INBOX: Mitchell Out, Coaching Search Underway

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Once upon a time, Tom Thibodeau, Sam Mitchell, and Scott Brooks were all members of the Timberwolves organization.

Patrick J: BREAKING: SAM MITCHELL WILL NOT BE RETURNING AS THE TIMBERWOLVES COACH IN 2016-17. Last week, you made the case for the Wolves to bring back Smitch for another season. But roughly one hour after the team’s final game – a 144-109 EVISCERATION of the Unibrow-less New Orleans Pelicans – the Wolves fired Mitchell (de facto) and announced that they’re teaming with an independent firm that specializes in “searches” to fill the coaching vacancy. As a Smitch defender – or at least an expemplar devil’s advocate of his – do you think Glen Taylor has made a bad decision?

Andy G: I’ll give you my answer to most questions:

“It depends.”

If KORN FERRY (the hiring firm) brings us Tom Thibodeau, then I’m all for the change. Thibs is on the short list with Popovich, [Stan] Van Gundy, and Rick Carlisle of the world’s best coaches. If you can get Thibs, you hire him and replace whoever you’ve got — as long as it’s not somebody else on that short list, of course.

As I’ve said many times, in different ways, Sam’s situation with the Wolves improved over the past couple months from, “He’s gotta go,” to “It depends on who replaces him.” That’s how I feel right now. Sam had the Wolves moving in a clear, positive direction in the final stage of the 2015-16 season, and there was every reason to expect more improvement with him as coach next year. Whether Sam deserved the job is less important than the fact that he had the job all season, and he had things going the way people should have wanted them going.

Any change will initially need to bring some level of extra credibility (Thibs) or excitement (Tom Izzo) for fans to feel a sense of positivity about the change. (Eds note: I don’t want Izzo or any other NCAA coach. But a lot of Minnesota-sports fans would love that.) If they instead hire Hoiberg away from the Bulls or Joerger away from the Grizzlies, I don’t see how there’s been a meaningful change.

After the initial announcement and rationalization for New Coach over Sam Mitchell, New Coach needs to prove it on the floor. Next year, that probably means a playoff berth, given the strength of this roster and how this team was playing at season’s end. (This also assumes some roster improvement in the frontcourt and backup guard slots.)

Give Taylor credit for making this decision immediately, though. I very much feared that this would drag out, which would not only cost the Wolves potential opportunities at marquee candidates, but could also jeopardize their draft and offseason preparation.

What did you think of the announcement?

Patrick J: KORN FERRY! (Eds. Note: Patrick J embraces the notion of hiring an “independent” firm with expertise in supporting targeted job searches, but he would have more confidence in a firm not named Korn Ferry.) Continue reading

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The Case for Keeping Sam Mitchell

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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.

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Running Without Rebounding: Looking into Wolves Trends

This Timberwolves season has involved some clear trends, with clear reasons for those trends. In the early part of the season, they won a surprising number of games — 8 of their first 16 — largely because of the exceptional team defense played by lineups that included Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett. When that success started to seem unsustainable, the “youth movement” became a greater priority. With more Zach LaVine, and less Prince and KG, we saw better offense, but much, much worse defense. Overall, team performance suffered mightily in the middle months of the season. The consistency of their mid-season slumping is partly evidenced by the same net rating of -5.7 in December and January. To put that in perspective, only 4 teams in the league post worse net ratings than that: the Nets, Suns, Lakers and 76ers.

When LaVine and rookie phenom Karl-Anthony Towns thrived in the spotlight of All-Star Weekend, it seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered; it was not a fun point in time for the Timberwolves, and the youngsters finally had some positivity.

In March, things have seemed to get better; a bit more stabilized. The offense is performing well, and the defense is performing less bad. The Wolves net rating in March is -1.5, which matches November for the best of their season (not counting the +12.5 they posted in 2 October games). My “eye test” has told me that one significant reason for their improved play is that the most athletic players on the team — Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins — have begun to cash in on fast-break scoring opportunities generated by point guard wizard, Ricky Rubio. A common play in recent games has been either a long rebound or outlet pass to Rubio immediately turned into a shove-ahead assist to LaVine or Wiggins, streaking up the floor for a dunk.

Things are far from great, however. That season-best net rating is still negative, after all, and the improved offense has continued to be offset by crappy defense. Again going mostly by eye test, my take has been that the team’s recent lineup of choice — Rubio/LaVine/Wiggins/Dieng/Towns — is not big enough inside to rebound opponent’s missed shots. Sometimes, the ongoing struggle to get rebounds leads to these fast-break opportunities. Basically: opponents are willing to sacrifice some transition defense if it means crushing the Wolves on the glass all night. Add it together, and it ends with the Wolves struggling to keep up in high-scoring games.

So let’s look at the month-to-month numbers and try to spot some trends. Please note that Garnett’s month-to-month minutes played, beginning with November, go 202, 191, 127, 0, and 0. Prince’s go 307, 322, 377, 133, and 161. LaVine’s playing time was stable from November through February, but his position changed from combo (mostly point) guard, to almost exclusively shooting guard in mid-February, when Tyus Jones took over the backup point guard spot. The LaVine/Prince swap (Wiggins moves to the small forward and Prince goes to the bench when LaVine starts at the two) has a huge bearing on offense (better with LaVine), defense (much better with Prince), and pace (much higher with LaVine).

Here are some month-to-month stats to chew on:

Offensive Rating, and Percentage of Points Scored on the Fast Break

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Defining the Timberwolves Core & What That Means

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On Wednesday night, the Timberwolves faced a Memphis Grizzlies team that was absolutely depleted. The Grizz were without their best players: Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol. They were also missing Vince Carter on Wednesday. Thankfully, the Wolves won. Zach LaVine had a big night, scoring 28 points. Tyus Jones played one of his best career games, racking up 10 points and 5 assists in 19 minutes of (+10) action off the bench.

Tonight, the Wolves face a Houston Rockets team that recently acquired Punch-Drunk Wolves favorite, Michael Beasley. Supercool Beas was recently named Foreign MVP of the Chinese Basketball Association after posting averages of 31.9 points, 13.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. He will be missed by the Shandong Golden Stars… at least until next year.

Yesterday was the first day of NCAA Tournament games. March Madness is upon us.

When teams are ravaged by injuries, Michael Beasley is back from China on a Why not? flyer, and the Big Dance is underway, you know that the NBA season is winding to a close. With that being the case, and with the Timberwolves headed to their umpteenth draft lottery, discussions about the team tend to skew toward the bigger picture, and the future. There are numerous questions, ranging in specificity, that can drive this conversation about the Wolves at this stage in their building process.

What do they need? That’s probably the most general. My knee-jerk reaction to this one is “a reliable veteran big man.” I prefer that they find a full-sized big man who can slide Karl-Anthony Towns over to the four spot (just for a few seasons, until he gets bigger and stronger) and help the Wolves defend the paint and rebound opponents’ missed shots. I know that some other people prefer the Wolves address perimeter shooting, and others feel that a “small-ball four” would be a smarter acquisition than a traditional five.

Who should they draft? This is related to the question of need, and that relationship is an interesting conversation itself. (More on this below.) The NCAA Tournament increases draft chatter, as many of the best prospects are playing in the biggest games of their careers, and NBA fans are actually watching.

Finally, I think a lot of people ask whether Ricky Rubio is, or should be (potentially a crucial distinction) considered a part of this team’s core. The Wolves are undoubtedly planning ways to contend for championships when Towns and Andrew Wiggins hit their primes. That will be in 3 or 4 years. Will Ricky still be around?

All of these questions are intertwined.

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3rd Quarter Report Card

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The Timberwolves 2015-16 season is starting to wind down. They’ve played 64 of 82 games as I begin this writing at Target Center, during pregame shootaround of the Wolves-Spurs tilt on Tuesday night. I posted quarter report cards after the first 20, and then 41 games had been played. The first quarter was optimistic. Fans recall the hot start to the Wolves season when they racked up surprising wins against the Heat, Bulls and Hawks, setting unsustainably-high expectations that would lead to eventual criticism of interim coach Sam Mitchell. The first quarter report card was brighter than the second one.

This third quarter report card covers player performance in Games 42 through 62 of the season. It’s a 21-game sample that showed a few interesting trends. They went 7-14 in that stretch; worse than their first quarter, but better than the second. Kevin Garnett played a grand total of 3 games and 40 minutes. Kevin Martin played in only 8 games. So did Andre Miller. Both of them player for the Spurs now.

The third quarter commenced the full youth movement, with the following players leading the team in minutes played:

  1. Wiggins
  2. Towns
  3. Dieng
  4. Rubio
  5. LaVine
  6. Muhammad

Since Coach Mitchell has trimmed the rotation down to mostly those 6 players, I only graded them, along with rookies Tyus Jones and Nemanja Bjelica.

Here are the grades:

Ricky Rubio: A- (Previous Grades: A-, B+)

Rubio grades high for a few different reasons. First, he stayed healthy, which is never taken for granted with this player. He played in every game, averaging about 31 minutes per. Second, he posted his usual, stellar assist-to-turnover ratio of 8.6 to 2.5. Third, he shot the ball better than usual, connecting on 40 percent of field goals. Fourth, the Wolves — as always — played much better with him on the floor (-0.5, close to even basketball) than when he was off the floor (-6.1).

Zach LaVine: B- (Previous Grades: B+, D)

LaVine had a terrible second quarter of the season, and has bounced back with decent play for a pretty clear reason: He has been moved from playing mostly point guard to playing about half of his minutes at shooting guard. In the second quarter, LaVine played next to Rubio for 316 of his total 635 minutes. Averaging 30 minutes a game, LaVine put up per-game averages of 15.1 points (on 48.8 percent shooting, including 41.0 percent from downtown), 2.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 turnovers. His 2.1 turnovers per 36 minutes revealed improvement in the ball-control department; he was averaging 3.1 per 36 through the first two quarters of the season. LaVine would grade out better if not for his on court/off court differential. When LaVine was on the floor the Wolves were outscored by 5.6 points per 100 possessions, and when he sat on the bench the Wolves outscored opponents by 2.8. He continues to correlate with worse team performance, albeit less than last season and hopefully to a decreasing extent.

Tyus Jones: C (Previous Grades: Incomplete, D+)

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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

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How Much Are the Timberwolves Improving? The Question that Will Decide Mitchell’s Fate

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“When you look at that core [of the Timberwolves best young players], are they getting better? The numbers say they are. Are we playing better defensively? Yes. Offensively? Yes. Would we like to win more games? Absolutely. Our young core is learning how to compete and win each and every night.”

Those were the words of Timberwolves Interim Head Coach Sam Mitchell in his recent interview with Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN. The concept of improvement is the single most important one for this team, this season. Consider recent events, and what is going on with this team at this moment.

When Flip Saunders tragically died from complications with his cancer treatment, he was smack in the middle of one of the league’s most successful roster-rebuilding jobs in recent NBA history. Flip was in charge of acquiring players like Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, and Karl-Anthony Towns, and he was equally in charge of teaching them how to play NBA basketball; teaching them individually to become star players, and teaching them to play together as a successful team. We’ll never know how much and in what exact ways Flip’s death altered the trajectory of this franchise, but given how much power he had as both front office boss and head coach the alternate reality where he leads this group for the next decade is inevitably much different than whatever will actually happen.

After Flip passed away, Glen Taylor put a freeze on big-picture decision-making while he got to work on selling the team to new ownership. Milt Newton would run the front office, and he’s obviously running it very conservatively. He answers phone calls more than he initiates them. The Wolves were not active at the trade deadline. Newton and the front office have an obvious default position of, “Do nothing with the main roster pieces, and prepare for the next draft pick.”

Sam Mitchell’s job is more interesting because there is no “passive” option for the coach. The show must go on, and the Timberwolves will play 82 games this season just like every other team. The Timberwolves have a team of ridiculously talented young players, and those players need to be coached up so that they improve as individuals and as a team. The NBA season is precious time for these guys like Wiggins, LaVine and Towns to gel as a synergistic group and to learn more about what it takes to succeed at this level. And they will rely on their coach more than any other person in the world for help in those endeavors.

In short, the one big thing that the Timberwolves needed to do this season, after Flip’s untimely passing, was improve as players, and improve as a team.

Mitchell understands this, and understands that since he desperately wants to be this team’s coach for the long term, he needs to be able to demonstrate that improvement has happened. It’s why he emphasizes that point at the outset of the Wolfson interview.

But is he right?

Let’s take a look, and try to fit this year’s performance versus last year’s into appropriate context.

Individuals

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