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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Day 1

Free Agency has finally arrived, and after the first day, Matt illustrates why this one is already one for the books.

Matt John

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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
With those millions in writing,
And All-Stars combining to give hope or fear!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!”

Seriously though, for junkies like us, the NBA offseason is basically the holidays. People always talk about how they can’t stand all the pressure, all the buildup for when we see the next twist of the offseason. But let’s be honest. We love it. Even if things don’t always turn out the way we wanted it to, we love all the thrills and anxieties that manifest themselves from free agency.

Leading up to the 6:00 EST starting line, this summer was hyped up to be as epic as it could ever be thanks to its deep class of stars on the open market. It hasn’t even been a full day yet, and it’s already lived up to the hype. Best of all, we still have lofty cliffhangers that have yet to be resolved.

About the whole “tampering” debacle

If you’ve been paying attention since the start of all of this, you would know that a fair amount of these deals that have been agreed to this summer were reportedly done before free agency officially began. It’s pretty obnoxious to see that teams are clearly talking to players before they are permitted to, and it makes seem as though the rules aren’t being enforced.

To be fair, the rules against tampering are like the drinking age. Legally you’re not supposed to take a sip of alcohol until you’re 21, but how many people who drink actually waited until they were of age to do so? Point being is that this is a rule that NBA teams bend as much as they can.

The NBA can do all it can to change this. They can make the rules stricter. They can hand out harsher punishments. Honestly, though, the league’s best move may be just to let things be the way they are. You know how they say any press is good press? Everyone tunes into the NBA offseason as much as they can, so this kind of attention is only good for the NBA. There’s no need to ruin something that is clearly profitable.

It’s a shame that tampering still happens quite often no matter what the NBA tries to do to get rid of it, but that’s what makes it fun.

Now, onto the real plot lines everybody wants to read about.

A new contender has emerged

After receiving the worst hand it could have possibly imagined not too long ago, this team has swiftly built itself into a squad that won’t be messing around with anyone this upcoming season. Before it was just a pipedream, but now, a title can definitely be in play for these guys. That’s right, the Utah Jazz have now taken the next step into title contention.

Oh wait, did you think this writer was talking about Brooklyn? We’ll get to them, but for now, let’s talk about the team who, as a result from Day 1 of Free Agency, will definitely be a contender next season.

Crap, was that a spoiler?

After suffering their second consecutive gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the Houston Rockets, Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey swore to fans that some major changes were in order. Utah doesn’t exactly have the best reputation as a free agent destination and didn’t have exactly top-notch assets, so many were interested to see what major changes they could orchestrate.

Now, after the season ended only two months ago, Lindsey and the Jazz have lived up to their promise and then some. Utah has pounced on every opportunity that presented itself for the team to get better. If that sounds ludicrous to you, let’s go over the checklist for what the Jazz needed to improve themselves this offseason.

  1. Get another scorer/playmaker to take some of the heavy offensive burden off of Donovan Mitchell — Traded for Mike Conley – Check
  2. Get a floor spacer/complementary scorer who can be paired up in the frontcourt with Rudy Gobert — Signed Bojan Bogdanvoic – Check
  3. Get a back-up big who can replace Derrick Favors with his energy and rebounding — Signed Ed Davis – Check

On paper, this is the best Jazz team assembled since the Deron Williams days, and if things break their way, they could be seeing success much similar to the Malone/Stockton days. The Jazz were once an adorable little train that could. Now they’re a freight train at full throttle with no brakes to speak of.

Brooklyn has created a… new super team?

If you think this writer doesn’t approve of all the moves Brooklyn has made up to this point, you’re dead wrong. Brooklyn just hauled in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. All on discounts too. In the process, they added a solid 3&D wing in Garrett Temple as well as traded D’Angelo Russell and a few others to open up roster spots for ring-chasers.

However, if you think that means it’s smooth sailing for Brooklyn from here on out, you’re dead wrong. Durant is currently recovering from an Achilles tear he suffered merely weeks ago. Missing the entire season is very much in the realm of possibility. Even if say he comes back the next season fully healthy, he’ll be 32. Without Durant, Brooklyn is a solid team, but not a contender. If he’s not the Kevin Durant we know and love when he gets back, then they definitely won’t be a contender. Giving him a near-max contract is a risk, but since it’s KD, it’s a much safer risk than most.

It doesn’t just end with him. Kyrie Irving has proven himself to be a negative in the locker room. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t played like DeAndre Jordan in two years. That can both be remedied now that they are playing in a situation they obviously prefer to be in. Something to consider – they were in good situations before they grew tired of them. For the Nets’ sake, hopefully, history doesn’t repeat itself.

The return of the sign and trade

Remember when signs-and-trades were rare? Especially nowadays? Not many players agree to those kinds of deals anymore, but after Day 1 of Free Agency, the sign-and-trade has had itself a little bit of a renaissance.

And these agreements haven’t been over minor roster tweaks. These deals have actually been involved with some of the most important players that were on the market. Since the bell rang at 6, we’ve seen S&T’s involving Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker – just to name a few.

Due to the sign and trade, the following has happened:

  • The Warriors have brought in a whole new dimension to their team with D’Angelo Russell aboard.
  • The Nets could afford to bring in all the targets they wanted and cheaper than the market value that was placed on them.
  • The Celtics now have their new star point guard to replace their previous one.
  • The HEAT have now (hopefully) found new life with their newest face of the franchise in Jimmy Butler, who was a sizable upgrade compared to what they had.
  • The Sixers (hopefully) found good value for a player in Josh Richardson, who was leaving anyway and opened space to pay for another star.
  • The Hornets didn’t lose their star player for nothing and have their point guard of the future in Terry Rozier (…hopefully).

Many thought the sign-and-trade was dead. As we can see, it’s alive and well.

Teams have gotten knocked down, but not out

Among all that was gained in Day 1, plenty was lost.

Golden State lost Kevin Durant. Philadelphia lost Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick. Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Milwaukee lost Malcolm Brogdon.

Even with that, teams re-tooled in order to keep their status.

  • To make up for their loss of Durant, the Warriors added D’Angelo Russell.
  • To make up for their loss of Butler and Redick, the Sixers added Horford and Josh Richardson.
  • To make up for the loss of Irving and Horford, Boston added Kemba Walker.
  • To make up for their loss of Brogdon, the Bucks brought their core guys back plus added Robin Lopez.

There are still questions with both what they lost and they gained, but some appreciation is in order that even though they probably would have preferred otherwise, they have weathered the storm.

Indiana is a better example of this. In the last day or so, the Pacers have lost Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic, all of whom combined are a major net loss for them. However, the team has added a young scorer in TJ Warren, a solid rotation player in Jeremy Lamb and the ideal complement for Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon.

Perhaps the best example of this is New Orleans. David Griffin has been as savvy as ever this offseason in the face of his new franchise losing arguably its most talented player ever. We don’t need to list off everything he acquired for Anthony Davis because you already know. In free agency, he’s made smart moves that boost the team and doesn’t drag it down financially.

The Pelicans did not have reliable spacing leading up to the free agency. To aid that, they gave Redick a fairly manageable two-year deal worth $26 million. The Pelicans also needed some frontcourt help even with the addition of Zion Williamson. Without sacrificing much, they acquired the criminally underrated Derrick Favors from Utah.

As some of the premier teams have shown us, losing some of your best players is not an easy task, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage without them.

The Kawhi sweepstakes are heating up

Among all the hoopla that was going on during the first day of free agency, you may have noticed that not many moves have been made by Kawhi’s top suitors: The Lakers, Clippers and of course, Raptors.

The Lakers have traded everyone not named LeBron, Anthony or Kyle to make room for Kawhi. The Raptors have only had Marc Gasol opt-in to return next season. The Clippers just now re-signed Patrick Beverley, which, according to Eric Pincus, will not financially affect their pursuit of Kawhi.

The minimal number of moves demonstrates that all three are putting all of their eggs in the Kawhi basket. It’s a shame he can’t be shared. Only one of them can have him, and as the Knicks have shown from Day 1, there’s always someone who ends up being the loser of the offseason. When the Kawhi chase is over, we’ll have two more.

Not that all will be lost for the two teams who Kawhi leaves in the dust. It’s that when he does, there will be major implications for what will happen to them next season. Plan B for all of them isn’t too promising of an outlook.

There are plenty more plot lines to choose from, like what the Knicks are doing now that they’ve missed out on Durant and Irving. Or why exactly the Kings paid $65 million combined for Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. Or how NBA Twitter will fare now that the Lopez twins are on the same team.

So many exciting moves out there are worth analyzing in less than 24 hours time.

As this writer said, it’s the most wonderful time of the year…

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NBA

NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA

NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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NBA

NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – May 6

With the regular season winding down, Tristan Tucker offers his latest Rookie of the Year ladder, with three outstanding freshman performances leading the pack.

Tristan Tucker

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With the NBA season winding down, there is limited left time for rookies to make their cases for the Rookie of the Year award. In all, three rookies are leading the charge and will likely be named the top three rookies of the season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how the race has changed over the last few weeks.

1. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 1)

Rookies shouldn’t be able to do what Anthony Edwards can do. Edwards is still just a teenager, but he possesses some of the best natural talent the NBA has seen. Furthermore, there aren’t many rookies that have quite seen the game-by-game improvement that Edwards has shown.

On the year, Edwards is averaging 18.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from three. But to take a look at his improvement, Edwards’ numbers before and after the All-Star break paint the picture.

Before the All-Star break, Edwards averaged 14.9 points and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 37.1 percent from the floor and 30.2 percent from deep in 36 games. In the 30 games since then, Edwards is shooting a much better line of 44.7/35.2/75.2 and is averaging 23.7 points and 3.2 assists per game.

In his most recent 42-point outburst, which tied his career-high, Edwards broke the franchise record for most threes made in a game by a rookie. There’s a consensus in Minnesota that this won’t be the last record the rookie breaks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: Not Ranked)

Ball’s previous “not ranked” placement wasn’t a dig at him but instead an unfortunate testament to when the league thought he was out for the season with an injury. And then, miraculously, Ball returned just in time for a likely Charlotte postseason appearance. Because of his return and ensuing excellent play, Ball is penciled into one of the top two slots to end the year.

Although he likely missed too much time to be named Rookie of the Year, Ball’s first season is something to behold. On the year, Ball is averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals and is a team leader for an exciting Hornets squad. Furthermore, Ball proved to be a much better three-point shooter than most thought he would be, connecting at 37.3 percent.

Ball is still over 100 days from turning 20-years-old and he’s already one of Charlotte’s best players. 

3. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)

The timing of Haliburton’s injury is unfortunate, as it quickly followed the loss of De’Aaron Fox that all but sealed Sacramento’s postseason hopes. However, Haliburton showed that the franchise has much to look forward to with his explosive and competent play.

While Haliburton had some up-and-down moments and didn’t get the starting opportunities of Ball and Edwards, he still had a fantastic year. Since his injury will likely take him out for the remainder of the regular season, Haliburton finished the year averaging 13 points per game. To go along with his fantastic scoring, Haliburton blossomed as a polished playmaker, averaging 5.3 assists per night.

In the five games he started at point guard without Fox in the rotation, Haliburton averaged a fantastic 17 points, 8.2 assists and 1.6 steals per game. Once they reach their respective peaks, Fox and Haliburton have the talent to hang with the best of the backcourts in the NBA.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, Haliburton showed a great shooting form with fantastic results. The guard out of Iowa State shot 47.2 percent from the floor to go along with a 40.9 percent clip from three on over five attempts per game. While Haliburton isn’t likely to come away with the award, he certainly showed that several teams made mistakes in passing on him.

4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 3)

Bey won’t end up in the top three of voting for the Rookie of the Year award, but he still set his name in the record books. Bey’s been a historically good three-point shooter, currently connecting at a 37.9 percent clip from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

The rookie out Villanova currently sits at 11th all-time for three-pointers made as a rookie, tied with Edwards, with 155. However, Bey needs just 14 more threes to jump all the way up to third all-time. With six games remaining in Detroit’s schedule, there’s even more opportunity for Bey to make history.

5. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)

While there weren’t many bright spots for a Rockets season filled with turmoil, the team’s rookies and sophomores looked impressive. From Kevin Porter Jr. to Kenyon Martin Jr. to Tate, this team boasts some of the most underrated young talent in the league.

Tate in particular had an outstanding rookie season that is now likely over due to his entry into the health and safety protocols. If this truly is the end of the year for Tate, he wrapped up the year averaging 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the field.

Since Basketball Insiders’ last rookie ladder, Tate averaged 12.9 points and upped his offensive production to 3.9 assists per game.

Tate is the ultimate hustle player and is a glue guy that championship contenders need to take it to the next level. Look for the Rockets to be much more competitive next season under a good coach in Stephen Silas and a potential top pick to join a talented young corps.

6. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: NR)

Like Bey, Quickley quickly became one of the best shooters in the draft class, but also offered promising guard play for a competitive Knicks squad. Because of stellar performances up and down the roster, the Knicks look likely to return to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

While Quickley stagnated a bit toward the middle and end of his rookie season, he still held down the backup guard spot for New York. On the year, Quickley is averaging 11.7 points and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 39.7 percent from downtown.

Ultimately, the Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the wire between Edwards and Ball. For a 2020 rookie class that originally looked bleak, these rookies have vastly altered that perspective. Even though much is left to be determined for the eventual award winner, one thing is certain: the league is in good hands.

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