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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Minnesota Timberwolves

At first, the future seemed bright as could be. But now, outside of Karl-Anthony Towns, it couldn’t be any murkier for the Timberwolves, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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After a whirlwind month of action, the basketball-watching world has approached the most boring month of the year in the NBA — so looking over each and every team’s offseason is more imperative than ever. In this edition of “Grading the Offseason”, we’re taking a peek at the suddenly-erratic Minnesota Timberwolves.

Remember when the Timberwolves had the most exciting future in the league? Boy, a lot can change in just two years.

Minnesota, of course, was supposed to be the next big thing, all thanks to one of the most promising young duos in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Back then, they had an accomplished head coach calling the shots in Tom Thibodeau. Plus, adding an All-Star player in Jimmy Butler meant the future was here in the midwest.

Looking at where this team is at today, 2017 seems so very long ago. Butler and Thibodeau are gone, while Wiggins isn’t panning out as well as he had once projected. Towns has come into his own, but the Wolves need more than just him. Suddenly, more questions than answers regarding Minnesota’s future have arisen.

How exactly did the franchise get here after everything appeared to be going so well? Let’s examine.

Overview

It goes without saying, but things could not have started out worse for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19. It’s one thing when your star player wants out — but when he demands a trade just as training camp is about to begin, that puts everything out of whack with very little time to put it all back in order.

Despite making the playoffs, it only took one year for the Jimmy Butler situation to turn sour, holding absolutely nothing back when he made his trade request. So much drama went on during the Timberwolves’ training camp that, if filmed, it could have made for a very entertaining episode of Hard Knocks.

In any situation like that, obliging a trade request should be done ASAP. Instead, Thibodeau, for some reason, decided to drag it out 13 games into the season, a move that undoubtedly affected the team’s psyche. The Timberwolves went 4-9 before Butler was sold off to Philadelphia for Robert Covington and Dario Saric.

Technically, Minnesota improved from there by going 32-37 the rest of the way — but their 36-46 season overall was unremarkable.

As a whole, the roster didn’t leave any lasting impressions, but Towns — now a budding superstar  — played the best basketball of his career. At first glance, Towns’ traditional statistics seem typical, but his per-36 averages tell a more in-depth story.

Per-36 statistics are flimsy numbers, especially so when used for players whose teams wouldn’t dare give that many minutes on a nightly basis. In Towns’ case, it’s different.

Since being coached by Thibodeau, Towns ranked fifth in minutes played on average with 37 — naturally, second behind Wiggins — in 2016-17, then 13th the following year with 35.6. Both Thibodeau and his replacement, Ryan Saunders, decreased Towns’ minutes to 33.1 this past season. When you factor in his numbers from that into per-36, Towns averaged career-bests in points (26.6), rebounds (13.5), and assists (3.7).

He also averaged a career-high in turnovers (3.4), but that probably had to do with the higher usage rate he had — almost 29 percent — in fewer minutes. With Butler gone, Towns took the bigger role in the Wolves’ offense and ran with it. With a higher number of shots, Towns still maintained his usual field goal percentage, almost 52 percent, and his solid three-point percentage of 40 percent.

With the fifth year of the KAT era swiftly approaching, Minnesota knows by now that he’ll be worth every penny of that contract extension that will take effect next season. Unfortunately, they can’t say the same for their other former No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins continues to boggle fans everywhere on how far his value has fallen as a player. Just two years ago, the guy was averaging over 23 points on 45/35/76 splits. His stats were bound to decline when the team acquired Butler but, since that departure, Wiggins has failed to regain his old form.

18.1 points on 41/34/70 splits is just an odd regression for someone who is only 24 years old and possesses the physical advantages that Wiggins does. Still, he hasn’t been a total net negative for Minnesota — in fact, the Timberwolves are plus-1.1 with Wiggins on the floor. But when you’re paying somebody almost $25.5 million, that person needs to make a bigger impact. “Maple Jordan” has shown he has talent, but the less progress he makes, the more accurate the Jeff Green comparisons become.

Besides them, the next significant storyline was the play of Derrick Rose. Though he only played 51 games, Rose had his most efficient season as a shooter, sporting a true shooting percentage of 55.7. Rose has never been hailed as a three-point shooter, but on almost three attempts a game, the long-time veteran hit on 37 percent from distance.

His prime may be behind him, but this new version of D-Rose could hopefully make him a more vital player for his next team, even if it’s not with the Timberwolves. With all that he’s gone through, seeing him being in contention for the Sixth Man of the Year award tugs at the heartstrings.

As for the rest of the team, Covington put up some of the best numbers in his career in Minnesota — but most of his season was cut short because of an ongoing knee injury. Dario Saric performed adequately in his role, but his minutes took a hit after being traded from Philadelphia. Jeff Teague spent half the season on the shelf and Tyus Jones continued to be under-utilized.

Even still, lots of turnover and injuries went on in Minnesota. This time around, regardless of results, the Timberwolves won’t need to endure the same amount of drama this coming season than they did in this last one — and that, ultimately, is a good start.

Offseason

The Timberwolves wasted no time getting to work this offseason. On draft night, they traded Saric as well as the No. 11 overall pick to Phoenix for the sixth selection. With it, Minnesota took Jarrett Culver, whose high draft position stemmed from his all-around game.

Rumor had it that the real target they had in mind when they made the trade was Darius Garland. Whether that’s true or not, Culver has the potential to be a good fit next to Towns. His three-point shot definitely needs work, but his defense, versatility and playmaking abilities should make him a productive player from the start for the Timberwolves.

Since Culver sat out of Summer League, we won’t know for sure what he can do until the season starts. This trade also signified that the Timberwolves weren’t interested in committing to Saric, who was going to fetch some change and then some next offseason.

Next came free agency. Minnesota’s plans started and ended with D’Angelo Russell. The fit seemed flawless. Russell was coming off of a remarkable season, he would be a phenomenal second-in-command next to their center and, even better, he and Towns are best friends. What’s not to like?

With Brooklyn wrapped up in Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant rumors, Minnesota seemed poised to swoop in with a big-time offer sheet. So, until it wasn’t, Russell to the Timberwolves seemed not only feasible but nearly inevitable. And yet, as things currently stand, Russell won’t be donning a Timberwolves uniform this coming season. Golden State kiboshed Minnesota’s plans by getting a Russell in a sign-and-trade, a fine replacement for the injured Klay Thompson too.

The heartbreak over Minnesota’s failure to obtain Russell overshadowed a summer that was full of savvy moves. On the cheap, they signed and traded for Jake Layman, added Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell and traded for Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham as the third party in the aforementioned Russel deal, all of whom can be solid rotation players that cost $3.6 million or less each.

If the Timberwolves had just reeled in the big fish, their offseason would have been a wild success. Since they didn’t, their roster still has questions as far as how high the ceiling actually is.

PLAYERS IN: Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell, Jaylen Nowell, Treveon Graham, Shabazz Napier, Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin (Two-Way)

PLAYERS OUT: Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones, Taj Gibson, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Mitchell Creek, C.J. Williams, Jared Terrell

What’s Next

Over the past few years, Minnesota has had the luxury of waiting for their two young starlets to blossom. In that time, one has come along nicely while the other hasn’t. With Towns’ extension kicking in this season, the Timberwolves are now on the clock for the next five years to build a better team around him before any potential trade request.

Towns has pledged his loyalty to the franchise and that shouldn’t be questioned. For now at least. Something that Glen Taylor and co. should keep in mind: Anthony Davis and LeBron James shared a similar sentiment with their first teams. Both wound up leaving because neither of those teams succeeded in building a playoff contender around them. It’s on management to do its best to avoid the same fate.

With the moves they made, the Timberwolves didn’t get worse per se, but they didn’t get better either. Where they finish depends on how they compare to their competition in their conference. What would tip the scale in their favor would be if they somehow managed to get their hands on Russell, but he’s ineligible to be moved until later on next season.

Even though they may have missed out on acquiring D-Lo, many are skeptical that Russell lasts the season with the Warriors. If the doubters are correct, expect Minnesota to bid like crazy for his services.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, if Minnesota wants to avoid a repeat of Kevin Love, they have to do everything in their power to remove the un from the uncertainty they have engulfed themselves with.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?

Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.

Ariel Pacheco

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John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.

This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in. 

San Antonio Spurs

Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.

The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.

The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.

The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.

The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal. 

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring. 

This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.

Boston Celtics

Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.

Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.

Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him. 

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NBA Daily: Should Orlando Sell?

Injuries have once again foiled Orlando’s plans for success. Chad Smith assesses the situation and details why it is time for the Magic to finally blow it up and fully embrace the youth movement.

Chad Smith

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As the All-Star break approaches, the Orlando Magic find themselves in an all-too-familiar position. They are the basketball equivalent of a treadmill. Hell-bent on moving full steam ahead, they continue to squeeze out wins but, in the end, they are going nowhere.

There are a variety of reasons why Orlando continues to dwell in the quicksand, injuries being chief among them. There is plenty of young talent on the roster, but they just can’t seem to stay on the floor. Rookie guard Cole Anthony and star Forward Aaron Gordon are both dealing with injuries and will not return until after the All-Star break. It goes much deeper than just this season though.

Jonathan Isaac is in his fourth year but has played just 106 total games. He is expected to miss the entire season after appearing in only 34 games last year. Worse, just when it seemed as though Markelle Fultz had turned his career around, he was lost for the year with a knee injury just eight games into this season.

While injuries may be out of their control, Orlando hasn’t done much to help themselves, control the things they can control, either.

Drafting is a tricky puzzle, for sure, as there are always busts and sleepers that are only be realized years later. But, while Orlando has had the luxury of picking near the top every summer, they have yet to nail the star they have longed for (and desperately need). In back-to-back years they had the sixth-overall pick, which they used on Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. In 2015 they selected Mario Hezonja fifth-overall. None of their second-round picks in that span have contributed to this team, either.

The Magic have seemingly always lived in mediocrity. Despite having one of the easiest schedules in the league, they currently sit 12th in the Eastern Conference. While he obviously hasn’t had the group at full strength, head coach Steve Clifford’s team ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category. Player development is something that must be taken into consideration, which puts Orlando in a position where they must make a major decision.

Should they continue with their current nucleus and try to build on another lottery selection next season as they return to health, or sell off their talented veteran players now and embrace a full-on rebuild?

Orlando’s biggest asset is obviously Nikola Vucevic, the All-Star center in the midst of a career year. In year two of a four-year contract worth $100 million, Vucevic’s salary actually declines by $2 million each year. And, at the age of 30, Vucevic will no longer be in his prime once the Magic are relevant again.

Taking advantage of desperate teams that need help at the center position, like the Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors, could net them multiple first-round picks and or a young player in return. The free agent class for next season is lukewarm at best, so teams may decide to explore trading to acquire top-tier talent. If Orlando puts him on the trade block, their phones will be ringing off the hook all the way up to the March 25 deadline.

Should the Magic decide to move their best player, it would open the window of opportunity for Bamba. The seven-footer is still under contract for one more season so he could be easily dealt if the franchise decides to hold on to Vucevic. Several suitors have already been knocking on Orlando’s door about his availability. With Bamba’s name already in trade rumors, it could signal that the team is headed in a different direction.

Gordon’s name is one that has already been in trade rumors even before the season tipped off. The fourth-overall draft pick in 2014 doesn’t have the same explosion and athleticism that he once possessed, but he is still just 25-years-old and would be a valuable piece for any team.

Despite his regression, Gordon’s value remains high for contending teams looking to add a piece that they believe will put them over the top. The return for Orlando will not be a huge bounty, but moving on from Gordon could be wise as he has one year remaining on his contract at just $16.4 million, which should be very enticing to interested teams.

After suffering 15 losses in 19 games, Orlando has now won three in a row and four out of their last five. While none of those victories came against top-level teams, it is a sign that perhaps the Magic aren’t ready to just cut their losses in the midst of an injury-filled season.

Orlando does have two Disable Player Exceptions, worth $6.1 million and $3.7 million, respectively. This would allow them to add another player but they are just $2.8 million below the luxury tax. That being said, there isn’t a player available that is going to turn Orlando’s season around. They will face the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks before the break.

After missing the postseason six years in a row, Orlando has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The problem is they haven’t done much after getting there. In those two years, they have only won a total of two games; both first-round exits. The year-to-year improvement just hasn’t been there, as Orlando seems to have hit their ceiling with this core.

In the best-case scenario, the Magic would have a healthy Isaac and Fultz to pair with their two talented big men. They would have another lottery pick to add to their pool of young talent. Anthony avoiding the sophomore slump and the continued development of Bamba and Dwayne Bacon would be of major help for the future of this franchise as well.

Odds are, even with all of these coming to fruition, however, the team wouldn’t amount to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Evan Fournier is another name that could be on the move. The veteran sharpshooter will be a free agent this summer and would like to play for a contender, per Zach Harper of The Athletic. The Magic aren’t keen on the idea of re-signing the veteran scorer, as they will have to pay Isaac and Fultz. Finding Fournier’s new home this season could benefit both sides in the long run.

Orlando’s organizational philosophy has always been to compete for the playoffs, with all indications showing that will not change this season. But, with the trade deadline a month away, there is still a chance they could reverse course on that. Every organization starts a new season with the goal of reaching the postseason. But, at some point, the future must take precedence, even if it means suffering in the short-term for the long-term gain.

Orlando’s best route to long-term success would be to cash in on their talented veterans now. Investing in the future and going young is a blueprint that many teams have committed to. The Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans are all oozing with young talent and have bright futures. The Magic have the opportunity to add either another top draft pick or two or some young established players to their promising young core and they should seize it.

Sneaking into the playoffs and getting smacked in the first round once again is not going to improve this team in the long run. There is no added value in playing four or five additional games after the regular season. This franchise must see the big picture and position itself to succeed using a different path.

The goal for Orlando should not be making the playoffs again. Their goal should be to finally escape NBA purgatory. The plan should be to embrace the youth movement and accumulate some assets, while they still can.

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