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NBA Daily: The Return – 6 Situations – Southwest Division

Ben Nadeau continues the 6 Situations series by checking on those battling it out in the Southwest Division.

Ben Nadeau

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With professional basketball on the horizon, all eyes have turned toward Orlando – but here, we’re trying to peer into the future too.

Frankly, the news of pending basketball seems small in comparison to some other important issues. The planet-wide pandemic and sweeping protests have turned everybody’s day-to-day routines on their head – but, obviously, for one group, it has done so in awful and disproportionate ways.

If you can donate, consider doing so. If you can’t donate, educate yourself. Even if you donate, continue to read, learn and listen.

Or try this: If you finish this article and come away having learned something, donate something of your own: Time, supplies, a tough conversation — whatever. Consider it a trade, do whatever it takes. Make a difference, even if it’s a small one.

Yesterday, Matt John dug into the next steps for the Northwest Division – what will become of this surprisingly successful Oklahoma City roster? Where will Mike Conley Jr. fit moving forward for Utah?  But the Southwest is an awfully crowded collection of franchises, one in which all five teams are involved in July’s restart. Although some of them should certainly fair better than others, stocked by MVP candidates, up-and-comers and veteran-led rosters, there’s plenty to ponder beyond this summer.

Many didn’t know what the NBA would look like if and when it returned – but now that they have, the same question and logic applies to the forthcoming muddied and rapid-fire offseason too. Blow it up or keep it together? Cut costs or go all-in? Although the restart shouldn’t be used to draw any consequential decisions, it may inform front offices of the best way forward — even if it may be a painful direction.

In the spirit of revving up the ol’ crystal ball prediction machine, here comes the Southwest Division.

Houston Rockets: Did the James Harden + Russell Westbrook experiment work?

And what needs to happen to make another season more successful?

As mentioned in the Rockets’ X-Factor piece, the fit of Russell Westbrook has always been a suspect one. Despite all the assumed pitfalls, it was ultimately a plunge worth taking in lieu of Chris Paul’s massive deal – but will anything come of it? In this current iteration, built entirely around James Harden and a system that nearly propelled him to back-to-back MVP awards, the Rockets have hoisted up three-pointers like they’re going out of style for years and years.

However, that becomes a bit dicier as a team-wide mantra when the new point guard has struggled from there for over a decade. Westbrook’s best-ever mark is 34.3 percent (2016-17), which would stand as a career-low for his backcourt partner. Former key shooters like Eric Gordon and Danuel House have regressed from deep, while they’ve missed Gerald Green entirely. Compounded by their decision to deal the up-and-coming Clint Capela for wing defense and more shooting, the Rockets now run with P.J. Tucker as the starting center.

If Houston struggles at all to re-acclimate in Orlando, they could pay a pretty hefty first-round price. And if they flame out quickly during the Golden State Warriors’ now infamous down year – then what is the real ceiling of this redesigned roster? Any potential departure of Westbrook would be marred by the same criteria that brought him to the Rockets in the first place – the price and years left on a big contract. This iteration is one that runs awfully hot-and-cold — they’re part of the NBA elite. But those off-nights, against the more powerful and consistent Western Conference, are seeding killers.
Logical progression might suggest that the best way forward is a structure reset — find a real center, build for more balance, etc – but it might not be possible. Harden, of course, is used to doing the impossible – and he’ll need to in July.

If the Rockets can’t make combination work – both in the short- and long-term – they’ll have more questions than answers with very little influence in changing them. Houston has rolled the dice significantly on this pairing, now it needs to improve… or else.

Dallas Mavericks: Are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzinigs fully healed and healthy?

Will they need another star to truly compete?

This sentiment assumes that Luka Doncic cannot transcend rosters – hell, he’s already done that in Dallas over a season-plus. But in the Western Conference, it’ll take more than just a perennial MVP candidate to top that massive hierarchy. That’s also why they moved for an injured Kristaps Porzingis last year and re-signed him before the Latvian ever played a game – Batman needed a Robin.

Over 51 games for Dallas, Porzingis has averaged 19.2 points and 8.5 rebounds over 31 minutes – numbers that saw a healthy boost during the contests in which Doncic missed out in early February. Recovering from ACL injuries are no joke, so the Mavericks were rightfully careful not to push Porzingis too quickly, even frequently scheduling rest days in 2020. Alongside Doncic, the international duo could make waves as a lower-seeded opponent down in Orlando. But if they get matched up with the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers, a year of great growth may end swiftly.

Losing to LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard would be of no immense shame, especially in the midst of the weirdest NBA season ever. But matched at 40 wins with Oklahoma City and Houston, the Mavericks will have work to do in the loss column if they’d like to move up the ladder at all. Assuming that the quarantine has done nothing to negatively change the health of their stars, they’ll have two ready-to-go 20 point scorers — but will that be enough?

After that pair, Dallas’ best scorer is Tim Hardaway Jr. at 15.8 points per game – but as an up-and-down shooter, he’s had plenty of off-nights to go with the explosiveness. With 17 games in 2019-20 with 11 points or less, that probably won’t get it done against a balanced Denver roster, much less an LA-based superteam. In a strange COVID-19 landscape, both on the trade market and in free agency, who knows what upgrades or replacements will even exist in the next modified offseason.

Doncic is an incredible, still-improving superstar – but we’re about to find out just how good he can be.

San Antonio Spurs: Is it time, at long last, to blow it up and start over?

Is there any reason to ponder Gregg Popovich’s future?

The Spurs, although trekking down to Orlando, have a tough mountain to climb to reach the No. 8 seed – again, just to play the Lakers.

It’s a task that became even harder when LaMarcus Aldridge underwent season-ending surgery a few weeks ago. But if we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s wise not to bet against Gregg Popovich. Of course, the legendary coach has led San Antonio to the postseason in every single campaign since 1997-98. At 27-36, the odds aren’t great – but the soon-to-be Hall of Famer has done more with less before.

He’s still got DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs still have Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and a wisened Rudy Gay as well. There’s even the potential to just unleash Lonnie Walker and see what happens – for better or worse. Losing Aldridge hurts, perhaps a bit too much, but Popovich is still Popovich.

Regardless of their slim chances next month, there’s still speculation about the head coach’s future in general. 71 years of age is no spring chicken, a stance only fueled further by recent attempts to elevate responsibilities for assistant coaches like Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan. Naturally, the Spurs are synonymous with Popovich until he decides differently – but once his historic postseason streak is officially struck down, where does a potentially rebuilding team go from there?

Would they try to move on from a near-expiring DeRozan contract? What about an aging Aldridge that only has $7 million guaranteed in 2020-21? If they miss the playoffs and deal with the tough reality of a rebuild, could they – finally, truly, actually – take that path? Even if Orlando goes swimmingly, this is a franchise that might look vastly different the next time basketball begins, whenever that is.

New Orleans Pelicans: How much Zion Williamson is too much?

Which players tested positive for COVID-19 and will their availability change in Orlando?

Look, obviously, most everybody would like to see Zion Williamson against the Lakers in a seven-game series. Undoubtedly, the NBA didn’t want to erase that possibility either.

Beyond Williamson, the Pelicans have the tools and roster to make a real go of it too — Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, etc. But the biggest question of all is where the former No. 1 overall pick stands in terms of health and conditioning. Pushing a postseason berth at the risk of another serious injury wouldn’t be worth it – so surely the New Orleans front office has been pondering minute allocations since the stoppage in March.

If Williamson is in better shape than ever, watch out. . . but the Pelicans certainly have a responsibility to protect their franchise cornerstone beyond this odd restart.

On Tuesday, Andrew Lopez of ESPN noted that the Pelicans had three of the 16 recently positive COVID-19 tests. While young athletes can recover from the virus – and David Griffin has said he expects everybody to go to Florida – the pandemic has been anything but predictable.

Both DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie announced that they’d tested positive too. In Jordan’s case, he was immediately opting out of the restart, while Dinwiddie wants to recover in time but has some worrying symptoms to deal with first – including a fever and chest tightness. Without guarantees of perfect health here on out in the Pelicans’ trio of cases, that could have plenty of impact in their play-in chase.

This is an evolving story, undoubtedly, but will it dent the postseason momentum New Orleans has on their side? Only time will tell.

Memphis Grizzlies: Would a veteran star elevate the roster in 2020-21 or should the team keep growing organically?

The Memphis Grizzlies have been the surprise team of the season out westward, led by Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Dillion Brooks and a cast of supporting players, both young and old.

But the franchise is fast approaching a fork in the road – should they push their stack toward the middle of the betting table? Or will they continue to let their budding stars grow? Outside of the newly-re-signed Anthony Tolliver, the bit work of Gorgui Dieng, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill have played key minutes in Memphis’ successes, but none are part of the long-term plan.

The one massively contributing veteran stalwart has been Jonas Valanciunas, who has averaged 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in just 26.3 minutes per game – an underrated factor in the squad’s rapid climb. At 27-years-old, the Lithuanian will earn $29 million between 2020-22, so it’ll hardly be a cap killer should the right move arise during the offseason.

Adding a star player in the offseason could push them up over the top as an eventual contender – but who will be available and at what price? The Grizzlies have rebuilt tremendously, so they must be careful about attempting to skip steps in the process. It might be tempting to ship off a player or two for a win-now option – however, we’ve seen that be the dagger in up-and-coming rosters time and time again.

Ultimately, of all the teams in the Southwest Division, the Grizzlies have one of the rosiest outlooks right now. Nobody in the core is aging out, the window is just beginning to open, the current stars are bright already and everybody remains as healthy as one might be during a worldwide pandemic. The Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs own fascinating questions for their stars and roster-wide makeup – but the Pelicans and Grizzlies appear to be next-up contenders, all they must do is wait it out without getting hasty.

Easier said than done.

After the Orlando seeding games conclude in August, we’ll likely have a much better picture of where these five franchises stand, both today and down the road.

Until then, the crystal ball will have to do.

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: Get Familiar With the Phoenix Suns

Drew Maresca discusses the Suns’ roster, why they’ve flown under the radar for much of the season and why fans should expect even more from Phoenix.

Drew Maresca

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What in the world is going on in Phoenix?

Unless you’ve deliberately followed the Suns this season, it’s understandable if you’ve missed their incredibly hot start. They’re not mentioned by the national media (e.g., ESPN) nearly as often the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers — but they should be.

And it’s not as is you can easily do your own research, either. Unless you’re an NBA League Pass subscriber, you’ve had limited opportunities to watch what’s going on in Phoenix. The Suns were scheduled to appear in only the tenth-most nationally televised games through the first half of the season, behind the Lakers, Nets, Boston Celtics, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami HEAT (and tied with the Philadelphia 76ers).

But at a certain point, numbers are just too powerful to continue to overlook – and that point was months ago for the Suns. And while they still haven’t even really received the credit they deserve, it’s coming.

After a loss against the Clippers on Thursday night, Phoenix is 36-15, good for the second-best record in the entire league. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games and boast the fifth-best defensive rating (109.4) and seventh-best offensive rating (116.3) – which works out to the third-best net rating in the NBA (+6.6).

The Suns – and pretty much every NBA team – have a long way to go before cementing their playoff seeding. According to Tankathon, the Suns have the eighth-hardest remaining schedule, with games against the Jazz, Nets, 76ers, Clippers, Lakers and Bucks – but that’s less alarming when you look closely at the Suns’ results thus far.

The Suns are 18-7 against teams with .500 records or better. They’re also 7-5 against teams with .600 records or better and 3-2 against the ultra-elite (Jazz, Nets, Clippers, Bucks, 76ers).

Ultimately, the NBA is about winning – not expectations – so the Suns still have every opportunity to accomplish what they’d hoped to prior to the season. They play smart and are well-stocked with star power. Opponents probably won’t overlook them, but fans may. And it’s the fans who could miss out.

But how did Phoenix turn the corner so quickly? They went from a 19-63 team in 2018-19 to the league’s second-best team just two seasons later.

Adding Chris Paul helps. But it’s also understandable that adding Paul means being overlooked – he’s been overlooked for most of the recent past, written off as great but not great enough.

Upon closer inspection, Paul’s resume is jaw-dropping. Most recently, he led the seriously under-manned 2019-20 Oklahoma City Thunder team to the fifth-seed in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. He was also responsible for catapulting the Houston Rockets into serious contention mode; at their pinnacle in 2017-18, the Rockets were up 3-2 against the champion-to-be Golden State Warriors before Paul strained his hamstring and missed games six and seven, both of which Houston dropped.

Paul, who will turn 36 this May, is still a magician on the court. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 8.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. He’s also played in all but one of the Suns’ games. But what’s most impressive about Paul is that his net effect is far greater than any stats can communicate.

Ironically, in giving Paul his flowers, we inherently overlook Booker, the team’s leader in points (26.0) and minutes played (34.2). Objectively, Booker should be in the MVP discussion, but he plays in Phoenix and alongside Paul – so individual accolades will have to wait.

But the Suns’ success is about more than just the backcourt. There’s also the first-overall pick from the 2018 NBA Draft, Deandre Ayton, who’s averaging a double-double, again, while shooting career-bests from the field (62.8%) and the free-throw line (76.7%). There’s also Mikal Bridges – who is quietly outperforming guys taken ahead of him in the 2018 draft, scoring 13.3 points per game on 41.5% shooting from deep – and Jae Crowder.

And then there’s the other guys, who were recently overlooked or disregarded by other teams – Cameron Johnson, Dario Saric and Cameron Payne.

Johnson was the 11th overall pick in 2019. But because of his advanced age relative to other lottery picks – Johnson was 23 on draft night – and the fact that he wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, the Suns and Johnson were ridiculed.

But Johnson hit the ground running, averaging 8.8 points while shooting 39% on three-point attempts in his rookie season. And he’s gained momentum in his Sophomore campaign, scoring 9.8 points per game while maintaining his shooting from deep (38.7%) and increasing his two-point shooting percentage from 52.6% to 56.6%.

Saric is a versatile big who’s been aided by the game’s move to pace-and-space. Drafted in 2014, Saric remained in Europe until the 2016-17 season. He’s been effective at every stop he’s made, but (surprisingly) didn’t latch on in Philadelphia or Minnesota. He’s averaging 9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while shooting 35% on three-point attempts. And given the league’s move to mobile bigs, Saric is a valuable role player and complements the more physical play of Ayton beautifully.

And then there’s Payne, who was best known as a former Russell Westbrook hype man. But the book is being re-written on Payne given what he’s done in Phoenix so far.

Payne cemented a spot on the Suns with his performance last season, averaging 10.9 points on better-than-50% shooting from deep in eight games in the bubble. And while the addition of Chris Paul has translated to fewer minutes for Payne, he’s still producing. He’s scoring 6.8 points in 16.8 minutes per game on 40.2% shooting on three-point attempts, but the more he plays, the greater the effect; Payne is averaging 13.4 points per game when he plays at least 20 minutes – which includes games against Dallas, Portland and Miami.

The Suns get a whole lot out of their roster, including younger guys like Bridges and Ayton. That’s a testament to the second-year head coach, Monty Williams. So while the path here could be misinterpreted as involving shortcuts, it’s actually followed a deliberate plan that’s been executed to perfection by the team’s front office.

Phoenix may have arrived sooner than expected, but Paul doesn’t lose much – which is probably rubbing off on Booker and others – so betting against him (and the Suns) was always a fool’s errand. And regardless of outcomes, one thing’s for sure – people will learn about the Suns this season. And they won’t be written off anytime soon.

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NBA PM: Jeremy Lin, Activist and Basketball Player

Racism in the United States continues to rise as the fight for equality continues. In the NBA, Jeremy Lin has stepped up and used his voice in support of the movement to end Asian hate.

Dylan Thayer

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a strong movement for social justice and human rights in America. Recently, the headlines have involved racist remarks and attacks on people of Asian ethnicities across the United States.

In the NBA, various teams and players have come out to voice their support for the movement to stop Asian hate such as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and an Asian-American himself, Jeremy Lin. The basketball world has done an excellent job with social justice reform and human rights issues by highlighting them on the players’ uniforms, banners and signs throughout their arenas, while also letting the players express their thoughts on racism without backing down.

“As a part of our ongoing commitment to promote racial equality and social justice,” the NBA’s recent statement read, “We stand with the Asian community against any acts of hate and racism.”

Within the past few weeks, there was a mass shooting in Atlanta at a massage parlor that left six Asian women dead. The shooting occurred on Mar. 16 and has been highly publicized as a hate crime. This act of racism put the Asian hate movement in the spotlight once again, but, sadly, hate crimes towards Asians related to the coronavirus pandemic are not new.

Lin – always willing to stand up for what’s right, no matter the cost – used his platform as to speak out and highlight the hate seen against Asian-Americans.

“We have to keep standing up, speaking out, rallying together and fighting for change. We cannot lose hope!” 

Lin, who has now played for the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets, has a large platform as an Asian American basketball player. Today, the point guard for the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors has been a vocal leader of the movement to end Asian hate. But as one of three Asian basketball players in the NBA system, he serves as a role model for young Asians everywhere. For every three-pointer he hit this year in the G League, he donated to organizations for youth empowerment or human rights work, per CBS News

Of course, during a G League game, Lin was called ‘coronavirus’ by another player – which led to him speaking out against Asian hate but did not name anybody as he did not want to contribute to more hate.

“What good does it do in this situation for someone to be torn down?” Lin said in a lengthy Twitter note posted in late February.

Listen to the voices that are teaching us how to be anti-racist towards ALL people.”

Experiencing recent hate while enduring numerous other instances of racism towards him, Lin is a powerful voice and a leader in the Asian American community. 

As a player, Lin has had an up-and-down career while playing overseas in China – all following an NBA Finals win in which he played just one minute for the Toronto Raptors. Back in America and the G League where he famously got his start, Lin has tried to prove that he’s ready and able to contribute to an NBA team once more.

Appearing in nine games for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Lin posted averages of 19 points and 6.4 assists per game, plus a field goal percentage of 50.5 percent, a 42.6 percent three-point percentage and 87.9 from the free throw line.

Without a doubt, Lin still has a lot of good basketball left in the tank, but why hasn’t he been called up to the NBA? The Golden State Warriors are already in the luxury tax and the team’s other guards have performed particularly well. An unfortunate circumstance for him to be in, but Lin is one injury away from a call-up and a contract if the situation arises. 

This season may not be the one where Lin makes his return to the NBA, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying. It was clear following his short G League stint that he can still play in the NBA and deserves to still be on a roster. Even if he is not in a large role, he can be an instant threat off the bench at any moment with his offensive IQ creating shots for himself and opening up the floor for others. 

But as Lin works to re-fulfilling his dreams, it hasn’t stopped him from using his platform for good. Throughout his long, bumpy career – full of meteoric rises, brutal injuries and false starts – the veteran point guard has always been a source of kindness and thoughtfulness. And in this day and age, Lin stands to be a powerful voice for progress not only in the NBA, but in the country at large.

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NBA Daily: Pelicans-Thomas Partnership a Low-Risk, High-Upside Bet for Both

Bobby Krivitsky examines the partnership formed between the New Orleans Pelicans and Isaiah Thomas, a low-risk wager that could pay dividends for both sides.

Bobby Krivitsky

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On Apr. 6, Isaiah Thomas played in his first NBA game in over a year.

Between then and now, Thomas had a hip resurfacing procedure to address the bone-on-bone issue in his hip. The pain was so excruciating that Thomas favored his right side, compromising his balance and overall effectiveness. As a result, he bounced around the league and spent brief stints with four teams in three years before being waived by the Los Angeles Clippers after they acquired him in a deal with the Washington Wizards. Back on the court, the one-time Mr. Irrelevant, who rose to near-MVP status with the Boston Celtics, said as much about his journey.

“It’s like night and day for me,” Thomas told ESPN back in October. “There’s no more pain. I’ve got my full range of motion. For three years, I was trying to play the best players in the world on one leg. I needed help from my kids to put my socks on in the morning.”

Now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Thomas played 25 minutes in his return to the hardwood, scoring 10 points on 13 shots to go along with two assists and two rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks. Though it was far from a gaudy stat line, it was great to see Thomas moving well and looking comfortable attacking off the dribble.

 

“I felt good out there. I was moving; I got to my spots; I just didn’t knock down my shots,” Thomas said after the game. “I’m still going to be a little rusty from not playing for so long, but coach Stan (Van Gundy) was like, ‘be you, go out there and be aggressive, make plays, score the ball, we want you to be you.'”

“That’s all I can do — and I’ll be better tomorrow.”

The next night, in Thomas’ second game with the Pelicans, he registered a stat line of 11 points on 12 shots to go along with three assists and a steal in a 139-111 loss on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. The fact he was able to play on both ends of a back-to-back is an encouraging sign in and of itself. As a one-way guard who the Pelicans brought in on a 10-day contract hoping to get more scoring from their second unit, Thomas reaching double figures in his first two contests of the 2020-21 campaign bodes well for his chances of sticking with New Orleans for the rest of the season.

Before joining the Pelicans, Thomas most recently played for the USA Men’s Basketball AmeriCup Qualifying Team. He started in both of their qualifying games in February, leading the USMB team to wins over the Bahamas and Mexico. In those two contests, the nine-year NBA veteran averaged a team-high 14 points, two rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and logging 21 minutes per contest.

That performance undoubtedly gave David Griffin, New Orleans’ executive vice president of basketball operations, the confidence to sign Thomas to a 10-day contract. 

And Thomas just might be the spark they need down the stretch. The Pelicans currently sit 11th in the Western Conference, just two games out of the play-in tournament, a concept first introduced when last season resumed in Orlando. The team’s bench is contributing an average of 32.2 points per game, which ranks 25th league-wide. Perhaps, Thomas, who’s healthier than he’s been in years, provides the scoring boost necessary to help vault them into the postseason.

Of course, Thomas would have to acclimate very quickly for that to happen. New Orleans has just 21 games left this season. Furthermore, teams are working with condensed schedules, making practices a rarity.

The former will challenge Thomas and the Pelicans’ training staff in their ability to keep Thomas’ hip fresh, to maintain his health and the energy he can provide off the bench. The latter is going to make it difficult for Thomas to develop on-court chemistry with his new teammates. Most of that feeling-out process will be happening in high-stakes games with a spot in the postseason on the line.

Another challenge Thomas is facing is that he’s signed to a 10-day contract, meaning he has to immediately prove to the Pelicans that he’s worth keeping for the rest of the regular season. It’s a low-risk gamble for New Orleans and an opportunity Thomas wasn’t going to pass up — it may not work out with the Pelicans, but another team might take a chance on Thomas if he can prove he’s rediscovered the burst that made him so lethal in Boston.

Time will tell how effective this partnership works out for both parties. But, either way, it’s great to see Thomas back in the NBA. And to this point, he’s moving well and once again scoring the ball effectively, which bodes well for his chances of sticking around beyond his current contract.

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