Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance

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Evaluating NBA coaching performance is a difficult and imperfect exercise. This is because the overwhelming majority of the work done by coaches happens during the part of the season that outsiders are not privy to; basically, everything outside of the in-game experience. Coaches prepare and conduct practices, scout opponents and present reports to the players with game-to-game strategies. These include their own plans of attack on offense and how to counter the opposition with defensive matchups and principles. While trying to carry out these fundamental tasks, NBA coaches are often faced with the less scientific duty of managing egos and expectations; egos and expectations of twenty-somethings earning million-dollar salaries. With a decision to insert Player X into the starting lineup comes the task of telling Player Y that he’s now coming off the bench. Unlike fans managing their fantasy or 2K rosters, this cannot be done coldly and without regard for the human elements.

Coaches do other things too, like coordinate organizational priorities with the front office. This can mean emphasizing the development of young talent over “winning now.” Who needs to play, and who might need to be traded? In places like Houston, it seems like the coaches are required to implement specific x’s and o’s tactics, such as the three-point shot. Coaches need to speak to media on essentially a daily basis, which can be difficult when trying to both maintain positive vibes with the fan community while not disclosing sensitive or secret material.

Despite this mountain of data that we do not and never will possess, we still sound off on coaching performance and talk ourselves into some pretty high levels of certainty about who are the best and worst in the profession. People generally agree that Gregg Popovich is a great coach, and Byron Scott is a bad one. In recent years in Minnesota, it has seemed like a coaching-competence roller coaster going from Dwane Casey (good) to Randy Wittman (bad) to Kevin McHale (good) to Kurt Rambis (bad) to Rick Adelman (good) and then to Flip Saunders and his unexpectedly-quick replacement, Sam Mitchell, whose job is just beginning.

How good of a job is Sam Mitchell doing? How would we measure it?

My own belief, at this juncture, is that Mitchell is doing a very good job with this Timberwolves team, with two caveats that I cannot ignore. But let’s begin with the good, because it heavily outweighs the bad.

As Bill Parcells would say, “You are what your record says you are.” So far, the Timberwolves are a team that won 7, lost 8, and is on pace to flirt with the 8-seed in the Western Conference. This record comes in spite of injuries to the Wolves best point guard, Ricky Rubio and its best power forward, Nemanja Bjelica. (They are 7-4 when Rubio plays, and lost all 4 that he sat.) It also comes despite the crazy fact that their top three leaders in minutes played are all 20 years old. They are currently tied with the Suns and Clippers for the 7th best record in the West. Whether that is sustainable will depend on a number of things, including their own priorities (tanking for a top-12 protected draft pick, or gunning for an 8 seed?). But so far, this is how the Wolves are playing, and it is strong evidence of a good coaching job.

The Wolves were the worst team in the NBA last year by record, and the losing resulted more from bad defense than from bad offense. (Though both were near the league bottom, they were one of the worst defensive teams in modern history.) This year, with the same Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine continuing to log a lot of minutes, the Wolves defense is significantly improved. As of this writing, their defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) is 100.4, good for 12th in the NBA. Last season, it was 109.6, almost two full points worse than the 29th-ranked defense (Lakers). When Rubio is on the floor, the Wolves rating drops further down to 91.7. For a reference point, the Spurs have the best defense in the league at 93.8, and the Sixers have the league’s worst offense, scoring 89.9 points per 100. So when Mitchell has his starting point guard available to play, his team is playing elite defense that causes opponents to function on offense similarly to the way the 0-16 76ers play.

Mitchell has a reputation for being a tough, “old school” sort of coach that is willing to be demanding and harsh to get a point across. To consider this and then hear him speak about what he pays the most attention to — defensive principles, screens, getting back on defense — had me thinking of the quintessential “hardass” coach, Bob Knight. In A Season on the Brink, John Feinstein wrote about the sorts of things that players might do that would upset Knight:

Not thinking, to Knight, was a cardinal sin. Players were going to miss jump shots, they were going to mishandle the ball, and they were going to throw bad passes. Knight almost never got on a player for missing a shot, unless the shot was a foolish one. But some things were unforgivable: not boxing out, not knowing where your man was on defense, not setting a proper screen. Those were mental errors caused by a lack of concentration. There was no excuse–none–for not concentrating.

Lest this comparison be taken too seriously, I fully understand that Mitchell does not behave like Knight did with players. That type of dictator-model leadership wouldn’t last a week in professional basketball. But I do sense that Mitchell is imparting knowledge to these young players with an emphasis on fundamentals that certain NBA coaches might not have the patience for. [Eds note: for an interesting modern contrast to Knight’s style, see this New York Times piece on Pete Carroll’s new-age approach with the Seahawks, emphasizing positive thinking and being “present.” I’d enjoy hearing Knight’s reaction to the piece.]

Consider the youth, the injuries, the defense, and the results, and it’s hard to feel less than good about whatever Sam Mitchell is doing to coach this team.

But like I said at the outset, there are two big caveats to acknowledge.

First is his playing rotation. So far, Mitchell’s rotation has been pretty loose, and unpredictable. Consider the other night against Atlanta, in a game the Wolves surprisingly won in spite of a head-scratching fourth quarter rotation.

Coach Mitchell held his best young big man, Karl-Anthony Towns, out of the final 15 minutes and 43 seconds of action. There was no obvious reason to explain this decision. Towns was not exactly dominating in his 22 minutes of action, but he had 6 points, 6 rebounds and seemed to be having his usual impact on defense and the glass. He was not in foul trouble. The Wolves were not on a back-to-back. After the game, Mitchell’s explanation was that Gorgui Dieng was playing well, so they rode him to the finish.

That explanation sounds a lot better having won the game than it would if they had lost it. Make no mistake about it, Towns is a far better player than Dieng and the Wolves will always have a better chance of winning with him on the floor instead of Gorgui. Add to this the fact that Towns is a 20-year old that the franchise views as a cornerstone, and Gorgui will turn 26 and has a much less certain future in Minnesota, and there is even less justification for this rotation decision.

In the same sequence of the Hawks game, Ricky Rubio was held out for an extended period of time. He checked out earlier than usual, with 6 minutes left in the third quarter. He was having an obvious effect on the game with his ability to defend Hawks All-Star guard Jeff Teague, who was blowing right past Zach LaVine in the first half. Alas, Rubio never returned to the game after LaVine started to play better. At about the midway point of the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves Public Relations Twitter account announced that Ricky would not return to the game due to left ankle soreness.

Whether his full 12 game minutes of sitting behind LaVine in a close game versus a tough opponent had anything to do with the decision to sit out the final 6, is anyone’s guess. Given that Mitchell rolled with Gorgui for the duration, it seems possible he would’ve done the exact same thing with LaVine, regardless of what health-based decisions were made on the end of the bench.

The questionable rotations are not limited to this game; one that the Wolves actually won. Right now, Andrew Wiggins is leading the Wolves with 34.9 minutes per game. That is probably a good number for Wig. Some nights they’ll need him for 39 or 40, and other nights he’ll be allowed more rest and play more like 30. But it’s after Wiggins that things get problematic.

Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns can each make a strong argument that they are the best player on the Timberwolves. Rubio leads the team in assists, steals and on/off differential. Towns leads the team in rebounds, blocks, and broad advanced stats like PER and win shares. Furthermore, each player is young; Rubio just turned 25; Towns 20. Finally, each player’s respective position — point guard and center — is not one that the Wolves have a good backup to sub into games. With Rubio, they usually choose Zach LaVine, a natural off-guard who struggles at point, over 39-year old Andre Miller and not-ready-for-NBA-minutes Tyus Jones, who was drafted for his potential after one great year at Duke. With Towns, they sub in Gorgui Dieng, whose rookie-year promise reached a frustratingly-quick plateau. Now that Gorgui is almost 26 years old, his upside is no longer exciting and his development should no longer be a top team priority.

Despite all of this information, which one would expect to lead to heavy Rubio and KAT minutes, Ricky is only averaging 30 minutes per game, and Towns is only averaging 28. That is at least 5 too few for each player, and if it continues for the duration of the season, it will have a noticeable, negative impact on the team’s record. There shouldn’t be any question right now who the Wolves top three players are, but for some reason only one of them is treated that way with minutes. It’s odd, and will hopefully end soon.

The second quibble with Mitchell’s coaching performance is a continuation of the Flip Saunders system that drew the ire of many bloggers and analysts last season. This is, of course, the dearth of three-point shots that the Wolves attempt. The 15.7 threes they shoot per game is the fewest of any team this year. Their three-point shooting percentage (31.8) is ranked just 23rd in the league and it seems from watching the Wolves that they don’t space the floor well enough to encourage the sorts of threes that the good teams shoot most frequently: catch and shoot attempts from the corners.

From each corner of the floor, the Timberwolves are shooting fewer shots per game than every other NBA team. They shoot 1.9 per game from the left corner and an incredible 0.5 from the right. In that small sample size of corner shots, the Wolves shoot more accurately. They’ve hit 39 percent from the left corner and 50 percent from the right. You’ll notice that a “fail safe” option that Rubio calls late in the shot clock is Towns running up high to set a ball screen for him. This action would be significantly more effective than it has been if the floor was spread with shooters. These could include some combination of LaVine, Wiggins, Bjelica, and even Damjan Rudez. But we haven’t really seen an orchestrated effort to spread the floor this way and encourage these efficient types of shots.

Are these minor quibbles?

Maybe, maybe not. Like I said, I’d grade Mitchell well on balance. Maybe a B+ or even A- using letters. But it would be nice to see more minutes for the team’s best young players, and more shots from the corners off of Ricky Rubio dishes.

Wolves play at Sacramento tonight. DeMarcus Cousins has been listed as doubtful with back soreness and Rubio and Bjelica are listed as questionable with their various ailments. Those players’ availability will probably go a long way in determining the game’s outcome.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, Wolves fans, and enjoy tonight’s game.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Evaluating Sam Mitchell’s Coaching Performance

  1. jmndodge

    Sam is doing well – young team with old mentors – Flip’s design, Sam is basically running his system. Key difference this season – obviously the roster changes – KAT/Bjelica/Jones as young key pieces, Prince/Miller in mentoring roles, coupled with a return of Rubio – Wiggins development, as well as LaVine/Bazz/Dieng/Payne. The key difference however is our Defense. This is partially due to players on the floor (KG/Prince/Bjelica) but it is more than simple experience. Sam sees the floor from a F’s eyes – as a player he was responsible for defense in the paint, and for offensive production in the paint/ Flip as a PG’s vision is filtered through his responsibility for offense/floor spacing/hitting open jumpers. It’s a subtle difference, but it is showing in our production in the paint and our stronger defense – (KAT – also is a hughe difference maker). Will be interesting to see if/when Tyus Jones is given opportunity to become PG, and LaVine given more time in his natural shooting guard position.

    Over-all I like the balance and limited minutes guys are playing (except for Wiggins our work horse) – and Sam’s true test is going to come not when facing injury’s (he’s done that as well as possible), but when/if PEK becomes healthy again. That is going to affect rotations in a significant way. Once Tyus Jones plays himself into or out of the rotation this also will affect rotations – Wiggins (SG/SF) Prince/Martin and Bazz – as LaVine’s minutes will remain likely in the mid-20’s, but come from the Wing rotation. How he manages nor just the rotations, but the ego’s and development will be a real test of his coaching. Ironically, the more he wins, the tougher his job – as any teacher can balance minutes, and give experience to a team that’s going to lose anyway – it becomes much more difficult to do when you expect and want to win.

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