Fading Into the Sunset? Your 2009 NBA Southwest Divison Preview

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The '09 Rockets: Do a Bunch of Good Parts Make a Great Whole?

The Houston Rockets have emerged in recent years as a perennial contender in the Western Conference. This was considered inevitable a few years ago when they drafted Yao Ming. (Wait, it's been seven years since they drafted him?! Well, then. I'm feeling old this morning.) But perhaps as valuable as Yao or Tracy McGrady over that span has been Rockets GM Daryl Morey, who took over the team from Carrol Dawson in 2007.

Since then, he's set about overhauling a roster that once revolved around oft-injured stars McGrady and Ming, and now is full of talent that's young, spry, and most important, versatile. Players like Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes can do a variety of things to help a basketball team, and do them from a variety of positions on the floor. But perhaps his most cherished piece to play with is Shane Battier, a swingman who can guard just about any position on the floor outside of the opponent's center, and matches his defensive prowess with deadly efficiency on offense. For a basketball team, that kind of player just makes sense.

And you could say the same for just about every single player on Houston's roster (save for McGrady, who Morey would gladly trade, if not for the glaring lack of interest from teams throughout the league). Everyone serves a purpose on that roster, and many of the players excel in doing the "little things" that help teams win. Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes, Trevor Ariza, Battier, Aaron Brooks, Brent Barry--they all do one thing or another very well, and in theory, the parts should add up to form a dominant, cohesive basketball team.

But that's the thing: it's still unclear if it'll shake out that way. Can a bunch of guys that excel at the "little things" do the "big thing," which is "win"?

It's almost as if the Houston Rockets are a thought experiment playing out before our eyes. And last year's playoff series was a strong indicator as to the longterm prognosis for this sort of strategy: you can win, but not that much.

The Rockets dispatched Portland--a team with stars like Brandon Roy and Lamarcus Aldridge, but lacking in guys that excel in the less glamorous areas of the game--4-2, making quick work of the burgeoning Blazers group. But then, the real test: what about beating the Lakers? They played Los Angeles tough for the entire series, and pushed things much further than anyone expected.

But then, in the deciding seventh game, they got blown out by a team with star power that dwarfed their own. Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and company ran them off the court, and when the dust settled, it seemed as they though Houston had been exposed. A well-coached team, with plenty of fight in 'em, but one that simply doesn't belong in the conversation when discussing the NBA elite.

This year, with Yao Ming out for the season and Tracy McGrady on the shelf for who-knows-how-long, it seems we're in for more of that same thought experiment, only this time for an entire season. How will this play out? It's anybody's guess, but I think if last year's Lakers series proved anything, it's that simply by fighting hard every game and showing up to play, an above-average group stands to compete with even the very best the NBA has to offer.

In other words, by assembling this group, Darryl Morey hasn't put together a championship team, but one that will nonetheless win 45-50 games a year based solely on effort that surpasses that of their peers. Will they win anything more than that? Go far in the playoffs? Shock the world? Probably not. There's only so much you can do in the NBA without a dominant franchise player. No matter what your coach says, the sky is not the limit if Luis Scola is your best offensive option. In the NBA, you need a superstar (one, at least) to win big.

But when you think about it, while teams like the 76ers and Raptors strike out on fool's gold free agents like Elton Brand and Hedo Turkoglu, Morey's strategy is not a bad way to bide your time. As a franchise waiting for a superstar to come along that can take them to the promised land, the Rockets are still very good, and competitive every night--preying on teams that are content to take the night off and loaf up-and-down the court. For Rockets fans, that's a pretty great consolation prize if they're not going to be a true title contender. So while the thought experiment might be considered a failure, Darryl Morey's definitely doing something right out there in Houston.

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Some Nicknames for DeJuan Blair


A second ago, I typed out “DeJuan Blair Man-Child,” in the title field for this section, and I was ready to get cracking in a discussion of DeJuan Blair, rebounding, and the pervading idiocy of every GM in the league not named R.C. Buford.

It was to be fun, but not exactly ground-breaking. We know DeJuan is great at rebounding and pretty good at scoring inside. He was probably the steal of the ‘09 Draft. He’s just really solid, and while he’ll never be a star (unless he decides to pull an Antonio Gates on the NFL), he’s the type of player that’s incredibly valuable when surrounded by talent.

In the NBA, if you get a guy who can do one thing great—a la Bruce Bowen’s defense, Chuck Hayes’ scrappiness, or Zach Randolph’s shooting (volume, not accuracy)—a good team will find a place for you, no matter your flaws. In Blair’s case, he’s 6-foot-20, has the strength of a thousand men, and makes ’90s Charles Barkley look like a pitiful eunuch, cowering in the corner. And he needs a nickname.

Clips Nation’s Steve Perrin waded into these waters last week, with Blake Superior, and had this to say of nicknames, in general:

Initials are simply that – initials. So while many people, including myself, will certainly refer to him as BG quite frequently, I just don’t put that in the same category as Blake Superior. The question isn’t “How will you refer to Blake Griffin?” Without doubt, we’ll frequently refer to him as “Blake”, or “Griffin”, or “Blake Griffin” or even “BG”. But none of those are really nicknames – they’re just variations on his name.

It’s actually a bit of a shame in fact. I would go into a long lament about the demise of the sports nickname, but Devin Gordon of Newsweek beat me to it. CP3, Melo, DWade… is this really the best we can do? Some combination of first initials, shortened names, and uniform numbers? Really? So yeah, we can call the guy BG or BGriff (4 votes) or Griff (3 votes), and probably some of us will, and that’s fine. But we also need a name that is more than a simple editing exercise – we need a name with a backstory.

Indeed, calling Blair “D-Blair9” would be extremely lame. And it'd be a disservice to DeJuan, himself, as well as the game, in general. We can do better. I probably can’t, but collectively, I feel like we can come up with a nickname that befits a man of such outstanding badassery. And for what it’s worth, an effective nickname, like Birdman’s mohawk, could carry his game to greater heights than we ever thought possible.

With that in mind, let’s think of a few names (this is stream-of-consciousness, here, so don’t judge):

Night Train. Been used in football, but don’t we need a “Night Train” in basketball?

Mr. Biceps. Err… Like I said, these are coming stream-of-conscious and now that I say that one out loud, it’s kind of homoerotic. And awful. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things.

Gorilla Black. Not because he’s black (you racist bastard), but because his arms are freakishly long, he's got a low center of gravity, and he’s sort of brutish in the way he operates on the court. And the Spurs wear black. And Gorilla Black’s a rapper. If that’s racist, then… Okay yeah, so it’s still a little racist. Let’s move on.

Terror Blair (Pron. in deep, Shaft-like voice: “TERRAHBLAIR”) Weak, though not racist or homoerotic, so that’s a plus.

Doctor DunkInYoMouth. I mean… Maybe?

D-Block. This is actually the nickname of Kansas Center Darnell Jackson, but because he’s not very good, I think D Block deserves some consideration. It’s intimidating, for one, and it’s also the name of an early-millennium rap group led by Jadakiss. And while Jadakiss’ NBA analog is probably someone more established--like Andre Miller, maybe-- Styles P, with his rugged, raw delivery but unmistakable talent, seems like a good fit for DeJuan Blair. They both do the dirty work, but they’re also actually talented, which is a key distinction. (By contrast, Sheek Louch seems like an untalented dude that’s straight stabs people--he’s Ruben Patterson.)

Only problem? DeJuan Blair doesn’t block shots. He's got zero blocks in his first three preseason games, and at 6'7 (that's being generous) he's not likely to be doing any finger wagging anytime soon. This means his nickname would be misleading, and while that could lead to a more prosperous career—as someone like David Kahn just blindly assumes he blocks 2 shots-a-game because of his nickname—that’s not what we want.

DeJuan Ferocious. Ehh… Running out of steam, here.

I don’t know, what do you guys think? And by “you guys”, I mean the 18 people still reading at this point. I’m actually partial to “Night Train,” myself, although I think Mr. Blair has to do something truly spectacular—like dunk on Kirk Hinrich and stomp on his chest (by accident, of course)—before he lives up to “Night Train.” I also like Doctor DunkInYoMouth, but that would not be very easy to brand. Or D-Block, because of the rap group, not his shot-blocking. Let’s continue to think about this.

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Assisted Suicide With Chris Paul

Note: I published this back in August, but SBNation.com didn't exist yet, and we weren't previewing the Southwest Division, which features Chris Paul. And because I'm never going to be able to look at Chris Paul without thinking of Krispy Kreme donuts, I figure it's worth re-printing below:

Well I guess you could call it participatory journalism. Like when George Plimpton wrote Paper Lion. Or some terrible Rick Reilly column that’s probably happened 15 different times already. By living like the pros, we gain insight. Isn’t that right? At the very least, this serves as a convenient rationale for anyone looking to go to a strip club with three hundred bucks worth of one dollar bills.

But enough digression. Yesterday afternoon, because NBC was showing some female triathlon, ABC was showing an LPGA event, and CBS had a golf tournament full of Country Club golf semi-pros, I got bored and decided to make Chris Paul’s Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding.

Some background: earlier this summer I met Steve Kostorowski, and as I explained earlier, he nearly killed me. In a good way, I suppose. But in addition to devising workouts for the athletically handicapped (me), he’s also a personal trainer for professional athletes like Stephen Curry, Jack McClinton, and, most prominently, the best point guard on the face of the earth, Chris Paul.

And sometime last week, I heard through the grapevine about his struggles in fine tuning Paul’s diet. After checking with Steve, I found out exactly what we were talking about: CP’s favorite dessert, a bread pudding made from 24 Krispy Kreme donuts, among other diabetic fodder.
Good God. This I had to see for myself. So, with a little investigation, I tracked down his personal chef, New Orleans’ Patrick Henry, and found the recipe. Yesterday was a pretty disgusting day in DC—alternately rainy and muggy. It somehow combined the worst qualities of both rainy and hot days. Coupled with my atrocious programming options and the collective hangover of my social network, the prospects for a fulfilling day were doomed from the start.

What better way to break the malaise than to bake a 15,000 calories dessert? This is what the best point guard in the NBA eats:

  • 1 Cup Heavy Cream
  • 8 Whole Eggs (cracked and slightly beaten)
  • 1/4 Cup of Sugar
  • 1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • 2 Dozen Doughnuts (broken in bite size chunks)
  • 1 Cup of White Chocolate Chips

Now, some nutritional perspective: one Krispy Kreme donut (pdf) has approximately 20% of your daily fat allowance (18 g), along with a tidy 200 calories. Not bad. Then again, since we're talking about using 24 fucking donuts, let's temper our rejoice. With the doughnuts alone, we’re talking about 4,800 calories, with an impressive 500% portion of your daily fat intake.

Then there’s the jumbo eggs I used: each one of those has 98% of your daily cholesterol, along with 100 calories each. So in total, that's 800% of your daily cholesterol values, along with another 800 calories. Nice.

As for heavy cream, that stuff has got to be the most unhealthy food additive this side of crack cocaine. (At least crack boosts metabolism.) 1 Cup of heavy cream has about 820 calories along with 326 mg of cholesterol. So just in case the eggs and donuts hadn’t stabbed you in the fucking heart, the heavy cream delivers the kill shot quite nicely.

Without looking up the nutritional facts for chocolate chips and sugar, I think it’s safe to say we’re talking about a culinary product that had to have been conceived by the goddamn devil himself. Naturally, I expected it to be phenomenal.

Creating this stuff presents a few obvious challenges. First of all, as Chris Rock outlined a few years ago, Krispy Kreme donuts may have traces of crack cocaine in them. None of us would be surprised. Tearing up 24 donuts into tiny pieces and not eating half of them is quite the exercise in restraint. Really, try it sometime. After tearing the donuts, I had to make the "egg mixture"--which was basically like conjuring a heart attack in a mixing bowl. Eggs, cream, a bunch of sugar, chocolate chips, some cinnammon, vanilla extract... The only things missing were vodka and nictotine. (Substitute patron where necessary if you're Lendale White).

Then, I threw it all in baking dish and stuck it in the oven for 45 minutes. When it emerged? Heaven.
Looked like scalloped potatoes, tasted like cake mixed with pudding mixed with Eddy Curry's wet dream. Eating my first piece was one thing. But my friend spoke for everyone when he said, "Ah, it's pretty disturbing that I probably just ate six donuts and I want another piece." Like I said, the work of the goddamn devil.

All of which is to say I have yet another reason to wish I was a professional athlete. Chris Paul, much to his trainer's chagrin, eats this stuff regularly. He's able to do this and preserve his impressive physique, wake up the next morning without feeling like a house is in his stomach, and play basketball better than... oh, all but maybe three or four other human beings on the planet. Also, he has a chef that will make this for him whenever he wants, whereas I had to carve out two hours of my Sunday to get this done. Damnit.


Jealousy aside, and having completed the most lethargic exercise in participatory journalism since Peter King shadowed Gilbert Brown for a week (note: this probably never happened), I have to say: the bread pudding was damn good. A means for assisted suicide? Perhaps. But still a fun way to spend my Sunday afternoon. And more importantly, yet another example of the most frustrating lesson ever: professional athletes can do things with their bodies that other people can't. Whether that means dunking or eating Krispy Kreme bread pudding every day, they just can.

Only one question remains, then: can someone please pass the milk?

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Player to Watch: Rodrigue Beaubois

I don’t have much hard evidence to support this claim, but Rodrigue Beaubois is going to be a very good player. Granted, he’s only played three preseason games, but I saw one of them in person (a Mavs-Wizards thriller) and came away very impressed.

His jumper needs work, but at the very least, we’re talking about a guy who will provide an other-worldly jolt of speed off the bench for Dallas. Even if it’s just for ten minutes-a-game, I can’t overstate how fast this guy looked in person. Like, we’re talking Barbosa-levels of quick. And kind of like Dejuan Blair’s rebounding, that’s not a skill that’s easy to keep off the court.

Again, he’s a work in progress, but he’s already got one of the more fun names in the NBA, and with his speed and craftiness with the ball, he’ll get more and more looks as the season progresses, if only for his boundless energy. Think of him as a Jose Juan Barea that is French, 6’2 (1.88 m, as the French would say), and not a liability in every phase of the game.

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Manu 'The Sickness' Ginobili

From SBN's Pounding the Rock comes this wallpaper:

Manu_warm_up1024x768_medium

No word on whether Manu's a fan of Disturbed, though for some reason, I can imagine Matt Bonner rocking out to them in an all-black outfit. Exercising angst from a lifetime of redhead jokes, I say.

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When Superstars Get Old

The thing about NBA superstars is, even when they get older and their play declines, it's tough for the rest of us to realize it. It's just the nature of basketball. The NFL, for instance, presents us with stars that are relatively faceless--unless your last name is Manning--so we're able to observe their decline with some objectivity. Ladanian Tomlinson may still look like Ladanian Tomlinson in his Vizio commercials, but on the field, he's a shell of his old self, and it's obvious, because all fans see is a guy with a visor wearing a number 21 jersey, hobbling his way to three-yards-a-carry. 

But that's the thing--on the basketball court, Allen Iverson still looks like exactly the same guy that won an MVP. Jason Kidd still looks like the best point guard in the world. Tim Duncan has the same goofy tattoos and ho-hum look on his face that he did when he was quietly putting together one of the best NBA careers of all time. Our eyes decieve us; these are the best players in the NBA, we think.

But, they're not. Not anymore. It's tough to divorce ourselves from realties we've come to accept as intuitive truths, but look closely, and you'll notice that Jason Kidd's defense is comically bad these days, and Tim Duncan no longer dominates the way he used to. And Iverson, however enduring his ethos as counter-culture hero may be, is as hobbled these days as Tomlinson is for the Chargers or Jordan was for the Wizards.

These guys get old. Example: last year, the Spurs were without Manu Ginobili in the playoffs. Facing the Dallas Mavericks, you had to figure Tim Duncan would have a field day, no? No. For the first time in 11 postseason appearances, Duncan averaged less than 20 points-per-game, and averaged less than 10 rebound-per-game for the first time since his rookie year. And while ppg dipped only slightly below 20 (19.8) his rebounds dropped off badly from the year before (14.5 in '08 to 8.0 in '09). But more than that, it was the way the Spurs played. 

Suddenly, it was Tony Parker's team, and Duncan had been reduced to a solid-but-unspectacular option in the low-post. Even Manu Ginobili acknowledged it at Spurs media day this year: "When you're 32, 33, 34, you're not going to be the same player you were at 25. I think it's natural, everybody goes through that. He's gonna be an all-star, and if not 20 and 10, he'll give us 19 and 9.5. But now, we have Tony..." In other words, the torch has been passed.

And while the dip in production may seem minimal--although the rebounding disparity from last year's playoffs was not--more significant is the evolution of the team in response to Duncan's decline. Or Dallas, as Nowitzki and Kidd get longer in the tooth. Or Memphis, who added Iverson, but will likely look to Rudy Gay to lead them for most of the year. The personalities of the teams undergo a makeover, and the perception throughout the league changes.

Where the Spurs used to give off some indomitable aura of efficiency, now they're a team that revolves around two injury-plagued stars (Ginobili and Duncan) and a very good point guard (Parker). Suddenly, a team like the Denver Nuggets or Portland Trail Blazers need not cower in their presence.

Or the Mavericks, a team that used to shred opposing defenses with offensive brilliance and Dirk's dead-eye shooting. Suddenly, they're a team that relies on two aging superstars--Kidd and Nowitzki--to make their offense go, and have to hide both stars on defense. Meanwhile, the additions of Shawn Marion (for the Mavs) and Richard Jefferson (for the Spurs) are supposed to solve the problems?

It's a tough pill to swallow for fans of these teams, but it's reality. The superstars aren't the same anymore, and the names "Iverson" "Duncan" and "Nowitzki" don't strike fear into opponents' hearts the way they once did. Suddenly, like Boston sports fans realizing the Patriots aren't that dominant anymore, reality has a bias toward younger, more athletic teams like the Denver Nuggets. It may take us a while to catch on, but the games speak loudly already, and it's only appearances and reputations that have kept these superstars atop their pedestal.

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A Demoralizingly Long Grizzlies Preview

This came a few days, but it was excellent. Some excerpts, with a link to the full preview here, and in the previews section:

The Straight Outta Vancouver preview. CelticsBlog asked me really late if I'd like to participate in his thing, so I couldn't publish on the date he wanted which left me out.

The funny thing about a stick of dynamite is that it pretty much always looks like it's ready to explode. Keep that bit of advice in mind as you continue to read.

The Memphis Grizzlies made two different types of additions this season. First, the rookies. The Grizzlies drafted Hasheem Thabeet, who I've openly lamented and insulted in the past and warmed up to in the now, second overall, then went on to take forwards DeMarre Carroll and Sam Young with their next two picks. I believe the draft was one of the best in the NBA despite a pretty weak class, and the Carroll-Young combo has the potential to be the Grizzlies defense-offense bench of the future.

The second set of acquisitions were a tad bit more controversial, and by a tad bit I mean they were damn near as controversial as it gets in the NBA. First the Grizzlies traded Darko Milicic for Quentin Richardson, who then went on a merry-go-round through the NBA, for Zach Randolph. And we all know Zach Randolph. Then the Grizzlies signed walking media magnet Allen Iverson, who's been dancing between wise veteran, distraction, and too hurt to know what the hell he actually is.

Playing with Zach Randolph is a tad bit like playing with a safety valve that's a tiny bit too wide -- as in it sucks everything in and spits it straight back out. You could feed Randolph with every possession and he would use every single one if you wanted him too, and he'd probably shoot about 45% from the field while doing it. Problem is you can't really win many basketball games that way.

And we have no idea what playing with Allen Iverson is like. It used to be pretty cool if you were Eric Snow and hated shooting. Chances are that it's not so cool if you're O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, or Zach Randolph, who all like to get involved in the offense, which means shoot the ball every chance they get. Last season it was a little more like playing with an angry wasp with no stinger. He still looked menacing, but was more of an annoyance then a legitimate threat.

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Fading Into the Sunset: Iverson, San Antonio, Dallas, and the Rest of Your 2009 Southwest Divison

Well, the previews roll on here at SB Nation, as we've now got the Southwest Division all wrapped up. Will Richard Jefferson give San Antonio the offensive balance they lacked with Bruce Bowen? Will Mark Cuban buy a time machine so that the triumvarate of Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Dirk Nowitzki can go back to 2003? Allen Iverson plays for the Grizzlies now, huh? And what about those pesky Houston Rockets? All topics of interest in the Southwest Division, and we haven't even mentioned the best point guard on earth, New Orleans' Chris Paul.

Below, we've got some excerpts from the previews around SB Nation, and throughout the day, we'll be updating this stream with various thoughts on the division. Formal wear is optional but encouraged:

Okafor_medium

No lie, I'd pay a 300 bucks for that blazer. To the previews!

From SBN's Spurs blog, Pounding the Rock:

Where I hope we see the biggest improvement in the team is in the intangibles.  The new roster changes infuse the team with desperately needed athleticism, length, and energy.  The additions of Jefferson, Ratliff, McDyess, and Blair; and the emergence of George Hill, should help the Spurs with all the smaller things we didn't do well last year.  A team that scraps for offensive rebounds.  A team that tips rebounds.  A team that challenges shots in the paint.   A team that collects loose balls.  A team that creates turnovers.  A team that gets some easy baskets.  A team that can win a game against a good team without playing a perfect game.

The Spurs will be good this year.  They will be very good this year.  But, they will need to be great.  Will we see greatness?  That is the question to be answered and I really like our chances.

From SBN's Rockets blog, The Dream Shake:

There are two ways to look at the Rockets series versus the Lakers in last year's playoffs:

1. The Rockets are a very good team and are capable of beating anyone on a given night, even without Yao.

2.  The Rockets got lucky playing against a lackadaisical Lakers team. 

Neither of them is right in full.  It was really a combination of the two. 

The Rockets are a very well put together team, thanks to Daryl Morey.  Not one player, on down to the last guy on the bench, is a quitter.  They all work hard during the game, in practice and in the weight room.  Every player has at least one extreme strength and, with the exception of Chuck Hayes' offensive game, is capable of every facet of NBA level basketball.  And that's not a knock on Hayes, as his defensive skills more than make up for his lack of offense.  For anyone thinking this team is a 50 game winner as it stands today, I just don't have that leap of faith ability in me.  They will be a good team and no one will want a game against them at any point in time this season.  However, they will struggle to score and it will be very ugly at times when they do win.  Typically going into a season like this most would think there wasn't a lot to look forward to, but with the Rockets that's not the case.  Every game should have someone new step up - that's the great thing about having a true 12 man team.

From SBN's Hornets blog, At the Hive:

4. What are the goals for this team?

Hard to say. From a media perspective, the Hornets certainly won't have too much expected of them after last year's disastrous ending. From a player perspective, I'm sure a few guys are feeling some pressure. David West will be 29 next year. Chris Paul's only 24, but his chances at a title have taken a step back from 2007. From a fan perspective, I feel like a first round series win would satiate the majority of New Orleans appetites. Realistic goals will only become clear at least a couple weeks into November. Between Okafor, Wright's starting job, Collison, and Diogu, there are simply too many new pieces to say for sure.

From our Mavericks blog, Mavs Moneyball:

5.      What's the window of opportunity for this veteran team?

This Mavericks team is officially in the final two minutes of the game! With each passing year they become closer and closer to the day when they will have to completely reconstruct this team. The Mavericks have been a perennial contender for many years now and have not been able to accomplish the ultimate goal of bringing a championship to Dallas (Thanks largely in part to the phantom fouls on Dwayne Wade, Damn you David Stern!). The Mavericks have maybe two years to get the job done, the time is now!

And from a Grizzlies blog, Three Shades of Blue:

So the Grizzlies have plenty of issues to overcome and a very short time to figure the answers out. The team opens the season against playoff contenders Detroit and Toronto before starting the first of two five game road trips to the West Coast in November. Young or not the Grizzlies have to grow up fast this season.

Be sure to check back later for more.


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