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The NBA Playoff Winners

Even if they’re not in the NBA Finals, there are plenty of postseason winners worth celebrating, writes Benny Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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As the NBA playoff picture slowly eases itself into the final round, there are far more winners than just the Golden State Warriors and the (presumed) Cleveland Cavaliers. Seasons are typically measured in wins and losses, especially so in the postseason, but that often isn’t the only criteria worth considering.

From redemption stories to a taste of impending free agency, these are the players, coaches and teams that will leave the postseason as a winner, even if they don’t lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June.

The Celtics

Outside of their gritty Game 3 triumph, the Boston Celtics have been effectively waxed by LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers in the conference finals. Even so, this is a young basketball team that is outperforming their skill set thanks to the heroics of Isaiah Thomas and the wise-beyond-his-years coaching of Brad Stevens. Sure, Thomas has finally tapped out after one of the most grueling postseason journeys of all-time and the Celtics now understand that they can’t take down James as currently constructed, but still, there’s much to like moving forward.

In case you’re just tuning in (or feigned ignorance as a Nets fan), the Celtics took home the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft last week. Popular sentiment — including all four of our writers here at Basketball Insiders — predicts that Boston will select Markelle Fultz, a budding franchise player. With another unprotected Nets pick coming their way in 2018, general manager Danny Ainge can approach the draft and free agency with a clear head.

Can the team win with Thomas at the helm? Is Gordon Hayward the missing piece? Could moving the No. 1 for Jimmy Butler be the answer? Or should the Celtics opt for a strong core in a 2020 landscape that could be post-LeBron? Whichever way Ainge leans, he’s got the tools and assets to build this franchise exactly how he pleases. Between reaching the conference finals and receiving the first pick within a day of each other, there’s just simply no situation better than the Celtics’ as of right now.

Restricted Free Agents

Across the board, this summer’s crop of restricted free agents are about to earn the most lucrative contracts of their careers. In San Antonio, the Spurs may have a hard time holding onto to Jonathon Simmons, the man that excelled in Kawhi Leonard’s absence. Of course, Simmons, who once paid 150 dollars to try out for the D-League, wouldn’t be faulted for cashing in with the highest bidder. Between providing some much-needed energy off the bench to replacing Leonard in the rotation outright, Simmons soared in the postseason, tallying solid efforts of 17, 18 and 22 points. While the Spurs will no doubt look to retain Simmons, their current cap situation may ultimately price them out of the conversation.

Elsewhere, the Washington Wizards’ Otto Porter will have plenty of suitors this summer as well. While the Brooklyn Nets’ front office has made it clear that they won’t cap themselves out in order to become a 30-win franchise, Porter certainly fits their developing movement: hard-nosed defense and three-point shooting. If the Nets don’t dip their toes in the near-to-max contract pool, the Philadelphia 76ers have recently popped up as a potential destination for Porter. The forward’s big step couldn’t have come at a better time, and now the only question left is whether or not the Wizards will match whatever albatross offer sheet he signs.

Of course, who could forget about the unparalleled heroics from the Celtics’ Kelly Olynyk? The Canadian’s 26-point outburst in Game 7 of the conference semifinals definitely increased his impending price tag. As the NBA continues to shift toward a league where most bigs can stretch the floor and hit three-pointers, Olynyk now stands as a healthy gamble in free agency. Given Ainge’s laundry list of upcoming decisions, he probably didn’t anticipate mulling over whatever large offer sheet Olynyk receives.

Additionally, Joe Ingles, the Utah Jazz’s tough perimeter standout, should be in line for a major payday on the open market. The Jazz will no doubt be focused on retaining George Hill and the aforementioned Hayward, but they’ll have a difficult choice to make on Ingles too. As our Ben Dowsett wrote last month, Ingles was quietly Utah’s biggest surprise of the season — but can they afford to keep everybody? When Ingles wasn’t destroying the typically steady playoff basketball of J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford, he took blows defending Chris Paul. Even if his sky-high mark of 44 percent from three-point range in 2016-17 dips closer to his career average of 39.9 percent next year, Ingles will be worth his weight in gold come July.

And, finally, there’s Andre Roberson, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s swiss-army knife. Although Roberson earned plenty of criticism for his poor free throw shooting against the Rockets, his status as one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders will likely supersede those concerns. This postseason, Roberson often frustrated James Harden into difficult shooting nights and scored in double-digits in four of the Thunder’s five games. A franchise could easily talk themselves into Roberson, a potential All-NBA first team defender, and develop his shortcomings along the way.

Rajon Rondo

Somehow, someway, Rajon Rondo performs just well enough to guarantee himself his next contract. Two years ago, it was his play in Sacramento that lured the Chicago Bulls in as they looked for a floor general to facilitate their all-veteran lineup. But as the Bulls struggled, the relationship with Rondo soured midway through the season. Given their disappointing record and the infamous social media shade he threw at Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler, the Rondo in Chicago experiment was chalked up as a failure.

However, with Bulls surging toward the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff berth, they had nobody to turn to but Rondo. In a perfect storm, Rondo reclaimed his throne as the Bulls’ starting point guard and then throttled his former team not once, but twice on the road in the first round. Rondo’s impressive line of 11 points, nine rebounds, 14 assists and five steals in Game 2 had Bulls up 2-0 in Boston — halfway to a feat that would have ruined the Celtics’ immaculate season.

Unfortunately, Rondo broke his thumb and the Celtics promptly won four straight games to move on, but that will hardly concern the four-time All-Star. For years, Rondo’s off-court actions have kept him from landing another multi-year contract. As of now, it seems unlikely that Rondo will remain with the Bulls, which would send the point guard searching for his fifth team in four years.

But after striking fear into the hearts of Celtics fans everywhere, Rondo has done enough to earn himself another hefty one-year deal — maybe this time, he’ll head to a more postseason-ready franchise.

Avery Bradley

When the Celtics drafted Avery Bradley back in 2010, they believed he was the perfect backcourt partner for Rondo. Together, the pair would lock down any opposing set of guards while the latter would set the table for the former offensively. And, for a while, that’s exactly what happened: Rondo chugged along as the team’s pass-first point guard and Bradley earned an NBA All-Defensive second team berth in 2013. While Bradley made for an exceptionally talented professional, it was tough to foresee him playing the role of secondary scorer for any legitimate contender.

Now more than a month into the playoffs, Bradley has been one of the Celtics’ most consistent players on their bumpy road to the conference finals. Bradley certainly won’t explode for 40 points like Thomas, but the hard-working guard has left his mark on a number of playoff-altering moments.

In Game 7 against Washington, Bradley helped to shut down John Wall, forcing him into one of his worst shooting nights of the postseason at 8-for-23. Then, after getting walloped twice at home by the Cavaliers and officially losing Thomas for the remainder of the playoffs, it was Bradley that fueled the Celtics to their massive Game 3 win. Bradley scored 20 points, including the game-winning three-pointer, to rescue the Celtics without their All-Star guard on the floor.

Bradley will never reach the superstar echelon, but he’s more than earned his stripes with the Celtics. As a lockdown defender and a reliable option for 15 points or so per game, Bradley has carved out quite the niche — now, the rest the country has taken notice.

Mike Brown

It’s been a long and winding road to this point for Mike Brown, but that has made the newfound success all that much sweeter. Despite five straight seasons with a record above 50 percent for the Cavaliers, including a trip to the NBA Finals in 2007 and a Coach of the Year victory in 2009, Brown was fired in 2010. After short stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and (again) with the Cavaliers, Brown eventually landed in Golden State as the Luke Walton replacement.

Brown hasn’t lost a game since he started filling in for the ailing Steve Kerr during the first round pummeling of the Portland Trail Blazers. For Brown, he’s taken the opportunity in stride — never overreaching on a team that is clearly self-sustaining but more than happy to play his part in the proceedings.

The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps accurately described the Warriors’ search for a new assistant coach in a column earlier this month, and, as Golden State found out, Brown was the perfect fit:

“The Golden State Warriors knew there was a possibility Steve Kerr could be sidelined again this season. . . Eventually, the Warriors found their man: Mike Brown, the former head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and the Lakers; a guy who has won 347 games, two coach of the year awards, led a team to the NBA Finals and worked with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

“In other words, he checked every box. And if Kerr ever needed to be away from the team, everyone involved knew the squad would be left in safe — and experienced — hands.”

Now just four wins away from an NBA championship, Brown could easily channel this success into another head coaching opportunity down the road. For now, however, Brown is Kerr’s right-hand man, currently thriving once again on the game’s biggest stage.

If another team comes calling this summer, Brown will surely listen. But if he stays, Brown will have an indefinite front row seat to Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the best on-court product in the league. Anyway you slice it, that makes Brown the major winner in these NBA playoffs.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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