What Sam Mitchell’s Past can Tell Us about His Present as an Assistant Coach with the Wolves

Long-time NBA assistant coach and one-time NBA head coach Sam Mitchell has officially joined Flip Saunders’ staff as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as was confirmed by Mitchell himself.

After spending just four full seasons as the Toronto Raptors head coach, from 2004-2008, before being fired midway through the fifth season of his tenure, it is difficult to get a feel for what Mitchell’s coaching philosophy is or what he might bring to the Wolves’ staff given the small sample size of games he spent at the helm in Toronto.

Of course, the responsibilities that come with being an assistant coach are far different than those of a head coach, but Mitchell will still try to bring his philosophy and ideas to the staff, so it is important to try to understand both the way he thinks about the game he has been a part of for so long in myriad capacities.

Although we don’t know much, here are some questions that we have general answers to from Mitchell’s reign as the Raptors head coach.

What did his offense look like?

The easiest answer here is a jumbled, chaotic mess. In his four, full seasons as an NBA head coach, Mitchell never ironed out a clear-cut offensive game plan, and that was ultimately a big reason why he did not last long. Toronto’s offense trended in an interesting direction over the course of Mitchell’s tenure. That is towards more mid-range jumpers, leaving less shots to be taken at the rim and behind the arc.

With mid-range jumpers generally one of the least efficient shots on the court for a player to take, Mitchell’s team trending that way as his time with the team progressed was at best odd and at worst downright stupid. There is no way to know if Mitchell was telling his team to take more mid-range jumpers, but part of being a coach is, at some point, telling your guys to stop taking bad, low-percentage shots or finding a way to put them in situations to get better, more efficient looks at the basket. Mitchell seemingly did neither, which is a sign of poor coaching.

To get a better feel for which direction Mitchell’s Toronto teams trended offensively, one must notice how the spots on the court where shots were being taken changed from the time he got there up until his termination.

Field Goal Attempts Restricted Area Mid-Range Three
2004-05 23.9 27.6 20.5
2005-06 23.3 28.0 19.8
2006-07 22.8 30.7 17.9
2007-08 22.9 33.9 17.8

In the table above, it’s easy to see that Mitchell’s teams began to settle for more mid-range jumpers as opposed to putting their heads down and getting to the rim or pulling up for more efficient three-pointers. As a result, Mitchell’s teams shot far fewer free throws in his last season as head coach than they did in his first. In the 2004-05 season, the Raptors were 18th in the league in free throw attempts. In the 2007-08 campaign, the Raptors had dropped down considerably to rank 30th, or dead last in the NBA, in free throw attempts.

Free Throws Free Throw Attempts
2004-05 25.6
2005-06 25.5
2006-07 24.2
2007-08 20.2

What did his defense look like?

We know little about what Mitchell’s actual plan on offense was as a head coach, but we know even less about what his defensive scheme entailed. Looking at the numbers below, it’s easy to see that the Raptors’ defense improved under Mitchell’s guidance, which is really impressive given how few players he had on his roster that made their name as defensive stoppers.

Defense Defensive Rating League Rank
2004-05 105.9 24th
2005-06 109.7 29th
2006-07 103.2 12th
2007-08 104.3 14th

Was he a player’s coach or an X’s and O’s guy?

Mitchell was never known to be an X’s and O’s guy. He liked to have his team work out of the horns set on offense, but it didn’t seem to work for the Raptors under Mitchell like it is supposed to given the increasingly poor looks his teams got offensively. Horns is an extremely versatile set, and it’s hard to argue that Mitchell’s teams should not have been able to do a lot more offensively by leaning on that set as much as people say he did. Admittedly, it is difficult to tell just how much his Raptors teams utilized horns given the lack of film from his time as a head coach. Mitchell is also not known as someone that could draw up a jaw-dropping play out of a timeout, which is an assignment that is not uncommon for NBA assistant coaches to draw.

There is no unanimous feeling coming from Mitchell’s former players about him. Several guys, i.e. Vince Carter, Rafer Alston, Charlie Villanueva, and Morris Peterson have all either said something negative about Mitchell or been thought to have had a run in with him at some point while he was in Toronto. However, it also speaks well of Mitchell that he got so much out of players that left a lot to be desired on the court. He was always able to get guys to buy into his “system” for the most part, which was play tough and give great effort. Getting guys to do those two things, not X’s and O’s, won Mitchell his one coach of the year award after his team had a major turnaround from a 27-55 record in 2005-06 to a 47-35 record in 2006-07. He was able to milk the most out of the likes of Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, etc. That’s no small feat, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Maybe that will be Mitchell’s role as a Timberwolves assistant – player mentor, confidant, talent developer, and team morale builder. Those skills, while unmeasurable, are important nevertheless.

How did the front office affect his relative success or failure as a head coach?

From 2004-2006, the first two seasons with Mitchell in charge, the Raptors general manager was Rob Babcock. Interestingly enough, Babcock is now Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Timberwolves. That might give those two some connection, and that could mean something. Maybe not though. After all, Babcock did not do Mitchell any favors roster-wise in Toronto. In 2004, Babcock drafted Rafael Aurajo, who turned out to be a complete bust, with the 8th overall pick in the first round. The very next draft, Babcock took a flyer on another guy, Charlie Villanueva, who turned out to be another colossal disappointment.

The bleeding to Mitchell’s roster didn’t stop there. Early on in the coach’s tenure, Vince Carter was traded for what turned out to be nothing useful in return. Of course, Mitchell might be partially to blame for Carter’s departure. The two were rumored to get into a fight not long after Mitchell arrived north of the border. Additionally, temperamental guard Rafer Alston was signed to a five year deal in 2004, and he and Mitchell reportedly never saw eye to eye.

With all these poor roster moves and decisions made by management, it’s easy to see how Mitchell’s teams stagnated and piddled around the mediocrity line, a state with which the Wolves are far too familiar. Yes, he deserves a fair share of the blame, but at least part of his squad’s offensive woes and mediocre defense should be attributed to the hand he was dealt in his four full seasons. A coach can only get so much out of a limited roster. It will be really interesting to see what, if anything, Mitchell can do for the development of a guy with great talent such as Ricky Rubio. In four years under Mitchell, rare talent Chris Bosh didn’t improve as much as he probably could have under different circumstances. Bosh was already really good when he started with Mitchell, but his best two seasons in Toronto were admittedly his last two, once Mitchell was out of the picture. Maybe under different circumstances, with a better roster surrounding his star, Mitchell could have done more for Bosh’s development. As a former NBA small forward himself, maybe Mitchell is just who the Wolves need to get through to Shabazz Muhammad to help him reach his potential. Certainly, it seems like player development might be one reason Saunders added Mitchell to his staff. Remember, he does have a knack for getting a lot out of very little. He’s proved that.

Overall, Mitchell might bring just enough to the table with his big personality and motivational skills to justify his addition to Minnesota’s coaching staff. He has shown a general lack of expertise when it comes to offensive and defensive schemes, but that is not all his fault. His rosters in Toronto tended to be chock-full of either bad, overrated, or aging players.

After Mitchell’s name swirled around as a potential candidate for the Timberwolves’ head coaching gig before Saunders appointed himself to the position, Saunders will surely be keeping a close eye on him to develop a better feel for his basketball philosophy and what he brings to the table. Maybe this is an audition of sorts for Mitchell where Saunders is trying to see if he is capable of being the head coach down the line. Who knows? Right now, we hardly know anything substantial about Mitchell and what he brings to the table as a coach because we have limited information to go on, so we’ll just have to wait and see how this plays out.

Pups Cut From Pack

Today the Timberpups released Lorenzo Brown and Othyus Jeffers, the roster is down to 16 players — the team must cut to 15 by 4:00PM CST on Monday.

Brown was the Wolves second-round draft selection out of North Carolina State University. He missed only two games during his final season at North Carolina State where he averaged just over seven assists and was the primary facilitator in the Wolfpack’s offense. He averaged 19.2 minutes per game in LVSL, shot 50 percent from 3pt-range, 38 percent from the field and his 2.2 assists per game were negated by his per game average of 1.8 turnovers. Brown averaged 12.6mpg in three preseason games; averaging 4 points 1 rebound and 1 assist. His future remains bright, Brown is 23 years old and it’s likely we’ll see him playing in the NBA down the road.

The decision to cut Jeffers was not as clear-cut.

He entered the league undrafted despite averaging 24 points and 11 rebounds a game at Robert Morris University. Selected by the Iowa Energy in the 2008-09 D-League draft; Jeffers averaged 20 points and 9 rebounds per game and was named the NBADL Rookie of the Year. Jeffers had a team-high 13 points in the Wolves 98-89 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, shooting 5-of-9 from the field and tallying 6 rebounds.

 

The cuts mean there’s two places left for the taking, either Robbie Hummel, A.J. Price or Chris Johnson will be cut by Monday.

Chris Johnson has played the least this preseason and the Wolves signing him to a contract was the final move made by former President of Operations — David Kahn.

This leaves Price and Hummel as the players the Pups will retain going into the season. Hummel started the game at small forward Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers and is averaging 15 minutes in his four appearances this preseason. He’s tall, lanky and was the fan favorite going into Las Vegas Summer League as we told you earlier this summer.

Price will act as an insurance policy at point guard. If Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved or J.J. Barea are to miss time due to injury this season *knocks on wood*, Price can step in and as a temporary and serviceable alternative — if an injury to the aforementioned three is a significant one; the Wolves should look to improve at PG through the free agent market or by trade.

 

Timberwolves Sign Kevin Love to 4 Year, $62 million deal: What It Means

Early Wednesday morning, Kevin Love displayed his commitment to the Timberpups by inking a max contract extension worth roughly $62 million over 4 seasons that includes an opt-out clause after the third season. The extension will begin starting next season and K-Love has certainly earned the honors of receiving a contract of its magnitude due to his stellar play this season. At 23 years old, the 6’10” Love is averaging a career high 24.9 points while pulling down 13.9 rebounds per contest. If Love finishes the season with his current statistics, he would become the first player to record those statistics since Moses Malone in 1981-82. In the last year and a half, Love has continued to make history and do things no player has done for some 30 years. He has become one of the most unique players in NBA history, possessing elite rebounding skills and having excellent range that extends out to the three-point line where he is shooting a whopping 39% this year. He remains one of the most efficient players in the NBA and was recently voted by NBA GMs as the player who is doing the most with the least, meaning he creates opportunities and is able to make dire situations productive. Love has been a major factor in returning the Timberwolves fan base to its strongest since the KG era, and it is not a stretch to say that K-Love may end up being remembered as a better player than The Big Ticket.

There remains confusion and criticism as to why Love was offered only a 4-year deal and not the possible 5-year extension worth roughly $78 million. The reason is this: with the new CBA, each team is able to have one “designated player” that can be offered a 5-year deal instead of the usual 4-year contract extension. In this way, each team has the ability to offer a soon-to-be free agent on their current roster an extra year to a contract, making it more likely teams will be able to retain their own players. If the Timberwolves were to give Love the 5-year extension, then they would only be able to offer Ricky Rubio or Derrick Williams 4-year extensions in 3 years when it comes time for them to negotiate their extensions. By keeping Love with a 4-year deal, the Timberwolves save the “designated player” tag for someone else and have the most flexibility going forward. Rubio and Williams appear to have ceilings as high as any NBA player, and they may end up being more important to the team than K-Love is in 3 years.

Kevin Love had every single reason to not accept anything less than the 5-year, $78 million contract. By accepting a 4-year deal, Love is showing that he is completely devoted to the Timberwolves team and organization, enough to the point where he is willing to give up his own hard-earned dollars in order to give the Timberwolves the best situation going forward. Signing Love to a 4-year deal was the perfect move for the team, as I strongly believe Rubio is the key to bringing home a championship to Minnesota. Having the ability to offer Rubio a 5-year deal will make it more likely he will stay in Minnesota and not flee to New York or LA when he has the chance to. Not to knock on Love, but Rubio is the biggest game changer on our roster and has the potential to be one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game. Derrick Williams also possesses the potential to be a true go-to scorer in the NBA, being able to play both PF and SF.

Let’s not forget about GM David Kahn, head coach Rick Adelman and owner Glen Taylor, the men who made all of this possible. Glen Taylor has showed this year that he is devoted to making this Timberwolves team a winner going forward and has been spending big despite the large losses he has endured over the last several seasons. Kahn was able to convince Love to take the 4-year deal instead of 5, selling to Love that it would be in the team’s best interests going forward and would put the team in the best position to win in the future. I also believe that Love would not have signed an extension with Minnesota had it not have been for the hiring of Rick Adelman, a family friend of Love’s and one of the best head coaches in the NBA. Adelman has done a fantastic job turning this team around and the best basketball is still yet to be played by the Pups.

With Rubio, Love, and Williams under team control through at least 2014-15, the team will certainly be an attractive destination for free agents looking to win. The Timberwolves young core is arguably as good as any in the NBA, and it will be very exciting to watch this team grow into a potential powerhouse in the NBA for years to come.

Why the NBA is Wrong About David Kahn

I would like to begin by saying that I am not 100% sold on David Kahn. He has done things that have left me shaking my head (Beasley marijuana comment) and his common sense may not be as sharp as most executives. He seems to wear the same smirk on his face and rarely loses composure or shows emotions. Virtually every move he has made has not been without its critics. However, as we have seen over the years with Terry Ryan for the Twins, many great moves do not appear to be so at first and necessary time is required for things to come to fruition.

In order to properly judge Kahn, it is essential to correctly define what his job is. As general manager, is his job to create a team that is continually competitive on a year-by-year basis? Or is it to put the team in the best position for long-term, continued success, while sacrificing present success? I personally believe it is a combination of both, but with much more emphasis on the latter. At this point in Kahn’s tenure, this appears to be precisely his goal, and his vision is beginning to materialize.

No NBA executive had a tougher job ahead of them than Kahn after being hired during the summer of 2009. Kevin McHale, disregarding his trade for Kevin Love, completely and utterly left the Timberwolves in a miserable state with very few pieces to build on for the future. One could argue that outside of drafting Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love, McHale did very few things right in his long tenure with the team. The other piece of the Kevin Love trade, Mike Miller, was a complete bust for the Wolves as he was acquired as a shooter but attempted to play outside of his skill set. Al Jefferson, the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade, proved himself to be no more than a 20-10 player on a team without affecting the wins column. His immobility and lack of intensity/effort on defense made him a liability on one half of the floor and it became evident he would never fill the void left by KG. The loss of Garnett meant the loss of the team’s leader in the locker room and on the court, and it helped to create the culture of losing that is still present in the team today.

Kahn’s decisions in the 2009 draft are probably the most questioned and criticized of all his moves. The draft led many people to automatically dismiss him and criticize his moves and decisions going forward. Although I believe that the results of the 2009 draft were marginal, I stand by the decisions that were made at draft time. To begin, one of the most underappreciated moves the Kahn made came when he was able to snag the 5th overall pick in the draft in exchange for draft-bust Randy “Fourth Quarter” Foye and Mike Miller. This trade led to the drafting of Spanish wunderkind Ricky Rubio, considered by many to be the best player in the 2009 draft and a future Steve Nash. Questions about his contract situation in Spain caused him to slip into the Wolves hands at 5. Knowing that the chances of Rubio being able to play in the NBA immediately were slim, Kahn took another point guard in Jonny Flynn with the Timberwolves own number 6 pick. The draft offered a weak group of shooting guards (Demar Derozan having many question marks) and a plethora of high potential, able point guards. A common misconception is that the Wolves reached for Flynn at 6, however he was projected by many mock drafts to be ahead of Curry and Jennings. Knowing he could use Flynn as a trade asset when the time for Rubio came while choosing to not reach for a SG instead, Kahn kept the future of the franchise as the top priority. The potential of Jonny Flynn was considered much higher than any of the shooting guards, so if Jonny could perform well in the time before Rubio came over, he could be a greater asset to the team when it came time to trade him, giving the Timberwolves the best value. With the 18th pick Kahn took the best player available in Ty Lawson, and traded him to Denver for a first round pick in the next draft. Again, by choosing not to reach in the present, Kahn got a first round pick in the next draft where there could be a player that filled a greater need. With the 28th pick Kahn took shooting guard Wayne Ellington. The natural reaction to the Timberwolves on draft night was one of laughter, but close analysis helps explain the decisions in sensible and rational terms.

The public reaction to Kahn’s drafting of 3 point guards in the first round caused an immediate uproar and a slew of jokes directed at the Timberwolves organization. Many Timberwolves fans dismissed their franchise, choosing ignorance to their team to avoid embarrassment by association. Kahn, hearing criticism from every angle, maintained his poise and confidence in his decisions, knowing that time was necessary and that his decisions put the franchise in the best position for long-term success. The rebuilding process was begun, and although the idea of more short-term failures angered many, only Kahn and few others saw that short-terms failures would be a necessary contributor to the long-term prospects of the franchise.
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