Timberwolves 1st Quarter Report Card

Taj Gibson is happy with his A grade.

The Timberwolves improved to 12-8 with their win over the Suns on Sunday afternoon. That means they are now 20 games into the season, and that means that it’s time for the first quarter report card post.

I’m grading the players in the 10-man rotation only. As a reminder, these grades are on a curve based on expectations for the player, given his potential and role on the team.


Jeff Teague: B-
The Nineteen Million Dollar Man who Wolves fans believe is wrongfully playing Ricky Rubio’s position is still adjusting to Minnesota. Teague is adjusting to his new teammates, which include a pair of slashing wings and a post-up scorer. He’s adjusting to his new head coach, who barks micro-management orders from the sidelines as if he might control each player’s movements as they occur. He’s adjusting to a new offensive system that involves a more tightly-congested floor than what he was used to in Atlanta.

It’s clear — sometimes painfully so — that the Wolves starting five unit is working to understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. Perhaps more than any other player, this mental labor is most visible in the movements, decisions, and emotional reactions of Jeff Teague. He’s cast in an unfamiliar position of being his lineup’s premier three-point shooter, currently connecting on 40.3 percent of his 3.7 attempts per game. While it would behoove him to chuck even more threes to increase his own scoring efficiency and increase spacing for his penetrating-wing teammates, Teague too often head fakes to drive. When he does that, there is usually a Wiggins cutting, or a Towns standing in the way, anticipating a fight for the offensive rebound.

There are other ways that Teague’s familiarity-in-progress is evident. Sometimes on defense, he allows his man to drive past him, clearly anticipating help that is nowhere to be found. Fans have a hard time knowing whose fault the breakdown is, but it never looks good to surrender easy drives to the rim. When the starting-unit offense bogs down, as it has in many a fourth quarters, the ball tends to find its way to Teague at the top of the key, and it isn’t clear what he is supposed to do with it. Again, maybe he failed to generate the ideal action with the initial set or should have a clear “Option B” in mind when he gets the ball back, but what we see is a dwindling shot clock, a lot of dribbling, and — ultimately — a difficult and usually missed shot.

But even amid this unfamiliarity and awkwardness, Teague is playing okay. He’s averaging 14.0 points per game to go along with 7.5 assists and 1.8 steals. If the offensive chemistry improves, perhaps he’ll find himself shooting less of those shots late in the clock, and that field goal percentage (41.8, below his career average of 44.6) will rise accordingly. In the on/off stats, Teague shows up as a helpful player. When he’s on the floor, the Wolves outscore opponents by 2.0 per 100 possessions, versus when he’s off when they’re outscored by 3.1. His issues really seem to be more related to learning his coach and his teammates more than basketball ability. He’s still quick off the dribble and knows how to score. I’d guess he’ll earn a higher grade than this in subsequent season quarters.

Tyus Jones: B-
It feels a little bit weird to grade Tyus this harshly, one day after writing about his potential candidacy for the starting point guard spot. That issue, frankly, has more to do with “fit” than performance or ability. Overall, Jones has not played particularly well this year.

He’s scoring just 7.2 points per 36 minutes (3.2 per game) on a weak 39.0 percent field goal shooting. Perhaps more disappointing is that he’s hitting just 31.8 percent of three-point shots, which is an area where a lot of his long-term upside hinges. As always, Tyus is rocking a nice assist-to-turnover ratio, but I expect him to average a few more dimes than the 6.1 per 36 minutes that he’s getting right now.

Jones’s overall play is solid and his defense is probably underrated/underestimated by people who don’t watch him frequently and closely. This might even include Tom Thibodeau. The team plays well with Tyus on the floor, which means something. (Net rating is currently +3.4 despite having to log a lot of minutes with plus-minus cancer Shabazz Muhammad.) But for a player whose upside is based exclusively on skill and not at all on physical tools, he needs to bring more efficient scoring to the table. If he’s only going to attempt 6.7 shots per 36 minutes, connecting on more than 40 percent of them shouldn’t be too much to ask.


Andrew Wiggins: B-
Wiggins is getting better in subtle-but-important ways, and is getting worse (or at least playing below his ability) in some more noticeable ones.

His overall defensive performance is improved from last season. I don’t think his defense was as problematic as his young teammates in recent years, but obviously some people disagree with my take and had him rated as a bottom-tier player on that end of the floor. Regardless of where he was before, he’s solid right now. His defensive rating (points allowed when he’s on the floor, per 100 possessions) is at 105.2. That isn’t great, but it isn’t bad either — last year, his was 110.4. And before you chalk the improvement entirely up to the Butler & Gibson additions, consider that Karl-Anthony Towns’s defensive rating has not improved from last season. Wig’s steals are up to 1.4 per 36 minutes, versus a previously-stable career average of 1.0. I think every reasonable eye test agrees with those numbers that he’s playing better defense this year.

Wig would grade better than a B- if his shooting numbers weren’t down. His three-point shooting is down from last year’s improved 35.6 percent to a poor 31.7 percent — and that’s after going 4 for 6, last night. Worse than his perimeter shooting is his piss-poor free throwing. He’s attempted a considerable 112 free throws and made only 70 of them, good for just 62.5 percent. If he were shooting 80 percent from the free throw line 35 percent from three, his points per game would be up to about 20.4 instead of the 18.9 where it is now. His assist numbers remain very low, despite what sometimes seems like an improved feel for when to pass and when to shoot. While he still passes up threes for long twos off the dribble at a maddening clip, he’s getting a little bit smarter about when to try to score versus pass after driving hard into the lane.

Many wondered how Wig’s offense would be affected by Butler’s arrival. His touches are slightly up in number, from 44.0 to 44.7 per game, and slightly down in time, from 2.7 to 2.4 minutes of possession per game. His shots are down from 19.1 to 15.5 per game. He’s shooting 1 less free throw per game (5.6 versus 6.6). He’s making 23.1 passes per game this year, slightly down from last year’s 25.5. Basically, there aren’t any radical changes in how he’s playing offense — he just needs to make more shots. Ideally, he’ll develop an all-around game that includes consistently setting up teammates with shots. Before that happens on this team, I think the general familiarity issues mentioned in Teague’s paragraph need to be sorted out. All of the starters find themselves needing to create a shot of their own against a packed defense, and Wiggins is not a clever enough ball-handler or passer to generate many assists in that environment.

Jamal Crawford: C
J-Crossover has been an occasionally necessary, sometimes helpful, great locker room guy and media-friendly personality… whose overall style of play and poor defense have not led to much of a positive impact on the basketball floor.

His minutes per game are down under 20 for the first time since his rookie year. That was in 2001. Coming into the season, I expected lower minutes for Crawford than the 26-30 he’s long been aaccustomed to, and wondered if that decreased workload helped boost his effort and efficiency. At this point, it doesn’t seem to have affected much about how he plays. He’s hitting on 40.5 percent of field goals and 36.5 percent of threes, compared to career averages of 41.0 and 35.0. His per-36 minutes scoring and assists are at 19.1 and 4.2, versus career-avgs 18.0 and 4.1. Where the stats damn him most is offensive rating (102.3) and defensive rating (112.5). The lineups that include Crawford have been getting pummeled fairly consistently. His defensive shortcomings were well understood coming into this year, but the idea would be that the second unit would get a ton of buckets to offset the weak D. To this point, that hasn’t really happened.

From my eye, Crawford’s ball-dominant style and crossover dribbles, which is (extremely) cool to watch, is limiting what Tyus and Belly can do. They encourage and prefer a ball-movement system with a lots of cross-court passes and movement. That all stops when Jamal gets the rock and goes to work on his defender. If he could defer more to Jones and be a bit more selective with the isolation stuff, it might help the team. As for defense, that is just going to be an issue for the 37-year old vet.

Shabazz Muhammad: F
Bazz is off to a rough start. A score-only player, he is putting up just 12.9 points per 36 minutes (compared to 18.6-per-36 career average) on just 39.3 percent shooting from the field. From three, where he could be really helpful, he’s 4 for 19 thus far, good for just 21.1 percent.

The plus-minus stats really ruin Bazz.

When he’s on the floor the Wolves are scoring just 102.0 points per 100.

That’s bad.

Also when he’s on the floor, they’re allowing 121.5 points per 100.

That’s like a dozen points worse than bad, and in some new category of his own.

We’re talking about a 243-minute sample, which isn’t nothing. Clearly, the two games where Butler was hurt and Bazz subbed in with the starters were catastrophic. But that isn’t nearly enough to explain this away.

It’s reasonable to wonder why Thibs has yet to make a change with his fourth wing spot. If Bazz doesn’t get it together quickly, he will leave his coach no choice.

Jimmy Butler: B+
Jimmy Butler is good at basketball. We already knew that when he was acquired on Draft Night. He’s playing good basketball for this year’s Wolves team, doing the “little bit of everything” that has defined his career. Butler’s averaging 17.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. He’s hitting 38.3 percent on a somewhat-low volume of 2.6 attempts per game. He’s hitting 43.9 percent of all field goals, which is slightly below his career average of 44.7 percent. His off-ball defense is so good that it often makes the viewer wonder if Butler knows the other team’s play before they start running it. He’s made a habit of jumping passing lanes for steals, without many instances of getting burned backdoor due to reckless gambling.

Butler’s two drawbacks, so far, that keep him below an A grade are his free throw infrequency (4.9 attempts, down from 8.9 last year) and his on-ball defense, which has been more inconsistent than we might’ve expected. While his work to fit into this new collection of players has sometimes been as evident as Teague’s, his early-season deference to Towns and especially Wiggins seemed very unselfish and helpful in some big moments. If throughout the course of the season he can find ways to get to the line more often while still sharing the wealth with his ambitious young teammates, he will max out his potential on this team.

As things stand, he’s clearly a huge help. This was most evident in the two games that Butler missed due to illness: the Wolves lost by 23 at home to the Pacers and then by 21 at Detroit. On the season as a whole, the Wolves outscore opponents by 3.8 with Jimmy, and are outscored by 7.3 without him.


Taj Gibson: A
Thibs-Layden, LLC has made some good moves, some bad moves, and some questionable moves, in its brief tenure operating the Minnesota Timberwolves. The early returns on the signing of Taj Gibson suggest that it might be their wisest decision to date.

The on/off numbers basically tell the story:

The Wolves win by 7.7 per 100 with Taj on the floor, and get borderline demolished — losing by 14.4 per 100 — when he’s on the bench. That +22.1-point swing is the best on the team. While his defense and rebounding are as tough as advertised, Gibson’s OFFENSIVE rating best on the team. The Wolves score 111.4 points per 100 with Taj on the floor. Whether that’s his hard screens, offensive rebounding, sneaky-good shotmaking around the hoop, or correlation with the high-octane scorers that surround him in the starting lineup is a good question. I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above.

Gibson has been an incredibly valuable player on this year’s team. Without him, they would not be above .500 at this point in the season. Even if his backup is also turning in a career season…

Nemanja Bjelica: A-
Before he was injured near the end of last season, Belly was finally starting to look like an NBA basketball player. The foot fracture that he suffered, and the surgery it required, cast some doubt as to whether or not he would begin this season like he finished.

It turns out that he looks even better now than he did then. More than anything else, Bjelica is shooting threes with less reluctance and (a lot) greater accuracy. Attempting the same 5.4 threes per 36 minutes as a season ago, he’s connecting on 51.2 percent of them, good for first in the NBA at this moment (!). Last year, he attempted a ton of threes but only made 31.6 percent of them. If even half of the improvement lasts, and he finishes the year out as a high-volume 40 percent three shooter, he’ll have a really nice season as a reserve stretch four. His defense has been really solid, for the most part.

On the growing list of criticisms of Coach Thibs, perhaps the most common is the limited minutes for Bjelica. He’s averaging just 15.3 minutes per game, which is the lowest of his three-year career; this despite the massive uptick in his efficiency and productivity. (His PER is at 18.2 and WS/48 at .163, compared to his career averages of 11.8 and 0.82.) It’s becoming increasingly clear that at least a few more minutes of Bjelica are in order.

Gorgui Dieng: B-
Gorgui’s minutes are way down, due to the Taj Gibson signing and the Taj Gibson excellence, through 20 games. “G” played 32.4 minutes per game last year, and didn’t miss a single one. That average is down to 15.3 now, and he’s often on the floor with the semi-dysfunctional crew that includes both Crawford and Bazz. To his credit, his productivity is ahead of his career averages, scoring 14.4 points and pulling down 10.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. His PER and WS/48 (15.6 and .111) are both above average. But the Wolves are getting smacked when G and the bench are on the floor — his net rating is (-7.7). It wasn’t unreasonable to think of his as a “plus” bench guy who could help that unit perform reasonably well. That it hasn’t falls at least partly on the big man’s shoulders.

Karl-Anthony Towns: C-
Before the season, smart people were labeling Towns as a Top 15 or even Top 10 player in the NBA.

This first quarter has been a setback — the first of KAT’s career. His defense is holding his team back from greater success than it could be having, the media has taken notice, and it’s impossible to ignore how this is going to affect the core dynamics of this franchise if things don’t change.

I wrote at length about the heightened scrutiny of KAT’s game recently, and don’t need to rehash all of the points here.

Offensively, there are nits to pick at — he holds the ball too long sometimes and forces some difficult shots instead of allowing the system to generate easier ones for him — but overall he’s been very good. He’s scoring 20.9 points per game, most on a team filled with primary scorers, and shooting 52.9 percent from the field, along with 35.6 percent from three and 86.0 percent from the foul line. When he’s on the floor, the Wolves are scoring 110.3 points per 100 possessions, which is borderline elite-level offense.

The offense is fine.

The problem is that the defense is terrible.

Despite that impressive O-rating, the Wolves are slightly outscored when KAT is on the floor; this, in contrast to every other starter, for which that is not the case. That’s because opponents are scoring 110.7 points per 100 when KAT is out there. That’s almost exactly the same as his D-rating from a year ago (110.8). There hasn’t been any improvement.

Some of KAT’s defensive struggles are due to physical immaturity. He isn’t as big as he will eventually become and he doesn’t yet have his (Jim Petersen voice) grown-man muscles. Many NBA centers bother KAT for the simple reason that they are bigger and stronger. This list is longer than some are comfortable admitting, and lately it feels like we add a new name to it each week: Hassan Whiteside, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard…

There are times when it just plain seems like Towns should play power forward instead of center.

But the issues are definitely not entirely physical and KAT could improve to at least decent defense if he upped his awareness level, controlled his ambitions to get blocked shots, and worried more about getting back in transition defense. He has better quickness and coordination than almost every center in the league and should not rate as poorly as he currently does on defense.

This is a big micro-issue for this season — the team defense is ranked 25th in the league as of this writing, which effectively means they aren’t going anywhere far unless it improves — but is equally a macro-issue for the long haul. It isn’t good when the franchise player is getting blamed for the losses. As long as Towns struggles to play decent defense, the media that has considered him an all-around darling for two years will take notice — it already has. So will Jimmy Butler and so will Thibs.

Do you think Thibs and Butler will tolerate a bottom-level defense for 82 games?

I don’t, and while I don’t know what things will look like if and when they are put in the position to stop tolerating bad defense, I doubt it will be pretty.

Here’s hoping that KAT returns to being the A-student that he was in his first two seasons in the league.

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8 thoughts on “Timberwolves 1st Quarter Report Card

  1. Im sure you are not taking into account that Towns is the only starter that plays with a bench that includes Crawford, Shabazz and Jones.. I’m not saying he is a good defender but numbers sometimes lie I’m sure that stats would look better as wiggins if he would only play when butler and gigson are on the court

    1. That’s a good point, even if it’s exaggerating to say he’s the “only” starter to play with the bench. They all end up staggering to some extent, but Towns checks out of most games first and then re-enters earlier, usually leading to more minutes with the 2nd Unit, in the early 2nd Quarter.

      But on the other hand, one would hope that in those 2nd Quarters, facing opposing bench players, KAT could be something of a solution instead of a problem, on defense. That hasn’t been the case.

  2. You forgot to grade Thibs, so I’ll do it. D-.

    He’s got a great team assembled, but he did it at the cost of the future somewhat. And he got rid of Rubio which will sting for awhile.

    Defense is terrible and that’s supposed to be his niche. The offense is a clunker and hard to watch a lot of the times. It seems like 75% of our shots are contested.

    He plays his starters way too much. They’re going to be gassed by game 65.

    He doesn’t infuse bench players into the main rotation to build chemistry with the starting unit.

    He doesn’t play Belly or Tyus enough.

    I can’t think of a single game where I thought, “Wow that was a great play Thibs drew up.”

  3. I am totally in agreement with DemBluez on Thibs. I would add that he is doing slightly better as a POBO (C- grade) than coach. Considering he got Jimmy Butler and a number one pick from the Bulls, for an injured Zack LaVine, an overrated Kris Dunn and our pick, you may think I am crazy for this poor review of his management skills, but when you look at Markkenen as a potential top four rookie, and needed three point shooter, in an excellent class and the stone cold shooting of Zack, it doesn’t seem as one sided as it did the day of the trade. His moves to get Taj Gibson and Jeff Teague wasn’t bad, but using all of his cap room for those two was a sign that he wasn’t up to the task of spending the money he had. Lastly, he gave up on Rubio, for more cap room and OKC first round pick, you have to hope that the Thunder get out of the lottery or that pick goes to OKC next year and we lose our pick to Atlanta, leaving us with a team that can only get better next year by playing better together and overpaying for Tyus and Belly to stay. Paying KAT the max is still money well spent.

    Just like his coaching style, which seems to be only concerned about the game that day, his skills as POBO seem to be also based on one year improvement and not building for a championship. This is the best team we have had in thirteen years and I still feel cheated. Just getting to the playoffs will be such a big boost to this franchise, but if it is a repeat of the one and done era of Flip and McHale having no ability to add or keep the needed players for KG to get deep in the playoffs, then Thibs should be squarely to blame.

  4. I disagree with the D- that DemBluez gave Thibs. It is way too generous. So would an F for that matter. Against Washington, he plays his starters heavy minutes and you could see that fatigue was setting in as the Wizards came back from an eight point deficit. Our moronic coach is sitting with four timeouts that will evaporate to two under three minutes. Does he use them right before the three minute mark to disrupt the Wizards flow and give his guys a blow? NO! Our idiot and chief, waits until 2:30 and calls a timeout, essentially using three timeouts with that one dumb move. Then he uses his final timeout with 55 secs left and then has no way to call a timeout to set up a play after we got two offensive boards. He should be fired tonight and kicked to the curb. Bring Fisdale in and clear out this disaster immediately.
    We don’t need a first line coach. We just need a competent one.

  5. It’ll come as no surprise that I side with Tom and Dem on the view that Thibs deserves a low grade and is a big factor holding us back as a team. I have to admit that as soon as I heard about Fizdale, I had a fantasy of him somehow coaching here. But nothing is going to get us out of this except time, and probably a lot of it.

    I’d give Teague a C. I mean, he’s basically amounted to a lateral movement at staring PG. That’s not why you pick up an older, more experienced, supposedly more well rounded, and more expensive PG to replace one currently under contract. I’m sure Teague is still getting used to this group/system, but Tyus time has opened my eyes to Teague’s glaring weaknesses in running the offense which may not all be about him adjusting here.

    Maybe B- is fair for Tyus, but he’s done well for a backup and he’s very, very young. He has weaknesses. His physicality, his mediocre shooting. But the fact that his feel for the game is already on par with Teague and in some ways better makes me excited about what Tyus has done and will do.

    I also think B- is fair for Wiggins. I like this version of Wiggins more than any to date. He’s more well rounded, efficient and doesn’t force things as much. That being said, it is completely brought to you by the luxury of having lots of good teammates and now some serious vet/leadership presence. It allows Wiggins to slink into a more natural, lesser role. I shouldn’t put it like that… He was forced to take on way to much by overly optimistic coaching and front office staffs. I don’t think he ever said he was a leader, or a go to guy on a playoff team. The only minus in his play is the fact that what he does isn’t worth max money, and it might not really ever be. Someday we may be sorry we kept Wiggins and got rid of LaVine. Wild speculation, but I bet we could have traded Wiggins almost straight up for Butler (maybe thrown in Dunn, maybe sold him off for something more useful for our roster), kept Markkanen (sp?) and LaVine and had Jimmy play SF (don’t really think he’s a SG). This may have allowed us to more easily exit the stone age on offense, but with Thibs, who knows.

    Crawford is what he is. Hot and cold and a bit hard to play with as a unit, but he can be a one man updraft. Still, we are playing him too many minutes, so expect more cold than hot late in the season.

    Shabazz is just… He does NOT learn. What do you do with a guy like this? I guess the answer is still this: Play him more minutes. We need him to play more to take a few minutes away from starters and Crawford. How bad could it go? It would have been interesting if some other team had picked him up to see if he was the same player we’ve come to expect. The teaching ability here seems lacking, so… Yet, no one was picking the guy up which is pretty damning. Hoped for a little better.

    I’d give Butler a C. He started the season, for an extended period, just awful on offense. We were led to believe he was better than that… and he is, honestly, but I was shocked by how poorly he plugged into a familiar system and how just ugly he played on offense. Even at his normal state, which he is now nearing, he relies excessively on free throws for a supposed scorer and is not a shooter. This year his shot selection has been bad, and he’ll randomly grab the bull by the horns at bad times and go into ‘I got this’ tunnel vision. It’s been unhelpful and below such a smart and experienced player. As a fan, his game is pretty boring and ugly. Andy points out that his D (particularly man D) is not as good as expected, although he’s still a very helpful defender. So, he’s brought leadership, top dog attitude, D, but he doesn’t really help the offense run well like elite point forwards, such as LeBron, nor has he provided consistent offense himself. He’s a main reason we are improved this season, but he’s not playing up to potential and I guess I grade a little harsher for guys with All Star by their name.

    On the other hand, Gibson, our other Thibs guy acquisition, has played wonderfully in his (admittedly lower expectation) role. He is a good dirty work guy to pair with KAT for now.

    Bjelly has been really exciting. If healthy, he should play more minutes but perhaps that’s why he’s limited to 15.

    Dieng… I’d give him a C-. I felt sorry for him loosing his starting role to a dinosaur ‘Thibs guy’. But I got it—starting two guys at center isn’t really a great idea, and position aside, KAT & G never complemented each other that much. So I felt sorry for him, but I don’t so much now. The caveat is that, G, a marginal starter should feast on benches. He has not. He’s been an OK backup center. He’s not really been horrible. But how different would the team look if Cole Aldrich got all his minutes? He’s played himself out of being very important to the team.

    KAT, KAT, KAT. Everyone is angry with him for his D. And he… well he’s consistent, but he’s so boyishly easy to throw off his game. It’s so easy to get him off his game mentally, or hip check him and back him down into submission on both sides of the court. Toughness and maturity are issues. I guess the same can be said of Wiggins, but realistically, even if Thibs won’t admit it, more is expected of KAT and you have to be tougher on average to play against NBA centers than to be a dude wing. That’s just the lay of the land. The only way for KAT to improve on this stuff is to play his way out of it and we should be going to him more (esp in the post) in crunch time. Our staff has proven they cannot coach up his D or make him more smooth and professional on O (he’s very talented on that end, but easy to throw off course). So it’s up to him to figure it out. When will he?

    Jimmy is mad about the D, but it’s partially his fault, and at this point also partially Thibs’ fault. There are no lily white hands here–lots of blame to go around. In this respect, it does feel like KAT is being scapegoated for our D troubles. I’m as disappointed as anyone in his D (Wiggins… I’m so happy he’s shown SOME improvement but let’s be clear, it’s been minor). But this is a team-wide problem. I think a C- is a little harsh for a guy who shoulders so much responsibility on a now half vet squad at age 22 that he’s a scapegoat for our defensive numbers. True he needs to pick it up. He needs to keep making small improvements on O. He needs to get tougher. He needs big strides on D. But imagine this team without him.

  6. Other than Towns being too low and being graded unnecessarily on a curve, these all seem fair. Regarding Bazz, they almost have to be showing some sympathy toward him for deciding to come back for the minimum, a decision that’s been disastrous for everyone. They would’ve needed another rotation player for the minimum, and that’s not easy, though. At one point, I thought they’d eventually trade Aldrich and a 2nd rounder for Dudley, as Zach Lowe predicted, but after seeing how fat Dudley is from Sunday’s game, that doesn’t seem like a great idea, either.

  7. I was just checking ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus and out of 72 NBA centers KAT is… 72nd! And it’s not close! 71 is Cristiano Felicio of the Bulls at -0.74 while Kat is more than a full point behind at -1.77!!! I know it can be a flukey stat sometimes, but wow, that’s scary stuff.

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