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Team USA Gets a Wake-Up Call

U.S. national basketball team players (L-R) Lamar Odom, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose take a break while warming up at Madrid

Source: Yardbarker.com

Team USA got a message Saturday night in Madrid. Winning the World Championships in Turkey will take a lot more than just out-talenting a slew of competitors.

Prior to Saturday, Team USA hadn’t had many problems in their contests against international opponents, easily disposing of China and France in two exhibitions last weekend in New York City. It was a different story a week later, though, as Lithuania gave the Americans a run for their money in the first half.

Without the Olympian superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and the rest, this year’s national team is overwhelmingly devoid of players with notable international experience, and that shined through on Saturday.

Team USA was not expecting Lithuania’s physicality, as players repeatedly took beatings as they drove the lane, which forced them to settle for jumpshots that did not fall in the first half. It was the first time that the lack of depth up front for the U.S. was truly an issue, as the Lithuanian bigs bruised and battered the Team USA guards.

But it wasn’t just an insufficient interior presence that caused problems. The team appeared to lack chemistry, often turning the ball over unnecessarily and making bad decisions. Furthermore, there were environmental problems. The floor seemed oddly slippery, causing problems for the quick USA guards. In addition, the rim seemed less generous than Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time — at least in the first half.

In the second half, Team USA swept Lithuania under the rug, in part thanks to a 17-0 run but more because the coach of Lithuania wanted to save its offensive plays and sets for the games that are going to count.

Even though Team USA didn’t lose, the struggles in the first half were an important milestone in the development of this team. For a bunch of players who haven’t played together that long, this helps to reduce the overconfidence that was evident among the younger players.

Now they know they can’t take any plays off, can’t take bad risks, and can’t be flashy lest they miss dunks like Rudy Gay. Lithuania is hardly the best team the U.S. will face in this tournament, with Spain and Greece as very formidable opponents. But at least Team USA knows it is no longer bulletproof. It’ll take a lot more hard work and a lot more concentration and effort to come out on top in Turkey in a couple weeks.

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Nets and Raptors to Play Two Games in London

For the first time ever, a regular-season NBA game will be played in Europe. In fact, the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors will play two games at the O2 Arena in London in March. From the AP:

LONDON — The NBA is taking regular-season games to Europe for the first time.

NBA commissioner David Stern announced Monday that the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets will play a pair of regular-season games in London this season.

The teams will face each other March 4 and 5 at the O2 Arena, the same venue that has hosted preseason games over the last several years.

Stern said on a conference call he wasn’t yet sure if the regular-season games would be an annual occurrence for the league.

“We’ll need to assess how we do in March,” Stern said. “It would not surprise me if this becomes an annual event. But I don’t want to make a commitment on it.”

The NBA has been looking to expand overseas for years, and Stern has said in the past he would like to play a meaningful game in London before the city hosts the Olympics in 2012.

It’s not surprising that the Nets — even coming off a very, very bad season — are one of the teams who will play these contests. New owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the league’s first foreign owner, has been persistent about his desire to make his new franchise a global icon for basketball. Playing games in Europe certainly isn’t a bad start.

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Anthony Won’t Sign Extension With Nuggets

Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets will not sign a contract extension this summer and will likely test the waters in next summer’s free agency. From Yahoo! Sports’s Mark J. Miller:

The Denver Nuggets wanted their three-time All Star, Carmelo Anthony(notes),to sign a three-year extension this summer, but HoopsWorld reports that the 26-year-old small forward won’t be signing anytime soon.

The deal would have paid him $65 million, so Anthony is walking away from some serious dough if HoopsWorld is correct. If he doesn’t sign an extension, Anthony will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Anthony’s no fool. He saw what happened this summer. He knows that he can get a lot more money next year and can either go somewhere else or stay with the Nuggets; he’s keeping his options open.

The case for signing an extension this summer was that he could guarantee his money with the looming threat of a lockout next year, but he likes the chances the owners and the players work it out (I, too, think the concerns of no basketball in 2011-2012 are entirely premature).

That said, this report only further increases the chances that there’s a new supergroup brewing. He very well could be on his way to New York next year, with Chris Paul not far ahead or behind.

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Suns Bounce Back Big

The Phoenix Suns absorbed a big blow to the team earlier during free agency when all-star forward Amar’e Stoudemire skipped town to sign with the New York Knicks. After a deep postseason run that ended in a near series victory over the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers, it became clear that, as constituted, the Suns would not be poised for another such trip without making a change.

And that’s exactly what Robert Sarver did yesterday. The Suns owner who likely squashed his chances at re-signing STAT when he dismissed former GM Steve Kerr went out and acquired two players who immediately recharge a depleted starting lineup, Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu.

Childress spent the last two seasons playing ball in Greece with Olympiakos, but before that he was a solid role player for the Atlanta Hawks, providing a spark of scoring and rebounding in an efficient manner. Though the deal isn’t officially done because Childress is a restricted free agent, the Hawks are extremely unlikely to match, now that Joe Johnson’s mammoth contract has financially handcuffed the team.

Turkoglu will come to the team as part of a trade, and the Suns’ major loss in the deal is Leandro Barbosa, the blinding-quick combo guard and former sixth man of the year. His loss is a tough blow to the shooting and quickness of the Suns team, but Turkoglu’s addition, assuming he plays up to potential, will more than make up for Barbosa’s absence.

Turkoglu leaves Toronto on fairly bad terms, after playing very bad basketball in his one year north of the border. Ideally, his change of scenery will remind him of his play the year prior in Orlando and make him a major contributor to Phoenix. If he does redevelop his skills on the basketball court, he’s a major asset.

At 6-foot-10, Turkoglu has the size of a power forward but the handling and shooting of a guard. As a result, he fits perfectly into the Phoenix run-and-gun system. While he’ll spend a fair amount of time in the post, making up for the void Stoudemire left behind down low, he’ll also be a major figure on the perimeter, taking plenty of three-pointers and running the point forward. This will give the aging Steve Nash a break on offense, allowing him to save his stamina and legs by not having the bring the ball up the court every possession.

Childress adds depth on the wing and an adept scoring touch driving to the rim and as a jump shooter. Expect his scoring numbers to increase playing alongside Nash in an uptempo offense.

While these acquisitions certainly don’t make the squad better than it was last year, it’s nice to see some degree of damage control and respect for Nash. Phoenix could have done nothing and suffered through a mediocre season while Steve Nash wasted away through possibly the final year of his career. Instead, the Suns still have a very good chance to making the playoffs in the West next year.

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Our First Taste of John Wall

NBA number one draft pick John Wall (C) holds up a Washington Wizards basketball jersey during a news conference upon his arrival in Washington June 25, 2010. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld stands at left with head coach Flip Saunders at right. The Wizards selected=

Source: Yardbarker.com

Ever since the draft, I’ve been anxious to see more of John Wall’s play on the basketball court. Sunday night I got my first exposure to the post-draft John Wall, albeit a day late thanks to a leg injury Thursday that sidelined Wall for Washington’s first Las Vegas Summer League game on Saturday.

After watching him play, he looked very impressive, although I will reserve more definite judgment until he faces a team other than the Golden State Warriors, whose ragtag collection of Summer Leaguers are no better on defense than their NBA counterparts. Still, there were some things to note.

First of all, the significance of Wall’s injury appeared to fall somewhere between negligible and looking like it never happened, as he was very sharp from an athletic point of view. The remarkable speed we’d grown accustomed to seeing from him day in and day out in college was there, and there were no signs of pain when he tried to press on the gas.

The result was a continued exuberance in the open court, slashing up and down in the transition offense looking for quick buckets. It appears that he will have no trouble succeeding on the fast break at the highest level, if this game was any indicator.

One very good sign was Wall’s incredible chemistry with center JaVale McGee, and the two were in rhythm the entire game. Wall looked great off the pick and roll with McGee, putting pressure on flashing big men and either blowing by them or finding McGee as he dove to the rim. He even connected on several alley-oop attempts with the 7-footer over the course of the game, which got a rise out of the small crowd.

Coming into the league, one of the concerns about Wall was his ability to score from the perimeter with his jump shot. In this game, he looked like he had been working on his stroke. In fact, his shots off the dribble looked beautiful. It was his set shot that looked like it still needed some work. Nevertheless, he’s way ahead of the curb in developing his perimeter game.

In the half-court set, Wall did not look as comfortable on offense, struggling to get to the rim on his own. Most of the time, he resorted to passing to an open teammate, and he racked up 8 assists on the night thanks to his willingness to distribute. That said, he’ll need to work harder on blowing by his man and getting to the cup if he wants to be an elite scorer in the league.

Additionally, Wall’s risk-taking in this game was a red flag, but that’s the nature of Summer League basketball. At times he looked like he was running too fast for his own good, and a couple times lost the ball out of bounds off of a bad dribble in mid-stride. He was also very daring on some of his passes, and that resulted in a number of giveaways. The consequence was a sub-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. But like I said, that’s all part of the league. These players are looking to impress and take chances in games that don’t truly matter, and Flip Saunders should enjoy seeing that out of Wall. He’ll need to be an impact player right away for the Wizards, and the more practice he gets at those home-run plays, the more likely he is to convert them come regular season.

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LeBron to Announce Decision Thursday

Free agent LeBron James will put an end to speculation as to where he’ll play next season Thursday, the first day that players can officially sign with teams, on a 9 PM eastern special on ESPN.

LeBron James will announce the team with which he will sign during a one-hour special on ESPN Thursday night, ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard has learned through independent sources.

ESPN would only confirm that active discussions for the special are ongoing. But sources tell Broussard that representatives for James contacted the network, proposing that James makes his announcement during a 9 p.m. ET special.

Those sources said that James’ representatives requested they be allowed to sell sponsorship for the one-hour special, with the proceeds going to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and that ESPN agreed to the proposal but had not been told what James has decided.

While I doubt there’s any substance to it, his decision to publicize his choice in this way suggests he might be leaving Cleveland. It seems like he’d want a quieter, more direct approach if he were re-signing. But no one really knows.

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Signing Stoudemire Nothing to Love

April 03, 2010 Milwaukee, WI. Bradley Center..Phoenix Suns Amar

Source: Yardbarker.com

Free agency can produce a number of outcomes for the teams that depend on it each year. First, there’s the super-duper-fantastic result, awarding a team with everything it could have hoped for (see the 1996 Los Angeles Lakers). Then there are those teams who get completely shafted, either because of regrettable tactics or because there just isn’t enough to go around (see 2008 Philadelphia 76ers). Further, still, are the teams that fall somewhere in the middle — nothing to scoff about and nothing to pop the champagne for.

The New York Knicks have apparently come to an agreement with inside force Amar’e Stoudemire, and the’ll pay him $100 million over the next five seasons to sport the blue and orange. Don’t get me wrong: in light of the city’s deprivation of even halfway-decent basketball this decade, this move shouldn’t make the Knick faithful drown themselves in the tears they’ve accumulated over the last several years.

That said, given the risky contracts extended to players like Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury, and Steve Francis in recent seasons, one might figure Donnie Walsh would be slightly more cautious in extending a maximum contract to a player who lacks the ability to transform a down-in-the-dumps franchise.

Stoudemire is a great NBA player. He’s ruthless (borderline unguardable) on the offensive end when he’s got his head right, and his supernatural athleticism puts asses in the seats. In that regard alone, he’s beneficial for the Knicks. Furthermore, inking STAT might slightly increase the odds that the Knicks can bring in a true superstar (e.g., LeBron James or Dwyane Wade) to really transform the team. But honestly, it would have been much wiser to have gone in reverse, as it’s hardly a guarantee either of those guys will join Stoudemire in MSG next season.

And if one of them doesn’t come? Then there are some problems. Considering Stoudemire’s size, strength, and athleticism, he’s really a mediocre rebounder, as he struggles to haul in eight a game. Moreover, he’s virtually absent on the defensive end, tending to avoid midair contests altogether and blocking fewer shots than he should. Hmm … Good offense and bad defense?

Sounds like a guy who played power forward for New York last season — a Mr. David Lee! While Lee might give up a few points to Stoudemire on a nightly basis, he’s just as much of a “defender,” and he’ll rebound the pants off of Amar’e any night out of the year. Wouldn’t it have been better to pursue re-signing Lee and his comparable production at a fraction of Stoudemire’s price?

And who knows? Stoudemire’s offensive production might not even be what it was in Phoenix. It’s quite clear his best moments came zooming off picks on the receiving end of incomprehensible passes from Steve Nash. But Nash isn’t around anymore, and Stoudemire is yet unproven away from the wizard’s side. Who’s going to make those passes in New York? Chris Duhon? I don’t think so. The Knicks better hope Stoudemire can create some more offense on his own, or he could end up being even worse than Lee on the offensive end.

Then there’s the largest problem of all — the injury concerns. Amar’e has possibly the most questionable health history of any of the major players in free agency this July. Two micro-fracture knees and a worrisome retina. An unfortunate poke, an awkward landing, or just too much tread on the tires could confine the $100 million player to an Armani suit sitting in the first row behind the bench.

Now, I started by saying that this deal put the Knicks in the middle ground of free-agency results, and despite my fierce protestation of the decision, I stick by that. First of all, a sidelining injury could happen to anyone. Just because the problems are more noteworthy for Stoudemire doesn’t mean he’s going to ride the pine the whole season.

More importantly, it’s just that the Knicks can’t do any worse. Signing Amar’e instantly propels them to a high-30-win team, and that’s before their subsequent adjustments this summer. With some careful additions from here on in, they might be in sniffing distance of the playoffs, and that’s enough to pique the city’s interest again.

Lastly, should this not work out, the team has a potential security blanket. Layered deep beneath the three-way deal that brought Tracy McGrady to the Knicks was a stipulation that the Rockets have the option to swap picks with the Knicks in the 2011 draft … so long as the pick isn’t No. 1. Highlighting next year’s draft class is UNC freshman phenom Harrison Barnes, who has already drawn comparisons to Kobe Bryant himself. So if the Knicks flop this year and end up with the top pick in the draft, that’ll be another major building block to lay for the years to come.

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NBA Summit 2010

On Thursday, impending free agent Dwyane Wade announced that before he makes any decision about where he’s going to play next season, he’s going to consult his partners in crime (Yeah, it’s a crime how much they’re going to yank from their teams next year) LeBron James, Joe Johnson, and Chris Bosh.

The nature of this conference is, and will remain, largely confidential, for the most part, but let’s call this what it is: a conspiracy to take all the power away from the GMs and reserve it for themselves.

They’re going to say that they will debate the merits and drawbacks of each team (the prospects of winning, the market, etc.), but the purpose of this meeting — and, more accurately, the announcement of this meeting — is to stir the pot, develop baseless “conditions” for signing one of these stars, and give the notion that there’s some semblance of a super team under construction.

Hey, maybe we’ll even hear that one of them will be willing to sign for one dollar under the maximum!

This whole deal stinks of corruption and misplaced sense of power. The closest comparison I can draw is Elaine, George, and Kramer’s collective demand for $1 million per episode for Seinfeld’s final season. Unfortunately, this is a lot more fishy.

The NBA has all kinds of strict rules about when and how teams can engage and discuss potential free agents in anticipation that a wheeling-and-dealing GM might secure a top player before anyone else has a chance. In effect, it is to protect the players.

Why, then, is this sort of meeting acceptable? Sure, you can say it’s simply freedom of speech for them to talk to one another, but if the league is going to go out of its way to ensure protection of the players, shouldn’t it do the same for the teams? The free agents have a lot more impact on this offseason frenzy than a lot of people would expect, so why the league allow them to wield even more in this de facto manipulation of teams in pursuit?

To put it simply, the league shouldn’t. But they’ll never change anything. This process has become way too much of a publicity stunt, and the NBA doesn’t want to see that dissolve.

Already we have the mere speculation that LeBron might leave, and its headlines dominate the press landscape on a daily basis. Hello? There are two competitive playoff series going on right now, and all most people care about is where “The Chosen One” will land next season. Granted, it could have implications far greater than one NBA title, but let’s save the analysis for when things are little more concrete, huh?

This meeting is going to boil down to just this: “Hey, guys. How can we get these teams to sweat a bit more and brighten the spotlight on us? I don’t even care about winning, just give me the fame!”

Well, that’s just great.

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Competitive balance in the NBA? Good one.

Why is it that even in the conference finals we can't seem to get an interesting game?

I was on my way to Tufts University this evening from Boston on I-93 when I saw a billboard on a vacant office building looking for lessees. It read: “Sitting in traffic? Not anymore if you work here.”

While I was neither sitting in traffic nor looking for office space at the time, the message was intriguing nevertheless. In fact, it got me to start thinking about the NBA and the shortcuts it has taken (If I don’t want to sit in traffic, I can just work here!”) to try and establish competitive balance. As a result, there is a complete lack of competitive balance present in the league today, something that David Stern and his cohorts need to address to stimulate interest in professional basketball here in the United States.

Amid playoffs in which five of the six matchups in the conference finals and semifinals could be sweeps, there is definitely a problem with the balance of the game. So let’s take a look at the plague of disparity around the league, shall we?

The MLB is the only sports league in the United States that doesn’t have a salary cap. And as long as the players association lives and breathes, there will never be a salary cap in baseball. That said, Major League Baseball succeeds where other leagues don’t in promoting a compelling, competitive league.

For one, the nature of baseball (and the construction of multi-game series during the regular season) is such that any team can beat any other team on any given day. In a three-game series between the New York Yankees and the Pittsburgh Pirates, there’s a considerable possibility that Pittsburgh will squeak one game out during the set. In the NBA, when the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves meet, nobody’s betting on the T’Wolves and rightly not.

In addition, the MLB went about establishing two systems to help curb extravagant spending by big-market teams. It instituted a revenue-sharing program and imposed a luxury tax on high-payroll teams. While these policies don’t quite dissuade teams like the Yankees from blowing large sums on free agents, it does well to control spending near the middle (in terms of payroll) of the league.

But the NBA does have a salary cap. Isn’t the whole point of the damned thing to keep games close? In theory, it sure is. But keep in mind that the NBA’s cap is a soft one, and there are plenty of channels by which to circumvent the loose limit.

The most prominent of those is via Bird Rights, which allow teams to go over the payroll cap in order to re-sign free agents who have been with the team for three years or more. That’s why the Lakers are allowed to sign Kobe Bryant to a 3-year, $90 million extension despite with will be over $85 million in payroll next season with a projected $56 million cap. So that’s one way in which teams in big markets with rich owners can weasel their way to greatness. Needless to say, you wouldn’t see the Maloofs offer that kind of money to keep a player around on the Kings because they just can’t afford the salary itself or the accompanying luxury tax.

In addition, to continue the comparison to baseball, the dollar goes a lot further in the NBA game, so going over the salary cap is more valuable to success. In baseball, starting pitchers (who command very high salaries these days) go only one out of five games. And those position players who do play nearly every game, they are only expected to contribute three out of ten times from the plate and once in awhile on the defensive side (depending on the position).

In the NBA, everybody’s playing every game, and each of the five players contributes to every offensive and defensive set. Besides scoring and the other major stats, there are ways to help your team: setting effective screens, moving well without the ball, affecting shots, and denying your assignment the ball, to name a few.

For a practical illustration of this mess, look at the payrolls of the four teams left in the playoffs: $91,314, 026 (Lakers), $83,875,420 (Boston Celtics), $82,087,014 (Orlando Magic), $74,012,783 (Phoenix Suns). The salary cap this year is $69,920,000. So none of the remaining teams is working under the s0-called “limit.”

With all this established, let me go about setting a few suggestions for bringing true competition back to the NBA.

(1) Make the cap a hard cap.

Much like instituting a salary cap or removing the DH in baseball, this will never happen. Setting up a hard-cap system infuriates both conflicting parties: the NBAPA because in such a scenario star players would have to take major paycuts to make payrolls work and the NBA because all the luxury tax payments go straight to the league anyway.

Nobody really wants this except concerned fans. Not the Laker fans that think they’re devoted because they know who Pau Gasol is but the fans of teams like the 76ers who can tell you the stat line of every player from Andre Iguodala to Jrue Holiday for the past season. If it is so obvious that you need to shell out the cash like the four teams mentioned above to compete, there’s no way all 30 teams can never hope to contend for a championship; it’s just not feasible.

(2) Cut down on the teams that make the playoffs.

Right now the NBA playoffs are a bit, well, imperfect. There are 16 teams, four 7-game rounds, and over two months of 20-game blowouts. No one wants to see that. No one wants to see the Magic beat up the Bobcats in four circus games. Certainly, the thrill of an underdog upset like the Warriors over the Mavericks in 2007 is great, but you have to play the odds. That type of series doesn’t come around too often.

One could argue that even the conference-finals round is bad this year, but again, play the odds. This is atypical of the NBA playoffs. Cut the the pool that makes the postseason in half, and the league will have a lot more satisfied and less exhausted fans.

(3) Oust owners who aren’t in it to win it.

Nothing serves as a greater doomsday to a fan base than an owner to has ulterior motives for owning a basketball team. Guys like Donald Sterling and Bruce Ratner who use the franchise as leverage for their real-estate ventures are true parasites to the league and bad for the game. Get rid of them, somehow, or else you’ll have more teams that fail to ever be in contention.

I know these rules aren’t terribly practical (and simply “getting rid” of unsatisfactory owners would prove to be a nightmare: Are there objective qualities? Who gets the team? Etc.). But something needs to be done to protect the integrity of the league. If we keep seeing blowout after blowout and sweep after sweep in the playoffs, fans will start to lose interest, and no one wants that. Just try and represent the little guy a little better because I can’t stand seeing the Lakers win anymore.

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Lottery shocks, as usual; Suns fall badly to Lakers

Well, chalk up another shortcoming for the New Jersey Nets this year.

After a season of woeful play resulting in a 12-70 record, the Nets had the best chance at securing the NBA Draft’s top pick going into the lottery Tuesday night — they had a 25 percent shot.

Nevertheless, they will be limited to picking third next month. The second pick will go to the Philadelphia 76ers, and the No. 1 pick will go to the Washington Wizards.

Though a completely random process, the lottery sometimes seems a little unfair. Instead of going to the team that struggled under the guise of a totally disinterested owner, the first pick will, instead, fall into the hands of the Wizards, who are already paying a point guard on the roster $126 million over five years.

But those are the breaks, I guess. Maybe Derrick Favors or whomever the Nets choose will wind up being drastically better. Can’t I dream?

*           *           *

The Phoenix Suns made me look pretty bad last night after posting my sincere admiration for Steve Nash.

They turned the ball over at an embarrassing rate, couldn’t find the range, and played defense like, well, the Suns of old. The Lakers took everything they wanted from their opponents in Game 1, and Kobe Bryant contributed a true playoff performance.

All that said (and I hate to ride the officials), there was certainly some questionable officiating over the course of the game. Kobe got his calls — that’s a given. But down low, on the perimeter, basically anywhere, the whistles were blowing in favor of the Purple and Gold.

Attribute it to home-court officiating at the Staples Center in part, but there was a larger factor. All year, the Lakers constantly berate and batter the referees after every call against them (regardless of validity) in one of the most unsportsmanlike trends in all of sports.

But it has its benefits.

When you continually pressure the officials after their decisions, they begin to doubt themselves, and you begin to establish some credibility for your case.

That the Lakers cashed in on their accumulated credibility was evident Monday night. And the dubious calls were so well-timed, in fact, that it played a significant role in Phoenix’s falling to a 20-point deficit.

Hopefully, as the series progresses, the officials work it out and stop coddling L.A.

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