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Impact of the Luol Deng Trade

Luol Deng will be sorely missed in Chicago, but the decision to trade him was the right one.

Crazy how fast time flies. Nine and a half years ago, Bulls nation was in the midst of embracing a new era of basketball. Elton Brand was traded three years earlier, Jason Williams had literally driven himself out of professional basketball for the rest of his life two years earlier, and the Bulls had to settle for Kirk Hinrich instead of Dwyane Wade (not that we all don’t love Kirk) the previous year. A core of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry looked somewhat promising, but there was one piece missing. That piece ended up being Luol Deng, whom the Phoenix Suns selected with the 7th overall pick in the 2004 draft and immediately traded to the Chicago Bulls for their 2005 first-round pick and Jackson Vroman’s left nut. Deng helped take that Bulls team from 23 wins in 2003-04 to 47 wins in 2004-05 and their first playoff appearance in seven years despite suffering a season-ending wrist injury late in the season.

Fast forward nearly 10 years to now. The Bulls front office had finally decided to swallow their pride and part ways with Deng and his massive expiring contract, but not before he earned himself nods to the NBA All-Rookie first team (2005), the NBA All-Defensive Second Team (2012), a NBA Sportsmanship Award (2007) and two trips to the NBA All-Star game (2012-13). Only once did the Bulls fail to make the playoffs in Deng’s nine seasons (2007-08). He poured his blood, sweat and tears into this organization and will forever go down as one of the most hard-working and charitable players of his generation; he has become one of the most beloved players to ever throw on a Bulls uniform, and it’s downright sad to see him go. However, the trade with Cleveland includes three future draft picks, along with Andrew Bynum’s corpse, and actually benefits the Bulls and their long-term future. How so, you ask? Let’s break it all down.

Standings Projections

First things first, it’s officially time for everyone to embrace the art of tanking. The worst thing you can possibly experience in the NBA is consistent mediocrity – there is no hope for short-term success, unless losing in the first round of the playoffs year in and year out is something that tickles your fancy, and there is very minimal hope for long-term success via the draft unless you get extremely lucky by having a future superstar fall into your lap (cut to the seven or eight Atlanta Hawks fans nodding viciously, as they’ve been in NBA limbo for years). Bulls fans should be thankful that a notoriously conservative front office decided do what absolutely had to be done in trading Deng as opposed to letting him walk for nothing next July. That being said, how exactly will trading Deng impact the Bulls in the NBA standings, and what kind of draft position can fans expect in June?

For those of you unfamiliar with the Pythagorean Theorem in sports, it is basically a simple measure to predict win-loss percentages based on the number of points a team scores and gives up in a given season (if you ever happen to find yourself on basketball-reference.com, baseball-reference.com or football-reference.com, you can find a team’s Expected W-L based on this equation near the top of a team’s page). Based on this measure, the Bulls, who score an average of 91.34 points per game (dead last in the league) and give up an average of 92.19 points per game (second-best in the league), were projected to win about 38 games this season WITH Luol Deng, which would have been good for a 5 seed. That’s how pathetic the Eastern conference is in a nutshell.

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With Deng now gone, the most logical way to project their record is to assess John Hollinger’s Estimated Wins Added metric which, as you could have guessed, estimates the number of wins a player adds to a team’s season total above what a ‘replacement player’  would produce. Deng ranks 8th amongst small forwards in this category with an EWA of 3.0. In other words, Deng has added three wins to the Bulls’ record by himself this season in only 23 games played. He has already missed 9 games this season, so for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume Deng were to miss another 10 games of the 50 remaining. That gives him a projected EWA of 5.2 for the rest of the season. With Tony Snell set to act as the ‘replacement player’ for Deng, his woeful -0.7 EWA must all be factored in. Assuming Snell appears in the next 5o games and continues to experience that rookie learning curve, his projected EWA sits at -1.30. Add the two together and round up to the nearest whole number (6.5 rounds to 7) and you see that trading Deng will likely make the Bulls seven games worse than their projected 38-44 record, plummeting to a 31-51 record.  With Cleveland adding Deng and replacing one or two of the horrendous Earl Clark/Alonzo Gee/Anthony Bennett threesome, they’re projections go from 25 wins to at least 32 or 33 wins.

This, effectively, will move the Bulls from a top five team in the East to a bottom five team (I’m giving Brooklyn the benefit of the doubt and expect them to improve after the All-Star break) and directly into the 2014 draft lottery. I’m projecting the Bulls to end up as one of the eight worst teams in the NBA (Milwaukee, Utah, Philadelphia, L.A. Lakers, Orlando, New York, Sacramento and Chicago) and, seeing as how this is going to be hands down the best and deepest NBA draft since 2003, every fan in Chicago should be thrilled. With that said, it shouldn’t surprise anyone by any means whatsoever if the Bulls somehow made the playoffs with this depleted roster because they simply have too much pride. For the sake of this franchise’s future, I truly hope that won’t be the case.

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Short-Term Effects

Tony Snell will be the biggest beneficiary of Luol Deng’s permanent absence in the short-term. The Bulls now have 50 games to see what exactly they have in Snell and whether or not they want him as a part of their future plans. Snell has the potential to become a very solid 3-and-D (3-point shooting/defensive specialist – think of Trevor Ariza) player in this league, but there’s no denying he’s struggled mightily in limited playing time this season. Gar Forman and John Paxson have been high on Snell ever since they drafted him, so my guess is that they’ll be more than tolerant of any poor performances going forward and allow him plenty of time to grow in Coach Thibodeau’s system. After all, he’s only a rookie. Patience is a virtue.

Another story line to follow closely is Mike Dunleavy’s trade stock. With the Bulls in full tank mode, I’d expect them to deal Dunleavy down the line given his cheap contract (2 years, $6 million) and the fact that he has another year left on his contract after this one. There are plenty of playoff-caliber teams currently in need of three point shooting, and bringing in a 12-year veteran who can do just that, as well as bring some positive leadership to a playoff locker room, will never hurt. Look for teams like Charlotte, Denver, Houston, Memphis and Minnesota to be in the market.

Long-Term Effects

A quick breakdown of the package the Bulls received from Cleveland:

  • Andrew Bynum, who will be waived by the Bulls by Tuesday’s 4 PM CT deadline to clear his $12.3 million salary off the books. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “this will enable the Bulls to get below the luxury tax threshold, which, combined with the savings from not having to pay Deng the balance of his $14.3 million salary, will save the team more than $20 million.”
  • A future first-round draft pick owed to the Cavaliers by the Sacramento Kings. The pick is top-12 protected in 2014 and top-10 protected from 2015-17, meaning the Bulls will receive the pick if the Kings fall outside the top 12 in this year’s draft or outside the top 10 in one of the next three drafts. Otherwise, it becomes a second round pick in 2018.
  • Second-round draft picks in 2015 and 2016 owed to the Cavaliers by the Portland Trail Blazers.
  • The Bulls will be able to swap draft picks with the Cavs in 2015 IF the Cavs make the playoffs next season.

The fact that the Bulls got a potential first round pick in return for Deng’s expiring contract is a near miracle. This deal was about saving money and getting under the luxury tax which, in turn, will set us up for a chance to go after some highly sought after free agents to join the Rose/Butler/Gibson/Noah core. Throwing in a legitimate draft pick on top of it? That’s huge, people. Huge.

The only way that could be possible, though, is to amnesty Carlos Boozer, which the Bulls will almost certainly do this upcoming summer. In doing so, they will pay Boozer $17 million to leave Chicago in order to free up salary cap space for free agent spending. The key, at that point, will be to sign former Euroleague MVP, Nikola Mirotic, and bring him to Chicago as soon as possible. There’s no telling who the Bulls will go after in free agency after that, but at least they’ll have some more flexibility to work with.

As for the draft, let’s not forget that Charlotte also owes us their first round pick this year if it falls outside the top-10. As of now, they’re on pace to make the playoffs, which will likely give the Bulls the 15th or 16th pick on top of whatever pick they receive. If they don’t make the playoffs, there’s still a decent chance we’d get their pick – it would just have to fall between 11-14 – giving the Bulls potentially two lottery picks in an incredible draft class (we must assume, for now, that Sacramento will keep their pick this year considering they’re awful yet again). There are a plethora of fantastic scorers likely to enter the NBA draft this summer that can easily land outside the top-10, namely Gary Harris (Sophomore – Michigan State), James Young (Freshman – Kentucky), Rodney Hood (Sophomore – Duke), Jerami Grant (Sophomore – Syracuse), Doug McDermott (Senior – Creighton)… the list can go on and on, but these are just some of the names to follow closely and keep in mind come this June. The cream of the crop should (I would hope) all be household names at this point to even the most casual of basketball fans (Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Joel Embiid), but until the Bulls prove they’re as bad as they’re supposed to be and finally find themselves outside of the dreadful Eastern conference playoff picture looking in, it would be wise for all of us to keep our expectations tempered.

The 2013-14 season is a lost cause for the Chicago Bulls, but trading Luol Deng now was as good a move as they could have made and a monstrous step in the right direction. There are a couple more shrewd moves to be made, but for the first time in a while, Bulls fans should feel a sense of trust towards the front office. For a team like this, the quickest way to get to a championship is to bottom out and gather as many assets for the future as physically possible, not limp into the postseason as a 7- or 8-seed, get swept by the Heat or Pacers in the first round and then let Luol Deng go for absolutely nothing. Some people will disagree with the move, but it’ll be their emotions getting the best of them. Trust me – I nearly shed a tear when I heard that Luol was gone and, in all honesty, it may take me a little while to get over it. Seeing him in a gross Cleveland jersey will be weird, and it will be upsetting, but it was simply time to move on.

We, as fans, have two options. We can take the glass half-empty approach – mope about our favorite player being traded and reserve false hope that a) Rose would come back for the playoffs and lead us on a run (which he wouldn’t have done), and b) Deng would sign an extension (which he actually rejected before the trade) or re-sign in the offseason (which is highly unlikely since the Bulls would only offer him a shorter-term deal worth about 65-75% of what he’s actually going to demand). Or, we can take the glass half-full approach – cherish the great joy that watching Luol Deng brought us throughout his phenomenal Chicago career, appreciate his hard work and incredible heart, and wish him nothing but the best all while embracing the fact that the long-term future of our franchise looks a hell of a lot more promising now than it did 24 hours ago. I’ll choose the latter and look forward to the most important offseason in Chicago Bulls history. In my mind, it’s the only way to go.

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The Deng Dilemma

What should the Bulls do with Luol Deng?

Few Chicago athletes of this generation have ever had me at “Hello.” Brian Urlacher, Derrick Rose, Anthony Rizzo – they qualify. But Luol Deng? He certainly did not. Although I hated Duke, he was a great talent out of college, and in all honesty, I was quite satisfied when the Phoenix Suns agreed to draft him with the 7th pick and then trade him to Chicago.

During the first three seasons of his career, Deng continued to get better and transformed himself from a somewhat raw offensive talent into a very reliable, very productive NBA small forward, improving his field goal percentage from 43.4% to 51.7% over that span. But once the 2007-08 season came around, I started to lose trust in Deng, as he rejected a pretty generous contract extension, missed 19 games because of a lingering Achilles injury and saw a dip in his numbers across the board, including minutes (37 mpg in 06-07 to 33 mpg in 07-08).

By the end of the 2008-09 season, I began to genuinely dislike Deng. He had signed a major six-year contract extension worth $71 million before the season started, yet ended up missing 33 games plus the playoffs due to some mysterious injury. At that point, I self-proclaimed myself as the conductor of the “Luol Deng is a Straight Up Pussy” bandwagon, and many people started hopping aboard. I personally felt that Luol had no interest in trying or caring, and I looked at him as another one of those athletes that got his money and just said “f**k it.” I wanted him out of Chicago, and I wanted him out fast.

The 2009-10 season proved to be a decent turnaround for Lu, but it wasn’t until the 2010-11 season, after the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, that I did a complete 180. Deng has been a different player since then. He’s led the NBA in minutes per game two of the past three seasons (and finished fourth in the other), he made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2012 as well as the last two all-star teams, and he’s battled through literally every injury he’s been plagued with. Now a premiere small forward in the league, Deng is considered the ultimate glue guy. His work ethic is one in which you cannot teach, he’s as tough, mentally and physically, as they come, and he has made himself invaluable to the success of the Chicago Bulls. Call me crazy, but there are few athletes, if any, that I currently love more than Luol Deng, and I can’t imagine him in another uniform – it’d be devastating.

But let’s be honest – the Bulls cap situation going into next season is nothing short of horrendous, as evidenced by this fantastic cap breakdown. Since you’re probably too lazy to click on that link and read what’s within, allow me to sum it up: the Bulls are already into the luxury tax with just eight players (Rose, Boozer, Deng, Noah, Gibson, Hinrich, Butler, Teague) plus the likely Rip Hamilton buyout. Eight players, as you know, isn’t going to cut it, since each NBA team kinda needs at least 13 players on its roster. The 20th overall pick is going to cost $1.472 million by itself, and minimum salary players will cost another $884K each. By now, you hopefully get the point – there is basically no flexibility and no hope for any significant free agent signings this summer. Nate Robinson ain’t coming back, and the chances of a Marco Belinelli re-signing are slim to none. If Cheap Ass Reinsdorf can’t stomach this already uncomfortable salary cap situation, what in god’s name can be done to relieve it?

Insert the Cleveland Cavaliers. They happen to have the first overall pick in one of the worst drafts (stardom-wise) in recent memory. There’s a lot of depth, but to even the most casual of basketball fans, no one screams potential superstar. Cleveland is as open as any organization will ever be to trading that pick away, and what they desperately need is a scoring small forward with veteran experience and the ability to anchor a defense. Luol Deng fits that bill perfectly. However, a two-time all-star isn’t going to be enough to covet the first overall pick. Throw in an asset like Marquis Teague to back up Kyrie Irving and the 20th overall pick? Now we’re talking.

If I’m Chris Grant (Cleveland’s GM), I’m thinking long and hard about this deal. My team just invested the fourth overall pick last year on a shooting guard in Dion Waiters, so why would I want to make that situation even more complicated by drafting Ben McLemore? Sure, I could draft Nerlens Noel and stash him for a year while he recovers from ACL surgery, but what good will that do? We have Anderson Varejao locked up through 2015, plus we’ll be atrocious again next season yet have no chance at winning another lottery (you know, because it’s rigged and all), meaning Andrew Wiggins will be nothing more than a pipe dream.

If I’m Gar Forman, I’m not even thinking about this deal – I’m ready to sign some papers. Not because I don’t want Deng anymore – it would be heartbreaking at first to see him go – but because it’ll make Jerry Reinsdorf get down on his hands and knees thanking me for coming up with a genius way to save him money, and because of two words that every basketball fan will likely be muttering in their dreams in a few years: Victor Oladipo.

Call me biased towards my precious Hoosiers – I don’t care. Victor Oladipo will be the best player to come out of this draft when it’s all said and done for three reasons, and nothing anyone can say or do before June 27th will convince me otherwise:

  1. His unfathomable work ethic and energy 

    Before Oladipo took the college basketball world by storm last season, he wasn’t what one would consider a household name. In three short years, he went from an under-recruited player in high school known for throwing down hellacious dunks in the backyard of my fraternity house (in jeans, mind you) and failing to crack ESPN’s top 100 recruiting rankings to National Player of the Year candidate and potential top-three draft pick. He is the epitome of a gym rat, having spent hours and hours upon end working on his game and improving upon his significant weaknesses. His first two seasons at IU saw him combine for 18/74 from three; in his junior season, he made 30 of 68 threes, good for 44.1%. He led all guards, not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country, with a 60% field goal percentage. He won Co-Defensive Player of the Year honors, leading the Big Ten in steals per game (2.2). Oladipo is always hungry, constantly trying to raise his game and making the players around him better. He’s the full package, and that much can’t be said about most of the players in this draft.

  2. Nothing phases him

    When the lights are on and the drunken fans are screaming, Oladipo rises to the occasion. Check out these stat lines:
    vs. MSU: 21 points on 8/12 shooting, 7 rebounds, 6 steals, 3 blocks (WIN)
    @OSU: 26 points on 8/10 shooting, 8 rebounds, 2 steals (WIN)
    @MSU: 19 points on 7/11 shooting, 9 rebounds, 5 steals with the go-ahead put back, dunk and free throws in the final minute, albeit on a sprained left ankle (WIN)
    @Michigan for the Big Ten title: 14 points, 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive (WIN)
    vs. Temple in Round of 32: 16 points, 8 rebounds and the heroic game-winning 3-pointer with 14 seconds left (WIN)I can keep going, but you get the picture: Oladipo thrives in big moments, a characteristic that almost always translates well at the professional level.
  3. The writing is on the wall

    A number of GMs have said that Oladipo is hands down their favorite player in the draft. As one GM said, “I know he’s the one guy in this draft that my head coach would love to have right now. He’s an impressive young man on and off the court.” Chad Ford noted that GMs are impressed by his mixture of candor and intensity in interviews. Another GM stated, “Athletically he’s so gifted. And he combines that with hard work both in the game and in practice. He keeps working on his game and getting better. His attitude was just special in the interview we had. He’s humble, but confident. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, but when he speaks he sounds like a leader.” And the best quote of all from Will Perdue (added to this post on 6/7):

    “If you’re talking about the guy who is going to come in and be the most effective player from day one, it’s Oladipo. He’s got that ‘It’ Factor,” that it takes to be successful in the league. A lot of guys in this draft don’t have that. There’s no doubt he plays with an edge. Watching him play defense this season, I wouldn’t have any hesitation putting him into an NBA game and letting him guard Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade or Kobe Bryant from day one.  I think he’s that good defensively.”

    Honestly, what more needs to be said?

Turning Deng, Teague and the 20th pick into Oladipo will do two things for the Bulls:

  1. It will save them a little over $12 million in cap space for the 2013-14 season (Deng’s $14.125M + Teague’s $1.075M + 20th pick’s $1.135M minus Oladipo’s $4.287M), getting them to roughly $10 million under the projected luxury tax threshold of $71.6 million (Cleveland is roughly $15 million under that threshold at this point in time). What does this mean? They can potentially make a run at the highly sought after shooting guard, O.J. Mayo, and fill the rest of the roster out with minimum salary players, giving them, if all goes as planned, a projected starting lineup of Rose, Oladipo, Butler, Boozer, and Noah, with Mayo, Hinrich, and Gibson to round out a fantastic eight-man rotation. How realistic a scenario like this is, I’m not sure. But it does make sense for both the Bulls and Cavs, and if the Bulls aren’t able to sign an impactful free agent this summer, they’ll have all the flexibility in the world next summer, with Carlos Boozer likely to be amnestied just in time for the arrival of Nikola Mirotic and an extremely deep 2014 free agent class.
  2. That very class, plus the resurgence of Deng’s protegé, Jimmy Butler, has suddenly made Deng expendable. A deal like this will free up Butler and allow him to take over as the small forward of the future, all while replacing Lu with Luol Deng 2.0 in Victor Oladipo, a relentless defender with the versatility to guard multiple positions and enormous upside. Although his offensive game lacks a true foundation at this point, his shooting has still improved tremendously, he’s one of the best finishers around the rim due to his unparalleled athleticism and body control, and he’s a fantastic rebounder for his position.

Heading into the season with the current roster plus a healthy Derrick Rose should hopefully be enough to beat Miami next year, but the end of Luol Deng’s contract is very near, and given Chicago’s terrible cap situation, either trading him or letting him walk in free agency may be inevitable. Trading Deng is something that would really hit Bulls fans where it hurts, but if we can replace him with Tom Thibodeau’s ideal type of player in Oladipo as the first overall pick in the draft AND give them major cap room flexiblity, it’s something that management should at least consider bringing up to Chris Grant and Dan Gilbert over the next few weeks.

Handicapping the Bulls’ Offseason Plans

Now that the Miami Heat have been crowned NBA Champions, the offseason can begin. As a result of the lockout, the offseason schedule has been accelerated with the NBA Draft and the start of free agency only four days apart. This will create a flurry of moves in the next two weeks, and we’re going to take a look at what the Bulls should do.

Consider trading Luol Deng

The Bulls face the problem of potentially playing all of next season without Derrick Rose, and if Deng elects to get surgery after the Olympics, he will be out for an extended period as well. This will surely put the Bulls out of contention, and as currently constructed, they cannot beat the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder. For this reason, the Bulls would be wise to see what Deng can get in return. Trading Deng allows the Bulls to simultaneously get younger while creating more cap flexibility down the road. There are a few lottery teams (Warriors, Kings, and Raptors) who would give up their top ten pick for more proven talent. The Bulls front office needs to weigh the benefit of receiving one of these picks and the players they could likely draft in these slots. While Deng has been one of the most consistent and best Bulls players for a long time, the NBA is driven by business decisions and the Bulls need to keep the long-term picture in mind.

Lock-up Omer Asik

Asik is restricted free-agent, and has drawn considerable attention from teams like the Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics. The Bulls front office has been adamant about resigning Asik, and they have the ability to match any offer. Asik’s value overwhelmingly stems from his defensive talents, as he is extraordinarily bad on offense. If the Bulls are forced to match an offer from a team offering to overpay Asik, it would not be surprising to see them let him go. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf generally tries to avoid paying the luxury tax at all costs and will look to do so if signing Asik puts them over the tax threshold. Asik definitely is valuable to the Bulls, and coach Thibodeau loves his defensive players, so the front office will likely get creative in trying to bring him back.

Figure out the backcourt

With Rose out and C.J. Watson and John Lucas both free agents, the Bulls might potentially overhaul their backcourt. The Bulls are likely going to draft a guard filling one of the spots, but they will have to decide where to exercise the $3.7 dollar option of Watson. I think it is likely the Bulls bring back Watson due to his familiarity with the system and the players. Adding a combo guard in the draft will help the Bulls down the road, but for now, they should stay the course with Watson. Another consideration is the luxury tax the Bulls face, which they would like to avoid. All three of C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, and Ronnie Brewer’s contracts are non-guaranteed, meaning they could release them to alleviate some cap concerns.

Assess the free-agents

If the Bulls do decide to go in a different direction and part ways with C.J. Watson, they’ll likely look to free agency to temporarily fill the void at PG. While they will assuredly draft some sort of guard that can run the offense, there is very little chance coach Thibs would go into the season with a rookie running the offense. There are a few options out there such as Andre Miller, Kirk Hinrich, and Jason Kidd that would give the Bulls veteran experience at the position. Kidd has reportedly expressed interest in the Bulls, and at the right price, he may be brought in. Regardless, the front-office will need to find someone who can hold down the fort until Rose is ready to return.

Extend Coach Thibodeau’s contract

I’m not entirely sure why this has taken so long as it’s obvious how positively Thibodeau has affected the team and created a winning culture. Beyond Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers, there may be no better coach in the NBA. While, a first-round loss was obviously disappointing, given the injuries the team sustained over the course of the season, Thibs did a phenomenal job. Similarly to how Popovich has been able to convert most players to fit into the offensive juggernaut he orchestrated in San Antonio, Thibs has been able to do so defensively for our players. The New York Knicks recently extended Mike Woodson for 3 years, 2 of which are guaranteed at $4 million per season. Jerry Reinsdorf and the rest of the front-office should use these numbers as a barometer and offer Thibs somewhere in the $5-6 millon range over four or five years. 

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Tough decisions loom for Bulls front office this summer

Gar Forman and John Paxson have some tough decisions to make this summer.

Let’s be honest: with Derrick Rose (torn ACL) and Luol Deng (wrist surgery) set to miss a majority of next season, the Bulls may not be ready to compete for another title until the 2013-14 season. Which means that next season may be more of a transition and a learn-to-play-without-your-two-best-players period. Assuming Pat Riley doesn’t break up the Superfriends in Miami (that would only maybe happen if they don’t win the championship this year), it will be too difficult for the Bulls to win a playoff series against them with Rose and Deng still trying to shake off their rust.

I’ve heard many fans talk about how the Bulls should tank their way through the season in order to earn a high draft pick. As great as that may sound, we all know it just won’t happen. Gar Forman, and especially Tom Thibodeau, would never allow it in a million years, so we may as well put that case to rest. There are a lot of other decisions, though, that the front office has to make as the scalding summer drags on. Yes, there are still games to be played in this year’s epic NBA finals, but that shouldn’t stop us from talking Bulls and thinking about what could be some day. That being said, let’s break down what the Bulls should do this summer, in order of realistic expectations (starting with the most unrealistic).

Keep Dreamin’

Amnesty Boozer, then sign Eric Gordon and a free agent power forward: If you haven’t read my piece, The Summer of Gar, from last month on this, then you should. Because you will definitely agree. However, let’s just be clear: this sweet-sounding chain of events will not happen. Time and time again, Nick Friedell has shut down any hopes that the Bulls will amnesty Boozer. There’s zero chance it happens this summer because Forman and Paxson are counting on him to carry the scoring load with Rose and Deng out (great plan, huh?). Friedell said if there’s ever a time that the team will amnesty Boozer, it will be next summer. We’ll have to keep dreamin’, I guess.

Highly Doubtful But Not Inconceivable

Trade Luol Deng or Joakim Noah for draft picks and/or lower-salaried players: Relax, people. Let me start off by saying that I did not come up with this idea: Bulls.com writer Sam Smith came up with a Deng scenario, and ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle came up with a Noah scenario. I’m not saying I actually want this to happen. I love Luol Deng and Joakim Noah like I love Portillo’s chocolate cake. And that says a lot. But, this is all just speculation and nothing more, so it can’t hurt to talk about it.

The Bulls are set to enter next season with just over 96% of their salary cap invested in four players (Rose, Boozer, Deng and Noah). Not good. Since the Bulls are not going to amnesty Boozer and have a slim chance at striking gold with the 29th overall pick in the draft (I’ll be breaking down draft prospects later this week), how in the world are we going to improve for the future?

That’s where Deng and/or Noah come in. Obviously, these two players have a ton of trade value. They have been the defensive anchors for the best defensive team in the NBA over the past two seasons and running. One has been the glue guy (Deng) while the other has been the emotional leader (Noah). Any team would be lucky to have them. Problem for us is no one’s getting younger, and no one’s salary is decreasing.

Sam Smith proposed the Bulls trade Deng to a team with a top-five pick, such as Cleveland or Sacramento, both of whom desperately need a small forward. The Bulls can then use that pick to select Harrison Barnes, the sharpshooting high-school phenom out of UNC (has been compared to a Luol Deng/Glen Rice type of player at the NBA level) if he’s still there, or Bradley Beal, the uber-talented shooting guard out of Florida who would be a perfect fit for the Bulls (nbadraft.net compares him to Eric Gordon/Marcus Thornton) because of his great jump shot and ability to spread the floor for the offense. Of course, there are many scenarios for trading Deng, as I’m sure numerous teams would be highly interested in acquiring him, but Smith’s proposal has to be the most ideal if we were to actually trade him. As you know, I would much rather keep Deng than ship him off, but if the front office decided that a move like this would be best for our future, I would have to learn to live with it.

As far as Joakim Noah goes, Doolittle proposed the Bulls trade him and the no. 29 pick to Sacramento for Tyreke Evans and the no. 5 pick. Evans’ name alone may make the casual basketball fan think that trade is perfect. I, on the other hand, don’t really like the idea of trading for Evans (although I can maybe convince myself to) because of his obvious regression throughout the first three seasons of his career. He’s known to have a bad work ethic and has really underachieved defensively, and he’s also going to be a restricted free agent after next season. Not exactly the type of player Thibodeau likes to coach. That top-five pick is really the only thing holding me back from despising this idea altogether. Nevertheless, I don’t see Noah going anywhere, so assuming the Bulls bring back restricted free agent Omer Asik (which they plan on doing), the front-court should be set.

Gotta Make It Happen

Let CJ Watson go: After a horrendous playoff performance this past May against Philadelphia (7.3 points on 24.1% shooting), it became evident that Watson just cannot run a successful offense in the NBA. He’s a decent backup point guard and should have little to no trouble finding another job if the Bulls were to let him go, but he’s too predictable, makes too many bad decisions and will never be more than a backup.

The Bulls have a team option for Watson but will save $3.7 million if they choose not to pick it up. That, combined with the money they can save by letting Ronnie Brewer go (which I’ll get to in a minute) and/or Kyle Korver (whose $5 million contract is non-guaranteed this season), should help them land a very legitimate free agent, such as Andre Miller.

Miller, who is now 36 years old, showed this past May that he still has something left in the tank and can run an offense very effectively. After a solid season (6.7 assists) backing up Ty Lawson in Denver, Miller should be able to land a respectable $5-7 million from any team that wants his services and can undoubtedly start at the point, as he has for basically his entire career, until Derrick Rose is healthy enough to come back. If he’s not the answer, then there are more than enough unrestricted free agent point guards who can replace Watson and help keep this Bulls team in contention for a top-four seed in next year’s playoff race, such as:

  • Goran Dragic: Coming off a ridiculous 2012 campaign (18-4-8-2 as a starter) and will probably be very expensive; also likely to re-sign with the Houston Rockets, leaving Kyle Lowry as trade bait.
  • Kirk Hinrich: Not really convinced that he can run an offense full-time anymore, but I’m putting him on this list anyways because a) I miss him and b) I’ve heard numerous rumors that the Bulls are looking to bring him back, and if they were to sign him this offseason, it would make me look much smarter than I really am.
  • Delonte West: He has legit game, had sex with Lebron’s mom and gives wet willies to opposing players mid-game. I’ll welcome him with open arms.
  • Jonny Flynn: Averaged 13.5 points, 4.4 assists and shot 36% from three-point land during his 2009-10 rookie season as the starting point guard in Minnesota. I’d like to think he’ll come dirt cheap and can be a decent backup at worst. Just something to think about.
  • Jeremy Lin: Just kidding. Or am I?
  • Other notables: Steve Nash (can’t see it happening), Ramon Sessions (if he declines his player option with LA), Jason Kidd’s corpse

It’s also important to point out that John Lucas III is a free agent as well. If the Bulls choose not to bring him back (along with Mike James), then they’ll absolutely have to find another point guard. Now would be a good time to start looking if they haven’t already.

It’s Inevitable

Let Ronnie Brewer go: As much as I like Ronnie Brewer, he’s set to make $4.37 million this season and didn’t really get the job done last season. He’s a fantastic defensive player, but to me, Brewer has maxed out his potential as an NBA player. He’ll never be more than a high level defender and role player with a limited offensive skill-set and inconsistent jump shot. Brewer has a team option this season, so the Bulls can buy him out for just $333,000 and let him walk. That’s a good amount of money they can save, and with Jimmy Butler waiting in the wings, why not promote him to the backup shooting guard/small forward role?

At 22 years old, Butler is worth much less, has a higher offensive ceiling, and he has the potential to be an even better defender than Brewer has been. After seeing Butler take on the difficult task of guarding Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony one-on-one during the regular season, there’s no reason to think that Butler isn’t worthy of at least backup minutes. In fact, in 43 total minutes that Butler guarded Carmelo last season, he shot 29%. In all other minutes against the Bulls, he shot 52%. With his great attitude, motivation and hard work ethic, Butler has the ability to become one of the better all-around defenders in the NBA (think Tony Allen, Thabo Sefolosha and players of that nature). If given the opportunity to play valuable minutes next season and beyond, I have no doubt that Butler will thrive in almost any situation Thibodeau throws him into. The Bulls should trust him and open up some salary space by letting Brewer go. When it comes down to making that decision, they will probably do just that.

With the NBA draft just ten days away and the start of free agency coming up sooner than we think, the Bulls will need to have a game plan in place for how to approach improving this team. This was the best team in the NBA this past season, but we all know that the regular season doesn’t really matter. If the front office decides to stick with what they’ve got and not build a team that can survive a little longer in the playoffs without a fully healthy Derrick Rose (who knows when exactly he’ll get back to full strength), then we could be in for a long 2012-13 season with another disappointing finish.

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Game 6: CJ Watson and the Crucial Mistake

CJ Watson made a huge mistake at the end of Game 6, and it ended up costing the Bulls their season.

What a sad, depressing night for Bulls fans. Everyone knows that if we won Game 6, we were 100% winning Game 7. The momentum, the UC crowd backing us – there was just no way we would lose that game. After holding Philadelphia to a grand total of 15 points in the 3rd quarter, the Bulls finally were playing with some life. They played some of the best half-court defense I’ve ever seen, smothering every player and refusing to let anyone into the paint. It was honestly masterful to watch that defense work for the final 23 minutes and 55 seconds. This game was all but won. And then one crucial mistake and two missed free throws later, the Philadelphia 76ers ripped our hearts out of our chests and eliminated our beloved Bulls. But before I get into that crucial mistake, exactly who or what else led to the brutal end of our 2011-12 season?

1) Carlos Boozer. Wow. How many times has this name been brought up in my posts over the last few days? I can’t go more than two blog posts without ripping this man apart. By now, I would assume most of you know how I feel about Boozer, and as long as you saw him play just 5 minutes last night, there’s no way you’d disagree with me. So there’s no point in me restating why I dislike him so much. His performance last night, though, cannot go unnoticed. I want him out of Chicago, and I want him out RIGHT NOW. I felt like screaming “SERENITY NOW” multiple times last night just to calm myself down (Seinfeld reference for all you non-Seinfeld people). Amnesty, please! Anyways, Boozer finished with 3 points on 1/11 shooting and 1 free throw attempt in 27 minutes, none of which – and I repeat, NONE – came in the 4th quarter. Coach Thibs went back to his old ways and decided that, despite Boozer’s $75 million contract, it wasn’t worth it to have him in the game during the most important 12 minutes of the season. And I am perfectly fine with that. The 5-man-unit of Watson-Hamilton-Deng-Gibson-Asik was working extremely well, and we had to ride it. Just to reiterate how truly bad Boozer has been, I updated Boozer’s 2012 playoff stats from my previous post on my own and found that, after tonight’s game, his scoring average per 48 minutes dropped from 21.6 to 19.4, and his field goal percentage dropped from 46.8% to 42.2%. Absolutely awful. If Boozer remains a Bull next season and magically becomes good again, I will be the first to admit I was wrong about him. But I don’t see it happening.

2) 3-Point Shooting. No one could hit the backside of a barn from beyond the arc last night. Nothing was falling for us. Obviously, every team has nights like these. Unfortunately for the Bulls, this night came at the worst time. They shot 38.1% in games 1-5. They shot 15.4% (2/13) in Game 6. Although Luol Deng played a really good game, he is a very streaky three point shooter. He made big shot after big shot on Tuesday night. Ended up 0/5 from distance last night. It happens. I won’t lose sleep over this aspect of the game at all, but it would have been nice to at least see… wait, what’s that guy’s name? People think he looks like Ashton Kutcher but he really doesn’t? Oh yeah, Kyle Korver. Where the hell was this dude all series long? Between games 3-6, he scored – get this – 5 POINTS! He shot 1/7 from three in games 3-5 and didn’t even bother attempting a single shot in 5 minutes during Game 6. What a joke. If he wasn’t completely in Thibodeau’s doghouse before this series, he’s now farther back than… well, I can’t really think of a comparison, but it’s as far back as you can possibly go. It will probably take longer than the year Korver has left on his contract for Thibodeau to actually take him off his leash. Don’t be surprised if the Bulls try shopping him or finding a replacement for him all summer long.

3) Did you know: last night’s result is the first time a team has been out-rebounded by 23+ in a playoff game and won since 1986, when Washington beat Philadelphia in Game 1 of the first round (Bulls won the rebound battle 56-33)? This has nothing to do with why the Bulls lost in any way, shape or form. I just found it to be an astonishing stat, and I also feel that making three points instead of two is way more legit. Good things come in threes. Someone should tell Kyle Korver that, by the way.

Now on to the main inspiration for this post – CJ Watson and the Crucial Mistake (If anyone writes a book about this disastrous series, you’re welcome to use this title. Just make sure you compensate me for it. Thanks). Watching the end of last night’s game was painful. CJ Watson should be flat-out disgusted with himself. He made one of the worst decisions I’ve ever seen a point guard make in a professional basketball game. His poor shot selection throughout the series was one thing (he shot 23% in six games), and his inability to create any offense whatsoever was another thing. But when you’re a career 80% free throw shooter, and your team’s up 1 with 5 seconds left in the most important game of the season, why the dickens (I heard someone say this once and it sounded funny, so what the hell?) would you dish the ball off to a career 48% free throw shooter and make him win the game for you? I went INSANE when this play transpired because right then and there, I had a terrible feeling that it was over for us, even with a 1 point lead. Forget the fact that, a) a blatant flagrant foul on Omer was not called and b) no one got back on defense after the second missed free throw to stop the one-man freight train that is Andre Iguodala. We should have NEVER been in that position in the first place. All CJ had to do was hold the ball, let them foul him, and sink at least one free throw. That would have made it a two point game, and at the very least forced Philly, who had no time outs remaining, mind you, to go coast to coast and get a quick two off to send it into OT or throw up a contested/low-percentage three to try and win it (this is the worst case scenario, because I have a hard time believing CJ would’ve missed both free throws, but who knows).

I cannot believe the stupidity on Watson’s part, and I will never forget that decision to give up the ball for the rest of my life. It proved that, once and for all, CJ Watson is not the answer to our backup point guard of the future (neither is Lucas). There are a number of mediocre point guards that we can grab late in the first round of the draft if necessary (Marquis Teague, Tony Wroten) or middle of the second round (Scott Machado) to breed throughout the offseason. Free agency and trading are other options as well (dare I ask, Kirk Hinrich, anyone?). Maybe I’m just being hard on Watson because I’m angry. I probably am. We all know he’s likely going to be on our roster next season because the Bulls will probably pick up his team option. But it does not hurt to explore other point guard options (I will get into free agents and draft analysis at a later date).

I can live with another regular season with Watson as our starter while Rose is out. And I think that next year, the Bulls will come back stronger from this. But if, god forbid, Rose is not healthy for the start of the playoffs next season, it may very well be the same old story for Bulls fans. Sad and depressing.

Bulls finally get over the hump with defense and clutch shooting

With their backs up against a wall, the Bulls showed signs of life last night.

Let’s be honest – last night’s game was no better than a disgusting affair, where both teams qualified for what looks to be the lowest combined score (146 points) in a playoff game since 2002 (Detroit and Boston combined for 140). Nevertheless, I am ecstatic after that win for a couple of reasons: 1) Although the Bulls stopped crashing the offensive glass (they lost that battle 11 to 8), the 76ers somehow still got out and ran for 23 transition points. We won anyways. 2) The 76ers continued to get to the free throw line and draw fouls (24 free throws attempted in all), yet we still won. Looking at just the raw stats comparison, you would think Philly had actually won this game. But they didn’t for two reasons: half-court defense and a clutch performance from Luol Deng.

The Bulls obliterated Philly in the half-court and really frustrated them. Evan Turner had by far his worst game of the series, scoring 4 points on 2/7 shooting, committing 4 turnovers and attempting 0 free throws (averaged 5.5 in the first 4 games). Andre Iguodala was also atrocious offensively. The Bulls finally got the hint – when Iguodala starts out slow, let him beat you with his jump shot. There are better shooters on that team (Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams) that must be stopped in the half court. Iguodala is one of the streakiest shooters in the NBA, and it showed last night. He scored 11 points on 4/19 shooting and went 1/6 from downtown. Six 3s attempted? Give him that ALL day. Overall, Philly shot 32.1% from the field, which shouldn’t surprise anyone at all after seeing the Bulls pick up their defensive intensity. Let’s dig a little deeper into some advanced statistics and assess how the Bulls did so.

Below is a breakdown of the Bulls defense in Games 2-4 compared to Game 5 based on the four factors for team defense: opponent’s effective field goal % (OEFG), defensive turnovers caused per possession (DTPP), defensive rebounding percentage (DRP), and opponent’s free throw rate (OFTR).

Based on these numbers, it is easy for us to see that the Bulls knew the only way for them to win this game, and potentially this series, is to lockdown on defense. Even with a depleted offense, everyone knows that great defense is what sparks offense. The Bulls refused to give Philadelphia open looks last night and really stepped up their game by wreaking havoc in the half-court and causing a lot more turnovers than usual.

In addition to the phenomenal defensive performance was Luol Deng’s ability to hit clutch shots. He played, without question, his best game of this series, scoring 24 points on 10/19 shooting. More importantly though, were his four 3-pointers, three of which came in the fourth quarter with the shot clock winding down (all under four seconds). Those are the exact kind of shots the Bulls have needed without Derrick Rose while letting their fourth quarter leads slip through their fingers. They’ve had no one to bail them out at the end of the shot clock – until last night. Deng was simply sensational.

Now it’s back to the City of Brotherly Love tomorrow night for Game 6. Joakim Noah told ESPN Chicago this morning that he “will do everything I can to get back on the court tomorrow night.” Let’s hope he gets back out there. Nothing would make me happier than shoving it to those classless Philly fans with a much needed W. But even if Noah doesn’t play, I still have faith that, after last night’s team performance, we can absolutely win this series. Only time will tell.

Keys to winning Game 5 and getting back into the series

Taj Gibson may be the key to winning tonight’s game.

I know I’ve stated before that the Bulls won’t win a championship without Rose (and Noah). But it’s still more than okay for us to be optimistic heading into tonight’s game at the UC. If the Bulls continue using the same game plan they’ve used the last three games, though, the season will probably end tonight. Here’s how they can get back into this series against Philly:

  • Stop crashing the offensive glass so much. Yes, the Bulls were the best rebounding team in the league heading into the postseason. But in this series, they are only rebounding 27.4% of their misses to Philly’s 24.9%.  With Noah out, the Bulls are essentially no better than Philly in the rebounding department. They may as well keep an extra body in the backcourt and focus on preventing Philly from running the fast-break, which has killed us all series long. They’re also shooting 22% from three (good for 15th out of 16) and nearly 50% from inside the arc, a lot of which has comes from easy fast-break layups/dunks and poor pick-and-roll defense. If we can get Philly in a half court game more often than we have, it will drastically increase our chances of winning
  • Go small. Starting Omer Asik won’t accomplish anything. He’s basically allergic to scoring unless it involves dunking the ball and swinging his legs up in the air. The Bulls may as well try something different by playing small-ball and starting Taj Gibson at the 5 and figure out a way to get Gibson, Lucas and Korver on the floor together at the same time. The three of them happened to have the best non-Rose and non-Noah 3 player combination +/- on the team during the regular season (+152 in 391 minutes). Throw Deng in there (the four of them together posted a +92 in 192 minutes during the regular season), and this should help space the floor and hopefully allow for some more open looks. It also doesn’t hurt to point out that, with Gibson on the court during the playoffs (per 48 minutes of playing time), the Bulls 3 point % has increased from 32.3% to 40.9%; their free throw attempts have increased from 16.3 to 24.3; their offensive rebounding % has gone up by nearly 8%; and their net rating (offense rating – defense rating) goes from +5.1 to -8.4. Taj needs more minutes. Period.
  • Limit the fouls and get back to fundamental defense. If you remember from yesterday’s post, free throws attempted per field goals made is one of the four factors to being a good basketball team. During the regular season, the 76ers were last in the league in free throw rate by making only 13.5 free throws per game. In the four games this series, they happen to have attempted 110 free throws, good for fourth most out of the 16 playoff teams. The Bulls have to stop playing lazy defense, which is supposed to be their bread and butter, and stop bailing out the Philly guards late in the shot clock. I can bet that Thibs has nearly had 4 or 5 heart attacks on the sideline by now because of this and could guess that it will take an extra couple of days for his voice to come back after this series. This is very atypical of Bulls basketball, so we’ve got to stick to our true identity and not give this team so many free points.

So there you have it. If the Bulls can accomplish these three things (and Thibs can play those recommended lineups more minutes), I don’t see why they won’t come out with a victory tonight. This isn’t to say that we can’t win without doing these things, because we very well can, but they are three things that have probably frustrated most of us the last few games. Although we’ve looked no better than atrocious without Rose, finally getting over the hump to win one game can go a long way for this team and give them the confidence boost they’ve needed to somehow pull out this series.

Placing blame for Game 3’s meltdown

Losing Joakim Noah is not the only reason we lost Game 2.

What the hell happened last night? How did our Bulls blow that 14 point lead? The easy answer: Joakim Noah left the game with a severe ankle injury with 7:57 to go in the 3rd quarter. The actual answer: a combination of shockingly horrendous coaching and a lack of heart. The Bulls stopped playing to win and instead began playing not to lose. There was no doubt in my mind that when Philly cut the lead to 9, they were going to win. It was the same feeling I had when Tebow stepped onto the field against the Bears in the 4th quarter down 10. Chairs were thrown, and tables were nearly broken as I walked out of the room after Matt Prater’s OT field goal that night. But I digress. Here are my main reasons (other than losing Noah) that the Bulls lost last night’s game:

1) Coaching

  • I have no idea why in God’s name Thibodeau decided to put Noah back into the game in the 4th quarter. The dude’s limp was worse than Leapin’ Larry’s in Seinfeld. Thibodeau was quoted saying,  “I’m relying on (trainer) Fred (Tedeschi). The game is going on. I ask him if he can go or not go. That’s usually how it works.” Whether that’s the case or not, isn’t it ultimately Thibs’ decision to put Noah in the game? I don’t know one Bulls fan who agreed with the decision to put him in last night because within 1 minute of putting him in, he had tweaked the ankle again.
  • Ronnie Brewer has missed 1 game in the past 2 seasons. He’s a high energy guy who plays great defense and knows his role on offense. Can someone tell me why in the world he rode pine for all 48 minutes last night? I don’t understand it. Korver finished the game with a goose egg, and Hamilton couldn’t hit the side of a barn. I’m not saying he would have been the difference between winning the game and losing it, but he most definitely could have made an impact in one way or another.
  • Anyone who knows anything about basketball should be able to say, with confidence, that John Lucas is a terrible point guard. Now, I’m not saying I don’t like him – he has had some big moments for us this season, and he plays with absolutely no fear – but when was the last time he didn’t dribble out the shot clock in the half court to under 5 seconds before a) launching up a 35 footer or b) making a legitimate pass? I felt like I was watching an atrocious pickup game at the gym the way Lucas was “running the offense” last night. There’s a reason he has never found a home in the NBA besides the fact that he’s so small, and it’s because he can’t actually run an offense. Unfortunately, that happens to be the most important thing for a point guard to do. What does this have to do with coaching? Oh, I don’t know, maybe the fact that, after watching Lucas continuously run the shot clock down to 3, Thibodeau still decided to stick with him the entire 4th quarter. You’re probably thinking “but Watson was playing horrible, Thibs had no choice.” Wrong. Mike James, anyone? In the 3 games that he played 17+ minutes this season, he averaged 7 assists. The journeyman actually has a track record. He’s played about 12 seasons in the NBA, including nearly 2 full seasons as a starter in Toronto and Minnesota. He’s no rookie. He obviously wouldn’t be the difference between winning this series and not, but could it really have hurt to put him in when the lead was slowly disintegrating? He can run an offense better than Lucas, and clearly no one could trust Watson and his shot selection last night. I just don’t understand why he didn’t get a chance.

2) Carlos Boozer

  • There’s no one I dislike more in Chicago sports than Carlos Boozer and Alfonso Soriano. For the sake of this post, I will limit the text to only obliterating Boozer. For me, there has never been a more frustrating Bulls player than Boozer. Everyone knows there are players that rise to the occasion at the end of games, the guys who simply want the ball in their hands with the game on the line. Then there are the players who disappear when it matters most (think Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Webber, etc.), the guys who would rather pick out some schmucky fan from the stands to take a big shot than their own damn selves. Carlos Boozer, my friends, is the epitome of the latter. There isn’t a softer player than him on this roster. We’re paying him $15 million a year to average 12-14 ppg in the postseason and disappear at the end of games? What a joke. There was no Derrick Rose, there was no Joakim Noah. We need this man to step up his game when it matters most. Going 1-6 in the 4th quarter and constantly settling for his rocking chair jump shot when he should be banging in the post and finding ways to score like he used to in Utah? He should be ashamed of himself. And don’t even get me started on his defense…

3) Luol Deng

  • Luol: what happened bro? I understand that Iguodala is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, but there’s no excuse for 5 points on 2-7 shooting in game 3 and 8 points on 3-12 shooting in game 2. None whatsoever. I don’t even know what else to say. But Luol Deng is much better than this.

I will now stop talking before I murder someone. Game 4 tomorrow.

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