Coach Mitchell has now been thrust full-on into the lime light of the Twolves basketball universe, and the circumstances are less than ideal. Occasionally, I find it hard writing about sports, because it’s almost like turning a person into a commodity. I feel that when a fan assesses the value of a player, they could go as far to objectify the person. When someone says “Ricky Rubio is garbage”, they mean, “I’m really not sure Ricky Rubio is, or ever will be, a good enough shooter to be a great NBA point guard”. People are not what they do. Ricky Rubio is not his shooting touch. That is what I have to remember. In these files, I am evaluating the value of what a player, or in this case a coach, provides the Timberwolves organization on and off the court. Life and value in the sporting world, which has little to no connection to real life.
Flip Saunders’ current circumstance is real life. I got this feeling while writing the Andrew Wiggins Files, that this up-coming season was looking like a dream for Flip. From day one when he took the reigns as Twolves coach for the second time, he said that he’s always wanted the opportunity to develop young players. The sheer potential on this roster would give him every opportunity to do that. But now, it’s been taken away. This is tragedy. This sucks. Recent updates suggests that Flip may not be coaching at all this season. He’ll be taking time from his role as President of Basketball Operations as well, to focus on rest while being treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Cancer sucks. If you haven’t read this article by The Cauldron’s Jim Cavan, I suggest you take a look. I certainly can’t express the circumstances any better. The point is, I hope all Twolves fans will keep Flip and his family in their thoughts and prayers.
Yet here comes Sam Mitchell, Flip’s good friend and assistant under him, taking the baton as the Twolves leading man. So far Coach Mitchell seems to be doing a pretty nice job. So here we enter the Sam Mitchell files … First off, I’ll start with some …
Sam Mitchell had a long NBA career as a role player for the Twolves and the Indiana Pacers. He was on the very first Twolves team on which he played a role as a small-ball power forward. He then moved on to be a consistent contributor off the bench at both forward spots. On those Twolves teams, in the late 90s and early 2000s, I have a recollection of Sam Mitchell being a workman and a coach on the court. I recall him being an integral part in the success of those playoff teams from 1996-2002. While he didn’t star for the Twolves, he was a mentor and a professional, playing a large role in the development of the greatest player in team history: Kevin Garnett.
Immediately after he retired, he spent sometime as an assistant, landing a head coaching gig with the Toronto Raptors in 2004. Mitchell then lead Chris Bosh and the Raptors to the playoffs in 2006-’07, winning coach of the year honors. However, after an 8-9 start to the 2008-’09 season, the Raptors decided to go in another direction. Since then, Sam spent time as a broadcaster and an assistant coach.
I admit, since he was let go by the Raptors, I concluded that his coach of the year award must have been a fluke. But now, having taken a deeper look, conclude the Raptors may have acted prematurely.
Take a look at the roster Mitchell had to work with during his award winning season:
In short, Sam Mitchell took a injury ridden team, with a young and still-developing star in 22 year old Chris Bosh, and coached them to a division championship. This was a season in which Bosh missed twelve games, and not a single member of the team played in all eighty two. To see that roster win 47 games, especially after starting the season 3-9, is remarkable. They were even 7-14 on December 11th, and then they managed to go 9-3 in February in route to a very solid second half of the season.
While Mitchell’s Raptors only squeaked into the playoffs with a 41-41 record in 2007-’08, the Atlantic Division had a vastly different landscape that season. KG and the three-headed monster Celtics entered the picture. Facing Paul Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen multiple times per year was clearly more challenging than facing Paul Pierce, Gerald Green, and Ryan Gomes. Even so, basketball reference keeps track of a stat they call Simple Rating System (SRS). This compares average point differential with strength of schedule and creates team rating in which zero is average.
In Mitchell’s award winning year the Raptors were given an SRS of 0.61. This suggests that the 2006-’07 Raptor’s were basically average. Then in 2007-’08, the team had a SRS of 2.47, which was only behind, Boston, Detroit and Orlando in the Eastern Conference. What does this mean for Mitchell’s coaching? In my mind it proves that even with a compromised roster of NBA misfits, lead by a skinny young Chris Bosh, his coaching helped them win more than they really should have. Then the next year, while it looked like the team regressed, SRS shows that they actually played at a higher level against a still higher level of competition.
The story goes that the Raptors organization wanted to go in a different direction due to Mitchell’s coaching style, not necessarily his productivity. This had to do with Mitchell’s growing reputation of being hard on his players and of being an insufferable shouter. From what we’ve seen so far this year, either his demeanor has changed considerably, or Toronto’s conclusions were greatly exaggerated.
Mitchell’s Coaching Mojo
So far, everything I have seen and heard Coach Mitchel looks great to me. His mentality as a hard nosed basketball teacher is exactly what this team needs. Having seen the Twolves struggle so much on defense, it’s a breath of fresh air to see Coach Mitchell drill them hard on defensive fundamentals, defending the pick and roll, and on the level effort and communication it takes to play well as a team on defense.
I’m also impressed by what Sam has said about the offensive side of the ball. He want’s his guys to play hard, move the ball and take open shots when they get them. We saw this in the scrimmage and have seen glimpses of it in the few preseason match-ups we’ve been able to see. Of course, there is a learning curve, and while the Thunder, Bulls and Kyle Lowry appeared to be able to do whatever they wanted, the Twolves did occasionally show the fruit of their work on the defensive side of the ball. It may takes sometime, but Sam’s direct and fundamental level of coaching can only help them improve.
A few weeks ago, Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune sat down with Sam for and interview. The full transcript is linked here.
The first thing that stuck out to me was this quote from Sam:
“When you’re doing TV and radio, you’re watching everybody. I got a chance to talk to different coaches. Why do you do this or do that? It was a great learning experience.”
This is good to see. Coming off of a career as a mid-range scorer, being the head coach of a team with young Chris Bosh and assisting under Flip Saunders, suggested to me that Sam may be a bit more medieval in his approach to the NBA offense. From this quote I’m happy to see that he’s opened his mind to being open minded.
From what I’ve heard, Sam’s offense seems to be simple overall. No complex Adelmanian movements, and not as many drawn up pin-downs as in Flip’s system. He seems to like to create opportunities for players through good ball movement. This is great with young players, they can rely on their instincts on offense, instead of being boxed in.
Another thing that I’ve noticed about the Wolves offense, both in the scrimmage and their first few preseason games, were the amount of high ball screens. They were rare last year. There was a lot of high post touches under Adelman and a lot of off ball screens under Saunders, so I’m glad that Mitchell is willing to bring back the high ball screen. In my mind the high pick and roll just has the potential to open things up early in the shot clock and allows for players to play instead of think.
Jerry Zgoda then asked the pointed question: “Were you too hard, too intense the first time around?”
“Well, I’m not going to lose my intensity. I was talking to my minister recently and he reminded me don’t lose what got you here. You’re an intense person, but you can do it a little bit different. I can communicate a little differently. Hopefully my language is better.”
This sheds some light on Sam’s Mojo. He’s a fire cracker. I never really recalled that from his playing days. To be fair, I was twelve when he retired so there’s not much that I would remember. What I did remember was a veteran, returning home after some time away. Apparently, Sam’s on court mentality was more like KG than Tim Duncan. Maybe he even had something to do with KG’s well documented insanity.
This also sheds some light on what may have lead to his dismissal from duty in Toronto. Another thing I hear in this comment is humility. There’s something great that happens when a guy acknowledges that they could have done something better in the past and are happy to have another shot. In what I have heard from Sam this season, he appears to be communicating just as great coaches do.
I compare Sam Mitchell’s objective as the Twolves head coach, to a swirling-up of what Mike Zimmer has been doing for the Vikings and what Paul Molitor has been doing for the Twins. Sam has Zimmer’s no nonsense presence. If you mess up, you will hear about it. And like Molitor he has experience as a workman-like professional athlete. What strikes me, is that all of these guys are focused on simplifying the game and leading their players to give ultimate effort.
From what I heard of Sam during NBA TVs Real Training Camp Segment, was a lot of what I think a coach of young professional athletes should be saying and doing.
Sam encouraged talk. Sam demands that his team communicates, which is the probably one of the number one keys to playing good team defense. He encouraged fundamentals. He pulled players aside to give them further instruction, and, what I think ma most importantly he actually encouraged players and let then know when they did something right. He also allowed for his assistants and veteran players to voice their opinions.
The following question and answer really stood out to me:
Q. You’ve got eight guys 24 years old or younger and four guys 32 and older. How much can, will the veteran guys play?
A. That depends on the game, that depends on how the young guys are playing. Mr. Taylor and I talked about this. We think our veteran guys add value not just in the locker room and at practice, but game time, too. But we’re going to give the young guys every opportunity to play.
Earlier in the interview he confirmed, with all of his intensity and a little bit of sarcasm, that the team is focused primarily on development. That, while winning isn’t necessarily secondary and the veterans will play a role on the court, it would be better if the winning happened in the hands of the younger players.
Is there a better mold of coach and coaching mentality for the Twolves right now?
Though I’m sure many Twolves fans would be more thrilled with names like Tom Izzo, Tom Thibodeau, or Fred Hoiberg, I think Sam Mitchell is showing that he has what it takes to help this team reach their goals. In order the the team to make a run in the Western Conference, they have to improve drastically on defense and unlock their potential to score efficiently on offense. These things, are what set NBA teams apart.
Team defense, and takes discipline, focus and education. I believe that Sam Mitchell can teach them these qualities.
Value Assesment: B+
Taking into account all that Sam Mitchell has done as a player and as a coach, and what we have seen so far, I conclude with the assessment that Sam is a pretty good guy for the job. His dedication to teaching proper defensive technique and his insistence for the offense to seek out the highest quality shot, will do these young players quite a bit of good. His experience as a player should also resonate with current Wolves.
There are still some question marks. He’s not by any means a sure-fire player development stud. He doesn’t have the track record for that. What he does have is a Coach of the Year award under his belt along with some less than positive notoriety with regards to his coaching style. With regard to those elements, it seems that we are poised to see a coach worthy of accolade, and appears to have learned and adjusted his methods since his dismissal from the Raptors.
I’m encouraged by what I see so far. Hopefully Sam can lead the team in a way, that they can be competitive, fun to watch and still develop the young players. I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was excited to see if Flipaeus Saunders could in fact become the crazy mad scientist Dr. Flip. Now, I want to hope that crazy Sam I Am can make this a productive season. I think it’s started off about as good as we could have hoped. Sam will not bring any revolutionary concepts to the table as coach of the Twolves, but I feel confident that he’s good at what he does. That’s why I rate his value to the Twolves as a B+. He isn’t here to develop a new revolutionary defensive scheme. He is hear to teach and develop. In that role, Sam Mitchell looks as though he could do pretty darn well.