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NBA Daily: Post-Deadline Rankings – Central Division

Spencer Davies starts Basketball Insiders’ division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series with a breakdown of the group of five in the Central.

Spencer Davies

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We are three days away from the NBA All-Star break, meaning that the first half of the season is coming to a close with teams jockeying for position in their respective conference’s standings.

Last week’s trade deadline was wild and involved a ton of player movement. It’s still happening right now during buyout season, too. So who got better and worse throughout the madness?

Basketball Insiders is starting a division-by-division Post-Deadline Rankings series to illustrate and analyze what moves were made, who benefited the most and how these transactions will impact the race to the top moving forward.

We’ll kick things off with the Central Division.

Milwaukee Bucks (42-14)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Nikola Mirotic from Pelicans

What a first half it’s been for the Milwaukee Bucks. Sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference, they boast the highest winning percentage in the entire NBA.

Behind the brilliance of surefire MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo within the pace-and-space schematics of head coach Mike Budenholzer, they are in the midst of a special campaign with their sights set extremely high. They’re long, they’re athletic and, most importantly, they can shoot the heck out of the basketball.

Milwaukee’s final move to make that extra push involved trading Jason Smith, flipping Stanley Johnson (who they received from the Detroit Pistons in return for Thon Maker) and sending four future second-round draft picks to New Orleans for Nikola Mirotic.

With Mirotic taking over seven threes per game and averaging a career-high 16.7 point per game, general manager Jon Horst couldn’t have found a better fit for the Bucks. Adding him to a frontcourt with sharpshooters such as Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon only spreads the floor wider for Greek Freak to penetrate and really test the best of defenses.

Clearly, Milwaukee felt it was necessary to keep up with the rest of the active East as they made season-changing decisions, but it could’ve happened either way. The rich get richer.

Projected Finish: 1st Place

Indiana Pacers (38-19)

Deadline Moves: Signed Wesley Matthews

Once Victor Oladipo went down for the year, the popular prevailing thought around the league was that the Indiana Pacers wouldn’t have enough firepower to compete seriously enough with the best of the best. And oh, how wrong those people have been.

The Pacers have ripped off six straight wins and currently hold the three seed in the East. Bojan Bogdanovic was just named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week following a four-game stretch where he averaged 22.5 points per game on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, including above 46 percent from beyond the arc.

As a team that is no stranger to handling adversity, it should come as no surprise that Nate McMillan’s group refuses to mail it in. They have plenty of veteran leadership in the locker room and a roster that is ready to fight on a nightly basis.

Stemming from a buyout with the New York Knicks, experienced swingman Wesley Matthews decided to sign with Indiana to play a critical role as another go-to scoring option and heady defender on the team. He’ll be coming off the bench at first, but McMillan has made it clear that Matthews will be a starter once he’s acclimated.

We won’t know until we actually see it on the floor, but the hard-nosed style of Matthews, along with his ability to knock down triples, should mesh well with his new squad.

Projected Finish: 2nd Place

Detroit Pistons (26-29)

Deadline Moves: Signed Wayne Ellington, acquired Svi Mykhailuk from Lakers and Thon Maker from Bucks

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more middling team than the Detroit Pistons. It’s one of those situations where you can see the progress and improvement—they have won four in a row and six out of their last nine—but can’t put too much stock into it due to inconsistencies.

Blake Griffin has been vocal about the Pistons playing with “the right spirit” during this stretch, however, he was also venting about his frustrations not so long ago regarding the team’s lack of focus in crunch time. As a team, they have a tough time putting the ball in the basket. On the other hand, they defend the perimeter well. It’s difficult to put your finger on them, like many other ball clubs in the race for the playoffs in the East.

Sending off Reggie Bullock to the Los Angeles Lakers for Svi Mykhailuk probably isn’t the best way to endear a commitment to this season, but there was more to it. They didn’t want to pay him in the offseason, plus they wound up signing a recently-bought out seasoned gunner in Wayne Ellington as a replacement.

It should be a veteran presence Dwane Casey will enjoy coaching, especially since Ellington’s been dying to play instead of keeping a seat warm with the Miami Heat. Detroit also brought in Thon Maker after swapping their former first-round pick Stanley Johnson for Milwaukee’s seven-footer. Could this be another project for Casey as we saw in Toronto with Pascal Siakam? Time will tell.

If the Pistons can score points consistently during this stretch run, maybe we’ll see them make the playoffs. But let’s see them bring it as they did recently against the Denver Nuggets instead of the Knicks and Wizards.

Projected Finish: 3rd Place

Chicago Bulls (13-44)

Deadline Moves: Acquired Otto Porter Jr. from Wizards

We had a feeling that the Chicago Bulls would move Jabari Parker at the deadline, and perhaps a few other candidates as well, but not many of us saw them getting rid of Bobby Portis. In a deal with the Washington Wizards, they traded the two and a future second-rounder for Otto Porter Jr.

There’s not been much to be excited about in the Windy City. There is Lauri Markkanen, of course, who has been playing like a true superstar—26.2 points, 13 rebounds with a 63.9 true shooting percentage—over the last four games. Porter appears to be a part of the team’s core going forward, as they’ve eaten the remaining two years (potentially three if he opts in) on his current large contract.

Jim Boylen is officially Chicago’s head coach for the foreseeable future and the direction has been set. We’ll see whether Zach LaVine is a part of this (he hasn’t exactly given Boylen ringing endorsements since his hire) and where the Bulls go from here. The rest of the season will be a focus on development and who will be around. Keep an eye on how Kris Dunn does in these last couple months, too, since it’s been a struggle for him to string together a strong stretch of games.

Projected Finish: 4th Place

Cleveland Cavaliers (12-45)

Deadline Moves: Signed Nik Stauskas, acquired Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss from Suns, acquired 2019 protected first-round pick and 2022 second-round pick from Rockets

Similar to their counterpart in the basement of the Central, there’s not been too much winning going on with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They’ve been snakebitten by from the beginning with injuries, have employed a league-high 23 different starting lineups and seem to be all in on getting their young talent the most experience possible to end the tough year.

Collin Sexton’s found a bit of a rhythm over the last few games and, luckily for the rookie, Kevin Love is slowly but surely being implemented back into Cleveland’s lineups to give him a breather as far as pressure to perform goes. The locker room has been tested on many occasions, including blowout losses and pointed postgame interviews, yet the bunch has stayed together through all of the trying times.

During deadline week, the Cavaliers dealt both Rodney Hood and Alec Burks and received a number of assets in exchange since they were willing to take on the salary of Brandon Knight. They also received a former first-round pick in Marquese Chriss to provide some more depth in the frontcourt and potentially make a case to earn a contract in the offseason.

But make no mistake about it—this season has been about asset accumulation for general manager Koby Altman. Turning George Hill, Kyle Korver, Rodney Hood and Sam Dekker at the beginning of the season into two first-round draft picks and five future second-round picks was one heck of a job. While Cleveland will win more games next year, they’ll also have a ton of expiring contracts with value to load up on even more assets again.

Talent evaluation is going to be crucial to hit in these drafts, as will the correct coaching hire next season. The plan is in place though, and Cleveland should feel good about that much.

Projected Finish: 5th Place

There was plenty of activity within the Central Division up to this point, but the rosters are just about set for the rest of the year. Aside from the bottom of the barrel teams potentially swapping sports before draft lottery positioning becomes solidified, don’t expect these standings to change much.

Make sure to check back with Basketball Insiders as our Post-Deadline Rankings series continues all week.

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: What’s Next For The Lakers?

With Anthony Davis onboard to make them a contender, the Lakers must decide how they will spend their money this summer, write Matt John.

Matt John

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The NBA season ended literally just days ago, and we already may have seen the most significant move made this offseason.

The Los Angeles Lakers went all-in when they traded 95 percent of the farm on Friday for Anthony Davis, pairing him up with LeBron to make up one of the most fearsome duos in the league.

There’s a lot of risk going into this. LeBron will be 35 in December, and Davis doesn’t have a whole lot of playoff success to his name. Many think the Lakers may have overshot their hand when they made this deal. They traded almost all the young talent they had – plus, three picks and two pick swaps is a king’s ransom for a guy on an expiring contract.

Let’s not mince words. LA definitely paid more than they could afford in the long run with this trade, but Anthony Davis is the type of guy you overshoot your hand for. When you have one of the league’s top players in the game, and you have the chance to add another one, you pay the piper.

Now all that remains is what to do with the rest of the roster. All props need to go to Rob Pelinka for creating a title window for the Lakers when the clock was ticking, but let’s not overlook that the roster he constructed last summer turned out to be a complete disaster. It was an intriguing idea to put a bunch of playmakers around LeBron, but the lack of spacing manifested a clogged toilet offense.

Even after adding Anthony Davis and his $25+ million contract, the Lakers will still have plenty of cap room at their arsenal this summer. If getting the Lakers their 17th title is truly his concern, he needs to build the best roster he can around LeBron and AD. In order to do that, the Lakers have two options to go to

Get The Third Star

Now it’s clear as day that this is what the Lakers are hoping for. Shortly after the Davis trade was announced, Marc Stein reported that the team will make Kemba Walker its primary target in free agency.

Having a third star has been LeBron’s MO for every destination he’s gone to since “The Decision.” First, it was Chris Bosh in Miami, and then it was Kevin Love in Cleveland. Neither matched the production that they had with their previous teams before they joined LeBron, but they did give the team an undeniable edge that helped them win a championship.

Getting that third banana takes the pressure off of James and Davis to produce on a nightly basis, and it can help stagger minutes for James who, all things considered, isn’t getting any younger.

Now, Davis can handle a fair amount of the load as James continues to age, but a third star would only make his life easier. As we all know, Davis wasn’t exactly happy that he had to carry much of the scoring burden in the Big Easy, so having someone else pick up the slack would not make it feel like a repeat of what happened with the Pelicans.

Luckily for the Lakers, this summer has one of the best free agent classes of all time. Kevin Durant, who’s still getting the max with or without a healthy Achilles, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Walker. Adding one of those names would solidify the Lakers’ odds as the title favorite (if they aren’t already).

The only problem with getting this third star on presumably a maximum contract is that, with all that money invested in James, Davis and Player X, there is little money to spend elsewhere. The only other contracts that can be handed out are the Mid-Level Exception and veteran minimum contracts. This summer, a lot of teams are going to have cap space, and not everyone is going to have that happy ending this offseason.

Because of that, expect lesser players to get paid far more than what they are worth. That’s going to make it difficult for the Lakers to get valued rotation players on veteran’s minimum level contracts.

That’s why it could be better for LA to consider the other option.

Get Reliable Role Players

The Lakers have two of the league’s best players. As long as they stay on the court, LA should be one of the best teams in the league. With the Warriors appearing to disband this summer, the NBA will have some parity for the first time since 2016. Now that the next title may be up for grabs, LeBron and Davis could be enough star power alone to power the Lakers to a title.

Emphasis on star power. Of course, they can’t win a title without any productive players in their rotation. They could get them, but that would probably mean they wouldn’t be able to add a third banana. Then again, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.

If we learned anything from the Warriors from the last few weeks, it’s that a lack of depth can really kill you in the Finals. One of the reasons why Toronto won so handily – besides the unfortunate injuries – was because of its full-balanced attack against Golden State. The Warriors may have had the edge in star power, but Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell took advantage of the Warriors’ lack of versatility as a team.

You need those types of players to win the championship. No one knows that better than LeBron. Things didn’t start out great in Miami, but after the team added the likes of Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen, the HEAT got that extra push to win a championship.

Ditto for Cleveland. The Cavaliers didn’t have the greatest start when he came back. Then they added JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and Channing Frye- and that made a huge difference.

Something that we all know by now is that LeBron thrives when he has players who can shoot. The Lakers could bring back some of their designated “shooters” from last season, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock, but there are better options this summer

Danny Green, Nikola Mirotic, JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza and Darren Collison to name a few are all guys who can shoot the rock that on paper would be an excellent fit next to LeBron. At the very least, they would help LeBron play the type of basketball that he loves to play in.

The problem is, those guys can’t be asked to do more than what their specialty is. If and when LeBron and Davis are having an off-night, you can’t rely on a sharpshooter to carry the team when it’s down.

There’s always the possibility that the Lakers, even if they don’t sign a star player, believe they have their third banana in Kyle Kuzma. That’s a lot of pressure for a third-year player, but Kuzma has been exceeding expectations since he came into the league. Maybe he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.

There is no wrong answer for the Lakers here. It’s exciting enough that with Davis on board, they now have options this summer. They no longer have to bank on the cavalry coming in the near future because the cavalry has arrived. They’re not a finished product, but they finally have a product on their hands.

All that said, which door do you think the Lakers should choose?

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NBA Daily: Could Masai Ujiri Revive the Wizards’ Missing Magic?

Masai Ujiri has proven to be an elite front office executive. Shane Rhodes explores whether he could conceivably bring some magic back to the Washington Wizards.

Shane Rhodes

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Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.

Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.

Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.

And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.

While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.

But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.

And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.

With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.

In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.

Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.

Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.

And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.

Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.

So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?

It would be difficult, to say the least.

To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.

Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.

There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.

Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.

However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.

And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?

It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?

It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.

Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.

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NBA Daily: That’s Not How We Wanted It

The NBA Finals were fun to watch, but with the massive injuries and a missed opportunity on a star-studded matchup, Matt John explains why this series could have been so much more.

Matt John

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You may not want to read this if you’re not a fan of a buzzkill.

Wasn’t that last sequence before the NBA Finals ended enough of one already?

Anyway, before we get to the nitty-gritty, we need to give credit where credit is due. The Toronto Raptors deserved their title as the 2018-2019 NBA champions.

They paid their dues. They had their obstacles to go through. They even faced the real possibility of having to blow everything up one year ago at this time. And now here they are, the reigning champions of the basketball world. Even if Kawhi Leonard winds up leaving this summer, Toronto’s championship season proved that they did everything right and got what they wanted from him.

It’s also nice to see a new team don the name as champions. We don’t get to see newcomers win the title all too often, so seeing the Raptors get their first ever title as a franchise is pretty heartwarming in and of itself.

And yet, as inspiring as Toronto’s journey has been, we’re going to look back at this series and wonder what could have been.

The public wanted to see this match up. We wanted to see Kawhi vs. Kevin Durant. We wanted to see if Golden State could finally be dethroned once and for all. We wanted to see if the Warriors could complete the three-peat. We wanted to see if Toronto really pushed itself to the best of its abilities.

We got some of those things, but not in the way that we would have liked.

This starts with the Warriors’ defeat. The general public outside of the Bay Area was pulling for Toronto to overtake Golden State in the Finals. Technically, the haters all got what they wanted. It’s just that this wasn’t how they wanted the Warriors to fall.

Ever since Durant announced that he was headed to Golden State, the Warriors have been the most recent team – and possibly the most powerful one – that NBA crowds collectively loved to root against. Seeing such a powerhouse lose was always the dream for fans over the last three years. But in this scenario, what they wanted to see was Golden State lose at full strength. Not progressively limp as their season slowly disintegrated.

But that’s what we had to watch. KD missed all but a quarter and a half of the series. That was a bummer. Then Klay Thompson tore his ACL right in the middle of what NBA Twitter deemed as “Game 6 Klay,” so we never got a real chance to see if the Warriors actually had a shot at pushing the series to a Game 7.

It only got worse from there. They not only missed Durant for almost the entire series, but now the former two-time Finals MVP is slated to miss the entire 2019-2020 season and may never be the same player again with a ruptured Achilles. There is a fair amount of blame to go around for KD’s tragic injury, with some of it being squarely on our shoulders.

There was so much pressure on him to get back after the Raptors went up 3-1 that his commitment was in question. Even if Durant ignored all that and chose to play by his own accord, we can clearly tell now that he wasn’t ready to return. Not many have been cheering for KD to win since he’s been a Warrior, but nobody wanted to see the man suffer a career-altering injury.

To add to that, Durant’s injury made the series a wrap, but Thompson’s injury only serves as overkill. To make it worse, those injuries overshadowed that DeMarcus Cousins – who actually gave Golden State some good minutes – was clearly not back to normal.

What made this such a missed opportunity is that this may be the last time we see this Golden State team together. Love them or hate them, we may never see a juggernaut like the Warriors quite this strong again for quite some time.

It remains in question if some of these guys are going to be back next season with Durant and Thompson’s free agency coming up. Now that those two, who are among the best available players this summer, are going to miss most of, if not, the entirety of next season, that screws things up.

That doesn’t mean it was all bad. There were some truly memorable moments and plot lines on display during these Finals. With everything that the Warriors had to endure, they suddenly became the underdog in this series. When was the last time we could say that about Golden State? 2013? Plus, even when the odds were stacked against them, the Warriors still gave the Raptors everything they could handle.

It didn’t have to do with just the Warriors either. Remember when Durant called Kawhi a “system player” back in 2014? While he probably changed his mind about that years ago, we finally were proven that Kawhi is far from a system player. In fact, Kawhi may just very well be the system.

By winning his second championship with a different franchise, Kawhi joins a rare group of players who won titles with two different teams, including LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Dennis Rodman and Ray Allen.

Finally, in retrospect, it seriously is so mind-blowing that the Warriors were able to make five consecutive runs to the Finals. It’s hard to believe, but the only team to do that was the Boston Celtics in the 1960’s. We’ve seen teams make multiple runs to the Finals, but not five times in a row. While LeBron made eight consecutive Finals, he did with that with two different teams.

Many wanted Golden State’s era of dominance to end. Just not like this. Even though we would have preferred it go differently, we should all be happy that there’s a new champion now even if circumstances made it easier for it to win.

In the end, it’s not hard to say that it’s just as satisfying to see the Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors as it is bittersweet.

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