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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Chris Palmer's NBA Player Rankings by Position

ESPN "Insider" Chris Palmer recently wrote a series of articles ranking the top five players in the NBA at each position. Here is his list, with a brief quote from Palmer's evaluation of each player:

Point Guards

1) Chris Paul: "If his commanding performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs showed us anything, it's that Paul is the game's most complete point guard."

2) Derrick Rose: "The excitement quotient soars when Rose goes into attack mode."

3) Russell Westbrook: "Westbrook is arguably the best athlete in the NBA."

4) Deron Williams: "Tough to find a pure point guard with a better offensive game than D-Will."

5) Steve Nash: "Although his 37 year old legs make him a defensive liability, he still possesses the purest point guard skills in the league."

Shooting Guards

1) Kobe Bryant: "Thanks to an absolutely tireless work ethic, Bryant is the most skilled player in the league with virtually every weapon at his disposal."

2) Dwyane Wade: "Wade is smack in the middle of his prime and finished the season stronger than anyone at the position."

3) Monta Ellis: "Ellis' in-between game is what puts him in such elite company."

4) Manu Ginobili: "With great shot selection (only once has he shot below 43 percent) and feel for the game, he opens up the floor and fits in perfectly between Tim Duncan and Tony Parker."

5) Eric Gordon: "Gordon could be, pound for pound, the strongest player in the game under 6-foot-4."

Small Forwards

1) LeBron James: "James is simply the best player in the game and on his way to being considered the best small forward of all time."

2) Kevin Durant: "Durant is the purest scorer in the league and one of its most versatile shooters."

3) Carmelo Anthony: "Melo is right up there with Durant in his pure ability to score the basketball."

4) Paul Pierce: "'The Truth' is one of the most respected and cagiest veterans in the league."

5) Rudy Gay: "Is it possible to be this underrated if you've been in the league for five years?"

Power Forwards:

1) Blake Griffin: "Think it's too soon to anoint Griffin? His talent, skill and numbers say otherwise."

2) Dirk Nowitzki: "We're all still buzzing about the Mavericks' championship march, but after a thorough inspection of Nowitzki's skills, he simply doesn't have enough of an all-around game to pry the top spot from Griffin."

3) Amare Stoudemire: "Stoudemire can flat-out fill it up, and after nine seasons is still the most explosive scorer from the 4."

4) Kevin Love: "Love surprisingly has the highest player efficiency rating (24.39) on this list and improved his rebounding by a whopping four boards per game."

5) Pau Gasol: "I won't sit here and try to pretend that the dismal postseason during which Gasol was a virtual nonfactor--with averages of 13 points and 7.8 rebounds on 42 percent shooting--isn't affecting his place in these rankings."

Centers

1) Dwight Howard: "No player at any position can lay more claim to the top spot than Howard."

2) Joakim Noah: "For pure enthusiasm and energy, you can do no better than Noah who takes great pleasure in going all out to lock someone down or harass the daylights out of them."

3) Al Jefferson: "Jefferson toggles between power forward and center, but because of his brawn he often draws defensive center assignments so I'm plugging him in here."

4) Andrew Bynum: "The storyline of Bynum's career has been his shaky health."

5) Tyson Chandler: "Major bonus: Chandler led the league in true shooting percentage with a whopping .697, which is the third-best single season mark of all time."

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Palmer's rankings are not terrible but they are very subjective and his unpolished writing skills detract from the final product. The subjectivity in Palmer's rankings is not limited to the inherently subjective nature of making such lists but also encompasses the way that he continually shifts the value he places on various criteria and how the words he chooses lack consistent meanings. For instance, he calls Chris Paul "the league's most complete point guard," asserts that Deron Williams has a "better offensive game" than any "pure point guard" and says that Steve Nash "possesses the purest point guard skills in the league." What exactly do such bold but vague declarations mean? Such comments do not provide the reader a greater understanding of the sport or any particular insight about why Palmer ranks the point guards in the order that he did. Palmer never even attempts to define the sweeping generalizations that he repeatedly makes and thus his articles read like they come straight out of the pages of Slam.

Here is a breakdown of each of Palmer's articles, including an attempt to objectively rank the top five players at each position:

Point Guards

Contrary to Palmer's breathless hyperbole, Chris Paul's performance against the Lakers did not mean that Paul has proved he is the best point guard in the NBA; Paul proved (1) that Derek Fisher simply cannot stay in front of quick point guards anymore and (2) that even a hobbled Kobe Bryant can defend such players more effectively than Fisher can; if we accept Palmer's statement at face value then J.J. Barea must be the second best point guard in the NBA, because he torched the Lakers almost as badly as Paul did. No, it simply does not make sense to base a player's ranking on a small sample of playoff games against one team whose elderly point guard has little remaining lateral quickness and whose defensive stopper was playing on one leg. During the 2010-11 regular season, Paul had the lowest scoring average of his six year career and he had his worst performances since his second season in both field goal percentage and apg. Paul's best season was 2008-09 but then he missed nearly half of the 2009-10 campaign due to injury. Perhaps his performance against the Lakers showed that Paul is rounding back into form but it is premature to draw that conclusion based on a six game series, particularly considering that Paul was ineffective in the game six loss at home that ended New Orleans' season.

Even though Paul was briefly the best point guard in the NBA, size and durability are key factors to consider when evaluating players. Paul is generously listed at 6-0, 175 pounds and he has already missed at least 18 games in two of his six seasons. How many small point guards have been the best player on an NBA championship team in the past three decades? That list begins and ends with Isiah Thomas. Tony Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP but Tim Duncan was still the Spurs' best player, the hub around which both the team's offense and defense revolved. Chauncey Billups won the 2004 Finals MVP as "first among equals" (to borrow a phrase used to describe World Chess Champion Mikhail Botvinnik) for the talented Detroit Pistons but at 6-3 and 200-plus pounds he is hardly a small point guard. If Paul ever wins an NBA championship he likely will be the second best player on his team.

Derrick Rose should not have won the 2011 regular season MVP but he is the best point guard in the NBA. I don't evaluate players based on Palmer's "excitement quotient" (whatever that means) but Rose has the complete package: size, strength, explosiveness, work ethic and a level head. Rose is an excellent scorer and passer, a good rebounder and an improving defender. His main skill set weakness used to be shooting but he has improved from both the free throw line and from behind the three point arc; he still needs to work on his midrange shot but even with his inconsistent 15-18 foot shooting stroke he still presents more problems for opposing defenses than any other point guard.

Like Rose, the only thing that Russell Westbrook lacks is a consistent midrange shot. I don't know how to prove or disprove Palmer's contention that Westbrook is the "best athlete in the NBA" (Steve Nash may be the best athlete in the NBA) but Westbrook has size, speed, explosiveness and work ethic; some of his shot selection issues and emotional outbursts during the playoffs raise concerns about whether he is as level headed as Rose but Westbrook has shown enough to establish himself as the league's second best point guard.

Chris Paul ranks third on my list. Despite his size and durability issues, he is still a very tough cover because of his quickness combined with a feathery shooting touch. Paul is a scrappy, quick-handed defender but he can be overpowered by bigger guards and he can be worn down over the course of a game or a playoff series. Paul's toughness and clutch shooting are reminiscent of Isiah Thomas but it remains to be seen if Paul can follow in Thomas' footsteps and lead a team to a championship.

Deron Williams has all of the necessary tools to be the NBA's best point guard but he did not have a great 2010-11 season by his high standards; Williams played some role in Jerry Sloan's decision to abruptly retire and then Williams talked his way out of Utah, landing in New Jersey only to post mediocre numbers in 12 games with his new team. Williams is an excellent shooter and passer but he is just an average defender and he does not rebound as well as he should given his size.

In 2010-11, Tony Parker had one of the best seasons of an already distinguished career. Despite his thin frame and relatively short stature he is amazingly adept at scoring in the paint. Parker has a scorer's mentality but he has developed into a very good floor general and playmaker. He is not a great shooter but his shot selection is very good, resulting in a very high FG% (.519 in 2011).

Nash is sixth on my list. Palmer's comment about Nash's defense is funny, because Nash's defense was subpar long before Nash had 37 year old legs. Years ago, TNT's John Thompson once declared that it seemed odd that Dirk Nowitzki possessed enough athletic ability to score on anyone in the NBA yet struggled defensively (Nowitzki has since improved his performance at that end of the court) and the same issue should also be raised regarding Nash; Nash is certainly tough--he does not hesitate to take charges against bigger players--but his overall defense is so subpar that for many years the Suns have hidden him at that end of the court, relying on Grant Hill--a small forward with a rebuilt ankle--to check top level point guards. Nash is one of the greatest shooters in NBA history and he has wondrous passing skills but when objective historians examine this era they will be mystified that Nash won as many regular season MVPs as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant combined.

Shooting Guards

Palmer is correct that Kobe Bryant should still be ranked ahead of Dwyane Wade because of Bryant's complete skill set. I have written about this many times and I get the impression that some people do not understand what it means to say that Bryant has no skill set weaknesses; it does not mean that Bryant is better than every player in the NBA in every single area and it does not even necessarily mean that Bryant is the best player in the NBA in any one particular area: it means that Bryant does not have any weakness that the opposing team can attack. Opposing teams can "shrink the paint" against Wade and try to take away his pullup jumper when he drives left but Bryant can strike from anywhere on the court: "shrink the paint" and he will kill you with jumpers but if you try to take away his jumper Bryant can still drive and finish (albeit not as explosively as he did when he was Wade's age). Age and some nagging injuries have limited Bryant's explosiveness and even seem to affect his stamina at times (Bryant used to take over games for longer stretches than he seems to be capable of doing now) but despite averaging his lowest mpg since his second season Bryant still scored 25.3 ppg on .451 field goal shooting while contributing 5.1 rpg and 4.7 apg; on a per minute basis, Bryant was a more productive scorer, rebounder and passer in 2010-11 than he was in 2009-10 and his per minute numbers in those categories were comparable to the numbers he posted during his 2007-08 MVP campaign. Bryant's minutes and health will have to be monitored carefully by the Lakers for the rest of his career but he is still the league's best, most productive and most complete shooting guard.

Dwyane Wade is more explosive than Bryant--which is not a new development--but his midrange game is still erratic, he gambles too much defensively and he plays with a reckless abandon that results in him being continually banged up/injured. Wade was great in the last four games of the 2006 NBA Finals but he also presided over one of the worst collapses ever experienced by a championship team (the Heat were swept in the first round of the 2007 playoffs and then had the worst record in the NBA in 2008). A relatively healthy Wade was certainly more productive in the 2011 playoffs than an injured Bryant but over the course of the entire season Bryant still had the edge over Wade due to the completeness of Bryant's skill set. Also, the "stat gurus" declared that Wade would be unstoppable once paired with LeBron James--and that either James or Wade could have easily filled Bryant's shoes alongside Pau Gasol with the Lakers--but what actually transpired on the court last season hardly supported such thinking.

After Bryant and Wade there is a bit of a drop-off; Bryant and Wade are the only legitimate franchise players at the shooting guard position (Tracy McGrady has declined significantly from the All-NBA level that he once maintained). Monta Ellis may be this generation's World B. Free, a high scoring player who can pass but is not thrilled to do so and whose defense is largely a rumor; Palmer ranks Ellis third but Ellis does not crack my top five. I rank Manu Ginobili third; Ginobili does not have any skill set weaknesses but he is not as explosive as Wade and he cannot match Bryant in any skill set areas other than long range shooting and free throw shooting. Like Wade, Ginobili throws his body all over the court and thus is always dealing with various nagging ailments; that is one reason that Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich limits Ginobili's minutes and often uses him as a reserve player, enabling Ginobili to play against the opposing team's bench performers (though Ginobili also is usually on the court at the end of the game if the score is close). Eric Gordon is often injured and has yet to play in a playoff game during his three season career but Gordon is such a deadly scorer that Palmer is probably right to put him in the top five (Gordon is fourth on my list). The fifth spot could be capably filled by several players, including Ellis, Kevin Martin or Joe Johnson but I like Ray Allen: he is not as explosive athletically as he used to be and his role as one member of Boston's Big Three (or Big Four counting Rajon Rondo) means that he does not have the opportunity to post the gaudy scoring numbers that Ellis and the others do but Allen is still a deadly shooter from all three ranges (.491 FG%, .444 3FG%, .881 FT%) and under Doc Rivers' tutelage he has become a committed defender.

Small Forwards

LeBron James is clearly the best small forward--and best player--in the NBA. He is an exceptional scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. His three point shooting is acceptable but high variance; he is not a consistent long range shooter but rather a streak shooter who alternates from great to horrid. James' greatest skill set weakness is his midrange shooting. When he and Wade get into the open court they are an unstoppable duo but the Miami Heat look shockingly ordinary when opposing teams force the Heat to execute a half court offensive set; James and Wade cannot consistently punish teams by making midrange jumpers. James has performed well overall during his playoff career but he quit against the Boston Celtics during the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals and he quit against the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals; those two deplorable performances cast a lengthy shadow over James' reputation: he is still a great player but he is a great player who has twice lacked heart/tenacity/toughness precisely when his team most needed for him to display those qualities.

Palmer is incorrect that James is "revolutionizing the small forward position with his approach as a pure passer." In a December 2001 Basketball Digest article I listed several forwards who were great passers before James was even born. While it is true that some of those forwards did not play point forward--they did not bring the ball up the court like a point guard--Paul Pressey played point forward for Don Nelson's 1980s Milwaukee Bucks, a concept that Nelson likely borrowed from watching the way his teammate John Havlicek performed as a Boston small forward/shooting guard in the 1960s and 1970s. Then Scottie Pippen took the point forward position to the next level both offensively and defensively as a key performer for six Chicago championship teams in the 1990s. James is a great passer but I am not convinced that he is a better passer than Larry Bird, Rick Barry or Scottie Pippen; such distinctions should not just be based on assist totals (numbers that are very subjective) but also on a player's effectiveness in his particular role for his team.

Palmer's assertion that James is "on his way to being considered the best small forward of all time" is a bit premature. Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird and Julius Erving (listed alphabetically) are the three greatest small forwards in NBA history; Bird and Erving each won multiple championships, while Baylor helped lead the Lakers to multiple NBA Finals only to be thwarted by Bill Russell's Celtics (and once by a stacked New York team). James has twice played on the best regular season team in the NBA and his teams have reached the NBA Finals in two other seasons but he has yet to win a championship. While it is true that James is playing a team sport, not an individual sport like chess or tennis, if James fails to win a championship despite playing for several contending teams it will be difficult to rank him ahead of great small forwards who led their teams to multiple titles. The fact that it is impossible to fully appreciate a player's greatness--and limitations--until his career is over is why I did not include active players in my Pro Basketball Pantheon.

Kevin Durant is the obvious choice as the league's second best small forward. He is a better shooter than James but does not measure up to James in any other skill set area. Durant is a good rebounder, a fair passer and an adequate--though still improving--defender. Durant still has to prove that he can be an efficient scorer against elite competition during the playoffs. Palmer calls Durant "the purest scorer in the league" and then says that Carmelo Anthony is "right up there with Durant in his pure ability to score the basketball." That may sound great but what does it really mean? What is "pure" scoring? Is there such a thing as "impure" scoring? Durant is the two-time reigning scoring champion but he also ranked first and fourth in the NBA in field goal attempts during those seasons; Anthony has yet to lead the league in scoring but he usually ranks in the top six in field goal attempts. LeBron James could certainly contend for the scoring title every season if that were his goal, as could Kobe Bryant (at least until last season when Bryant voluntarily reduced his minutes to preserve his body). I don't know what "pure" scoring is but I suspect that--all things being equal--James and Bryant could match Durant and Anthony point for point, in addition to being better all-around players than Durant and Anthony. Durant and Anthony are not better scorers than James and Bryant; they are simply more one dimensional. The jury is still out about whether Durant can lead a team to the Finals but after years of watching Anthony's teams flame out in the first round I doubt that Anthony will ever be the best player on a championship team. Anthony may be a better "pure scorer" than Paul Pierce but Pierce is tougher than Anthony, he is a better all-around player and he is a proven winner, so I rank Pierce as the league's third best small forward. Anthony is fourth in my book.

The fifth spot is somewhat wide open, much like the fifth spot at shooting guard. I like Gerald Wallace because of his toughness and versatility. Luol Deng deserves consideration because of his defense and his midrange shooting. Palmer's choice of Rudy Gay seems odd; Gay has yet to make an All-Star team or an All-NBA team--meaning that coaches, fans and media agree that he is not one of the top 24 or so players in the NBA--and the Memphis Grizzlies hardly missed him after he got hurt last season. Danny Granger is a gritty, hard nosed player who probably would be effective for a winning team but may be what TNT's Kenny Smith calls a "looter in a riot" (Smith's colorful description of players who put up big numbers for losing teams, which is the way I perceive Monta Ellis).

Power Forwards

I like Blake Griffin's game a lot and he may soon become the best power forward in the NBA but Palmer lost his mind when he ranked Griffin ahead of Dirk Nowitzki, a proven playoff performer who led the Dallas Mavericks past the two-time defending champion Lakers and the Miami Heat's "Big Three" despite not playing alongside a single current All-Star. Nowitzki is just an average defender and he does not rebound as well as he did when he was younger but he can score from anywhere on the court and he is a good passer who is vastly underrated as a leader. Nowitzki is renowned for his outside shooting prowess, yet it has been five years since he made at least 100 three pointers in a season and he has only attempted 200 three pointers in a season once since 2005-06; Nowitzki is at least as good of a "pure scorer" as Durant or Anthony--and he is better than both of those players at both shooting from long distance and posting up. Nowitzki deserved to at least be mentioned alongside Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett even when those guys were in their primes but now that they are "merely" good players Nowitzki is without question the league's premier power forward.

LaMarcus Aldridge carried the Portland Trail Blazers after numerous injuries depleted their roster and by the end of the 2010-11 season he was the second best power forward in the NBA; I count Amare Stoudemire as a center but even if I follow Palmer's lead and put Stoudemire at power forward I would still take Aldridge's back to the basket scoring prowess, rebounding and defense over Stoudemire's explosiveness.

Perhaps Kevin Love is the ultimate "looter in a riot" but I don't think so; his three best skills are rebounding, three point shooting and passing and I think that he would be productive in all of those areas even if he played for a better team. Love is the league's third best power forward.

Griffin looks like he will be a 20-10 machine for years and just in the course of one season he improved as a passer and shooter. Griffin is clueless at times defensively, which is not surprising for a rookie (let alone a rookie playing for a franchise like the Clippers), but he will likely improve in that area as well; LeBron James was not a good defender as a rookie but he is now a perennial member of the All-Defensive First Team. Griffin has not yet surpassed Nowitzki but he is already the league's fourth best power forward. Love's game is a little more polished than Griffin's game right now but with one more season of work Griffin will likely surpass Love and possibly even move up to second behind Nowitzki.

My fifth power forward--based on current productivity, not reputation or lifetime achievement--is Zach Randolph, a scoring and rebounding machine who has improved his passing a little bit. Randolph is still not much of a defender but he must be double-teamed on the block, which makes him a tremendous asset.

It is funny how the reduction in Kobe Bryant's minutes--which thus forced Pau Gasol to assume a larger role and face more double teams--suddenly led to a more realistic assessment of Gasol's status. Gasol was never considered an elite player during his time in Memphis and it is laughable that anyone called him the league's best (or most complete) big man over Dwight Howard and Dirk Nowitzki (not to mention Duncan and Garnett) but last season provided a glimpse into the future for the Lakers and Gasol. I put Gasol on my All-NBA Third Team as a center simply because he spent a lot of time at that spot and because the league does not have many great (or even above average) centers but if I stick with Palmer's positional designations and place Gasol at power forward then he does not crack my top five based on last season. Pau Gasol had a good first month of the season but was ordinary--or worse--the rest of the way.

Chris Bosh is an interesting case; Palmer did not mention him at all, even though Bosh has made the All-Star team for six straight years and has twice received MVP consideration (including a 12th place finish in 2009-10 and a seventh place finish in 2006-07). Based purely on the numbers, Bosh is not currently a top five power forward; despite playing alongside arguably the two most highly lauded talents in the NBA--LeBron James and Dwyane Wade--Bosh was both less productive (i.e., lower scoring and rebounding totals) and less efficient (his field goal percentage declined). It would be natural to expect that playing alongside great players would increase one's efficiency even if it did not increase one's productivity; that is what happened when Boston's "Big Three" joined forces and that is also what happened for Pau Gasol when he teamed up with Kobe Bryant but playing with James and Wade clearly did not help out Bosh very much in 2010-11. If Bosh played for another team he likely would vault back into the top five at his position.

Duncan and Garnett deserve special mention; neither is an elite player any more but both of them are more effective than their numbers suggest and both of them play significant roles for elite teams.

Centers

For decades the NBA literally revolved around the pivot, home to most of the league's MVPs until Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson heralded the rise of the mid-size, all-around player. Now the pivot is the NBA's vast wasteland. Dwight Howard is the only current center who even deserves to be compared to the legends who once patrolled the paint; the league's other centers are all either limited role players or else power forwards masquerading as centers. Howard is a great rebounder and a great shotblocker who is developing a solid low post offensive repertoire to accompany his voluminous dunks/put backs. Howard is not a great passer or shooter and it remains to be seen if he has the right temperament to lead a team to a championship.

It is hard to criticize Palmer's center rankings too much simply because the pickings are so slim but my selections differ greatly from his in this category. Amare Stoudemire is currently my All-NBA Second Team center and, as mentioned above, I tapped Pau Gasol as my Third Team selection. Stoudemire is a great screen/roll player and a good faceup shooter but he has no postup game, he does not rebound as well as he should and his defense is atrocious (don't be fooled by his occasional highlight reel blocked shots). The Knicks brought Stoudemire in to be their franchise player, added Carmelo Anthony to the mix in the middle of the season--and "vaulted" all the way to the eighth seed in the weak Eastern Conference before quickly departing in the first round of the playoffs.

Gasol is equally adept at scoring in the post or shooting the faceup jumper and he is also an excellent screen/roll player (though former Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson preferred to run the Triangle Offense as opposed to using screen/roll sets). Gasol is a very good passer and he is capable of playing good defense but relentless, physical players wear him down--mentally and physically--at both ends of the court. Coach Jackson and Kobe Bryant consistently had to poke and prod Gasol to get him to play with maximum effort and intensity during the Lakers' run to there straight Western crowns/two NBA titles and last season Gasol stopped responding to Jackson and Bryant's exhortations, culminating in an embarrassing and shameful disappearing act during the playoffs.

Joakim Noah is very limited as a scorer but he is an excellent rebounder and defender and a very good passer. I rank him as the league's fourth best center, just ahead of Al Jefferson. The Utah Jazz brought in Jefferson to play power forward but he spent a lot of time at center because of Mehmet Okur's injury woes. Jefferson scores and rebounds but he is below average as a passer and defender. There is a "looter in a riot" quality to Jefferson's play.

Three other centers deserve mention but do not crack my top five. The hardworking--but undersized--Al Horford is a good scorer and rebounder who has turned into a two-time All-Star due to the lack of depth at the center position. Tyson Chandler is a role player would have come off of the bench in earlier eras. Chandler rebounds and defends superbly but has no offensive game other than dunking the ball; he fits in perfectly with the Dallas Mavericks because he provides exactly what they lacked in the paint defensively and is willing to accept a minimal role offensively. Palmer lauds Chandler's gaudy true shooting percentage but all that statistic means in this instance is that Chandler is smart enough to know his limitations: he rarely shoots the ball unless he is within three feet of the basket. Does anyone really believe that Chandler had the third best "true" shooting season in the history of the game? If that is the case, then Ray Allen, Larry Bird and many others must be "false" shooters. Andrew Bynum has shown flashes of ability but he is injury-prone and immature. He may cure the latter problem--though he has yet to do so after six years in the league--but it is highly unlikely that after missing at least 17 games in each of the previous four seasons he will suddenly become an iron man; keep in mind that as Kobe Bryant's minutes and role inevitably decline the Lakers will likely call upon Bynum to have a bigger role and that increased activity makes it even more likely that Bynum will continue to suffer injury problems: if Bynum cannot stay healthy as a 20 mpg role player then why should anyone assume that he will stay healthy if the Lakers need for him to play 30-plus mpg?

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 PM

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