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.