The Case for Keeping Sam Mitchell

mitchell

The 2015 movie “Bridge of Spies” tells the story of an American insurance-defense litigator (played by Tom Hanks) who finds himself tasked with defending a Soviet spy (played by Mark Rylance) against espionage-related charges. This is during the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s. The Hanks character, in the course of representing the Rylance character, becomes disturbed by what he finds to be a charade of a “trial” offered the Russian defendant. The Fourth Amendment violations committed by the cop don’t matter. The judge explains the defendant’s guilt in open court. And everybody hates Hanks for his surprisingly-zealous advocacy of a man aiding The Enemy.

The movie was good. I just saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago. (The Rylance performance, awarded with an Oscar, was great.) As with many random things that have nothing to do with the Timberwolves or even basketball, it got me thinking about the Timberwolves and basketball. Specifically, it got me thinking about Sam Mitchell, and what a “defense” of his position as Timberwolves head coach might look like. For such a long part of this season, Mitchell has been an unpopular coach with fans. Anyone in the Timberwolves social media community knows this. One of the big Twitter themes of this season has been the call for Mitchell to be replaced at the end of the season by a better coach.

There are a handful of reasons typically cited: He doesn’t manage rotations very well. (Earlier in the season, he often limited Ricky Rubio’s and Karl-Anthony Towns’s playing time in ways that seemed to cost the team potential wins.) He continued to use Flip Saunders’s outdated offense that was heavily geared toward pin-down screens and mid-range jumpers, and away from the “pace and space,” that predominates the league today. In the middle of the season when Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince stopped playing as much, the team’s defense was horrendous, and it wasn’t clear why such an athletic team should be so easy to score against. Amid all of this, Mitchell was unusually — sometimes unbelievably — disrespectful to media members asking the most basic, rational, not-even-remotely-unfair questions. The coach who yells at the media while his team is playing like shit is not going to win over many fans.

With this in mind, I just thought it would be an interesting post idea to try to come up with the best argument(s) possible to support KEEPING Sam as coach, instead of replacing him this summer. As it turned out, in the time between the inspiration for this post and its publishing, Mitchell’s case became a stronger one.

Here goes nothing…

THE CASE FOR KEEPING SAM MITCHELL

Qualifications

The first thing to consider is Mitchell’s credentials before his season as Timberwolves interim head coach.

It must be acknowledged that he came upon his current job in tragic, and totally unexpected circumstances when Flip Saunders died of cancer. Mitchell was not brought here to be head coach, and he is only presently in that role due to exigency. To the extent any NBA coach does or does not “deserve” his job, Mitchell has a flimsier hold over his own because he did not interview for it. He fell into it unexpectedly.

But regardless of how he found himself manning the Wolves Wheel, Mitchell has a resume that qualifies him to be an NBA head coach. He played 13 seasons in the league. Many of them were for Saunders and the Wolves, but he also played for Larry Brown in Indiana. He played with Kevin Garnett, Reggie Miller, and many others. He played on good teams and bad ones. His breadth of playing experience in different roles and circumstances taught him how pro basketball should and should not be played, and how success can come in different ways. As a Timberwolves player, Mitchell was known as a great mentor to Garnett when he came into the league. He was the type of player that seemed like future coach material.

In fact, he has coached. Mitchell has been an assistant coach in three different places, including Milwaukee under George Karl and then Terry Porter, New Jersey under Avery Johnson, and last year in Minnesota under Flip Saunders. More importantly, Mitchell was the head coach of the Toronto Raptors for four seasons where the team saw significant improvement under his watch. Mitchell took over the Raptors job when they had been significantly under .500. Worse than their losing record, the Raps were not well positioned to rebuild. They had an aging and unhappy Vince Carter, and a Jalen Rose who was transitioning into the “Keep Gettin’ Dem Checks” phase of his career. They had enough talent to win 30 games, but no upside think about doing much more than that.

In three seasons, Mitchell led the Raptors out of that miserable purgatory and into a division title with a new superstar, Chris Bosh. Mitchell’s Raptors won 47 games in 2007, despite the fact that his team’s minutes leaders after Bosh were Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, and Andrea Bargnani. Had Toronto been able to surround Bosh with another star or two, it’s possible that they could’ve made some deep playoff runs and even contended for a championship. That they didn’t has nothing to do with Mitchell, who did a very good job of coaching the players on his roster. He won NBA Coach of the Year for the 2007 performance.

After being fired in Toronto, Mitchell spent a few years working as an analyst on TV. This is another helpful avenue for coaches to learn. Hubie Brown had worked TV for years before a very successful return to the bench in Memphis. Steve Kerr, widely considered one of the best new coaches in the NBA, spend a lot of time as an analyst on TNT. Mark Jackson had success turning the Golden State Warriors around after spending his immediate post playing career as an analyst. The list goes on. Mitchell probably gained perspective and knowledge in his time spent on TV, after coaching in Toronto.

Clearly, Mitchell has a resume that warrants strong consideration for another head-coaching job in the NBA.

This Season’s Performance

Along with a strong resume, Mitchell has done a good job of coaching the Timberwolves this season in his interim capacity. From the moment that he took over during Flip’s cancer battle, Mitchell emphasized that this season will be about development and not about trying to win as many games as possible. What this would mean in practical terms is more minutes for the team’s less developed players (Zach LaVine and eventually Tyus Jones) and fewer minutes for veterans like Prince, Garnett and Andre Miller. The Wolves roster that Saunders assembled did not really even allow for a playoff season, as he intentionally filled the rotation edges with 35 to 40 year olds who could no longer offer much with their bodies, but could hopefully instill wisdom in the team’s young talent.

Certainly with this context in mind, Las Vegas opened their over/under list with the Timberwolves at 25.5 wins. Last night’s win at Portland was the team’s 28th of the season, which is a dozen more than they won a year ago, and two and a half more than the gamblers predicted back in late September. If the Wolves can beat the Rockets and Pelicans in their final two home games, they will hit the 30-win mark, which is pretty damn impressive when you consider that the players first, second, and fourth in minutes were 20 years old for most of this season. Had they not left early for the NBA, Wiggins and LaVine would be college juniors. Towns, who might earn an All-NBA Team spot, would be a college sophomore. This is pretty incredible.

Back on February 21, I wrote a post that dug into the question of whether the Wolves were actually improving. They had just lost a bad one at home to the Knicks, dropping their record to 17-39. While Mitchell was talking about his team’s improvement, it wasn’t yet clear on the court. I wondered if they might end the season with less than 25 wins. To me, that meant insufficient progress, and the need for a coaching change.

To my pleasant surprise, the Wolves have gone 11-13 since that post was published, and — more importantly — they have been winning at a higher rate despite not only playing LaVine a ton of minutes (35.9 per game in those 24), but also playing Tyus Jones in a regular role. Jones, who is not yet ready to play in the NBA from a physical/body perspective, has played in each of the last 24 games, averaging 16.6 minutes per contest. That Mitchell has this team winning games — sometimes against great teams like the Thunder and even the Warriors (both on the road!) — while ALSO teaching these raw young players how to be professionals is very impressive.

As for those common criticisms of Mitchell, they have lessened considerably over the court of the season. On rotations, he has played Towns more minutes; especially in close games where the Wolves can’t afford their star to be on the bench in key moments. He has stopped playing Gorgui over KAT; instead he plays them both a lot, but always KAT more. In hindsight, Mitchell may deserve some credit for KAT’s unbelievably-great rookie season. He has not let up on KAT. He yells at him when he has a lazy defensive possession, and KAT responds. He benched him a couple of times, ostensibly because he “thought G was playing great,” and that probably only fueled KAT more to improve. Towns has not only avoided a “rookie wall,” but he has gone from a “great rookie,” to a sure-thing superstar. Mitchell may not deserve much credit for that — KAT would be great anywhere — but maybe he deserves a little bit? Sometimes coaches screw up young talent. Mitchell is certainly not doing that with Towns.

On three-pointers, the Wolves are shooting more of them, but more importantly, they are making more of the ones that they take. Mitchell talks all the time about how much shooting work they do in practice, and — like Saunders before him — his basketball ideology leans toward coaching players to do the things that they can in games, and save the areas of weakness for practice. This is in contrast to Brett Brown in Philadelphia, who has his young guards chuck away from the spots normally deemed most efficient (corner threes) regardless of their (in)accuracy. While Brown hails from the Popovich Tree, and has the analytics movement behind him, it is hard to argue that he is getting better results than Mitchell has here. The Wolves are developing an offensive style that utilizes Ricky Rubio’s passing and the incredible speed and athleticism of LaVine, Wiggins and Towns. They are scoring like crazy in the past couple of months. People are no longer ripping Mitchell’s offensive schemes, which began the season slower and much more reminiscent of the worst parts of Saunders’ philosophies.

On personality, Mitchell has lightened up with the media. Whatever was causing him to act so paranoid has gone away. Sometimes he jokes around, and almost always, he takes questions and answers them respectfully. If you pay close enough attention to what he says sometimes, in various contexts, you’ll come to discover that Mitchell is a very, very smart basketball man. The times when he seems to not understand something, he is either being intentionally difficult or just playing his cards close to the chest.

The last criticism of Mitchell — the team’s poor defense — remains an issue. One counter to this would be that he can’t fix everything at once. He has the offense humming, but he’s still coaching a 20 to 21 year old core, and they take things one step at a time. Another counter would be that his roster lacks size. They sometimes get pummeled on the defensive glass, and Mitchell repeats all the time that they need some veteran size to help out with this. He’s probably right.

All things considered, Mitchell has done a very good job of developing this roster this season in a way that is now proving to be an exciting and competitive team.

Continuity

The final reason that Mitchell should remain Timberwolves is that continuity would serve this team best. They have already had an unimaginable shake-up, when Saunders passed. Andrew Wiggins has had two coaches in his two NBA seasons. So has Zach LaVine. Karl-Anthony Towns quickly became close with Saunders before his unexpected passing. The players on this team have committed themselves to Mitchell and his philosophies. Any change would mean certain steps backward instead of forward. It could also mean a loss of positive momentum heading into next season. They just beat the Warriors at Golden State in the biggest upset of the NBA season. They followed that up with an easy win at Sacramento, and another surprising win at Portland, where the Blazers were 27-12 before last night. What sort of message does it send to the players, when this type of finish to the season is met with a coaching change?

Mitchell has spent this entire season singing the same tune: this is all about player development and the big picture, and he would be doing this organization a disservice if he instead prioritized this year’s win total at the expense of long-term development. By changing coaches right now, there is a decent chance that a lot of this progress would be lost. A new coach might emphasize different things than Mitchell has. This could confuse these young players, whose basketball brains are being molded. For all of the talk about Mitchell being an old school “hardass,” he is clearly a coach who understands player confidence. Ricky Rubio has never had a longer leash to do whatever he wants, and he’s turned in the best season of his career. Towns gets to do whatever he wants on offense, and that has had amazing results. LaVine is being coached harder, because he needs it. He’s improving. Mitchell has developed the right type of personal relationship with the important young players on this team. He recently spoke about his relationship with Wiggins, and how he cannot yell at him. It just isn’t effective. He yells at Towns and LaVine. He knows his team. They’re playing harder and better at Game 80 than they were at Game 20. That’s progress. Look at the Golden State game.

Change is not always good. The grass is not always greener. Look at what is happened in Chicago where Fred Hoiberg was supposed to make all the difference in the world in improving the Bulls. They’re about to miss the playoffs. That has been somewhat of a disaster. The Cleveland Cavaliers changed coaches mid-season and have gotten worse instead of better. The Thunder were supposed to get better without Scott Brooks. That has not happened. Sometimes, committing to the coach you have is better then change for the sake of change.

When this season ends on Wednesday night, the Timberwolves vibes will be positive ones. Why do something that could easily jeopardize that?

Conclusion

Sam Mitchell is qualified to be an NBA head coach due to his many years playing and successfully coaching in the league. This is best evidenced by his Coach of the Year award in Toronto. He has done a good job in his interim-coach capacity this season in both developing his young players, and producing wins in the last couple of months. Given all of the positive momentum here in Minnesota, continuity should trump idealism and uncertainty. The Wolves are clearly getting better and until that changes, Mitchell deserves to keep coaching.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Case for Keeping Sam Mitchell

  1. ajhagg

    It’s crazy how much my feelings about Sam have changed in the past month. In February, I was sick thinking about Sam coaching this team for another season. Now, I’m still not sure he’s the answer long-term, but I’m rooting for him. I want to be proven wrong (also, given the history of the Timberwolves, I’d be shocked if Mitchell isn’t given at least another year, so I best make peace with it). A lot of that has to do with the progress I’ve seen and the Mahoney article really made me see Sam in a different light. Just that little bit about him saying he needs to coach Wiggins differently than Towns or LaVine. I was hung up on immediate results without knowing what was going on behind the scenes. Not much could dampen my excitement for next year, and I’ve gotten to the point where that includes Smitch’s rehiring.

  2. djasmus

    Very well written! Thank you. 🙂 I’ve played tug-of-war all year long personally deciding for myself if he is helping or hurting the future of Minnesota basketball. This article helps give more perspective. Thanks again!

  3. Steve

    Excellent article and I love the comparison at the beginning to the bridge of spies. As you know from my previous comment, I am a big fan of Sam Mitchell. People don’t understand the importance of chemistry with your coach and teammates when evaluating someone.

    Sure you might be able to have a “better coach” on paper, but the way Mitchell relates to these kids and can reach them on such a personal level, I don’t never see that kind of relationship building easily with a new coach. Mitchell learned a lot from his mentor and coach Flip Saunders, who truly was a great people person.

    I know you don’t post as often as some of the other blogs, but every post you make is extremely well thought out and presented fairly. Keep up the excellent work.

  4. Jacob

    Thanks for playing a thoughtful devil’s advocate as always. I’m not sure how much better the other coaching options would have done this season given the upheaval of Flip’s passing at the season’s start and accompanying lack of time to implement his own system, not to mention how young this team is.

    I agree that Sam deserves props for his work with the kids’ mental side, as reflected in this strong end to the season and several road wins against some of the league’s best teams. I do not envy him the short and limited bench, the lack of an offseason to prepare, or the task of helping the young uns adapt. I think we all get the vibe that this is just a naturally terrific, mature bunch of guys, and they are, but at least Bazz and Lavine (if the future wasn’t so bright, that “F* me” moment would have a prominent place in MN sports misery lore) had some major red character flags when they came aboard and we haven’t had a single negative incident. It seems like a really good environment and the coach has to get some credit for that.

    Re: basketball, he seems mediocre. As you point out, he’s earned some begrudging praise from his detractors for a few glimmers of basketball savvy–but a lot of the smart moves have been what people were already clamoring for. That said, I think that the people in the hot seat have a lot more information and have to deal with more considerations than us fans, so my tendency is to cut some slack in many cases. Add to that the fact that this guy didn’t have an offseason to implement his stuff, and I have trouble knowing if he’s a middling coach fighting long odds and surviving, or a ‘meh’ coach who’s good at treading water.

    But I see two compelling reasons to move on from Sammich. First, isn’t defense kind of his calling card? Last season, Brett Brown had a bunch of rookies and d-leaguers playing solid defense in Philly, and I kind expected this team to at least show some more competence there. Have our young guys improved much with the fundamentals since this time last year? If not, is there any real justification for the lack of improvement? I can make the argument that Lavine hasn’t had a chance to settle on his position yet (and BBIQ isn’t his strength anyway, so it’s going to take a while), that Wiggins is saving energy for offense, that Towns is a rookie big, that Gorgui has indeed improved, etc., but it seems like a perfect storm of excuses where I kind of expected to see Mitchell’s best work on display.

    Second, opportunity cost. Opportunity cost. Opportunity cost. This past season, few people could argue that Mitchell shouldn’t have taken the reins in the interim. It’s only fair, too, to give him serious consideration as the long term head coach. But imagine what the ideal circumstances are for a team in the market for a new coach, and that’s what we’re looking at by the end of this week. we’re about to start a new offseason, Thibs, Blatt, and a number of other head coaches with track records of success are between jobs and reportedly interested in coaching the brightest young core in the league, and a number of potentially open roster spots can allow for a new coach to put their stamp on the team quickly (and to be fair, that includes Mitchell). Under these conditions, the “well, he did as good as you could expect in the circumstances” argument is at its least persuasive. The alternative to Mitchell is a roll of the dice, sure, but it’s like a 3d12 roll or something. We want this team to win championships in a few years, not occasionally pleasantly surprise us. Yes, continuity is great, but it will be especially great in a few years with a championship caliber coach. I don’t want to have to worry about continuity when our guys are hitting their primes but don’t have a system that maximizes their talents.