Author Archives: Andy Grimsrud

Notes on a Media Day

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The Wolves hosted Media Day on Monday, marking the beginning of the 2019-20 season.  Aside from the visual experience of seeing each player — many new faces among them — the main event is the line of press conferences.  They began with a joint conference from #RosasAndRyan, and then ticked off every one of the guys on the preseason roster.

Here are a few simple observations of this writer: Continue reading

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NOTICE OF BLOG CHANGE

In case you missed it, we are now writing for A Wolf Among Wolves. (awolfamongwolves.com).

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Tyus Jones: The 1 & Done Who Wasn’t?

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A few years ago, I heard about a conversation that Rick Pitino had about local prep star, Tyus Jones. I was one layer of hearsay removed from it, and it’s been a few years, but here is the general gist of what Pitino apparently said about the Apple Valley prospect:

“Tyus Jones is not a ‘one-and-done.’ He thinks he’s a one-and-done, but he is not a one-and-done.”

It wasn’t an earth-shattering assessment of Tyus, if you had seen what he looked like — scrawny and maybe not even six-feet tall — but I found the phrasing sort of interesting, especially from somebody in Pitino’s position. Pitino probably recruited Jones to play for him at Louisville, and in that process he came away thinking that the kid was more confident about his pro prospects than he should have been. (Also, Pitino’s son Richard had recently taken over the University of Minnesota coaching job, and he was definitely trying to recruit Jones. I’m sure father and son compared notes.) Despite his high hopes for himself, thought Pitino, Jones was not going to be ready for the NBA within nine months of stepping foot on whatever campus he chose. (Duke, as it turned out.)

A few years later, was Pitino right or wrong?

I mean, Tyus was, literally, a one-and-done. He went to Duke, won a national championship (and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors) and was selected by Flip Saunders and the Timberwolves in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.

In that respect, Pitino was wrong.

But last year as an NBA rookie, in terms of Tyus’s actual production and overall readiness as an NBA player, Pitino’s assessment was probably validated too. Tyus was overwhelmed in many of his rookie-year stints on the floor. Sam Mitchell remained loyal to the unexpectedly-fallen Flip Saunders and committed to development over “win now” strategies. He played youngsters like Jones the minutes they needed to learn on the job. But in Tyus’s case more than anyone else’s, there was question of whether those minutes were constructive or discouraging.

Jones shot a miserable 35.9 percent from the field. Worse than his shooting percentage was the drop-off in Timberwolves quality of play when Jones manned the point instead of Ricky Rubio. With Rubio at the helm they actually outscored opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions, With Tyus, they were outscored by a whopping 10.0 per 100. That is like dropping from a 7 or 8 seed level of play down to the worst team in the entire league.

But watching Jones, three things stood out that gave some hope that his future might still be bright, even if it would require patience.

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KAT the 5, or KAT the Eventual 5?

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Free agency begins tomorrow, and the Timberwolves will be looking to add a big man. While NBA positions are less rigid than they used to be, I think there’s a reasonable chance that the Wolves will try to acquire a “true center.” I have two basic reasons for expecting this:

  1. I believe Tom Thibodeau wants to start winning right away; not in a year or three.
  2. Last season, the Wolves were absolutely destroyed on the interior whenever the 7’1″ Kevin Garnett was unable to play. Which was most of the time.

Karl-Anthony Towns has a big future ahead of him (Captain Obvious) and most of that future will probably involve him playing the center position. The sorts of matchup nightmares that he will present at that position are probably the biggest reason Thibodeau took this job in the first place.

But last year, he was not able to defend very well as a five, and — again, if they are trying to win right away — the Wolves will probably sign a full-sized big man to at least insure themselves against certain types of matchups when KAT would be better off at the four spot.

In case you forgot one of the primary negative themes of last season, I’ll run a few quick numbers by you:

  • 107.1. This was the Wolves defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions). It ranked fourth worst in the league.
  • 108.8. This was their D-rating without Garnett. This was just a hair better than the Lakers, who were the league’s worst defensive club.
  • 96.4. Their D-rating WITH Garnett playing. Instead of playing league-worst level defense, with a talented seven footer out there, the Wolves defended slightly better than the historically-great San Antonio Spurs.

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The Rubio Referendum

This was me, a week ago, after reading some mocks and predictions that had the Wolves selecting either a point guard (Kris Dunn) or a shooting guard (Jamal Murray) with the fifth pick in the draft:

Right around the time that the Wolves selection of Dunn was announced on Thursday night, Woj crystallized my earlier sentiment with this:

These intertwined pieces of important Timberwolves information hit us like a 1-2 punch; leaving Timberwolves Nation collectively… well, perhaps a little bit “punch drunk,” in the 48 hours that followed. On Twitter, I think I pretty much observed the gamut of “takes.”

“This doesn’t necessarily mean Rubio is gone. Maybe they can play together.”

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The Punch Drunk Running Draft Diary

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Bowties were the look, last night. H/t Stephanie, Patrick J’s wife, for this collage.

[We decided to do a running diary of last night’s draft. This started about a half hour before the draft began, and it ended around the time Orlando drafted Sabonis at 11 and quickly traded him to OKC. At that point, it still seemed like a Kris Dunn/Jimmy Butler trade was imminent. Over the weekend, we’ll digest all that emerged from last night — most significantly, the reports that Ricky Rubio’s days in Minnesota might be numbered. For now, enjoy the live reactions to the draft, outlined below. -AG]

Andy G: We’re both watching this draft on our respective couches, fully equipped in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh with Twitter, ESPN, and cold beverages. Let’s do a live diary from now (apprx 6:25 CST, 35 minutes until draft time) until after the Wolves pick at 5. (Or until they trade, or whatever they do.)

Wolves Twitter is an uneasy place right now. Woj is at the wheel, telling us that we’re taking Buddy Hield if Kris Dunn is off the board. He’s also saying that Rubio’s name is coming up in trade talks. Ian Begley from ESPN says that the Wolves dangled LaVine and the 5 for Jimmy Butler.

Are we going to recognize the Timbewolves roster beyond Wig & KAT tomorrow?

Patrick J: I hope so. It took this long to get to where we are, which isn’t so bad.

Andy G: Booing Adam Silver just seems wrong.

Patrick J: Booing Adam Silver should be a crime of some sort. #CasualObservation

Andy G: They’re showing ‘96 Draft footage. That was the most excited I’ve ever been about the Wolves. Turns out maybe keeping Shuttlesworth would’ve been the right play. Kevin McHale and 8th Grade Me had no way of knowing.

Patrick J: I wanted Marbury then too. Still probably would, against my better judgment. Will we be thinking the same about Ben Simmons (for the 76ers) or for whoever the Twolves pick at #5 tonight? (Eds. Note: Patrick J is weaving between his keyboard, saag paneer takeout, and beer. Even the most ambidextrous might have trouble with that combo.)

Andy G: BEN SIMMONS! I think I’ve been over-thinking the Ben Simmons question marks. He’s a pretty awesome talent.

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Go Big or Go Home: Thoughts on this Timberwolves Draft Pick

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Buddy Hield & Dragan Bender

I’m sitting here watching Jalen Rose and Jay Williams on TV, discussing who the Timberwolves should draft tomorrow night with the fifth overall selection. Their mock of course has Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram off the board before the Wolves pick. They also have Providence’s Kris Dunn — a player the Timberwolves have reportedly shown interested in — taken before five. And they have Washington’s Marquese Chriss going fourth to the Suns, one spot ahead of the Wolves.

Rose: At number five–

Williams: –Minnesota, a team of slashers, what are you gonna do?

Rose: You need a spot-up shooter. You have Wiggins, you have LaVine, you have Karl-Anthony Towns inside, you have Rubio at the point. That’s my spot up shooter. [Rose points at the screen, where he’s got Jamal Murray going to the Wolves.]

Williams: Really? See, when I think about Minnesota, I think about THE BEST spot-up shooter in the draft. I’d replace him with Buddy Hield. I think you already have enough guys who can handle the ball with LaVine and Rubio and that whole cast of characters, and Wiggins. I think Buddy Hield is a really good fit on that team.

Rose: When Coach Cal is on the phone with his good friend TOM THIBODEAU, he’s bringing out lottery picks every year, and what Coach Cal wants he normally gets!

Chad Ford, ESPN’s draft expert and prognosticator, also has Jamal Murray going to the Wolves at five. In his Mock Draft 9.2 (Insider) he writes that, “Murray’s shooting and ability to play both the 1 and the 2 give them a versatile, go-to scorer to put alongside Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine.”

In other words, Ford views a Murray selection as the Wolves drafting a “third guard,” which is either a bench player or the starting two, depending on how LaVine’s career shakes out.

A couple days ago, Ford and Jay Bilas co-authored a mock draft piece where Ford predicted who each team would select, while Bilas analyzed who they SHOULD take. In that piece, Ford predicted Murray to the Wolves, while Bilas thought they should take Hield.

…….

To me, this is a little bit alarming, and I hope Thibodeau & Layden (that sounds like a personal injury law firm) are thinking much differently than ESPN’s finest seem to be.

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On enjoying Thunder-Warriors

The highest praise that I can think of for this Thunder-Warriors matchup — and I guess I’m thinking about tonight’s Game 6 more than anything — is that I cannot even decide how to best experience it.

Whether to invest emotions into the outcome is a starting point. For reasons I can’t explain, I’ve been cheering for OKC in these playoffs. I loved seeing them take down the Spurs, and I have enjoyed even more how they’ve been upsetting these incredible, 73-win, defending-champion Warriors. I could make up a rationale about wanting to see Durant validated with a ring, or something about Westbrook being the best live entertainer in the league (which is true), but I think the truth is that I just tend to cheer for the best team that hasn’t won it yet.

Sports fandom at this level has an inherent ridiculousness to it, and it only gets dumber when people try to rationalize their feelings. But one problem with caring too much about whether the Thunder win, or the Warriors win — setting aside the risk of being upset if things don’t go your way — is that by doing so you forfeit the simple experience of witnessing history play out with clear eyes.

That might mean focusing too much on officiating, or whether a certain elbow or kick is worthy of a Flagrant 1 or 2. It might mean chalking up Steph Curry’s on and off struggles to injury, or perceived uncalled fouls instead of thinking about, and observing how this is the first time he’s been seriously tested since becoming the world’s top player. It might mean, depending on how things shake out, missing the moment when Durant takes that title back away from him.

There is so much going on in this series to fascinate hoops junkies:

  • Splash Brothers
  • Thunder’s switching defense, which might be Curry’s Kryptonite
  • Small ball vs Offensive rebounding
  • Draymond Green teetering on the line between intense and insane
  • Westbrook also teetering on the line between intense and insane
  • Durant being amazing
  • Durant being decidedly less amazing when Iguodala is checking him
  • Steve Kerr’s trust in his bench
  • Dion Waiters inexplicable giving Billy Donovan new hope that he can trust his bench too
  • How should (or shouldn’t) the Warriors defend Andre Roberson?
  • Steven Adams
  • Steven Adams and Draymond Green

The list could go on.

I don’t mean to suggest that cheering for one team or the other means going blind to all of the basketball greatness. But attention is a resource and it’d be a shame to waste too much of it on things that don’t matter very much. The best basketball in the world is going to be played tonight, and I plan to do my best to enjoy it for that reason alone.

But I’m also gonna be pissed off if the Thunder blow this chance to close on their home court.

 

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Wolves Drafting 5th: What now?

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We now know where the Wolves will be drafting on June 23rd. Well, unless there’s a trade between now and then. Or a trade on draft night.

Anyway, the Wolves landed 5th overall last night in the lottery. They had the 5th worst record in the league, and the draft order went right in line with reverse league-wide rankings. For the first time ever, the draft order disregards the usual jumble of the lottery format.

About as soon as the order was announced, the takes started coming in hot. Jim Souhan of the Star Tribune immediately published a column that calls for the Wolves to draft Buddy Hield, the Oklahoma Sooner who won over the hearts of college basketball fans this past season, winning Naismith Player of the Year honors. Chad Ford published his 7th Mock Draft (!) — first after the order was known — and has Minnesota drafting Kris Dunn from Providence. Dunn is a point guard, and Ford speculates about a future Ricky Rubio trade. (Without such speculation, the choice makes little sense.)

As I write this, Twitter is running hot with takes about trading the pick. Maybe the pick gets packaged with Gorgui Dieng, or Shabazz Muhammad, or even Zach LaVine (or some combination of the three) to land a bigtime veteran like Jimmy Butler. I’ve been teasing the idea of “LaVine and the 5 for Boogie Cousins” for months, while realizing that is a long shot.

The main point is, with the fifth pick, there are countless ways that this could play out. After Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, there is no consensus about who ranks third best, fourth best, fifth best, and so on. The Wolves do not have any clear idea right now about who will be available to draft at 5, and they will undoubtedly survey the league between now and draft night to discover any intriguing trade offers that might arise.

I think there are a few basic guidelines they should try to follow when making decisions with this prized asset that is the fifth pick in the 2016 draft:

  • If you trade it, only trade it for a star.

Along with the whole, “it’s your best chance of adding a star” thing, a lottery pick has value because it gives the team an opportunity to  hold a good player’s rights for 8 or more seasons.  You do not give that up in exchange for a veteran role player via trade who only has 2 or 3 years left on a contract before they either: 1) are no longer any good, due to age and injuries; and/or 2) decide to leave via unrestricted free agency.

You don’t give it up, that is, unless you are getting somebody good enough to justify it. When Boston traded away the 5th Pick (became Jeff Green) for Ray Allen in 2007, that was great for them. Allen was a star. They already had Paul Pierce and Al Jefferson (and quickly flipped Big Al for KG, even better!) and they were able to win a championship and build a mini-dynasty in the East.

Less cool was when the Wizards (led by Flip) traded the 5th Pick to David Kahn in exchange for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. The Wiz wanted to win now, and the move backfired. Whether Washington would have used it on Ricky Rubio like Kahn did, or Steph Curry, the decision to trade the pick for veteran role players proved to be a terrible one.

The Wolves will have a ton of cap room to target role players this summer. They should not use the fifth pick to land one.

  • Do not draft a player to fill a short-term need. Especially shooting.

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Takeaways from Thibs: Wolves Introduce New Coach

The Timberwolves held a press conference this afternoon at Target Center to introduce Scott Layden as General Manager and — more importantly — Tom Thibodeau as President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach. Alan Horton kicked things off with brief biographical information about the two newest Wolves employees before handing it off to Glen Taylor for a more personal introduction. Young Wolves players were there in the front row, including Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, and Tyus Jones.

What follows are some bullet-point takeaways of mine from the presser. This type of event is a lot like Media Day where most of the statements made are at least partially canned or prepared answers, replete with cliches or phrases, and very few remarks that can be construed as controversial or meaningful. However, I do my best as a fan-blogger with more interpretative leeway than a professional journalist to listen closely and parse what’s said, looking for any shreds of substance possible.

Here goes:

  • Glen wants a championship, badly.

This isn’t very interesting and it certainly isn’t controversial. But it was sort of interesting how Glen compared this particular opportunity to “go for the top,” to two others in his time as Wolves owner: When they had Marbury and Garnett (as my last post discussed) and the 2004 run when they teamed KG with Cassell and Sprewell. Taylor views this as a third opportunity, and he made clear that he views this as a very long-term situation. He all but stated that he is going to remain owner as long as Thibs and Layden are here, and that he thinks it will be longer than the five years each is under contract. He’s committing to something big, deep into the future.

  • Thibs has friends in the Chicago media.

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Wolves Sign Thibs & Things Have Never Looked Brighter

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I think I’ve written before that the 1996 Draft was the apex of my excitement and optimism about my favorite basketball team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. There were a few different reasons for this:

First, it was the summer before eighth grade, so something like excitement about my favorite sports teams was more easily generated. Second, Kevin Garnett, straight out of high school one year earlier, had begun to look like a future superstar toward the end of the previous season. The franchise had its first true sign of positive momentum. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Kevin McHale and Flip Saunders did what fans had desperately hoped they would do, by trading up in the draft to get Stephon Marbury, the freshman from Georgia Tech.

Marbury, an explosive point guard from New York City, was going to be the Stockton to KG’s Malone; the Payton to Garnett’s Kemp. Everything about it made sense. To make it even more storybook-perfect, the two had already established a friendship. It was a matter of “when,” as opposed to “if,” they would start winning championships together as the best 1-2 punch in basketball.

Of course, those championships never came. Not even close. Things started out great when they made the playoffs immediately. Steph (he wasn’t “Starbury” yet) and Da Kid played like stars together. But everything unraveled after KG signed his massive, lockout-inducing contract extension. Jealousy set in, Marbury was traded away, and — despite Garnett ascending to “all-time great” ranks in Minnesota — the Wolves never even reached the Finals.

The question is, was it wrong to feel excited on that June night in ’96?

And the answer, of course, is no.

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Final Timberwolves Report Cards, 4th Quarter & Season

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We were hardly given a minute of time to digest The Season That Was before all discussion shifted toward the new search for both a head coach and president of basketball operations. What follows here is my final run through quarterly report cards — this one covers the final 20 games of the season — with some thoughts about each player’s season as a whole, and a final grade.

The 4th Quarter was the Timberwolves best, as they hit a .500 record (10-10). This was much like how they started the season 8-8, but only this time it was on the backs of KAT, Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, and even Tyus Jones, instead of the crucial early-season contributions of Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince; elder statesmen who don’t factor into the team’s future. This stretch included road wins at Oklahoma City (!) and Golden State (!!). They also won at Portland and Washington. The Wolves closed the season the way everyone had hoped they would, with momentum heading into next year when reaching the playoffs will be a realistic goal for the first time since 2013.

Here are the final grades, and just a reminder that these are on my subjective curve that takes expectations and role into account:

Ricky Rubio: A- (Previous Grades: A-, B+, A-)
Season Grade: A-

Rubio’s play was pretty steady all season long. In the final quarter, he shot the ball above his averages (40% from the field, 36.4% from three) but was otherwise about the same as usual, statistically. His per-game averages were 10.4 points, 8.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals, and 2.9 turnovers in 30.5 minutes. These are pretty much right in line with his season averages. Ricky ended the year with career bests in advanced stats like PER (17.6) and win shares per 48 minutes (.119) owing to his combination of career bests in per-36 minutes assists (10.2) and turnovers (3.0, tied with one other season).

For the season, Rubio would get an A- grade. He remains very good or great at most aspects of the game, except for shooting. He might make one of the NBA All-Defense teams. And even with his shaky shot, Rubio helps lead a good team offense. His season offensive rating was 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which was the best among regular Wolves players and signifies good team offense. (Only 5 teams scored better than the Wolves did with Rubio on the floor, this season.) Rubio is a spectacular transition passer and developed chemistry with LaVine, Muhammad and Wiggins on the fast break, as the season moved along.

We often talk about plus/minus, and on/off differential with Rubio, because it so clearly captures his value to the Timberwolves. This season, in the 2,323 minutes that Rubio was on the floor, the Wolves outscored opponents by 18 points. In the 1,653 without him, the Wolves were beaten by 308 points.

He may never make an All-Star Team due to his limited scoring output, but he is clearly a helpful starting point guard, and probably one of the best dozen of them in the world.

Zach LaVine: B (Previous Grades: B+, D, B-)
Season Grade: B-

In the last 20 games of the season, LaVine played almost exclusively shooting guard. This was a welcome change for fans tired of watching Zach struggle to man the point. In the final quarter, LaVine posted great three-point shooting numbers, hitting 2.5 per game on 5.7 attempts (44.2%). His assist-to-turnover ratio was solid for an off guard (2.9 to 1.8). His worst stats, as is usually the case with LaVine, are in the team performance, on/off categories. Even in the shooting guard role, LaVine’s presence on the floor seemed to correlate with worse team performance than when he was on the bench. The numbers reveal that the performance downgrade comes on the defensive end. With Zach in the game, the Wolves had a net rating of (-1.9) in 701 minutes, and when he was on the bench they were (+5.0), which was the best of all “off” ratings during the season’s final quarter.

LaVine gets a B- for the whole season. As a rookie last year, he was not even close to ready for the NBA. This season, he improved a lot, but still has a ways to go. His jumpshot looks more and more like his most useful skill, and if he can work on his defense and court awareness, he could potentially make for an ideal backcourt pair with Rubio. His athleticism, best showcased at the Dunk Contest where he is now a two-time champion, is breathtaking and unmatched by his peers. LaVine learned this year how much easier scoring comes in transition, and he has also embraced three-point shooting. Those are two big steps. His turnovers are down from last year, probably because he isn’t playing point guard.

LaVine’s upside remains high, but this year was more about raising his “floor.” He seems destined to have a long career, which was not necessarily a given when this season began back in October.

Tyus Jones: B (Previous Grades: Incomplete, D+, C)
Season Grade: C

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INBOX: Mitchell Out, Coaching Search Underway

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Once upon a time, Tom Thibodeau, Sam Mitchell, and Scott Brooks were all members of the Timberwolves organization.

Patrick J: BREAKING: SAM MITCHELL WILL NOT BE RETURNING AS THE TIMBERWOLVES COACH IN 2016-17. Last week, you made the case for the Wolves to bring back Smitch for another season. But roughly one hour after the team’s final game – a 144-109 EVISCERATION of the Unibrow-less New Orleans Pelicans – the Wolves fired Mitchell (de facto) and announced that they’re teaming with an independent firm that specializes in “searches” to fill the coaching vacancy. As a Smitch defender – or at least an expemplar devil’s advocate of his – do you think Glen Taylor has made a bad decision?

Andy G: I’ll give you my answer to most questions:

“It depends.”

If KORN FERRY (the hiring firm) brings us Tom Thibodeau, then I’m all for the change. Thibs is on the short list with Popovich, [Stan] Van Gundy, and Rick Carlisle of the world’s best coaches. If you can get Thibs, you hire him and replace whoever you’ve got — as long as it’s not somebody else on that short list, of course.

As I’ve said many times, in different ways, Sam’s situation with the Wolves improved over the past couple months from, “He’s gotta go,” to “It depends on who replaces him.” That’s how I feel right now. Sam had the Wolves moving in a clear, positive direction in the final stage of the 2015-16 season, and there was every reason to expect more improvement with him as coach next year. Whether Sam deserved the job is less important than the fact that he had the job all season, and he had things going the way people should have wanted them going.

Any change will initially need to bring some level of extra credibility (Thibs) or excitement (Tom Izzo) for fans to feel a sense of positivity about the change. (Eds note: I don’t want Izzo or any other NCAA coach. But a lot of Minnesota-sports fans would love that.) If they instead hire Hoiberg away from the Bulls or Joerger away from the Grizzlies, I don’t see how there’s been a meaningful change.

After the initial announcement and rationalization for New Coach over Sam Mitchell, New Coach needs to prove it on the floor. Next year, that probably means a playoff berth, given the strength of this roster and how this team was playing at season’s end. (This also assumes some roster improvement in the frontcourt and backup guard slots.)

Give Taylor credit for making this decision immediately, though. I very much feared that this would drag out, which would not only cost the Wolves potential opportunities at marquee candidates, but could also jeopardize their draft and offseason preparation.

What did you think of the announcement?

Patrick J: KORN FERRY! (Eds. Note: Patrick J embraces the notion of hiring an “independent” firm with expertise in supporting targeted job searches, but he would have more confidence in a firm not named Korn Ferry.) Continue reading

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The Case for Keeping Sam Mitchell

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The 2015 movie “Bridge of Spies” tells the story of an American insurance-defense litigator (played by Tom Hanks) who finds himself tasked with defending a Soviet spy (played by Mark Rylance) against espionage-related charges. This is during the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s. The Hanks character, in the course of representing the Rylance character, becomes disturbed by what he finds to be a charade of a “trial” offered the Russian defendant. The Fourth Amendment violations committed by the cop don’t matter. The judge explains the defendant’s guilt in open court. And everybody hates Hanks for his surprisingly-zealous advocacy of a man aiding The Enemy.

The movie was good. I just saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago. (The Rylance performance, awarded with an Oscar, was great.) As with many random things that have nothing to do with the Timberwolves or even basketball, it got me thinking about the Timberwolves and basketball. Specifically, it got me thinking about Sam Mitchell, and what a “defense” of his position as Timberwolves head coach might look like. For such a long part of this season, Mitchell has been an unpopular coach with fans. Anyone in the Timberwolves social media community knows this. One of the big Twitter themes of this season has been the call for Mitchell to be replaced at the end of the season by a better coach.

There are a handful of reasons typically cited: He doesn’t manage rotations very well. (Earlier in the season, he often limited Ricky Rubio’s and Karl-Anthony Towns’s playing time in ways that seemed to cost the team potential wins.) He continued to use Flip Saunders’s outdated offense that was heavily geared toward pin-down screens and mid-range jumpers, and away from the “pace and space,” that predominates the league today. In the middle of the season when Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince stopped playing as much, the team’s defense was horrendous, and it wasn’t clear why such an athletic team should be so easy to score against. Amid all of this, Mitchell was unusually — sometimes unbelievably — disrespectful to media members asking the most basic, rational, not-even-remotely-unfair questions. The coach who yells at the media while his team is playing like shit is not going to win over many fans.

With this in mind, I just thought it would be an interesting post idea to try to come up with the best argument(s) possible to support KEEPING Sam as coach, instead of replacing him this summer. As it turned out, in the time between the inspiration for this post and its publishing, Mitchell’s case became a stronger one.

Here goes nothing…

THE CASE FOR KEEPING SAM MITCHELL

Qualifications

The first thing to consider is Mitchell’s credentials before his season as Timberwolves interim head coach.

It must be acknowledged that he came upon his current job in tragic, and totally unexpected circumstances when Flip Saunders died of cancer. Mitchell was not brought here to be head coach, and he is only presently in that role due to exigency. To the extent any NBA coach does or does not “deserve” his job, Mitchell has a flimsier hold over his own because he did not interview for it. He fell into it unexpectedly.

But regardless of how he found himself manning the Wolves Wheel, Mitchell has a resume that qualifies him to be an NBA head coach. He played 13 seasons in the league. Many of them were for Saunders and the Wolves, but he also played for Larry Brown in Indiana. He played with Kevin Garnett, Reggie Miller, and many others. He played on good teams and bad ones. His breadth of playing experience in different roles and circumstances taught him how pro basketball should and should not be played, and how success can come in different ways. As a Timberwolves player, Mitchell was known as a great mentor to Garnett when he came into the league. He was the type of player that seemed like future coach material.

In fact, he has coached. Mitchell has been an assistant coach in three different places, including Milwaukee under George Karl and then Terry Porter, New Jersey under Avery Johnson, and last year in Minnesota under Flip Saunders. More importantly, Mitchell was the head coach of the Toronto Raptors for four seasons where the team saw significant improvement under his watch. Mitchell took over the Raptors job when they had been significantly under .500. Worse than their losing record, the Raps were not well positioned to rebuild. They had an aging and unhappy Vince Carter, and a Jalen Rose who was transitioning into the “Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks” phase of his career. They had enough talent to win 30 games, but no upside think about doing much more than that.

In three seasons, Mitchell led the Raptors out of that miserable purgatory and into a division title with a new superstar, Chris Bosh. Mitchell’s Raptors won 47 games in 2007, despite the fact that his team’s minutes leaders after Bosh were Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, and Andrea Bargnani. Had Toronto been able to surround Bosh with another star or two, it’s possible that they could’ve made some deep playoff runs and even contended for a championship. That they didn’t has nothing to do with Mitchell, who did a very good job of coaching the players on his roster. He won NBA Coach of the Year for the 2007 performance.

After being fired in Toronto, Mitchell spent a few years working as an analyst on TV. This is another helpful avenue for coaches to learn. Hubie Brown had worked TV for years before a very successful return to the bench in Memphis. Steve Kerr, widely considered one of the best new coaches in the NBA, spend a lot of time as an analyst on TNT. Mark Jackson had success turning the Golden State Warriors around after spending his immediate post playing career as an analyst. The list goes on. Mitchell probably gained perspective and knowledge in his time spent on TV, after coaching in Toronto.

Clearly, Mitchell has a resume that warrants strong consideration for another head-coaching job in the NBA.

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Running Without Rebounding: Looking into Wolves Trends

This Timberwolves season has involved some clear trends, with clear reasons for those trends. In the early part of the season, they won a surprising number of games — 8 of their first 16 — largely because of the exceptional team defense played by lineups that included Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett. When that success started to seem unsustainable, the “youth movement” became a greater priority. With more Zach LaVine, and less Prince and KG, we saw better offense, but much, much worse defense. Overall, team performance suffered mightily in the middle months of the season. The consistency of their mid-season slumping is partly evidenced by the same net rating of -5.7 in December and January. To put that in perspective, only 4 teams in the league post worse net ratings than that: the Nets, Suns, Lakers and 76ers.

When LaVine and rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns thrived in the spotlight of All-Star Weekend, it seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered; it was not a fun point in time for the Timberwolves, and the youngsters finally had some positivity.

In March, things have seemed to get better; a bit more stabilized. The offense is performing well, and the defense is performing less bad. The Wolves net rating in March is -1.5, which matches November for the best of their season (not counting the +12.5 they posted in 2 October games). My “eye test” has told me that one significant reason for their improved play is that the most athletic players on the team — Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins — have begun to cash in on fast-break scoring opportunities generated by point guard wizard, Ricky Rubio. A common play in recent games has been either a long rebound or outlet pass to Rubio immediately turned into a shove-ahead assist to LaVine or Wiggins, streaking up the floor for a dunk.

Things are far from great, however. That season-best net rating is still negative, after all, and the improved offense has continued to be offset by crappy defense. Again going mostly by eye test, my take has been that the team’s recent lineup of choice — Rubio/LaVine/Wiggins/Dieng/Towns — is not big enough inside to rebound opponent’s missed shots. Sometimes, the ongoing struggle to get rebounds leads to these fast-break opportunities. Basically: opponents are willing to sacrifice some transition defense if it means crushing the Wolves on the glass all night. Add it together, and it ends with the Wolves struggling to keep up in high-scoring games.

So let’s look at the month-to-month numbers and try to spot some trends. Please note that Garnett’s month-to-month minutes played, beginning with November, go 202, 191, 127, 0, and 0. Prince’s go 307, 322, 377, 133, and 161. LaVine’s playing time was stable from November through February, but his position changed from combo (mostly point) guard, to almost exclusively shooting guard in mid-February, when Tyus Jones took over the backup point guard spot. The LaVine/Prince swap (Wiggins moves to the small forward and Prince goes to the bench when LaVine starts at the two) has a huge bearing on offense (better with LaVine), defense (much better with Prince), and pace (much higher with LaVine).

Here are some month-to-month stats to chew on:

Offensive Rating, and Percentage of Points Scored on the Fast Break

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Defining the Timberwolves Core & What That Means

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On Wednesday night, the Timberwolves faced a Memphis Grizzlies team that was absolutely depleted. The Grizz were without their best players: Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. They were also missing Vince Carter on Wednesday. Thankfully, the Wolves won. Zach LaVine had a big night, scoring 28 points. Tyus Jones played one of his best career games, racking up 10 points and 5 assists in 19 minutes of (+10) action off the bench.

Tonight, the Wolves face a Houston Rockets team that recently acquired Punch-Drunk Wolves favorite, Michael Beasley. Supercool Beas was recently named Foreign MVP of the Chinese Basketball Association after posting averages of 31.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He will be missed by the Shandong Golden Stars… at least until next year.

Yesterday was the first day of NCAA Tournament games. March Madness is upon us.

When teams are ravaged by injuries, Michael Beasley is back from China on a Why not? flyer, and the Big Dance is underway, you know that the NBA season is winding to a close. With that being the case, and with the Timberwolves headed to their umpteenth draft lottery, discussions about the team tend to skew toward the bigger picture, and the future. There are numerous questions, ranging in specificity, that can drive this conversation about the Wolves at this stage in their building process.

What do they need? That’s probably the most general. My knee-jerk reaction to this one is “a reliable veteran big man.” I prefer that they find a full-sized big man who can slide Karl-Anthony Towns over to the four spot (just for a few seasons, until he gets bigger and stronger) and help the Wolves defend the paint and rebound opponents’ missed shots. I know that some other people prefer the Wolves address perimeter shooting, and others feel that a “small-ball four” would be a smarter acquisition than a traditional five.

Who should they draft? This is related to the question of need, and that relationship is an interesting conversation itself. (More on this below.) The NCAA Tournament increases draft chatter, as many of the best prospects are playing in the biggest games of their careers, and NBA fans are actually watching.

Finally, I think a lot of people ask whether Ricky Rubio is, or should be (potentially a crucial distinction) considered a part of this team’s core. The Wolves are undoubtedly planning ways to contend for championships when Towns and Andrew Wiggins hit their primes. That will be in 3 or 4 years. Will Ricky still be around?

All of these questions are intertwined.

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3rd Quarter Report Card

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The Timberwolves 2015-16 season is starting to wind down. They’ve played 64 of 82 games as I begin this writing at Target Center, during pregame shootaround of the Wolves-Spurs tilt on Tuesday night. I posted quarter report cards after the first 20, and then 41 games had been played. The first quarter was optimistic. Fans recall the hot start to the Wolves season when they racked up surprising wins against the Heat, Bulls and Hawks, setting unsustainably-high expectations that would lead to eventual criticism of interim coach Sam Mitchell. The first quarter report card was brighter than the second one.

This third quarter report card covers player performance in Games 42 through 62 of the season. It’s a 21-game sample that showed a few interesting trends. They went 7-14 in that stretch; worse than their first quarter, but better than the second. Kevin Garnett played a grand total of 3 games and 40 minutes. Kevin Martin played in only 8 games. So did Andre Miller. Both of them player for the Spurs now.

The third quarter commenced the full youth movement, with the following players leading the team in minutes played:

  1. Wiggins
  2. Towns
  3. Dieng
  4. Rubio
  5. LaVine
  6. Muhammad

Since Coach Mitchell has trimmed the rotation down to mostly those 6 players, I only graded them, along with rookies Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica.

Here are the grades:

Ricky Rubio: A- (Previous Grades: A-, B+)

Rubio grades high for a few different reasons. First, he stayed healthy, which is never taken for granted with this player. He played in every game, averaging about 31 minutes per. Second, he posted his usual, stellar assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.6 to 2.5. Third, he shot the ball better than usual, connecting on 40 percent of field goals. Fourth, the Wolves — as always — played much better with him on the floor (-0.5, close to even basketball) than when he was off the floor (-6.1).

Zach LaVine: B- (Previous Grades: B+, D)

LaVine had a terrible second quarter of the season, and has bounced back with decent play for a pretty clear reason: He has been moved from playing mostly point guard to playing about half of his minutes at shooting guard. In the second quarter, LaVine played next to Rubio for 316 of his total 635 minutes. Averaging 30 minutes a game, LaVine put up per-game averages of 15.1 points (on 48.8 percent shooting, including 41.0 percent from downtown), 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers. His 2.1 turnovers per 36 minutes revealed improvement in the ball-control department; he was averaging 3.1 per 36 through the first two quarters of the season. LaVine would grade out better if not for his on court/off court differential. When LaVine was on the floor the Wolves were outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, and when he sat on the bench the Wolves outscored opponents by 2.8. He continues to correlate with worse team performance, albeit less than last season and hopefully to a decreasing extent.

Tyus Jones: C (Previous Grades: Incomplete, D+)

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Wolves Big-Picture Issues: Sam’s Future as Coach & Bizarre Situation with LaVine

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The Wolves have now played 60 games, and will cross the season’s three-quarter mark after their home game tomorrow night against the Washington Wizards and their Friday night tilt at Milwaukee, against the Bucks. I’ll be out of town over the weekend but will prepare another quarterly report card early next week, assessing each player’s performance in Games 42 through 62.

For now, a couple different Wolves-related discussion topics:

Sam Mitchell’s Future as Coach

Jon Krawczynski dropped a bomb on Wolves Twitter this past week:

The report is pretty simple and understandable. If the Wolves demonstrate some improvement in the win/loss column from last year (when they won only 16 games) then Mitchell might keep the head coaching job. Once “interim” is removed from his job title, Sam is the team’s coach going forward into the future. He’ll be the guy leading Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns into the prime of their careers.

My first reaction is to repeat everything I wrote last week about improvement. Specifically, it isn’t clear that this year’s team is improved from last year, after you take Ricky Rubio’s health and Karl-Anthony Towns’s presence (and immediate greatness) into consideration.  Everyone paying attention knows how much Rubio matters to this team’s performance.  Regarding Towns, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle emphasized that KAT is “already a great player” in his pregame remarks the other night. I am not convinced that 27 to 29 wins would mark improvement over last year, once you consider these two major roster additions.

My second reaction is to think about Randy Wittman. In case you forgot, back in 2012 Wittman replaced Flip Saunders in Washington in an interim capacity just like Mitchell has, here in Minnesota. (Tragic difference of circumstances this time around goes without saying.) Wittman coached young phenom John Wall, much like Mitchell is doing with Karl-Anthony Towns, and they showed what was interpreted as “improvement” by finishing that season 18-31 after starting out 2-15 under Flip. The Wizards decided that was good enough, Wittman kept the job full time, and they’ve probably underachieved to a significant extent because of that decision. It is not unreasonable to fear that keeping Mitchell here, in lieu of some bigtime available alternatives, would lead to a very similar conclusion: progress into a middle-seed playoff team due to the immense talent of Towns (like Wall) but nothing approaching real title contention. If the Wolves can hire Tom Thibodeau this summer but instead stick with Mitchell because of perceived progress, it will be a huge mistake.

My third reaction is to think about why retaining Mitchell would be less surprising than it might at first seem.  (If it must be said, I have expected a summer coaching change because of the constant criticism leveled at the Wolves in-game strategies, Mitchell’s intentionally-salty relationship with the local media, and the team’s decision to announce him ALWAYS as “Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell.”) Interim coaches have the benefit of an audition, and the benefit of selling the job they’ve done to the public.  Maybe more than anything, they have the benefit of establishing relationships with the players.  Mitchell was criticized anonymously by some players in a different Krawczynski report from a while back, but it does not seem as if he is at risk of “losing the locker room” right now. Kevin Garnett has spoken out in full support of Mitchell. He’s going to be an owner of this team soon. Karl-Anthony Towns only says great things about Mitchell, and he is the most important employee that Glen Taylor has right now and for the foreseeable future. Andrew Wiggins is already on his second coach in his second NBA season, and might not want a third one in Year 3. There are some reasons to believe the team might prefer continuity to change.

My final reaction to this news is to think about what it means for the remainder of the season. Is Glen Taylor really monitoring the win-loss column and planning to keep or change coaches depending on the final tally? Given some of the team’s managerial decisions (mostly sitting Andre Miller in favor of Zach LaVine and now Tyus Jones, not finding a reliable backup big man) it has not seemed as though they are seriously trying to rack up wins. But if Taylor is actually going to base this monumental decision on the final win tally, should Wolves fans be cheering for losses? Normally, we do that to boost draft position. This would be to force a regime change. I really don’t know. It’s something to think about though. When the Wolves beat the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans in a close one, only to get blown off the floor by Dallas the next night, should we feel good that they split a road back-to-back or wonder if the added win — which was not at all impressive on its own — might lead to a bigger-picture problem down the road?

It’s a complicated and “fluid” (David Kahn voice) situation. Stay tuned.

The Bizarre Relationship Between the Front Office & Zach LaVine

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How Much Are the Timberwolves Improving? The Question that Will Decide Mitchell’s Fate

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“When you look at that core [of the Timberwolves best young players], are they getting better? The numbers say they are. Are we playing better defensively? Yes. Offensively? Yes. Would we like to win more games? Absolutely. Our young core is learning how to compete and win each and every night.”

Those were the words of Timberwolves Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell in his recent interview with Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN. The concept of improvement is the single most important one for this team, this season. Consider recent events, and what is going on with this team at this moment.

When Flip Saunders tragically died from complications with his cancer treatment, he was smack in the middle of one of the league’s most successful roster-rebuilding jobs in recent NBA history. Flip was in charge of acquiring players like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns, and he was equally in charge of teaching them how to play NBA basketball; teaching them individually to become star players, and teaching them to play together as a successful team. We’ll never know how much and in what exact ways Flip’s death altered the trajectory of this franchise, but given how much power he had as both front office boss and head coach the alternate reality where he leads this group for the next decade is inevitably much different than whatever will actually happen.

After Flip passed away, Glen Taylor put a freeze on big-picture decision-making while he got to work on selling the team to new ownership. Milt Newton would run the front office, and he’s obviously running it very conservatively. He answers phone calls more than he initiates them. The Wolves were not active at the trade deadline. Newton and the front office have an obvious default position of, “Do nothing with the main roster pieces, and prepare for the next draft pick.”

Sam Mitchell’s job is more interesting because there is no “passive” option for the coach. The show must go on, and the Timberwolves will play 82 games this season just like every other team. The Timberwolves have a team of ridiculously talented young players, and those players need to be coached up so that they improve as individuals and as a team. The NBA season is precious time for these guys like Wiggins, LaVine and Towns to gel as a synergistic group and to learn more about what it takes to succeed at this level. And they will rely on their coach more than any other person in the world for help in those endeavors.

In short, the one big thing that the Timberwolves needed to do this season, after Flip’s untimely passing, was improve as players, and improve as a team.

Mitchell understands this, and understands that since he desperately wants to be this team’s coach for the long term, he needs to be able to demonstrate that improvement has happened. It’s why he emphasizes that point at the outset of the Wolfson interview.

But is he right?

Let’s take a look, and try to fit this year’s performance versus last year’s into appropriate context.

Individuals

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A Winning Streak? Wolves win again, and random stats and jottings.

Combining a little bit of opponent-injury luck, a shorter playing rotation, and a rejuvenated Andrew Wiggins, the Timberwolves have won two games in a row against playoff-bound competition. On Wednesday night, playing in ESPN’s late-game slot, the Wolves beat the LA Clippers at Staples Center. This came fresh on the heels of a very disappointing loss in the same arena to Kobe Bryant’s Lakers. The 108-102 victory over the Clips is less impressive than it first seems, because Blake Griffin is sitting out with a busted hand. However, the Clips had won their 4 games heading into that matchup, and are surprisingly able to withstand an injury to Griffin due to their roster makeup, and the way Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan function as a combo, with JJ Redick spacing the floor with white-hot shooting. The Wolves won that game with late-game execution, Wiggins scoring 31 points, and Tayshaun Prince holding Redick to just 1 of 9 shooting from the field.

Last night, the Wolves were not on TV due to Minnesota’s hockey-day theme on FSN.  However, it didn’t seem to matter to the Wolves’ collective effort level, as they beat the Chicago Bulls 112-105, which means a season sweep against Fred Hoiberg’s squad. As with the Clippers matchup, the Wolves opponent was battling significant injuries. Chicago has been and will remain without Joakim Noah for a long time. But last night against the Wolves they were also missing All-Star wing, Jimmy Butler. Like the Clippers, though, the Bulls are able to field a pretty strong lineup even without their best guy – they had Pau Gasol, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavey, and Derrick Rose — whatever shell of his old self he is now — all in the lineup last night. A Wolves win was far from a foregone conclusion and didn’t necessarily seem likely, given their struggles against decent competition for much of this season.

Against the Bulls, Karl-Anthony Towns (26 points, 17 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Gorgui Dieng (24 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists (!)) did the heavy lifting. Coach Sam Mitchell played each of Dieng and Towns 41 minutes, and after the game explained that when they are both playing so well, it’s hard for other players (cough, Nemanja Bjelica, cough) to crack the rotation. Mitchell always goes out of his way to praise Dieng, and last night he said that Gorgui is ahead of KAT as a defender, because of his experience level and understanding of concepts. He also mentioned that the two State-of-Kentucky college stars have become buddies off the floor and enjoy playing with each other. Interestingly, Mitchell used three-point shooter Damjan Rudez as his backup power forward, instead of Bjelica or Adreian Payne. Bjelica logged a DNP-CD.

Wiggins started off cold, going scoreless until a jumper finally fell with 2:28 to go in the first half. He ended strong, however, sliding back into that “Go-To Guy” role that he so awesomely filled in the early part of this NBA season when the Wolves were the surprise breakout team of the league at about the 1/5-mark of the season. Wiggins scored 17 second-half points to end with 21, and hit three straight shots with under two minutes to go; the first putting the Wolves up 1, then 3, then 5, which was a dagger jumper over two Bulls defenders. As the last jumper went up, Garnett could be heard yelling “ALL DAY! ALL DAY!” from behind the Wolves bench, before the shot fell.

We’re five days from All-Star Weekend. Before that, the Wolves play against Anthony Davis and the Pelicans (Monday) and the Toronto Raptors (Wednesday). Both games are at Target Center. The Pellies game is one that the Wolves can definitely win. They’re just 18-32 and have lost their past 4 games. The Raptors game will be much more difficult, and if the Wolves could somehow win it, it would rank among their best wins of the season.

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