It is time to get to know Head Coach Sam Mitchell, because that is exactly what we have now. Respecting not only the privacy wishes of the Saunders Family, but also our own lack of information, we’ll limit speculation about Flip’s medical future as much as possible. But the simple fact of yesterday’s press conference and announcement suggests Flip will be away from the team for a while. Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote yesterday, “There’s hope that Saunders can return to the bench this season, but Mitchell is expected to be the interim coach no less than half the season.” (Emphasis mine.)
So we wish Flip Saunders a speedy and complete recovery, because that’s the important, real-life issue at hand. But like Mitchell said yesterday, “The most important thing is to keep going forward. That’s what Flip would want. He’d want us to keep going forward.”
And that is exactly what will happen, starting when training camp breaks on September 28. The Timberwolves will have a new head coach, and that coach will be treating this team as his own. More than once yesterday Mitchell emphasized that he’ll continue to implement Flip’s system but also that he will have the freedom to coach the team as he sees fit. Parsing Sam’s words in finer detail, he used the word “I” (as opposed to, say, “we”) when stating “I have a great staff,” and “I have great assistants.” He’s going to take ownership of this opportunity. As he should. The Wolves need a real coach with real ideas and real authority to act on them much more than they need a substitute teacher or babysitter for a few months. Some of these players are just beginning what figure to be long, successful careers. This NBA schedule isn’t moving anywhere to accommodate this unfortunate Timberwolves development, so they need to roll with it as best as possible.
Right now, Sam Mitchell is Andrew Wiggins’s coach. He’s Tyus Jones’s coach. He’s Karl-Anthony Towns’s coach, and he is Ricky Rubio’s coach. It is a reality that almost certainly has not sunk in for these guys, but it needs to soon, and it will soon. It is reality.
Mitchell has been a head coach. With the Toronto Raptors from 2004 to 2008, he amassed a win-loss record of 156-189. That .452 winning percentage is better than it seems, because those teams were not very talented, outside of superstar Chris Bosh. In 2007, Mitchell was named NBA Coach of the Year after leading the Raps to 47 wins and a playoff berth. After Bosh, that team’s minutes leaders were Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, and Andrea Bargnani. While I often point to this season as “Chris Bosh is underrated” evidence, it also suggests that Mitchell can coach. The Raptors fired him early in the 2008-09 season when they had an 8-9 record. Jay Triano took over and they went 25-40 the rest of the way.
The most interesting thing to watch will be how Mitchell balances the “win now versus develop young players” dynamics. Make no mistake about it: If he isn’t auditioning for the longer-term Timberwolves head coaching job (he probably is) then he is at least auditioning for the other 29 teams who might have vacancies for him to explore in the near future. If the Wolves come out of the gates winning — maybe .500ish at the All-Star break — Mitchell’s name will be a hot one like it was in 2007, and he’ll probably be a head coach again soon. He understands this. But if these wins come more on the achy bones of Kevin Martin, Garnett, and Andre Miller, and less on the ascents of LaVine and Towns, it might not be What Flip Would Want.
It’s early. Too early to engage in that much speculation. But Mitchell’s old school, tough-guy reputation precedes him here. It will not be altogether surprising if the freedom he assumes will bring substantive changes from the alternate universe where Saunders coaches this team, this season.
Best wishes to Flip.