Wolves Big-Picture Issues: Sam’s Future as Coach & Bizarre Situation with LaVine

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The Wolves have now played 60 games, and will cross the season’s three-quarter mark after their home game tomorrow night against the Washington Wizards and their Friday night tilt at Milwaukee, against the Bucks. I’ll be out of town over the weekend but will prepare another quarterly report card early next week, assessing each player’s performance in Games 42 through 62.

For now, a couple different Wolves-related discussion topics:

Sam Mitchell’s Future as Coach

Jon Krawczynski dropped a bomb on Wolves Twitter this past week:

The report is pretty simple and understandable. If the Wolves demonstrate some improvement in the win/loss column from last year (when they won only 16 games) then Mitchell might keep the head coaching job. Once “interim” is removed from his job title, Sam is the team’s coach going forward into the future. He’ll be the guy leading Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns into the prime of their careers.

My first reaction is to repeat everything I wrote last week about improvement. Specifically, it isn’t clear that this year’s team is improved from last year, after you take Ricky Rubio’s health and Karl-Anthony Towns’s presence (and immediate greatness) into consideration.  Everyone paying attention knows how much Rubio matters to this team’s performance.  Regarding Towns, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle emphasized that KAT is “already a great player” in his pregame remarks the other night. I am not convinced that 27 to 29 wins would mark improvement over last year, once you consider these two major roster additions.

My second reaction is to think about Randy Wittman. In case you forgot, back in 2012 Wittman replaced Flip Saunders in Washington in an interim capacity just like Mitchell has, here in Minnesota. (Tragic difference of circumstances this time around goes without saying.) Wittman coached young phenom John Wall, much like Mitchell is doing with Karl-Anthony Towns, and they showed what was interpreted as “improvement” by finishing that season 18-31 after starting out 2-15 under Flip. The Wizards decided that was good enough, Wittman kept the job full time, and they’ve probably underachieved to a significant extent because of that decision. It is not unreasonable to fear that keeping Mitchell here, in lieu of some bigtime available alternatives, would lead to a very similar conclusion: progress into a middle-seed playoff team due to the immense talent of Towns (like Wall) but nothing approaching real title contention. If the Wolves can hire Tom Thibodeau this summer but instead stick with Mitchell because of perceived progress, it will be a huge mistake.

My third reaction is to think about why retaining Mitchell would be less surprising than it might at first seem.  (If it must be said, I have expected a summer coaching change because of the constant criticism leveled at the Wolves in-game strategies, Mitchell’s intentionally-salty relationship with the local media, and the team’s decision to announce him ALWAYS as “Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell.”) Interim coaches have the benefit of an audition, and the benefit of selling the job they’ve done to the public.  Maybe more than anything, they have the benefit of establishing relationships with the players.  Mitchell was criticized anonymously by some players in a different Krawczynski report from a while back, but it does not seem as if he is at risk of “losing the locker room” right now. Kevin Garnett has spoken out in full support of Mitchell. He’s going to be an owner of this team soon. Karl-Anthony Towns only says great things about Mitchell, and he is the most important employee that Glen Taylor has right now and for the foreseeable future. Andrew Wiggins is already on his second coach in his second NBA season, and might not want a third one in Year 3. There are some reasons to believe the team might prefer continuity to change.

My final reaction to this news is to think about what it means for the remainder of the season. Is Glen Taylor really monitoring the win-loss column and planning to keep or change coaches depending on the final tally? Given some of the team’s managerial decisions (mostly sitting Andre Miller in favor of Zach LaVine and now Tyus Jones, not finding a reliable backup big man) it has not seemed as though they are seriously trying to rack up wins. But if Taylor is actually going to base this monumental decision on the final win tally, should Wolves fans be cheering for losses? Normally, we do that to boost draft position. This would be to force a regime change. I really don’t know. It’s something to think about though. When the Wolves beat the Anthony Davis-less Pelicans in a close one, only to get blown off the floor by Dallas the next night, should we feel good that they split a road back-to-back or wonder if the added win — which was not at all impressive on its own — might lead to a bigger-picture problem down the road?

It’s a complicated and “fluid” (David Kahn voice) situation. Stay tuned.

The Bizarre Relationship Between the Front Office & Zach LaVine

I’m at risk for sounding insensitive here, so I’m going to try to be careful. I should first probably acknowledge (as I and many others have many times over) that Flip Saunders did an amazing job of turning a bad Kevin Love situation into the league’s most promising rebuild. The tragedy of Flip’s passing needs no description from me, and just about everybody feels terrible that he could not live to see this team grow in his vision.

Okay, that said, there’s a pretty bizarre thing happening right now with the front office and Zach LaVine, and it has to do with Flip’s passing. But first, some background.

Flip was really high on Zach LaVine. He drafted him late in the 2014 lottery in what he coined a “homerun swing” selection. He then played LaVine almost 2000 minutes as a rookie after his one year at UCLA, when he only played 900. It became clear over time that Flip thought that LaVine could become a star in the NBA. What also became clear was that Flip did not feel this way about Ricky Rubio, the team’s starting point guard and best overall player. When I asked Flip on draft night if he gave any thought to “fit” when choosing Towns first overall, he said no. They just took the best overall player and it was clear that this was KAT after they had a chance to see him in his workout. But in a revealing tell sign, Flip mentioned that they did not think about how the player would fit with “Wiggins or LaVine.” That’s a small thing, but not really, if you paid attention to his comments all year before that. He felt his core was Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and now Karl-Anthony Towns.

So what’s the bizarre thing that’s happening?

The Timberwolves are managing Zach LaVine’s place in the organization by what Flip thought of him before his passing, last year.

This is bizarre for three basic reasons.

First and most obviously, Flip only lived to see LaVine’s rookie season. However you felt about LaVine’s rookie season — and reasonable opinions on this can range from “rotten” to “promising” — you have to concede that LaVine was far from a sure thing, and observing his ongoing progress is of utmost importance to deciding whether and to what extent you feel he is part of the team’s core, going forward. That Flip projected great things for Zach should have next to zero relevance whatsoever in deciding whether to keep him, trade him, start him, or bench him, as time goes on.

Second, the Timberwolves could potentially receive good trade offers for LaVine. If the team has him in something close to “untouchable” status, that is just absurd! LaVine is a freak athlete and shows flashes of big upside, but he hasn’t been nearly good enough all around to deserve this type of treatment. I half joked earlier in this season when the Lakers were stupidly allowing Byron Scott to bench D’Angelo Russell that the Wolves should try to do a LaVine-Russell swap. Crazier things have happened. I don’t know if that specific swap could’ve been realistic, but there is an inescapable sense sometimes that LaVine is overrated, and should be dealt sooner than later while he could bring back a disproportionate return.  If the Wolves are letting those calls go straight to voicemail, that’d be a damn shame.

Third, the Timberwolves are going to be drafting in the top half of the lottery again, and it is possible that they’ll take a backcourt player.  And if they draft a guard it will be an unmistakable sign that Ricky Rubio is out the door. You don’t draft a player in the top 5 or 6 unless you feel like he has a place in your starting lineup, and the Wolves are not going to trade LaVine or Wiggins. Rubio will be gone. Maybe not immediately, but in due time. The Wolves will choose the worse player over the better one, because of Flip’s vision in 2015, without having had a chance to watch half of LaVine’s short NBA career.

Forgive me for thinking it’s all pretty bizarre. And hat tip to Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN for this insight, provided in our Twitter exchange this morning after I mentioned Jamal Murray as a potential draft target and what that would mean. Link here shows the exchange.

 

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Wolves Big-Picture Issues: Sam’s Future as Coach & Bizarre Situation with LaVine

  1. Steve

    I might be the only guy who is actually a fan of Sam Mitchell. I love the way he coaches the young guys and how he handles the wins and losses. The problem with the modern day era is people want success instantly. I know this even with my own career, patience is something that is absolutely necessary for any successful team. Casual fans like blaming him for all the losses, yet they fail to look at the individuals he is working with.

    Anyways, I enjoy reading your analysis and hearing your thoughts on the subject. Keep up the excellent work.

    • Steve,

      I find myself liking parts of Mitchell as the coach, too. There is something to be said for “old school” methods, and I think he does a better job than he gets credit for in motivating his players without breaking their spirits. I suspect that he has a good relationship with most players.

      But my reasons for (strongly) preferring change are twofold: 1) Watch any of the best coached NBA teams play offense (Spurs, Warriors, Celtics, Mavericks, Pacers…), and the entire structure looks different. Wide spacing, better use of ball screens, and — as is discussed most frequently — better use of the three-point shot. The most common criticism of Flip was his outdated offensive strategy that worked in the 90s but was passed up by modern analytics and rule-changes. 2) Defense. The Wolves remain HORRIBLE on defense despite having some amazing athletes. I realize they lack size at the 5 position, but that alone isn’t enough to account for league-worst level defense. They should be more improved on that end of the floor, and they are not.

      I think Mitchell is a smart basketball person and he commands respect in the locker room. He is certainly qualified for the job. But I think that there are some great basketball coaches who would do a better job. It’s an odd industry where only 30 people in the world get one of those positions. I doubt there are 30 great ones. My preference is Thibs because — like Adelman before him — he’d bring an immediate level of proven competence that would be borne out in the team performance. Thibs is a defensive genius, and I think he would make better use of Rubio, Wiggins and Towns on both ends of the floor.

      • re: Flip’s outdated system, I meant to add, “Sam’s offense seems to be a continuation of that.”

      • Steve

        I definitely see your points and do agree that there are many top rated coaches that have more pedigree than Sam.

        However, I disagree with the majority of Wolves fans who argue that if we only had a ‘modern offense’ all of our problems will be solved. As you mentioned about the modern offense, you need good three point shooters to make it work effectively. All of the teams that you listed have the experience and personel to do damage with that kind of system.

        When you create a strategy for a team, you need to look at what you have. The wolves have youth, inexperience and no shooters. Even if Sam adopted all of the ‘modern offense’ plays and created the system, I don’t think this team would be able to use it effectively.

        Look at Philadelphia at their amazing coach. Good coach and they are still terrible. The system isn’t everything, you still need good players in that system.

        With such youth and inexperience, the only thing you need is time to develop. Sam understands this quite well and realizes that these guys need more time before the develop into better players.

        On another note, I agree that the front office has done a terrible job of providing players around the starting 5 plus Bazz. That being said I’m sure Milt doesn’t have much say in terms of what he can do.

        All of this Sam Mitchell hate reminds me of last year when everyone was angry at Flip. One year later and we can all agree that last season was absolutely worth the tank and growing pains. When you are living through the growing pains it sucks, but in the end it will be worth it. Next year I expect to see a team that will hit the 40 win mark….fingers crossed

  2. Kyle

    Zach’s averaged 18.8/3.6/4.6 on 46.5/44.6/82.9 splits as a starter in 32 MPG’s. That’s a really good offensive stat line so while he has a ways to go defensively he’s shown really good and efficient offensive potential as a starter and he’s still just a sophomore as well. He shouldn’t be untouchable, but he also should only be traded for a sure thing all-star at this point in my opinion. His ceiling is too high and he’s improved enough where I see no point trading him for another prospect. Give him time to put on another 15lbs and I think he can be a really good player offensively and hopefully improve enough defensively where we don’t get killed when he’s out there.

    • Kyle,

      No argument from me about LaVine’s potential. If he does as you say — put on some muscle — and continues to improve, he might become great. But he also might not, as he remains inept at point guard (it isn’t clear that the Wolves decision-makers understand this yet) and does not use his athleticism for very many things besides rising up for two-point jumpers. But I mostly find it incredible that the front office (as currently constructed) is using beliefs and expectations of the late Flip Saunders to shape their decision-making. I sincerely hope that this changes, and it might require new people to take charge of the whole operation for that to happen. Flip did great things to build a foundation, but he simply did not have enough time to know what LaVine’s career will ultimately look like. We are all still learning that now and a lot of uncertainty remains.

      • Kyle

        I guess I don’t get what that means because Flip said Zach’s long-term position is at the 2, not the 1 so are you saying the front office just never got that memo and believe he’s a PG? The fact that Zach started camp as the starting 2 and is again in that role when matchups don’t have us starting Prince has me believe they aren’t stuck on him being a PG otherwise why not keep him as the backup PG and keep starting Prince and Wiggins on the wing? I guess I just need some more specific elaboration from you as to whether you’re hearing they think his long-term position is still at the point because they aren’t doing a good job of developing him as a PG if that is the case as demonstrated by making him the starting 2 unless a matchup forces them back into the old rotation.

        • They continue to use him at both spots. I don’t have any inside information on it. That they ever use him at the 1 at all suggests they either believe he could become that (and therefore should keep letting him work on it) or that they think he’s capable of playing point now (in which case they are terrible at evaluating performance).