Sam Mitchell was right to call me out in his postgame press conference, but he’s wrong to be dismissive of the media

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Coach Sam Mitchell, right, conferring with Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad.

On Saturday night, the Minnesota Timberwolves blew a 17-point lead at home for the second time in as many meetings with the Portland Trailblazers, losing 109-103. When Coach Sam Mitchell came into the Target Center media room for the postgame press conference it was a horrible time for an ill-informed question.

Unfortunately, I served one up anyway.

To understand what happened on the court and in the media room requires some detailed context.

With 37 seconds left in the game and the Wolves down by two, Portland had substituted small forward Allen Crabbe in for power forward Ed Davis during the timeout. Once the Wolves noticed the switch to a smaller lineup, Mitchell hurriedly brought in small forward Tayshaun Prince to replace center Karl-Anthony Towns.

I didn’t notice the switch, and mistook the opponent Towns was setting up to guard, 6-9, 215 pound Al-Farouq Aminu, for the 6-10, 240 pound Davis.

Once Aminu inbounded the ball, Portland looked like it was going to run the sort of high-post pick-and-roll action that had burned the Wolves for most of the second half. But before Portland center Meyers Leonard could come all the way out to set the screen, guard Damian Lillard broke away from it with a hard dribble to his right, which is the way the man guarding him, Ricky Rubio, was shading him to go. But Wolves center Gorgui Dieng, who was guarding Leonard, wasn’t in sync with that strategy and was thus caught out of position awaiting the pick and roll action.

Rubio stayed with Lillard as he drove down the right lane, and Prince also positioned himself to contest the shot. The personnel on the floor defended the play well. But Lillard, a notoriously good performer with the game on the line, lofted the ball just high enough to escape Prince’s fingertips, banking the layup off the glass for the “dagger,” the game-deciding bucket.

The play provided the grist for my ill-considered question early in the postgame press conference. Specifically, I asked, “What was the rationale on that last-minute substitution, with Prince in for Towns?”

“They put a small forward in the game. I’m not going to leave a center to guard a small forward that can dribble. Did you not see that?” Mitchell said icily.

Slightly taken aback, I answered honestly, with my unwittingly inaccurate version of events. “I saw Prince on Ed Davis.”

“No. No you didn’t,” said Mitchell, trying unsuccessfully to contain his anger. “That was Aminu. Go back and watch the tape. Before you ask me a question, make sure you are asking me the right question.”

Then his eyes swept the media room. “Anybody in here who saw that? Was it not their small forward, their starting small forward, who took the ball out on the left side? Our bench is here,” he said, slamming his palm down hard on the table to his left. “They took the ball out over there,” he said, slamming the table again.

Then he looked at me and added, “Now I can come back and ask you a question. But I’m not going to go there.”

Of the various times Mitchell has belittled or embarrassed members of the media this season, this was an occasion where his ire was justified. I had botched a question right on the heels of a disheartening loss.

An adversarial relationship

Reports of spats and unpleasantness between a coach and the people who cover a team quickly grow tiresome and inevitably cover neither side in glory. I’m wading into it now because it is still early in the season, the dynamic makes me less effective as someone writing about the team, and maybe airing it out a little can contribute to a change.

I have some empathy for Mitchell and his position. A few of us in the media are old enough to have covered him as a player on the Timberwolves, where he would engage in spirited banter and mostly good-natured needling with anyone willing to try him out. That’s his nature; he’s a smart guy who’s comfortable at give-and-take.

But in the locker room, Mitchell was acting as a respected, self-made veteran on a relatively successful team, ultimately responsible only for himself.

This season, due to the death of Flip Saunders, Mitchell has been thrust into a more delicate and consequential environment. Each day it becomes more apparent that Saunders did a masterful job of assembling young talent that, if properly developed, can catapult the Wolves to a level of achievement previously unknown in the history of the franchise.

Back in early November, I wrote: “Ironically, the most incendiary ingredient in this whole situation is hope, and that the presence of cornerstone talents like Towns and Andrew Wiggins raises the stakes, and the passions of a fan base that has long been given two options on how to approach rooting for the Wolves — as a cynic or a sap. In other words, this season is set up as a bumpy ride with incredibly valuable cargo using a continually improvised road map under fraught emotional circumstances.”

To continue the analogy, Mitchell is the person currently most responsible for the way that cargo is transported. Officially known as the “interim coach,” he has no job security as he navigates the season.

Mitchell’s credentials and comfort level are rooted in old-school verities. He was instrumental in mentoring Kevin Garnett from teenager to superstar, in large part because he himself endured the physical grind and psychological perseverance required to elevate himself from a third-round afterthought in the 1985 draft, to someone making his NBA debut in November 1989, to a solid rotation player over the course of 13 NBA seasons.

Not surprisingly, he is more skeptical — although not totally dismissive — of the value of analytics, the revolution in sophisticated statistical measurements that has reshaped the way the NBA game is perceived and played. When he unsuccessfully interviewed for the Wolves head coaching job after the resignation of Rick Adelman following the 2013-14 season (Saunders instead hired himself, and brought on Mitchell as an assistant coach), a horde of mostly younger bloggers and basketball analysts opposed the move; in part because of owner Glen Taylor’s “country club” proclivity for favoring those with past connections to the franchise, but mostly because Mitchell’s past methods and coaching performance weren’t viewed as sufficiently friendly to analytics.

All of these factors contribute to the adversarial relationship between Mitchell and the media.

The smartest guy in the room

With some notable exceptions, Mitchell has been suspicious and impatient with the normal coach-media interactions this season, especially in response to questions that attempt to glean any details about his thought process and strategy. Perhaps the best way to put it is that he regards “What were you thinking?” as an accusation rather than a genuinely curious query.

One of his favorite retorts, fortunately used less often as the season has progressed, is a variation on the notion of “if you’re so smart you should be sitting up here next to me.”

Speaking only for myself, I have absolutely no issue proceeding on the basis that Mitchell is the smartest guy in the room, because the subject in question is how the team is being coached — the better I understand that, the more credible my analysis — and the only person who really knows that is Sam Mitchell. And he is loath to reveal any specifics.

For example, even if I’d had a proper clue about who Tayshaun Prince was being brought in to guard on Saturday night, Mitchell’s patience would have likely ended with his response that Portland brought in a smaller lineup and he followed suit to better match up with them. Unfortunately, this stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor Saunders, who reveled in explaining what was on his mind and how he regarded the outcome of his decisions during postgame press conferences.

Had it been Saunders (and still assuming I’d had a clue that night), I would have asked why he chose to lift Towns instead of Gorgui Dieng when he went small. I would have asked what happened on the play — did Rubio and Dieng miscommunicate the potential pick-and-roll defense or did Lillard wisely ambush the scheme with his sudden drive to the hoop? And seeing that Lillard’s layup barely made it over Prince’s outstretched arm, I may have even risked asking Saunders whether he regretted substituting Prince for Towns.

I am very confident in asserting that any of those questions would be met with either derision or anger by Mitchell, depending on which he thought would more quickly end the discussion. And that’s a shame because it makes me less capable of accurately analyzing this team.

Is there a chance I would use Mitchell’s answers to second-guess his decisions? Sure. But that’s not my primary motivation. It is invaluable for me to know why the guy most intimate with the team’s personnel uses one player over another in certain situations and who is properly reading and adapting to the schemes that are being devised. Absent that hard information, I’m more likely to speculate — and be wrong — about what has happened, which ironically feeds into Mitchell’s suspicion that those covering the team don’t know what we’re talking about.

A strong — and very credible — argument for why Mitchell is so resolutely tight-lipped is because he is protecting his players. An abiding tenet of his behavior this entire season has been a steadfast unwillingness to leave any individual player open to criticism. He consistently speaks in team generalities, as in “we didn’t shoot the ball well” or “we couldn’t defend properly tonight.”

That’s an admirable impulse and very consonant with his values. But it doesn’t short-circuit critical analysis, it just makes it less-informed. Ironically, absent verbal pro-and-con feedback, it makes me and others more reliant not only on our inexpert perceptions, but on the analytics that Mitchell already believes are too strong of an influence.  

Hope and rope

Then there is the “incendiary ingredient of hope” I referred to earlier that is very much a catalyst in this mix. The best example of this involves the amazingly talented rookie, Karl-Anthony Towns.

On the one hand, the Wolves marketing department is appropriately beating the drum for Towns, hyping the numbers that show him to be on a (very early) career path comparable with the best who have ever played the game, and announcing awards like his recent citation as Western Conference Rookie of the Month for November.

Meanwhile, after giving Towns heavy minutes of playing time at the start of the season, Mitchell has begun resting the rookie more often, especially during the fourth quarters of close games, when Dieng has gotten the nod. The casual fan is irked and confused by this disconnect between hype and rest, and those of us in the media want more details about how and when Towns gets his minutes.

But after a recent home loss to Orlando by a narrow margin, Mitchell refused to even answer a question about why Towns didn’t play more.

In the end, whether it’s me, Mitchell, the players or the rest of the media, we’re all just trying to do our jobs in the best way we see fit. Friction is built into any responsible media coverage, but the current dynamic feels counterproductive for all concerned.

Besides, if it will make Mitchell feel any better, there is the notion that giving us more forthright information provides the rope by which we hang ourselves.

Mitchell is a booster of Zach LaVine, and has stubbornly given LaVine the majority of his minutes at the point guard position this season. I have been overwhelmingly critical of LaVine’s game — overall, but especially at the point guard position — since he came into the NBA.

But under Mitchell’s tutelage, LaVine has improved dramatically in most every area of the game this season, and the longer I would try to deny that fact, the sillier and less credible my analysis becomes.

In other words, we’re all going to rise and fall on the caliber of our work. If Sam Mitchell is being judged overwhelmingly on the basis of player development and wins and losses, he is in the midst of a very successful season and has earned every plaudit on that score.

But Mitchell has been less successful in his ability to communicate how he is developing players and winning games, so that the media and the fans who consume it have a better understanding of his process and can more fully and accurately enjoy the ride. Perhaps that is a trivial element of his job performance, and Mitchell is content with often unpleasant media relations as a necessary component of getting the big stuff right. He’s fighting for his job and has every right to make that decision.   

Meanwhile, if he ever does want to ask me a question, for whatever reason, he can “go there.” I’m all ears.

Comments (26)

  1. Submitted by Robert Langford on 12/07/2015 - 12:01 pm.

    Why can’t you say “I am sorry”?

    Why can’t you simply say I am sorry for the mistake and your assumptive question, rather than using all this space to lay out your opinion of Mitchell?

    • Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/07/2015 - 12:30 pm.

      No need for an apology

      He got called out, everyone knows it, he took responsibility for getting it wrong. It’s not like he did something of actual harm to SMitch.

      Also, his mistake doesn’t excuse the questionable decision. In that scenario, why take out the best rim protector on either team? Giving starter-level minutes this season to Towns instead of Dieng is one of the reasons they’ve gone from “potentially worst defense in NBA history” to “average NBA defense.” Even if he wanted to go small, it’s completely credible to wonder about that choice.

  2. Submitted by scott gibson on 12/07/2015 - 12:07 pm.

    Mitchell’s responses to media

    I watched the game, but decided against watching Mitchell’s presser. I do feel for his situation. In the internet blog/tweet era every micro-decision is second guessed.

    The analytics crowd, who has it in for most anyone that owner Glen Taylor has known for more than a coffee break, never liked Mitchell in the first place. They are never satisfied anyway.

    Unlike Flip who enjoyed an opportunity to expand on his rationale, Sam wearies of the repetitive nature of this post-game dance. If we were honest, most of us would feel the same.

    And, in spite of it being a generality, Mitchell’s assessment that we just ‘didn’t make enough shots’ is true in this case. They were cold the entire second half. It wasn’t that last second substitution that allowed Portland to win. It was the many minutes before that.

    As to Mitchell’s churlish-ness, winning appeases everyone. Poppovich is equally curt to a media he finds asks ‘dumb’ questions. The media cringes, but calls him a genius. Mitchell is no different but he doesn’t have the buffer of Pops resume. Being the best coach he can be doesn’t ensure he will be the winningest coach he can be. It is a zero-sum game with many of the variables beyond his control. He’s done well in a difficult situation. It doesn’t help to lose all those home games, but his current record must be in the ballpark for what people expected from this team. I’m in his corner.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 12/07/2015 - 12:16 pm.

    Dumb questions

    Like Sam Mitchell, I have a product to sell, so I try to be careful when responding to customer question. My policy is that there are no dumb questions, but there are plenty of dumb answers to questions. With their dreadful history, the T Wolves are a pretty tough sell in our community. I think it’s important for them to be respectful of those fans who have stuck with them through the years, and to be respectful to reporters who are to some degree, the proxies of the fans.

  4. Submitted by Dan Hylton on 12/07/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    I think this is a tremendous article, navigating delicate waters

    A head coach in any sport, whether they like it or not, does not have the privilege of dismissing questions that are related to his coaching decisions and games-in-question.

    I’m no fan of Mitchell’s offense and his substitutions are a mystery to me (as to many) but, as you suggest, he ironically feeds in to speculation by refusing to address the questions that are being asked.

    Perhaps he would prefer it people didn’t discuss and analyze his team? I really hope Glen Taylor is paying attention.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 12/07/2015 - 12:43 pm.

    I don’t mind the digression beyond the apology

    Enjoyed your column as I always do. One thing I wondered about Towns and the fourth quarter: it seemed like the way he was used changed after the spanking he got in the Phillie game by Okafor. I wondered if his ego may have been bruised (mine would have been) after hearing a year of praise and then getting manhandled by the other big guy he was drafted in front of. I wondered and wonder now if either Mitchell is protecting his Towns or lost some confidence in him. Seemed like the very next game he was sitting in the fourth quarter.

    I like Mitchell and it seems some individual players are making some big strides this year so I hope he gets the permanent position. Hope you won’t be stuck on the journalistic bench after you blew your coverage in the press conference. Maybe Sid could show you a couple pointers at homer question lobs.

  6. Submitted by Greg Kerkvliet on 12/07/2015 - 12:50 pm.

    Look, no one’s calling for his job

    But we should be skeptical about the role he’s played in this improvement. His treatment of LaVine is no different than Flip’s, which probably means Zach’s offseason work, a year of knowing what’s in the league, and better veteran teammates deserve as much credit as or more credit than Sam. This team’s defense, in a small sample, improved dramatically last season in the few minutes KG and Rubio played together; add in Towns, Prince, and improvement from their young guys, and it seems simplistic to give Mitchell all the credit. Also, though, they’re still below average at guarding corner 3s, the pick and roll, and plays at the rim (except Towns). Zach Harper’s article on him yesterday at A Wolf Among Wolves outlined the cracks in the defense, and most of them go back to things that an analytically-oriented coach would be better at stopping.

    I’m not going to be too hard on him for the offense; he inherited an extremely tenuous situation under the assumption that it was going to be temporary (because we all thought it would be until very late in the game), so that limits how much change he could justify making. What I do wonder about goes back to the defensive emphasis where supposedly it’s what they spent a large majority of time on in camp. Did they really need to? They had their best defenders returning and added 2 above-average guys. If that defensive emphasis didn’t help, it’s killing their offense that more focus wasn’t added there. Kevin Martin mainly looks awful because he needs more structure to be effective and then is called on to bail out the team when they sputter; he’s never been that guy, and he’s certainly not that guy at this point in his career. Bjelica is given no responsibility besides setting screens and popping out for a shot.

  7. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 12/07/2015 - 01:09 pm.

    Your question was fine, his response was not

    Britt, I don’t think you’re the first sportswriter to ever get something wrong in a press conference. And it’s honestly still an interesting question, given that Aminu (guarded by Prince) essentially just camps out beneath the low block. I’m assuming if you put Towns on him (and yes, Towns is capable of moving with Aminu, though probably not Crabbe), Aminu needs to figure out how to get open if Towns commits to Lillard, which gives Dieng a chance at getting back in the play as well. Obviously the play was botched by Rubio-Dieng miscommunication but Towns would have given us a chance at protecting the rim. Hindsight suggests that we were probably switching on wing screens so maybe they would’ve exploited Towns on the perimeter, but I’ll take my chances with any Blazer not named Lillard if that’s the case.

    Mitchell has no right to get upset at a question like that. He could say Portland went small and the Wolves wanted to match and that would be the end of the story. Of course, that would probably lead to other questions, like why isn’t our best rim protector (and most versatile defender, IMO) on the bench in this situation?

    I think Mitchell is threatened by the modern media landscape. Since everyone gets to have an opinion nowadays, rather than a few beat writers and sports-talk radio guys, Mitchell probably feels like everyone is second-guessing him, rather than what I enjoy reading: analysis of the game for the sake of itself. I’m an “analytics” guy (whatever that means these days – I think it means I enjoy dissection of a game backed up by data more than narrative-driven platitudes), but I understand the value of having an experienced coach as well, which is why I have generally been supportive of Mitchell. He has a track record as both a coach and a player and is respected by KG – that’s more than enough to have a chance at this job.

    But I feel like I know less about him and what his hoops philosophies are than any other coach the Wolves have had. I don’t feel like I know any more about him today than I did at the beginning of the season, and the benching of Towns and insistence on LaVine at PG opens him up to this type of criticism which he apparently is not equipped to handle. I don’t think his job is in jeopardy as much as Britt does (KG connection is one reason), but a coach who can’t be bothered to articulate strategy at the end of a game had better be damn good in other areas which I as a casual fan am not privy to.

  8. Submitted by Bob Hummel on 12/07/2015 - 01:18 pm.

    You Are A Mensch

    Incredibly astute and even-handed treatment of a difficult situation for you. You are not part of the problem, and you could be part of the solution. Let’s talk soon.

  9. Submitted by Bob Collins on 12/07/2015 - 01:26 pm.

    Good question

    As someone who actually PAYS to watch the Timberwolves play basketball, I don’t have a problem at all with the question. Why? Because it’s the question everyone was asking.

    Granted, we’re not as smart as Sam Mitchell, but that’s pretty irrelevant in the bigger picture which is: we wanted to know why.

    When Mitchell intentionally tries to embarrass a reporter, it’s an attempt to intimidate that reporter — and every other reporter — into not asking those kinds of questions.

    But we’re not well served by efforts to create lapdogs. And neither are the Timberwolves.

    I look forward to hearing that Sam has apologized to Britt and, hopefully, other reporters aren’t too scared of Mitchell’s bark to do their jobs.

  10. Submitted by Matthew Stern on 12/07/2015 - 01:50 pm.

    I think you are being pretty charitable

    “Dealing with the media” is clearly part of the job description for both him and the players, and Mitchell knows how “suffer” through it as evidenced by his previous stint as a coach (and his role IN the media at NBA TV).

    As several others have noted, this team can use all the goodwill it can get, and this is counterproductive. We can now all watch these pressers if we want and see directly these interactions, which clearly don’t reflect well on him.

    Can he really keep this up for 82 games? Is there something behind this (does he believe that some / all of the Media here have it in for him)?

    There is also the fun fact of his ultimate boss also owning the largest local media outlet covering his games. . .

  11. Submitted by Sam Richie on 12/07/2015 - 02:44 pm.

    Mitchell and the Media

    It seems odd that someone who’s worked fairly extensively as a member of the media would have such low tolerance for questions from media members. It makes him seem a more than a little petulant and paranoid.

  12. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/07/2015 - 03:07 pm.

    It’s not as simple

    as replacing a center with a forward.
    In this case, the forward (Prince) while once a great defender, is well past his prime.
    The center (or F/C) on the other hand (Towns) is young but exceptionally mature in his judgement, and arguably quicker at this time that Prince, as well as having greater length. He certainly does a better job of positioning himself on the court than does Djieng, despite the latter’s two years of additional experience. There is something to be said for a good college career.

  13. Submitted by Alex Berg on 12/07/2015 - 03:58 pm.

    A few things

    I honestly don’t think it was a bad question. It was a final play scenario and I don’t think it’s revisionist at all to say there was a 97% chance Aminu wasn’t taking that shot. In fact, I think most every fan assumed Lilliard would take the shot and most likely he would attack the rim, at which time having two shot blockers on the court in Gorgui and Towns would have been helpful. So maybe the wording was off, but the point was valid. Why allow Portland to dictate the terms of the final possession? Why not throw Towns, who was rollin, out there and make Portland account for him?

    Mitchell is out of line with his crassness towards the media. If anything, the media are too soft in this town and I really resent the fact that our coach is apparently so entirely opposed to having to answer tough questions. I know this isn’t fair to Mitchell, but the contrast to Flip in terms of transparency is painfully clear at this point.

  14. Submitted by Adam Gerber on 12/07/2015 - 04:46 pm.

    Fascinating

    While this was interesting peek under the hood, I hope I don’t need to read another article like this.

    On topic, I think it would be interesting to note how the mission of MinnPost as a whole plays into the expectations here. Certainly, the MP (and Britt) aspire to content along the lines of “sports journalism” vs something more… pedestrian (not that there’s anything wrong with the pedestrian). This distinction and Britt’s focus on the basketball content of the games has kept me reading these columns for years. It is the reporter’s job in this instance to question and probe, and do so professionally. Both parties were somewhat in the wrong here and I find merit in a first hand account of the relationship between the team and the media.

    That said, I’d like to get back to our regularly scheduled programming. I hope that the questions stay pointed, and the coach/team open up. I’d be interested in the perspectives of Lowe/Saunders/Adelman in the absence of Mitchell. As a fan, I’d love to have a beer and talk shop with those guys.

  15. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/07/2015 - 06:52 pm.

    Mitchell

    The only problem with the question was that the mistake gave Mitchell a way to avoid answering for his questionable coaching decision.

    I don’t like the way Mitchell coaches this team, and from what I’ve read, I’m not alone. If Mitchell won’t explain and defend his coaching, then he’s lost me.

  16. Submitted by Ivan Carter on 12/08/2015 - 02:15 pm.

    Sam

    I covered the NBA as a beat reporter for the Washington Post back when Sam coached Toronto and he was the same way then. And, there is simply zero explanation for his handling of Towns. It makes zero sense. Keep pushing him on that illogical strategy. It’s your job.

  17. Submitted by Kent Nerburn on 12/09/2015 - 06:19 pm.

    The other elephant in the living room

    I, personally, find the lack of use of Towns during crunch time less perplexing than the end-of-game ball hogging that Mitchell seems to permit/encourage LaVine to practice. Perhaps someone can enlighten an old antediluvian baller like me as to the wisdom or justification for LaVine become a black hole at the end of games. I find myself shouting at the screen, “We know he’s going to shoot it! We know he’s going to shoot it!” Almost without exception, I have been right. And if there’s anything worse than an end-of-game black hole whose greatest asset appears to be his “confidence,” it’s an overly confident black hole who has the ball in his hands from the outset, thus ending any suspense beyond whether or not he’s going to make the shot. At least Al Jefferson needed to have the ball passed to him before it became part of his personal fiefdom.

    Admittedly, this is eyeball stuff, and not analytics-driven. But my experience as a player and an observer is that when one player, no matter how skilled or successful, is almost guaranteed to take the shot, the energy of the other players tends to flag. Even worse, if the person takes ill-advised shots, does not make them, and is not taken to the woodshed for it, a burr of indignation tends to grow among other players.

    I admit to not liking LaVine’s game. But I also respect the growth in the last two years of that game. Still, I would rather see Wiggins going to the hoop at the end of games than LaVine casting off. I’m wondering if I’m all wet, or if I am seeing something that may be festering among team members as well.

    Anyone able to instruct me or correct me or corroborate my observations?

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