placing the Bucks behind only Minnesota for long-term outlook – if Giannis and Jabari check all their boxes, Middleton stays consistent and the rest of the roster fills out, this has the potential of a dominant future core. Both are still very raw at this point, though, and we all know the pitfalls of assuming development in particular areas before it actually takes place.

The 2016-17 season will be huge for parsing out exactly where the Bucks fit on this list for the long run. Antetokounmpo has made large strides this year, but still has work to do as the leader of an offense and the pressure will be on the group as a whole to get back to the postseason after a strange down year.

  1. Utah Jazz

Some might argue Utah’s true ceiling is lower than both of the previous two teams (more on this in a moment), but even if they’re right, what the Jazz have already accomplished combined with a still-growing foundation gets them the nod. The Jazz seem likely to make the 2016 playoffs despite an untimely rash of injuries to multiple starters, and better yet are doing so while fueled entirely by virtually the exact core they expect to compete with in the future.

In Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, Utah holds a three-man group clearly capable of competing at a playoff level already – and all 25 or younger. Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Shelvin Mack have yet to reach 26 years old as well, with plenty of team control in the former two cases. And that doesn’t even count perhaps the team’s two highest-leverage pieces: Rookie Trey Lyles and injured sophomore Dante Exum.

These latter two make any conversation about ceilings interesting when comparing the Jazz alongside their rivals on this list. Exum might have the widest outcome range of any player named in this piece; his floor might not even be a backup point guard, while a true ceiling could see him among the game’s most valuable two-way guards – particularly defensively. Lyles is the exact sort of playmaking four the league is falling quickly in love with, a guy who could define the team’s flexibility between small and big lineups if he develops in the right ways (he’s already a bona fide stretch big at 20 years old).

Tack those two onto what the team already has going for them, and their best possible outcomes suddenly start to compare favorably with others above. A starting five of Exum-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert was already succeeding last season. If supplemented by solid development from guys like Lyles, Burks and Mack, plus perhaps one or two savvy signings, why couldn’t this group reach huge heights? Like both teams directly behind them, the 2016-17 season will be a make-or-break year for their prospects.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

The top spot is far and away the easiest on this list. The Wolves, stocked with the most exciting prospect in nearly a half decade and a reasonably impressive group behind him, stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league for future potential.

Karl-Anthony Towns drives the wagon, of course. The first overall pick in 2015 is arguably already one of the top 25 players in the entire league, and is likely the most untradeable asset under 26 the league has seen in quite some time. His otherworldly skill set will make him a good fit with virtually any combination of players the Wolves place around him, making their drafting situation moving forward as simple as finding the best players available. He’s the only guy mentioned in this list (outside Davis in honorable mention) who could win multiple MVP awards without league-wide shock.

Opinions vary on the rest of the core, but even the lowest possible estimations are still carried over the finish line by Towns’ vast potential. Andrew Wiggins, 21, has been disappointing in some areas and hopeful in others; he at least can be a high-quality second or third option. Zach LaVine has made some real strides near the end of this season, with so much physical talent still left to harness. Whether Ricky Rubio still counts as part of the core probably depends on who you talk to, as does his value. Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng may not be sure-thing future pieces, but are developing well enough to stay in supporting roles if the chips fall correctly. Should Rubio end up elsewhere, the Wolves have Tyus Jones in place to man the point.

Even if a few of these pieces disappoint in the long run, Towns coming anywhere remotely close to his ceiling makes this team an automatic contender once he enters his prime. They’ll add another high lottery pick this upcoming draft, and don’t owe any major picks of their own. Rivals out West had better hope they don’t strike gold in the 2016 draft. Towns and the rest of this core paired with another true blue-chip guy would make Minnesota even more terrifying. The sky seems the limit for this group.

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 PM: Hornets Rookies May Become Key Contributors

Some key injuries may force Charlotte’s rookies into becoming effective role players earlier than expected, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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As the NBA finally gets underway tomorrow evening, the 2017 rookie draft class will get their first taste of regular season action. Teams reliant on young rookie talent might produce an exciting brand of basketball but that rarely translates into a winning formula. Having rookies play a key role for a team hoping to make the playoffs can be a risky endeavor.

Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers are relying on both Lonzo Ball as well as Kyle Kuzma, who may have worked his way into the rotation with his surprising preseason play. However, the Lakers are, at this point, not realistic contenders in the competitive Western Conference. In the East, the Philadelphia 76ers have more realistic playoff hopes. The team is relying on this year’s top overall draft pick, Markelle Fultz, and 2016’s top pick, Ben Simmons, for meaningful production. Although Simmons has been in the league for over a year, he is still classified as a rookie for this season since he didn’t play last season.

The Charlotte Hornets are looking to return to the playoffs after narrowly missing the cut this past season. The team will likely feature not one, but two true rookies as a part of their regular rotation. Like the Lakers, the Hornets feature a highly touted rookie with the talent and poise to contribute right away in Malik Monk. The team also features Dwayne Bacon, a rookie that has flashed scoring potential as well as maturity — key attributes that will allow him to quickly contribute to the team.

Both players will be given the opportunity to contribute as a result of the unfortunate and untimely injury to forward Nicolas Batum. Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in an October 4 preseason game against the Detroit Pistons. Initial speculation was that the injury would require surgery. However, it was announced on October 10 that surgery would not be necessary, and that he is projected to return in six to eight weeks. Assuming that there are no setbacks in Batum’s recovery, the Hornets will be looking to replace his perimeter scoring, playmaking abilities and perimeter defense. Enter Monk and Bacon.

Monk and Bacon have both shown the ability to score the ball, which is not exactly a common trait in Hornets rookies. Bacon, the 40th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, has made it a point to look for his shot from the outside, averaging 7.8 three-point shots per game while knocking down 33.3 percent of his attempts. As Bacon gains more experience, he presumably will learn how to get cleaner looks at the basket within the flow of the team’s offense. Doing so should help him increase his shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which would turn him into an even more effective contributor for Charlotte.

Bacon spoke to reporters after a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics. Bacon was placed in the starting lineup and went 4-4 from three-point range in 34 minutes of action.

When asked what are some of the things he wanted to work on, Bacon focused on one end of the court in particular.

“Definitely defense. I’m trying to perfect the defensive side, I want to be one of the best two-way players to ever play the game,” Bacon stated. “I feel like I got the offensive side so just keep getting better on defense, I’ll be fine.”

Lack of consistency and defense are key factors that prevent many rookies from playing and being successful on winning teams right away. Based on Bacon’s size (6-foot-6, 221 pounds with a long wingspan) and physicality, he has the physical tools necessary to play passable defense. Combine that with his ability to score (he led the team in scoring in three of its five preseason games) and the unfortunate injury to Batum, it’s apparent that Bacon will get an opportunity to make the rotation and contribute.

Reliable two-way players on the wing are crucially important, but are not always readily available and are even less common on cheap contracts. The Los Angeles Clippers went through the entire Chris Paul/Blake Griffin era swapping small forwards on a nearly annual basis, struggling to find this kind of contribution from the wing. With little cap flexibility, the Clippers were unable to acquire a forward that could effectively and consistently play both end of the court, which caused issues over the years. As a second round pick, Bacon is set to make $815,615 in his first year. If Bacon is able to contribute at even a league average level, that will be a major boost for the shorthanded Hornets. Bacon is smart to focus on improving as a defender as Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded coach who will leave talented players on the bench if they aren’t making a positive impact on the defensive end of the court.

In fact, Clifford offered some strong simultaneous praise and criticism of Monk when it came to his scoring and defense.

“He can score, he can score, he can score [speaking of Monk],” Clifford stated. “I think his defense will come because he’s willing, he’s a good guy. I think that being a good player is very important to him.”

It’s apparent in Clifford’s comment that he values scoring, but that defense is also extremely important and essential to any player that wants to be a “good player.”

“He knows and understands that the way he has played in the past [in college], he can’t play in this league if he wants to be a good player,” Clifford said about Monk. “The big thing is, I told him, when people say, ‘he’s a talented offensive player’ that is a lot different than somebody saying, ‘he’s a talented NBA player.’”

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams also suffered an injury (bone bruise in his left knee), which received less attention than Batum’s injury. While Carter-Williams is not the same caliber of player as Batum, the Hornets are alarmingly thing at backup point guard. Without Carter-Williams, the team was going to lean on Batum to act as a playmaker more than he has in the past, which would have, at least in part, addressed the lack of an established backup point guard. But with Batum sidelined, Coach Clifford has given Monk time at the point guard position. If Monk proves capable of playing both guard positions and playing alongside Walker, that could go a long way towards mitigating the loss of Batum and Carter-Williams. It’s not reasonable to expect Monk (or Bacon) to produce as consistently as a seasoned veteran, but having them contribute at a league average level would constitute a big win for a Charlotte team with serious playoff aspirations.

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Teams Refuse To Back Down To Stacked Warriors

Golden State got better over the summer, but that didn’t stop others from trying to stop them from repeating as champions

Spencer Davies

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Opening week is finally upon us.

Appropriately enough, the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics will kick off the 2017-18 NBA season tomorrow night, as will the defending champion Golden State Warriors when they host the improved Houston Rockets.

The clear-cut favorites to win the league title are the ones who have done so two out of the past three years, and rightfully so. Warriors general manager Bob Myers has done a masterful job of assembling a juggernaut. They’ve kept their insanely talented core intact and—aside from Ian Clark and Matt Barnes—haven’t lost any of their key bench pieces to free agency.

In fact, Golden State has added to that dangerous second unit. Jordan Bell was bought from the Chicago Bulls and will bring another Draymond Green-esque impact almost immediately. Nick Young and Omri Casspi were brought in to fill the void of backup wings, which is an improvement at the position anyway. With the same roster as last year and better reserves to give the starters a breather, there’s no reason Steve Kerr and company can’t repeat if they stay healthy.

Knowing what the Warriors are capable of and how well they are set up to truly be a dynasty, there are some league executives out there who are hesitant to make significant moves that could potentially flop against such a powerhouse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported back in middle June that select teams don’t want to risk a big play because of it. What that basically translates into is: We’re throwing in the white towel until that ball club disbands.

But luckily for fans and for parity’s sake, there was a handful of general managers that refused to take that path. Just looking down the list in the Western Conference, there were organizations that swung for the fences this summer.

The aforementioned Rockets are one of them.Daryl Morey pieced together multiple trades to allow him to land Chris Paul to play next to James Harden and form a dynamic backcourt tandem. Houston also signed a pair of veteran two-way players in Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to provide depth and defense.

What about the Oklahoma City Thunder? Just when we thought Russell Westbrook’s MVP season was enough to maybe build off, the unthinkable happened. Sam Presti unloaded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana after just one season with the team to add All-Star forward Paul George, who is in a contract year.

That blockbuster move was followed up with another two months later, as Presti decided to deal fan favorite Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott to the Knicks in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. The creation of a Westbrook-George-Anthony big three forms an elite trio that is determined to prove championship worthiness.

Top tier Eastern Conference counterparts did their due diligence as well. The Cavaliers and Celtics are essentially rivals and became trade partners in an attempt to re-tool their respective rosters, in addition to gaining important pieces outside of that.

Boston inked Gordon Hayward to a maximum contract to create a bolstered starting unit alongside Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Al Horford until madness happened.

Firstly, Bradley got moved in a swap with the Detroit Pistons for Marcus Morris to address the hole at power forward. After that—with reports of Kyrie Irving’s unhappiness in Cleveland swirling around the basketball universe—Celtics general manager Danny Ainge acted immediately and swung a deal for the All-Star point guard in exchange for his All-Star point guard, a vital member of his team in Jae Crowder and the coveted Brooklyn Nets first-round pick.

It’s almost a brand new squad, but Brad Stevens has a versatile group to work with to try and finally dethrone the conference champions of the last three years.

As for the East’s cream of the crop, the Cavaliers moves are well known because wherever LeBron James goes the spotlight follows. Thomas and Crowder were huge gets for first-time general manager Koby Altman, especially after the outside growing doubt in the franchise’s front office. The rookie executive was also instrumental in signing Derrick Rose, Jeff Green, and Dwyane Wade to veteran minimum contracts.

Rose and Green have plenty of motivation because their critics think they’re washed up, meaning Tyronn Lue won’t have to give them a reason to play their hearts out. Wade simply made the decision to come to Cleveland because he can play with his best friend and potentially add to his collection of championship rings.

Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman, and Jose Calderon are also now a part of the roster that all-of-a-sudden is now deep at almost every position. It’s a new flavor for a team that may have only one year left to compete for a title with James’ pending free agency next summer.

Those four teams feel great about their chances to get in the way of the Warriors. It doesn’t stop there though. The West in general loaded up.

The Minnesota Timberwolves executed the first big move of the year when they traded for Jimmy Butler. The Denver Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to provide leadership and a veteran voice in a young locker room full of talent. The San Antonio Spurs lost Jonathan Simmons but brought in a very capable Rudy Gay under-the-radar as Kawhi Leonard’s backup.

Nobody expected the league to completely fold and hand Golden State another championship, but it was surprising (and relieving) to see so many teams have the fortitude to pull off the moves that they did. There was definitely risk involved for some of them, however, one thing is for certain.

The Warriors will not have a cakewalk to the NBA Finals. They will have to go through a rigorous set of teams in the West throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

If any team is up to the task, it’s Golden State. But we’ll see how it plays out starting about 24 hours from now.

See you at tip-off.

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NBA League Pass Debuts for 2017-18 Season

NBA League Pass has launched for the 2017-18 season. Basketball Insiders has the details.

Ben Dowsett

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The NBA and Turner Sports have launched NBA League Pass for the 2017-18 season, with several new features and pricing options available. NBA League Pass, a subscription-based service, will be available to users across 19 different platforms, from television and broadband to tablets, mobile and a plethora of connected devices.

In addition, an important note: As of Monday, NBA League Pass subscribers who have already purchased their access through a TV provider (Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, etc.) are now able to link their account to the NBA’s streaming service at no additional charge. The link to do this can be found here.

Basketball Insiders has you covered with a breakdown of all the new details immediately available. We will also be bringing you a detailed breakdown of certain important technological areas later in the week.

Features

New or improved features of NBA League Pass include:

  • Improved video quality for streaming League Pass content developed by iStreamPlanet, a high-level video streaming entity working in partnership with NBA Digital. Included among these improvements are faster delivery time for live feeds, reducing notable lag time present in previous versions. More detail on these video quality improvements will be featured in our breakdown later this week.
  • A new premium package that includes continuous in-arena coverage, even during commercials. This allows fans to view team huddles, live entertainment and other venue features that make them feel closer to the experience.
  • A season-long virtual reality subscription package via NBA Digital and NextVR, available to all premium and traditional NBA League Pass subscribers (also available to international subscribers and single-game purchasers beginning in week two of the NBA season). Access will be available across Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream and Windows Mixed Reality.
  • Coverage of pre-game warmups and other in-arena events.
  • Spanish-language video coverage for select games, as well as Spanish-language audio continuing for select games.
  • NBA Mobile view will contain a zoomed-in, tighter shot of game action that’s optimized for mobile devices.

Pricing

Pricing for NBA League Pass has not changed for traditional access, and will remain at $199.99 for the full season. New monthly-based subscriptions are now also available, both for the full package and for individual teams. Full pricing will be as follows:

  • Traditional NBA League Pass (full league): $199.99
  • Premium NBA League Pass: $249.99
  • NBA Team Pass: $119.99
  • Single Game Pass: $6.99
  • Virtual Reality package: $49.99
  • Premium monthly subscription: $39.99
  • Traditional League Pass monthly subscription: $28.99
  • NBA Team Pass monthly subscription: $17.99

Notes

As previously reported by Basketball Insiders, upgrades are also expected on the TV side of NBA League Pass, particularly through Comcast, which has had the largest share of customer issues for this product in recent years. While only a single nightly HD channel was available via Comcast XFINITY League Pass previously, sources tell Basketball Insiders that all games will be available in HD through Comcast’s Beta channel package by the end of November (or earlier).

This Beta package does have limitations, however, including users’ inability to record, pause or rewind games. The package that was available in previous season will continue to be available until (and after) the Beta package is active, and subscribers will get access to both for no additional charge.

Check back with Basketball Insiders later in the week for a full rundown of the technological improvements being made to NBA League Pass.

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