Standard Deviations: Standard Deviations of Overall SRS from the league mean.
When I post the roster makeup of the team, I try and do it by playoff minutes. The numbers are age, regular season BPM and Playoff BPM (basketball-reference's BPM is being used here).
So if I say: "C: Vlade Divac (22), +2.3 / +4.3" I mean that Vlade Divac was their center, he was 22, he had a BPM of +2.3 in the regular season and a +4.3 in the playoffs. Yes, BPM misses out on a lot of subtle stuff but I thought it a good quick-hits indicator of the skills of the players.
I also list the playoff players (20+ MPG) in order of OLoad (which is usage that integrates assists) and it has everyone's per game average for minutes, points, rebounds, assists and stocks (steals plus blocks), but all of those (including minutes) are adjusted for pace.
I then cover the three highest players in scoring per 100 (with their true shooting relative to league average) and the three highest players in Assists per 100. I realize that these are arbitrary, but I wanted a quick-hits reference for how these teams' offenses ran.
I then talk about Heliocentrism, Wingmen and Depth. Basically I add up all of the team's VORP (again, basketball-reference) and then figure out what percentage of that VORP comes from the #1 player (Heliocentrism), from the #2 and 3 players combined (Wingmen) and Depth (everyone else). I include the ranking among the top 100 for reference. There are only 82 of these rankings, because 18 teams pre-date BPM/VORP, so I only have 82 to work with. I'm not saying that these are particularly meaningful, I just thought they were cool.
Playoff Offensive Rating: Amount by which your playoff offensive rating exceeds the offensive rating you'd expect given the regular season defensive rating of your playoff opponents. If you would be expected to post a 99 given your opponents but you post a 104, that's graded as +5. This way we can compare across eras.
Playoff Defensive Rating is the same as Offensive Rating, just the opposite.
Playoff SRS: Is SRS measured *only* in the playoffs. Overall SRS is a mix of both playoffs and regular season.
Total SRS Increase Through Playoffs: Basically their Overall SRS minus their Regular Season SRS. This is basically how much better a team did in the playoffs than you'd guess, relative to their regular season performance.
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: The average regular season offensive rating of your playoff opponents.
Average Playoff Opponent Defense: The average regular season defensive rating of your playoff opponents.
Rankings of any kind are out of my list. So if I say that the '91 Lakers had the 42nd best regular season offense, I don't mean "42nd best of All-Time", I mean "42nd best of my Top 100 Teams of All_Time". Which will be pretty comparable, but I want to be clear about this.
I also walk through the playoffs at each round, covering their opponent their SRS (at that time), how many games the series was, the margin of victory (and a "+" is always in the favor of the discussed team; losing a series by +2.0 means that you outscored the other team by two points a game on average despite losing) and for reference I put in an SRS equivalency (beat a +5 SRS team by 5 points a game, that's an equivalent +10 SRS series).
In writeups, if I ever say a player shot at "-8%" or something, that means "his true shooting was 8% lower than the league average that year". Any time I say "a player shot" and follow it by a percent, I am *always* using true shooting percentage unless otherwise indicated.
I also have a modern comps section for any teams pre-2011. It's basically me weighting each statistical characteristic and feeding each player's stats into the BackPicks database and choosing the best-rated comp from the list. I might list something like this:
PG: 2017 LeBron James (worse rebounding, better passing, way fewer shots)
What I mean is, "This team's point guard was basically 2017 LeBron James, but make his passing better, make his rebounding worse and make him take way fewer shots).
Anyhow. I don't know how clear any of this will be, so please let me know what does and doesn't work from these writeups. And thanks for reading!
#25. The 2019 Milwaukee Bucks
Regular Season Metrics:
Regular Season Record: 60-22, Regular Season SRS: +8.04 (23rd), Earned the 1 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +3.4 (53rd), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -5.2 (24th)
PG: Eric Bledsoe, +3.1 / -0.2
SG: George Hill, -1.2 / +5.1
SF: Khris Middleton, +0.8 / +1.3
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo, +10.4 / +8.4
C: Brook Lopez, +2.2 / +2.4
6th: Pat Connaughton, +1.2 / +3.0
7th: Nikola Mirotic, +2.0 / -0.9
8th: Macolm Brogdon, +2.2 / +2.4
Giannis Antetokounmpo (PF, 24): 32 MPPG, 33% OLoad, 27 / 12 / 6 / 3 on +8.4%
Khris Middleton (SF, 27): 30 MPPG, 26% OLoad, 18 / 6 / 4 / 1 on -0.2%
Eric Bledsoe (PG, 29): 28 MPPG, 25% OLoad, 15 / 5 / 5 / 2 on +1.7%
Malcolm Brogdon (SG, 26): 28 MPPG, 21% OLoad, 15 / 4 / 3 / 1 on +5.4%
Nikola Mirotic (PF, 27): 22 MPPG, 20% OLoad, 11 / 5 / 1 / 1 on +0.2%
Brook Lopez (C, 30): 28 MPPG, 16% OLoad, 21 / 5 / 1 / 3 on +3.7%
George Hill (PG, 32): 20 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 7 / 3 / 2 / 1 on -2.6%
Pat Connaughton (SG, 26): 20 MPPG, 14% OLoad, 7 / 4 / 2 / 1 on +1.3%
Scoring/100: Giannis Antetokounmpo (39.3 / +8.4%), Khris Middleton (27.3 / -0.2%), Eric Bledsoe (25.4 / +1.7%)
Assists/100: Eric Bledsoe (8.8), Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.4), Khris Middleton (6.4)
Heliocentrism: 40.4% (30th of 84 teams) - Giannis
Wingmen: 29.0% (76th) - Bledsoe & Lopez
Depth: 30.6% (31st)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +3.21 (70th), Playoff Defensive Rating: -9.21 (8th)
Playoff SRS: +13.71 (19th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +3.18 (38th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +1.31 (73rd), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -2.51 (38th)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (PF, 24): 34 MPPG, 32% OLoad, 26 / 12 / 5 / 3 on +1.0%
Eric Bledsoe (PG, 29): 28 MPPG, 25% OLoad, 14 / 4 / 4 / 2 on -6.6%
Khris Middleton (SF, 27): 35 MPPG, 22% OLoad, 17 / 6 / 4 / 1 on +0.7%
Malcolm Brogdon (SG, 26): 28 MPPG, 20% OLoad, 13 / 5 / 3 / 1 on -1.1%
Nikola Mirotic (PF, 27): 21 MPPG, 19% OLoad, 10 / 4 / 1 / 1 on -4.6%
George Hill (PG, 32): 26 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 12 / 4 / 3 / 1 on +9.3%
Brook Lopez (C, 30): 29 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 11 / 6 / 1 / 2 on +1.2%
Pat Connaughton (SG, 26): 22 MPPG, 12% OLoad, 6 / 6 / 1 / 1 on +1.7%
Scoring/100: Giannis Antetokounmpo (35.7 / +1.0%), Khris Middleton (23.7 / +0.7%), Eric Bledsoe (23.2 / -6.6%)
Assists/100: Eric Bledsoe (7.3), Giannis Antetokounmpo (6.8), Khris Middleton (6.1)
Playoff Heliocentrism: 31.8% (58th of 84 teams) - Giannis
Playoff Wingmen: 27.3% (79th) - Hill & Middleton
Playoff Depth: 40.9% (4th)
Round 1: Detroit Pistons (-0.6), won 4-0, by +23.8 points per game (+23.2 SRS eq)
Round 2: Boston Celtics (+5.5), won 4-1, by +8.6 points per game (+14.1 SRS eq)
Round 3: Toronto Raptors (+8.0), lost 2-4, outscored by 1.0 points per game (+7.0 SRS eq)
Offensive / Defensive Ratings from Opposition Regular Season Average:
Detroit Pistons: +12.0 / -11.5
Boston Celtics: +2.0 / -10.7
Toronto Raptors: +0.1 / -4.9
Giannis Antetokounmpo was born in Athens, Greece. His family had emigrated from Nigeria (his family name is actually Adetokunbo; the current rendering is to be more consistent with transliterations of the Greek spelling) and because of Greek law Giannis wouldn’t become a Greek citizen until he turned 18. As immigrants, his family had a hard time getting work so Giannis and his brothers raised money by hawking watches, handbags etc in the streets. In 2007, at age 12, he started playing basketball. He would grow to be 6’11”, with a 7’3” wingspan. He was signed by a Spanish team at 17, and at 18 he was drafted by the Bucks in the middle of the first round of the 2013 draft. Giannis was plenty long and had a decent handle, but he was extremely unpolished. Like Rudy Gobert, he was drafted primarily for his potential; had he NBA-level skills he would have gone considerably higher.
Giannis struggled in his first few years. Here are his advanced stat breakdowns through his first four years:
2014: 51.8% TS on 15% Usage, 10.2% Rebound, 12.1% Assist, 4.3% Stocks, 19.4% TO
2015: 55.2% TS on 19.6% Usage, 12.2% Rebound, 13.1% Assist, 4.5% Stocks, 15.6% TO
2016: 56.6% TS on 22.3% Usage, 12.4% Rebound, 20.0% Assist, 5.1% Stocks, 14.8% TO
2017: 59.9% TS on 28.3% Usage, 14.3% Rebound, 26.6% Assist, 7.0% Stocks, 13.3% TO
He got above league average efficiency quickly, but it took a while for him to be able to generate shots. Early on his passing was on the weak side and he struggled with turnovers. But by 2017 (age 22) he was posting fantastic numbers across the board. He had evolved into one of the best slashers ever, able to cover 15 feet in one dribble, and converting defensive attention into open looks for his team. And his length made him a formidable defender; he had the ability to defend almost anyone, and his length allowed him to help quickly from near anywhere on the court. By age 22 his VORP (take it for what it’s worth) was 5th in the league; at age 23 it was 6th. The Bucks worked to surround him with athletic defenders and shooters, building both their offense and defense around him. But through 2018 the Bucks struggled to post a positive RSRS or to win more than 42 games.
The 2018 offseason saw a considerable shake-up of the organization. Coach Mike Budenholzer was brought in (who had had considerable regular season success with the Hawks) and starters John Henson and Thon Maker were replaced with George Hill and Brook Lopez (Hill was acquired for a first and parts, and Lopez was a free agent on a one-year deal). These were all good changes, but the oddsmakers gave the Bucks about a 1 in 100 chance to win the Finals. The team had surely improved, but nobody expected miracles.
The Budenholzer Bucks started bombing from three, increasing their threes taken by more than 50%. And they went from playing at a slow pace to one of the fastest paces in the league. Suddenly the Bucks were fast-breaking constantly (which Giannis was amazing at) and spreading defenses with their spacing. In other words, they optimized their offense based on Giannis’ skills, and it went from being average to being one of the best offenses in the league. But the real change was on defense, where they went from being below average to being the best in the league. They didn’t force a ton of steals but they were #1 in eFG% (shooting from the field), defensive rebounding and not allowing free throws. The total package was the best RSRS in the league (23rd on this sheet), the best record in the league, the one seed and the 24th best defense on this list. It was a hell of a change. For a season where all the talk was the Warriors three-peating (and maybe some of the Raptors with Kawhi) Giannis and the Bucks had become the best regular season team in the league.
In the first round the Bucks faced the average Pistons (-0.6). And it was a slaughter. The Bucks swept the series by 23.8 points a game. Here are what the MoVs were just at the third quarter: +36, +17, +22 and +10. Blake Griffin was out for half the series which taints it somewhat, but the Bucks would have obliterated the Pistons either way. Giannis averaged a 26/12/4 on +4.3% (the volume looks low but his usage was really high - he just didn't play a lot of minutes because the series was a cakewalk) and the rest of the Bucks were lights out, shooting at +7.7% as a team. It was an extremely dominant win. Giannis couldn't maintain efficiency with his increased usage (a 4 point drop) but the rest of the team did their part to pick up the load with the decreased attention.
In the second round they faced considerably stronger opposition, the +5.5 Boston Celtics (with Kyrie Irving). The Celtics were well-coached, with a host of young and athletic players. The Bucks still crushed them, taking the series in five by 8.6 points a game. The victory was defensive; the Bucks absolutely shut down the Celtics’ offense, holding them to shooting at -1.3% for the series and over 10 points below their regular season average. But the Bucks’ offense was a bit more of a concern. The Bucks had struggled to shoot, specifically Eric Bledsoe (-3.6% for the series). And they hadn’t been able to get many offensive boards; they still won possession, but not by as much as you’d think. The result was still a 8.6 ppg win over a very good team, so the Bucks were still looking very strong. But that their offense (reliant on Giannis’ limited but extraordinary skills and a bunch of strong role players) was stalling against a strong defense was something of a concern.
In the Conference Finals were the +8.0 Toronto Raptors, an elite team. They were just as well-coached as the Celtics, and featured playoff scorer and defensive stopper Kawhi Leonard. Even with those things the Bucks went into the series about 2.5 point per game favorites. Game 1 in Milwaukee was close, with the Raptors leading by 7 going into the 4th. But in that fourth Raptors not named Kyle Lowry were 0 of 15 from the floor, while the Bucks scored 32 points on 22 shooting possessions (led by Brook Lopez). The Bucks took the game by 8. In Game 2 the Bucks blew the game wide open, winning all four factors by a ton, and won the game by 22. Two games in things were looking pretty rosy. But Toronto adjusted their defensive configuration. They started putting Kawhi on Giannis full-time. They also blocked the paint off over and over again, keeping Giannis from the rim. They also started ignoring Eric Bledsoe behind the arc, using his defender to assist.
In Game 3 the Bucks’ offense hit a wall. Giannis had a 12/7/1 on -22.7% shooting, while Eric Bledsoe (whose usage went up in response to being undefended) shot an exhilarating -24.6%. Even still the Bucks’ defense played so well that the game was forced into two separate overtimes. In the second overtime Giannis fouled out early and the Raptors pulled off the win by 8. In Game 4 the Bucks’ offense bounced back (besides Eric Bledsoe’s -22.4%) but the Raptors’ offense caught fire, with the team shooting +6.6% for the game and winning by 18. The series was now tied, and the Raptors were looking very competitive. Game 5 was in Milwaukee, but it didn’t seem to help. The Bucks’ offense struggled again (Giannis had a 24/6/6 on +0.5%) and the team shot -0.2%. The Bucks led by 3 going into the 4th, but in the final quarter the Raptors crashed the boards successfully (5 offensive rebounds in the quarter) and posted 0 turnovers to the Bucks’ 4 (2 Giannis, 2 Brogdon). The Raptors pulled out the win by 6. Game 6 was in Toronto and Giannis struggled with a 21/11/4 on -7.2% while the Raptors shot +5.7% as a team, winning by 6. The Bucks’ surprising run was over.
What to make of this series? First, Giannis really struggled to score. His efficiency had dropped from +8.4% in the regular season to -2.3% in the series. That is an incredible drop. Some of it was his free throw shooting. That season Giannis had shot 72.9% from the line. This series he shot 58.3% on 60 attempts. Do you know the odds that a 72.9% shooter only makes 35 or less of 60 shots? 1.1%. So while it’s totally possible that this could happen naturally (1.1% events do happen . . . 1.1% of the time) but it certainly fits alternate narratives (choking, frustrations, lack of condition, what have you). And while Giannis’ struggles were very real, the rest of the Bucks weren’t able to take advantage of the extra attention Giannis got. The Raptors were ideally suited to point out the flaw in the Bucks’ offense (that if Giannis couldn’t get to the paint the whole thing kind of folded like a house of cards) and the Bucks were unable to improvise. At the same time the Raptors offense proved particularly resilient against the Bucks’ defense. Some of it, I’m sure, was Kawhi’s shot-creating abilities, but Kawhi didn’t actually score particularly efficiency (his 30/10/4 on +3.3% with 2.2 steals a game is a hell of a line, but the efficiency isn’t remarkable). But between Kawhi’s success and Toronto’s overall depth and execution they were able to generate *some* offense against Milwaukee. And when the Bucks’ offense struggled, *some* offense was enough.
What do we make of this team? On one hand, they were the best regular season team of their season (by a lot) and they ripped through the first two rounds (I don’t really care about the Detroit win, but the Boston win is considerably more impressive). They did lose to the Raptors, but only by a point a game. And Kawhi was one of the very few defenders who could man up Giannis successfully. There’s a very real chance that the Bucks, had they not run into the Raptors, could well have run the table. It’s sort of like how Hakeem’s run in ‘95 was made easier by running into opponents late in the playoffs dependent on their great center (David Robinson and Shaq), because Hakeem could slow them considerably while being relatively impervious himself. Or like how the ‘09 and ‘10 Magic were really hard to stop . . . unless you could slow Dwight. And they kept running into teams that could.
On one hand, I think the Bucks’ dominance (particularly on the defensive end) and their whipping of the Celtics suggests that they really were an extremely strong team. But their performance against the Raptors makes them look unpleasantly elastic, which isn’t a good look for a top team. The real question is this: did the Bucks falter against the Raptors because the Raptors were a great team, or because the Raptors were an ideal counter? The latter is understandable; great teams do run into counters sometimes (like Kareem running into Wilt/Nate in the ‘72 playoffs). But if it’s the former? They sour as an ATG team because, while whipping up on average/decent teams is impressive (and necessary), the ability to play well against top teams is the mark of a truly great team. So I’m choosing to believe that the Bucks’ loss hear was mostly the matchup . . . but I’m not convinced.
11 | Bucks
10 | Raptors
8 | Warriors
7 | Rockets
4 | 76ers, Celtics, Nuggets
3 | Blazers
2 | Jazz, Thunder, Spurs
1 | Pacers
-0 | Clippers, Heat, Kings, Mavericks
-1 | Hornets, Lakers, TWolves, Pelicans
-2 | Nets, Magic, Grizzlies
-3 | Wizards
-4 | Pistons
-6 | Hawks
-8 | Bulls, Knicks, Suns
-9 | Cavs
2019 was a pretty non-competitive year. 30% of the league was either above +7 or below -6, which is a massive spread. The Bucks still come out of this looking like the best team of the year. With the 23rd best regular season and 19th best playoffs of this list, the only reason they aren’t higher is the lack of competitiveness of their league environment. That said, I think this is a little high for them. I think the Detroit series, between being a blowout against an average team and between them missing their best player for half the series, isn’t as impressive as my formula thinks. I am not ashamed of having the ‘19 Bucks this high, but I’d me more comfortable with them in the Top 40 or something.
#24. The 1972 Milwaukee Bucks
PG: Oscar Robertson, 0.167 / 0.134
SG: Lucius Allen, 0.157 / 0.162
SF: Bob Dandridge, 0.148 / 0.185
PF: Curtis Perry, 0.047 / 0.152
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 0.340 / 0.147
6th: Jon McGlocklin, 0.126 / 0.054
7th: Wali Jones, 0.050 / 0.118
Regular Season Metrics:
Regular Season Record: 63-19, Regular Season SRS: +10.70 (6th), Earned the 2 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +4.7 (36th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -5.3 (23rd)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C, 24): 40 MPPG, 28% OLoad, 31 / 15 / 4 on +9.9%
Oscar Robertson (PG, 33): 34 MPPG, 22% OLoad, 16 / 5 / 7 on +3.6%
Bob Dandridge (SF, 24): 34 MPPG, 21% OLoad, 17 / 7 / 3 on +2.6%
Lucius Allen (SG, 24): 26 MPPG, 20% OLoad, 12 / 3 / 4 on +4.3%
Wali Jones (PG, 29): 19 MPPG, 19% OLoad, 7 / 1 / 3 on -4.4%
Jon McGlocklin (SG, 28): 25 MPPG, 16% OLoad, 10 / 2 / 3 on +3.9%
Curtis Perry (PF, 23): 27 MPPG, 13% OLoad, 6 / 9 / 1 on -8.0%
Scoring/100: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (34.0 / +9.9%), Bob Dandridge (21.5 / +2.6%), Oscar Robertston (20.1 / +3.6%)
Assists/100: Oscar Robertson (8.9), Lucius Allen (6.2), Wali Jones (5.9)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +3.00 (72nd), Playoff Defensive Rating: -8.73 (12th)
Playoff SRS: +14.08 (13th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.64 (70th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +2.69 (36th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: -3.35 (21st)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C, 24): 43 MPPG, 28% OLoad, 26 / 17 / 5 on -4.2%
Lucius Allen (SG, 24): 32 MPPG, 21% OLoad, 16 / 3 / 3 on +1.5%
Oscar Robertson (PG, 33): 31 MPPG, 21% OLoad, 12 / 5 / 7 on -4.2%
Bob Dandridge (SF, 24): 36 MPPG, 21% OLoad, 19 / 8 / 2 on +2.5%
Wali Jones (PG, 29): 20 MPPG, 20% OLoad, 9 / 2 / 2 on -1.1%
Jon McGlocklin (SG, 28): 19 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 6 / 1 / 1 on -3.9%
Curtis Perry (PF, 23): 33 MPPG, 11% OLoad, 9 / 12 / 1 on +1.0%
Scoring/100: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (27.3 / -4.2%), Bob Dandridge (23.7 / +2.5%), Lucius Allen (22.5 / +1.5%)
Assists/100: Oscar Robertson (9.6), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (4.8), Lucius Allen (4.8)
Round 2: Golden State Warriors (+0.9), won 4-1, by +11.4 points per game (+12.3 SRS eq)
Round 3: Los Angeles Lakers (+13.2), lost 2-4, by +2.3 points per game (+15.5 SRS eq)
Offensive / Defensive Ratings from Opposition Regular Season Average:
Golden State Warriors: +6.9 / -4.1
Los Angeles Lakers: +0.5 / -12.0
In 1969 the Milwaukee Bucks were an expansion team in the Eastern Conference. And, predictably, they were awful. But they, in perhaps the luckiest coincidence ever to occur to an expansion team, were to draft first in the draft that had arguably the best college player . . . ever. Lew Alcindor was a 7’3” center with a decent handle (for a big), decent passing (for a big) and incredible coordination, able to shoot at incredible efficiencies at volume. Some of this was simple big man stuff (putbacks and whatnot), some was his considerable quickness but the rest was his skyhook, the nearly unblockable hook shot that he could sink from the midrange with great success.
That next year Alcindor won the Rookie of the Year and was, as a rookie, probably one of the Top 5 players in the league. His addition (among some other moves) transformed the Bucks from a -5.07 RSRS team to a +4.25 RSRS team, one that made it into the Conference Finals before falling to the ‘70 Knicks. In 1971 the Bucks (who had moved to the Western Conference) ripped through the league. Alcindor was a year better, Bob Dandridge was better, and the Bucks had added the young Lucius Allen and the older Oscar Robertson. Oscar wasn’t the world-beater he’d been in his youth; he was still an excellent player but no longer one of the Top 4 in the league. Nevertheless the new roster absolutely obliterated the NBA top to bottom. Except . . . Lurking in the shadows were the Lakers. With the combined powers of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, they were a handful for any team to deal with. But in ‘71 Jerry West was injured and knocked out for the playoffs, leaving the Bucks relatively little opposition. In ‘72 the same would not happen.
The 1972 regular season was not quite as dominant for the Bucks (unrelated, Alcindor would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in that offseason). In ‘71 they put up a +11.92 RSRS, a full 6 points higher than the next highest team. In ‘72 they posted another extremely strong mark (+10.70, 6th highest on the list), but it was a mark actually below that of the ‘72 Lakers who posted a +11.65. Kareem led the league in the following: Shots taken, Shots made, Points, PER, Win Shares and WS/48 (he was 2nd in the league in shooting efficiency and rebounds). I want to be clear: Kareem was the best scorer in the league. By a lot. Do you know the next time a player would both lead the league in points *and* shoot at +9% or better? Kevin Durant (yes, the increase in league size and player pool makes this a slightly cheaty comparison, but I hope it conveys that Kareem blended volume and efficiency in an historically rare way). And yet, the above may create a false impression. Players that lead the league in scoring tend to have *really* high OLoads/Usage rates. Generally in the 30-35% range. And yet Kareem’s OLoad was only around 28%, which is more in peak Tim Duncan territory. Both of those players are primary hubs of their offense, but neither were particularly high usage. Kareem made up the difference by playing a ton of minutes. He finished 2nd in the league in minutes played, averaging 44.2 minutes per game and only missing one game. So even though his stat lines jump out as high-usage, they really weren’t. He was more like a Duncan that played a lot of minutes than a Shaq, if the distinction makes sense. And of course, he was a more efficient scorer than both.
The ‘72 Bucks were a good team but they definitely had holes. Curtis Perry was a no-scoring rebounding defender at power forward. And Wali Jones was a fairly weak first guard off the bench. But Oscar was strong at the point (not great at any one thing but providing good scoring, good passing and good rebounding), Lucius Allen was a solid combo-guard (not unlike Joe Dumars) and Bob Dandridge was a solid athletic wing. Those three were all good (or better) and McGlocklin was decent off the bench, but I want to be clear that this was a Kareem team top to bottom. If we had VORP data I’m pretty sure that this would have shown as one of the highest Heliocentrism teams on the list. While we don’t have VORP, we do have Win Shares, and here are some comparisons between ‘72 Kareem’s Helio score (with Win Shares instead of VORP) compared to some other players:
38.1% WS for ‘72 Kareem
29.9% WS for ‘09 LeBron
29.5% WS for ‘93 Jordan
28.9% WS for ‘03 Duncan
Now, Win Shares does favor bigs. But even still. It’s hard to overstate how much Kareem carried this team (the phrase “carry” is usually used to apply to weak roster and I’m don’t really think that the ‘72 Bucks had a weak supporting cast, just that the gap between Kareem and everyone else was insane). Kareem scored 30% of his team’s points; ‘93 Jordan scored 29.5% of his team’s points. I’m not trying to say that Kareem was a better scorer on the court, but I will say that Kareem was on the court more than Jordan was. I realize I’ve been going on about this so just here me say this: the ‘72 Bucks were probably as or more dependent on Kareem being the best player in the league than any other team this high on this list. And this was even more true considering that Oscar was injured late in the season and was playing hurt.
PG: 2004 Gary Payton (slightly better)
SG: 2010 Ray Allen (less spacing and shooting, more passing)
SF: 2005 Tayshaun Prince (better scorer)
PF: 2005 Rasho Nesterovic
C: 2002 Tim Duncan (worse passer, but considerably better scorer)
6th: 2009 Derek Fisher
7th: 2007 Chris Duhon
Take the comps for whatever they’re worth. But ‘04 Payton (better), ‘10 Allen and ‘05 Prince are all nice supporting pieces, but none of them are particularly strong #2s. This roster began and ended with Kareem.
So it’s notable that the Bucks’ playoff schedule was insanely difficult; not for the Bucks per se, but for Kareem.
In the semis the Bucks faced the +0.9 Golden State Warriors. The Warriors themselves weren’t terribly good but they did have one thing going for them: they had Nate Thurmond who may have been the best defensive center in the league (one that Kareem would later say was his toughest defender). And Kareem really struggled against Thurmond for the series, averaging only a 23/19 (we don’t have assist data) on -7.2% shooting. That was a massive implosion in scoring. That said, the entire rest of the Bucks shot fantastically (Wali Jones’ +13.5% was the lowest any of them shot). And the Bucks blew the Warriors apart by 11.4 points per game.
And in the Conference Finals, of course, lay the ‘72 Lakers. This Conference Finals matchup was probably the greatest matchup in the Conference Finals . . . ever. We’re talking a +11.2 OSRS team (the Bucks) against a +13.2 OSRS team (the Lakers). We’re talking Kareem and Oscar against Wilt and West. I can’t overstate how huge this matchup was going to be. The best team in the East was the +6.2 OSRS Knicks; whoever won between the Lakers and Bucks was likely to win the Finals.
Game 1 was in LA and it didn’t go at all the way anyone might have guessed. The Lakers absolutely owned possession. I’m saying this because the Lakers had *22* extra shot attempts in the game. And the Bucks didn’t shoot particularly well: Kareem had a 33/18/2 on a +6.3% and the team overall shot at +4.4%. But the Bucks’ defense completely shut down the Lakers’ shooting: Chamberlain had a 10/24/0 on -24.1% and Jerry West a 10/3/6 on -26.3%. The four highest-minutes Lakers shot a combined 12 of 65 from the floor. The Lakers as a team shot at -13.5% and, while their extra shots helped, they didn’t come close to making up their bad shooting. The Bucks won Game 1 by 21.
The Lakers bounced back in Game 2. Again the Lakers owned possession by 22 shots, this time mostly on the glass (8 more rebounds, despite getting outshot by a huge margin). The Bucks shot well (Kareem’s 40/7/7 on +10.7% is a great stat line, but that was a really low rebound total for him) at +20.8%, but they couldn’t keep the Lakers from shooting a decent +9.7% (West had a 28/7/13 on -8.6%). The Bucks started the fourth quarter down by ten, but rallied, winning the quarter by 9 but falling one point short of a win and the Lakers won in a squeaker.
Game 3 was an inversion of the pattern; this time the Bucks got an extra 14 shots (mostly from rebounding), but struggled to score. Kareem was held to a 33/21/6 on -8.8% and the Bucks overall shot at +0.5%. The Lakers didn’t do a lot better (+7.8% as a team, with West posting a 22/5/8 on +1.5%), but it was enough to give them a narrow 3 point win. The Bucks retained the possession advantage for Game 4, taking an extra 11 shots and dominating the boards (75 to 43). And the Bucks shot decently enough (+3.4% with Kareem posting a 24/15/1 on +2.6%) while stifling the Lakers hard (West had a 24/5/4 on -5.2% and as a team they shot -3.5%). The Bucks, owning both shooting and possession, blew out the Lakers by 26. The series was tied going to Game 5 in LA.
In Game 5 the Bucks’ offense simply could not get going; Kareem was held to a 28/16/3 on -9.1% and Bob Dandridge had a 6/10/1 on -20.0% and the Bucks shot -4.5% overall. And the Lakers, while not shooting well, did well enough (+6.5% as a team with West posting a 22/3/10 on +5.0%). The Lakers’ big shooting edge got them the win, by 25 points, and the Bucks were one game from elimination. Game 6 in Milwaukee was tight (as you’d guess). The Bucks controlled possession (with 11 extra shooting possessions) but once again struggled to shoot, with Kareem posting a 37/25/8 on -3.2% and the team shooting -3.5% as a unit. And the Lakers shot just well enough (+2.3%) and Wilt had a 20/24/2 on +15.9%. The Bucks had a four point lead going into the fourth but the Lakers surged ahead, pulling off a five point win and winning the series.
So, what to make of this series? The Lakers won 4 games to 2. But the MoV tells a different story. The Bucks’ wins were by 21 and 26 points; the Lakers’ wins were by 25, 4, 3 and 1 point. That gives the Bucks a 2.3 point point per game advantage. Am I saying that the Bucks were the better team? Less that and more that any “The Lakers stomped the Bucks!” narratives are pretty suspect; this looks much more like two really evenly matched teams and one happened to win (as will happen). What about the “Wilt shut Kareem down / Wilt took Kareem to school” narrative? In a head to head comparison it’s obviously not close: Wilt averaged an 11/19/3 on -3.2% which isn’t remotely comparable to Kareem’s performance. But in terms of Wilt playing good defense on Kareem? Kareem’s efficiency did drop a ton, going from +9.9% to -2.2% for the series, which is a massive drop. And Wilt unquestionably played a role there. On the other hand, Kareem averaged a 34/18/5 compared with a 35/17/5 in the regular season so . . . There’s another factor. Obviously we didn’t have usage rates for back then. But Kareem took 26.9% of his teams shooting possessions in the regular season but 31.2% of them in this series. So a lot of it is Wilt, but some of it is the fact that Kareem was playing more minutes and carrying a considerably larger role then he was used to.
And Kareem’s teammates really didn’t step up with their diminished load.
Oscar went from a 17 / 5 / 8 on +3.6% to a 9 / 5 / 6 on -13.9%
Dandridge went from a 18 / 8 / 3 on +2.6% to a 19 / 11 / 2 on -5.1%
Allen went from a 14 / 3 / 4 on +4.3% to a 17 / 3 / 3 on -4.9%
Basically, Oscar’s injury forced Kareem to carry an extra load (in the same playoffs where he encountered the two toughest defensive centers he’d ever face) and the rest of the team around him really struggled to perform (Dandridge held his volume, but lost efficiency). But a lot of credit has to go to the Lakers’ defense for doing an excellent job.
And speaking of defenses, the Bucks’ played amazingly. The Bucks held the Lakers to an astounding 12 points per 100 lower than their regular season average. In the regular season Jerry West averaged 26 a game on +3.1%, against the Bucks he averaged 22 per game on -8.3%. The 1972 Conference Finals was a defensive brawl; both teams struggled to score. The Lakers happened to prevail and went on to win the Championship.
12 | Bucks
11 | Lakers
6 | Knicks, Bulls
5 | Suns
2 | Celtics
0 | Warriors, Sonics
-0 | Rockets
-2 | Hawks
-3 | Bullets, 76ers
-4 | Royals
-6 | Pistons
-7 | Cavs
-8 | Blazers
-9 | Braves
Okay, brace yourself. 1972 was the most lopsided year *ever*. Not close. Only 18% of the league was between -2 and +2. An absolutely insane 47% of the league was either above +6 or below -6. At the intersection of expansion and the ABA, there has never been a year with such a high proportion of awful teams. So while the Bucks and Lakers were clearly overwhelmingly dominant, we have to take it with a grain of salt. Because their season was extremely noncompetitive.
Where does this all shake out? Well, the Bucks posted the 6th best RSRS on the list and 13th best PSRS on the list. The formula penalizes them for being knocked out in the Conference Finals and their noncompetitive league, but that’s still an insane resume. And look. They were clearly above every other team except the Lakers, wrecked the Warriors (appropriately) and played the Lakers extremely tight such that I’m basically looking at the series as a coin-flip. That’s a great resume. I don’t feel remotely bad about them ranking #24. In fact? I think they should be higher.
Bear in mind that the only reason they got knocked out in the Conference Finals is because they were in the same conference as the Lakers. If they’d been in the East (as they’d be in the 80s) they would certainly have won the conference and (assuming metrics stayed the same) they’d be put 19th. So penalizing them 5 places for happening to be in the same conference as LA seems capricious. Also, the Bucks didn’t get the chance to whip on a weak first round opponent as most modern teams do - their series against the Warriors fulfilled that role of course, but as an historically dominant team only getting one series against non-Laker opponents unquestionably hurts their rating.
Obviously this is all speculative. They *were* in the same conference as the Lakers, they *did* happen to lose to them and they *did* only get to play one non-Laker team. It is what it is. My sheet thinks that this is the best team to be knocked out in the Conference Finals on this list, and the 3rd best not to win a championship. I think that they’re better than that. In a list where I was making subjective decisions I’d probably put them in the Top 20.
This was a damned good team.
#23. The 2016 San Antonio Spurs
PG: Tony Parker, +0.4 / -0.7
SG: Danny Green, +1.1 / +6.8
SF: Kawhi Leonard, +9.1 / +11.5
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge, +2.3 / +3.6
C: Tim Duncan, +3.0 / -0.6
Regular Season Metrics:
Regular Season Record: 67-15, Regular Season SRS: +10.28 (8th), Earned the 2 Seed
Regular Season Offensive Rating: +3.9 (46th), Regular Season Defensive Rating: -7.4 (7th)
Kawhi Leonard (SF, 24): 35 MPPG, 25% OLoad, 23 / 7 / 3 / 3 on +7.5%
LaMarcus Aldridge (PF, 30): 33 MPPG, 24% OLoad, 19 / 9 / 2 / 2 on +2.4%
Tony Parker (PG, 33): 29 MPPG, 23% OLoad, 13 / 3 / 6 / 1 on +0.5%
Tim Duncan (C, 39): 27 MPPG, 18% OLoad, 9 / 8 / 3 / 2 on -1.8%
Danny Green (SG, 28): 28 MPPG, 15% OLoad, 8 / 4 / 2 / 2 on -4.9%
Scoring/100: Kawhi Leonard (32.8 / +7.5%), LaMarcus Aldridge (30.1 / +2.4%), Tony Parker (22.2 / +0.5%)
Assists/100: Tony Parker (9.8), Tim Duncan (5.4), Kawhi Leonard (4.0)
Heliocentrism: 30.3% (51st of 84 teams) - Kawhi
Wingmen: 20.3% (83rd) - Aldridge & Duncan
Depth: 49.4% (4th)
Playoff Offensive Rating: +4.52 (61st), Playoff Defensive Rating: -8.92 (10th)
Playoff SRS: +14.49 (10th), Total SRS Increase through Playoffs: +1.94 (60th)
Average Playoff Opponent Offense: +3.62 (11th), Average Playoff Opponent Defense: +0.08 (93rd)
Kawhi Leonard (SF, 24): 36 MPPG, 27% OLoad, 24 / 7 / 3 / 4 on +5.6%
LaMarcus Aldridge (PF, 30): 36 MPPG, 25% OLoad, 23 / 9 / 1 / 2 on +3.8%
Tony Parker (PG, 33): 28 MPPG, 24% OLoad, 11 / 2 / 6 / 1 on -4.2%
Tim Duncan (C, 39): 23 MPPG, 16% OLoad, 6 / 5 / 2 / 2 on -5.9%
Danny Green (SG, 28): 29 MPPG, 12% OLoad, 9 / 3 / 1 / 3 on +10.7%
Scoring/100: Kawhi Leonard (34.7 / +5.6%), LaMarcus Aldridge (34.0 / +3.8%), Tony Parker (20.6 / -4.2%)
Assists/100: Tony Parker (10.5), Kawhi Leonard (4.3), Tim Duncan (3.4)
Playoff Heliocentrism: 38.7% (32nd of 84 teams) - Kawhi
Playoff Wingmen: 35.5% (62nd) - Green & Aldridge
Playoff Depth: 25.8% (41st)
Round 1: Memphis Grizzlies (-2.1), won 4-0, by +22.0 points per game (+19.9 SRS eq)
Round 2: Oklahoma City Thunder (+10.4), lost 2-4, by +0.5 points per game (+10.9 SRS eq)
Offensive / Defensive Ratings from Opposition Regular Season Average:
Memphis Grizzlies: +9.3 / -13.3
Oklahoma City Thunder: +3.4 / -4.6
In 1981 the Milwaukee Bucks won 60 games and posted a +7.14 RSRS (the second best mark in the league). But because of the way the playoffs were set up, their first matchup was in the semis, and it was against the +8.85 OSRS 76ers, at that point the best team in the league. The Bucks managed to outscore the Sixers by 2.6 points a game, but lost the series. Those Bucks, despite not having won a single playoff series, made my Top 100 teams (#77). While that may seem incongruous, they 1) were one of the very best teams of the regular season in their year, 2) were matched up against the best team in their league despite that and 3) more than held their own in the series, despite losing. Basically, 1981 had three really good teams in it, and all three were in the East. And of those three teams, one *had* to get knocked out in the semis. But it was hardly their fault that they happened to be in a stacked Conference. Had they been in the West the Bucks would likely have easily rolled all the way to the Finals. So the formula pays some attention to such things.
In 2007 the Phoenix Suns went 61-21 with a +7.28 RSRS, the 2nd best record and RSRS of the 30 teams in the league. Once again there were three best teams in the league, and all were in the same conference. This time it was the West: the Mavs, Spurs and Suns were all far better than anyone in the East. But because the Suns got the two seeds, they drew the Spurs in the second round. The Suns lost, but scored 0.5 points a game more than the Spurs. And the Spurs went on to win the Championship pretty easily. But the points per game (and OSRS) suggest that the series was basically a coin flip that the Spurs won. Had the Suns won, it is almost certain that they would have rolled through the playoffs and won a title. That they happened to face the best team in the league in the second round is hardly their fault. The ‘07 Suns and the ‘81 Bucks are two of the three teams to make this list without getting past the semifinals. The third team?
So. Those stories? Put those on crack and you get the ‘16 San Antonio Spurs.
In 2012 through 14 the Spurs put on increasingly dominant performances, culminating in the ‘14 Spurs absolutely mauling the league en route to a title. But the ‘14 Spurs were one of the least star-driven teams ever. A mishmash of the young and talented (Kawhi), the unsung but skilled (Danny Green, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli), the old (Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) and the freaking ancient (Tim Duncan). And somehow those ingredients came together to make a juggernaut. And the next year in 2015 . . . they somehow didn’t. In 2016 nobody necessarily expected much, but Kawhi Leonard made the leap from “really good young player” to “Arguably Top Five player in the league”. And the Spurs had added LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency to take some of the big man scoring load.
Anyhow, at the intersection of these things the Spurs played out of their minds. They posted a 67-15 record (tied for the 7th best record ever) and an RSRS of +10.28 (the 8th highest ever). Only nine teams ever have posted a +10 SRS or better with 65 wins or better:
The ‘71 Bucks
The ‘72 Lakers
The ‘92 Bulls
The ‘96 Bulls
The ‘97 Bulls
The ‘15 Warriors
The ‘16 Warriors
The ‘16 Spurs
The ‘17 Warriors
Every single one of those teams won the championship . . . except the teams from 2016.
Backpicks did a breakdown of the best SRS teams when healthy and the Top 8 are:
1996 Bulls: +13.7
1971 Bucks: +13.1
1997 Bulls: +13.0
1972 Bucks: +12.7
2016 Warriors: +12.4
2014 Spurs: +11.8
2016 Spurs: +11.7
Some of those teams some of the best teams ever. The ‘72 Bucks couldn’t stay healthy and lost to the extraordinary Lakers. And the ‘16 Warriors and ‘16 Spurs? 2016 was the most top-loaded season in NBA history. Because not only were the ‘16 Spurs and Warriors in that season, but also the Thunder (posting a strong +7.09 RSRS and playing extremely high-end ball in the playoffs) and the Cavs (posting only a +5.45 RSRS but playing extremely well in the playoffs). There’s a reason that four teams from 2016 made this list’s top 40. When I say that 2016 was the most top-loaded year in NBA history, I’m not exaggerating. At all. And you know what? Three of those four teams were in the same conference. Which means that one of them *had* to get knocked out before the Conference Finals. Not their fault; their conference just happened to be loaded like no Conference had ever been loaded before (possible exception of the Western Conference in ‘72).
In the first round the Spurs played the Grizzlies, who were not good (-2.1). The Spurs obliterated them by 22 points a game. Is there an asterisk on this series? Heck yes, both Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were out. That said 1) if those two had been healthy, the Grizz wouldn’t have been a seven-seed and so wouldn’t have played the Spurs here and 2) the Grizz’ low SRS somewhat takes into account their absence. And the Spurs were pretty much sitting out their starters in the fourth quarter for the series. So the Grizzlies were worse than -2.1 (because that rating was ⅔ from when Conley and Gasol were healthy), but the Spurs were basically playing with one hand behind their back. And still won by 22 points a game. So it’s a weird series, take it for what it’s worth.
And in the second round they got the Thunder (+10.4), because this was the second time in NBA history that a team had posted a +10 or higher RSRS and only gotten the 2 seed. And the 2016 Thunder might have been the best 3 seed . . . ever.
So about the series. I could go into detailed play by play for it, but I don’t think I will, as the case for the Spurs works better in the abstract. I will say that the Spurs’ wins were by 32 (up by 39 at the end of the third quarter), and 4. And the Thunder’s wins were by 1, 14, 4 and 14. The Spurs outscored the Thunder by 0.5 points a game; 2.0 points per game if you ignore the fourth quarter of Game 1. Absolutely nothing about this series suggests that the Spurs were the worse team; the Thunder won 3 of the 4 close games and that was that. Which counts of course, but again, this looks far more like a coin flip that the Thunder won than “the Thunder were the better team.”
12 | Spurs
11 | Cavs, Thunder
10 | Warriors
3 | Heat, Hawks, Pacers, Clippers, Blazers
1 | Raptors, Jazz
0 | Celtics
-0 | Pistons, Wizards
-1 | Hornets, Bulls, Magic
-2 | Rockets, Knicks, Kings, Nuggets
-3 | Mavericks, Bucks, Pelicans, TWolves
-4 | Grizzlies
-6 | Suns
-7 | Nets
-8 | Lakers
-9 | 76ers
2016 wasn’t as non-competitive as 1972, or close to it. But its top-loading was insane. More than 13% of the league above +10 OSRS? But 87% of the league below +4? I think the biggest distinguishing characteristic between ‘72 and ‘16 is the bottom of the league. In ‘72 there were so many awful teams that you had to take the numbers posted by the top of the league with a grain of salt. And the bottoms look really similar. ‘72 had four teams in the -6 to -10 range, and ‘16 had four teams in the -6 to -10 range. The difference is that ‘72 only had 17 teams, so in 1972 one team in four was garbage, while in 2016 one team in 7.5 was garbage. Do you know what 2016 looks like? It looks like a year where, for completely coincidental reasons, four teams put together all-time great years . . . in the same year. LeBron’s Cavs realized all their potential (with Love and Irving not being injured), Durant and Westbrook were at their peak (and not injured) the Warriors were defending a dominant title with the same squad and the Spurs basically had an older version of the ‘14 monstrosity with Kawhi having made a leap and LaMarcus Aldridge added.
I posted this for the ‘16 Warriors, but I’ll post it again. These top four teams played three series against each other. These series were won by +0.5 points, -1.0 points and +0.5 points. In other words, when these teams played each other, it was incredibly close. When they played the rest of the league their margins were: +8.5, +18.8, +22.0, +18.2, +12.5, +4.4 and +15.5. In other words, when they played any other playoff team they averaged winning by over 14 points per game. And the lowest of those margins was when Curry was out for the series.
I hope all of the above has persuaded you of three things:
No season has ever had a better top 4 teams than 2016;
These top 4 teams were really evenly matched; and
When these top 4 teams played anyone else they vaporized them
And the Spurs were one of those Top 4. But because three of these teams were in the West, somebody was getting knocked out in the Semis. And that was the Spurs.
I, for one, think it ridiculous to punish the Spurs for only making the Semis in a season where the ‘16 Warriors and the ‘16 Thunder were in their Conference. At that point you’re punishing them less for their performance and more for galactically bad luck. Look at all the data; the ‘16 Spurs were extremely good. And it isn’t like they dropped a close series to a +5 OSRS team and I’m trying to sell you that it was just a bad matchup; they lost an extremely tight series to the best Durant/Westbrook Thunder team ever. That’s understandable.
Should they be ranked second of the four 2016 teams? I’m not quite as convinced of that. You basically have four teams:
Spurs: ATG regular season, close loss in Semis to ATG team
Thunder: Extremely good regular season, close win in Semis over ATG team, close loss in Conf Finals to ATG team
Warriors: ATG regular season, weak series in Semis, close win in Conf Finals over ATG team, close loss in Finals to ATG team
Cavs: Very good regular season, close win in NBA Finals over ATG team
Most people would put the Cavs first since they won the Championship (and my formula agrees). But let’s not forget that these four teams crushed anyone else, and the Cavs got three straight rounds of “anyone else” to pump up their OSRS.
Most people would put the Warriors second, but their series against the Blazers was a serious black mark. Sure, it was with Curry out, but that counts (just ask the ‘15 Cavs about whether or not injuries count).
I won’t pretend to know where is fair for the 2016 Spurs to be. If you’re measuring “greatness”, most would agree that a sucky winner is “greater” than a strong loser. Comparing the ‘81 Rockets and the ‘81 Sixers or ‘81 Bucks, you’re more likely to hear the ‘81 Rockets talked about as a great team, because they won their conference. And perhaps the ‘81 Rockets were the “greater” team but they were sure as heck the less “dominant” team; their conference sucked. Saying that good teams in weak conferences are “greater” than great teams in strong conferences seems to be missing the point.
I feel a little weird putting the ‘16 Spurs in the Top 25. Objectively I think it’s very reasonable. Look, it was one of the best regular seasons ever. They lost to an ATG team; that loss just happened to be in the Semis because of their conference. Put the ‘16 Spurs in most years of the aughts and I think they’d win the whole thing (not a fair thought exercise, but you get my point). I genuinely believe that the ‘16 Spurs were a Top 25 team that simply got screwed by being put in the 2016 Western Conference. If you think that *no* team should be in the Top 25 that didn’t make the Conference Finals at least . . . I think that’s arbitrary (as I expect the ‘72 Bucks being ranked this high having only made the Conference Finals of a league half as big didn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers).
But I hope it’s clear that the ‘16 Spurs should *at least* be in the Top 50. I don’t think there is a fair place to put the ‘16 Spurs. Everything about this team and their situation is a little unfair.
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