Sam Mitchell is not a novice NBA head coach. The former Wolves forward helmed the Toronto Raptors from 2004-2008, during which time he was awarded the NBA Coach of the Year for the 2006-2007 season before being fired 20 months later.
But while Mitchell is not new to head coaching, his style, methods, and philosophy are new to most Timberwolves fans. Unfamiliarity can breed contempt, too, as it can be hard for fans to tell the difference between a simple difference in approach and a coaching mistake.
Already in this young season, Mitchell has been criticized for his handling of rotations, minutes, position assignments, development, and more. It will be hard to judge whether this criticism is justified until the team’s growth can be viewed over a longer period.
One can, however, look to Mitchell’s time with the Raptors to better understand how he might approach his new role with the Wolves, and how it may differ from Flip Saunders’.
Brian Boake is the senior editor of Raptors Rapture and has been a Raptors season ticket holder since their first game. He graciously offered his insight into Mitchell’s tenure in Toronto.
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It’s certainly worth thinking about when considering how Sam is divvying up minutes, how he handles a raw talent like Zach LaVine who may be playing out of position, Mitchell’s emphasis on defense, and more.
Boake’s comments have been edited in some cases for brevity and clarity.
Mitchell was hired in Toronto in part due to his connection to then-general manager Rob Babcock. Babcock was director of player personnel with the Wolves from 1994-2002, overlapping with Sam’s stint there as a player. Mitchell went 60-104 in his first two seasons in Toronto but, according to Boake, didn’t have much to work with.
Nov 10, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Sam Mitchell talks with guard Zach LaVine (8) during the third quarter at Target Center. The Hornets defeated the Timberwolves 104-95. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
"Sam was not expected to win with the fetid mess of a roster Babcock put together (in Sam’s first season, Babcock traded away Vince Carter in exchange for a couple of deflated basketballs and a half-roll of tape), and he didn’t. Sam tried to use Babcock’s woeful #8 pick [in the 2004 NBA draft], Rafael Araujo, at centre, but that was a short-lived experiment, as the rookie was dreadful. Charlie Villanueva was chosen #7 the following season, and he wasn’t much better."
Many thought Mitchell’s firing in December 2008 was unfair given his recent success, injuries the team had sustained that season, and unrealistic expectations. Boake does not see Mitchell as primarily responsible either.
"I don’t know if Sam was seen as a motivator by Bryan Colangelo, who took over after Babcock was canned in January, 2006. Nor did the young players make great strides under Sam. However, I should point out that none of Babcock’s kids have done much in their careers elsewhere, so I don’t think Sam should be held to account too much.I suspect Sam knew he was done after Babcock’s firing, or would be as soon as the team slumped. When the Raptors got off to an 8-9 start in the 2008-2009 season that was sufficient excuse for Colangelo to drop the hammer on Sam and bring in “his” guy.…I simply think Sam had run out of steam. He had done well considering the unstable rosters and front office turmoil he was forced to live with, but a page needed to be turned."
Boake thinks Mitchell did well with what he had.
"I don’t think Sam performed any miracles, nor did he “lose the room” or have his teams underachieve due to poor preparation or other factors. Sam did as well as could be expected with the resources at hand. If a player hustled, he would be rewarded. I don’t recall Sam having disputes in the press with any players."
Almost all head coaches are criticized for their decisions on rotations and minutes. Mitchell may have caught more flak in this area than any other this season, but Boake does not remember hearing much similar criticism in Toronto. However, that may be because such issues were overshadowed by organizational chaos and a less-talented roster.
"The roster was very unsettled, and there were a LOT of players who came and went in short order. Other than Chris Bosh, [T.J.] Ford and [Jose] Calderon, no player at that time really had the credentials to complain about minutes. [Andrea] Bargnani had to play as the #1 overall [pick in the 2006 NBA draft], and the new GM’s pet project.Other kids who needed to be seen included P.J. Tucker (Colangelo drafted him, then dumped him too soon – now he’s helping the Suns) and Joey Graham, another “athlete” who couldn’t make the transition to effective pro ball player. There were a bunch of guys on the tail end of their careers (Rasho Nesterovic and Morris Peterson, for example). We had no meat in the sandwich."
Mitchell has also been criticized for being…let’s say, prickly, at times in his relations with the press. So it was in Toronto, but he also apparently showed another side to his personality.
"He was viewed as an engaging though occasionally grumpy individual. … I suppose Sam comes across as a slightly less intimidating Greg Popovich.Sam gained a reputation through the press as something of a renaissance man, because of his interest and knowledge of a remarkable range of topics outside basketball."
Mitchell is charged with realizing Flip Saunders’ vision, if only because the Wolves’ roster has Flip’s personality deeply ingrained in it. But Mitchell will necessarily try to get there in his own way. Boake thinks Mitchell has the personality to do so.
Oct 23, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell talks to guardRicky Rubio
(9) in the third quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Target Center. The Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Milwaukee Bucks 112-108. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
"Sam had never been a head coach before being hired by rookie GM Rob Babcock, but he wasn’t bashful or reluctant to put his stamp on the team. … Sam had the courage of his convictions. He believed in Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa, for example, and his faith was rewarded."
The Wolves, which were one of the worst defensive team in the NBA last year, have so far significantly improved against opposing offenses. Boake is not surprised.
"Sam was a player who built a solid NBA career based on hustle and smarts, not raw talent. I think he can teach defense to players who want to listen. If the young T’Wolves pay attention to him, they will be a better team. Like [former Timberwolves head coach and current Raptors head coach] Dwane Casey, Sam won’t put up with one-way players. I’m sure Bargnani must have driven him up the wall, as he was a defensive pylon in his early years."
Boake thinks Mitchell might be a good fit to develop young players, and that he has a chance to succeed in Minnesota.
"Sam made the effort to play the kids. Sam didn’t “bury” players. In that sense, he’s the opposite of a Tom Thibodeau. … He gave his kids a chance. There were a few times when he appeared to lose his cool with them, which I didn’t like, but they got their minutes.…I think you have a better chance with him now, after his baptism by fire in Toronto. Now that he’s admitted that he’s learned from his first time around, and can take the experience to heart, the T’Wolves might be in luck. I certainly think he’s at least as solid a choice as any of the veteran guys, like George Karl or Jeff Van Gundy. You need a coach who doesn’t think he knows it all."
Mitchell’s future as head coach of the Wolves is, like so much else within the organization, up in the air after Saunders’ passing. A chance to learn over four-plus seasons in Toronto, and a much more talented roster, give him a fighting chance to make this team his own and succeed with it.