What follows is the second part of a completely on-the-record, 65-minute conversation I held with Minnesota Timberwolves coach Sam Mitchell on Jan. 7 in his office at Mayo Clinic Square.
The first part of the interview was published on Monday, and it includes how and why Mitchell first contacted me and proposed this conversation.
I want to thank Sam Mitchell for allowing me and other folks who closely follow the Wolves to hear his candid and uniquely situated appraisal of the team. I especially appreciate him getting into the gist and nuances of the game.
I will resume my regularly scheduled praise and criticism of the ballclub next week and through the remaining three months of the 2015-16 season.
MinnPost: When we started this interview, we talked a little bit about the offense. You didn’t know if and when Flip [Saunders] would be back [he died in late October, three days before the season opener] and you concentrated on defense more than offense. But in the transition to your offense, I am wondering if you are able to address some weaknesses. I know you already know this stuff but …
SM: Right now we are trying to find out what does this team do best.
MP: But you guys shoot the highest percentage of your shots of any team in the NBA, from 16 feet out to the three point line. And you shoot the lowest percentage of your shots of any team from three-point territory. Logic would say less long twos and more threes is called for, even if you are not making them very often, if just for the habit of trying them.
SM: But who is going to shoot them?
MP: Well, Zach [LaVine], Bazzy [Shabazz Muhammad] and Wigs [Andrew Wiggins] would be three guys I’d most want to develop for that skill, because they can all penetrate so well and threes would complement that.
SM: You just saw the folders and the work we put in with those guys!
MP: I know, I know. I get it. But I mean …
SM: Britt, we averaged more threes in Toronto than anybody. Go back and pull up my record. We led the league in three-point shooting. But we had shooters. When they came in the door we didn’t have to teach them to shoot. They could shoot. Matt Barnes could always shoot. Donyell Marshall could shoot.
The only guy we had to help work on his shooting was Jose Calderon. And we hired a guy named Dave Hopla. Ever heard of him? He’s in Detroit now. To me there are two guys — him and the guy in San Antonio [Chip Engelland] — who are the best. They teach shooting the best I have ever seen. Hopla could come out here right now and hit 97 of 98 threes, just getting out of his car. And the thing about it, he doesn’t want to coach, all he wants to do is teach shooting. That’s it. He doesn’t come to your coaches meeting. Just teach shooting.
We are trying to find somebody. Because it is more than just taking them. It is footwork. It is leg strength. It is understanding that when your shot is short, do you get more arm or do you get more leg? I am telling you it is more leg. You shoot a basketball with your legs.
See, I never changed my shot, from a free throw to an 18-footer to a 25-footer. The only thing I did differently was how much leg I put in my shot. Roger Clemens taught me that. When I was in Toronto, I saw Roger Clemens and he was just throwing and I asked him where he generates his power. And he said that when a pitcher gets tired, it is not his arm. His velocity goes down because his legs are tired.
So what they [Wolves players] don’t understand, they think shooting is here [taps elbow]. Shooting is here [springs up and down in his seat], your base.
You watch KG. He starts his workout with nothing but leg stuff. You look at his upper body — it hasn’t changed. But his freaking legs are strong as a bull. Because what he understands is that this [points to trunk] is where you play basketball, from here on down. All of this [raises arms], this is just for show. That’s if you want to look good in a tight shirt or something. This [points down again] is where you make your money in basketball, from your waist on down.
And as you look at our players, all young players: G [Gorgui Dieng], Karl [Karl-Anthony Towns], Andrew, Zach, Ricky [Rubio]. As I go on down the list, look at them from the waist on down.
MP: That’s where they are weak.
SM: And that’s why we got them in the weight room. We are really trying to get them — if they miss a lift, I am on them just like if they screwed up on the court. Because that is where they are going to make their biggest improvement, in that weight room. Because when they get stronger, if gives them confidence. Now they know they can take those hits and get up. Got to get stronger. That’s why we are doing this, so they understand where they have got to get.
MP: As a coach, what pushes your button the hardest? What are your pet peeves?
SM: Hmmm. All you want as a coach is to just see signs of improvement on the things we are teaching. That’s why — and he [nods to Aaron Seehusen of the Wolves media staff] has heard me say this — that there are two guys I am ecstatic about. G [Dieng] is one of them. Because G has improved. You watch him: He has taken what we have asked him to do, and have coached him hard to do, and he has started implementing it. And now he understands.
I tell our guys this all the time: Why would I ask you guys to do something that is going to screw you up, when my livelihood depends on your success? If I come to you and say, we need to work on these aspects of your shot, you don’t think I put in hours and hours of sleepless nights before I go to a guy and say that? Because if you start tinkering with a guy’s shot, that is the essence of their game, their livelihood. That is like taking a hitter and saying we need to change your swing. Heeeeey! You better know what the hell you are talking about.
I can shoot enough to teach the fundamentals. But you need a Dave Hopla, who is going to start from your feet, up to your knees, to your hips, to your elbows and wrists and shoulders, to your arm position. He is going to break that shit down in phases, to where you can get it, and why you shoot it that way. And then as he gets you to shoot it that way, now he is going to speed you up. But first he has to teach you.
I can show you how I shot. And I can show you a couple of things that help. But I don’t teach it like Hopla because that is not who I am and what I do — I am a basketball coach. I am not a professional shooting coach. And that is something I have talked to Mr. Taylor about. We have got to search high and low. We have got to find someone. Because our guys are not — our best shooter is who?
SM: Thank you! He is 20 years old and a rookie and he is my best shooter. On the whole team!
MP: He is accurate from everywhere on the court.
SM: Yes. He is our most consistent shooter. K-Mart is supposed to be a shooter. Karl is a better shooter than him. A 20-year-old rookie.
MP: Who has a lot of other things to concentrate on.
SM: Exactly. He has a ton of stuff to learn.
MP: I mean, if you are relying on Towns for jumpers as the focal point of your offense in order to win …
SM: We are relying on him to shoot jumpers, we are relying on him in the post. It is a lot for a 20-year old. Welcome to my world.
MP: You had said you were ecstatic about two players and mentioned G as one of them. Is the other guy Bazzy?
SM: I said G. Bazz, yes. Karl and Wigs, but they also have that dust that God flickers on select players — talent. They have more talent. And so they are gifted in doing certain things. Bazz has to learn those things. The things that Wigs — that Euro-step and come back; that’s just, Wigs can do that. That is not natural for Bazz. Bazz has got to try and learn all that. And I don’t know if Bazz will ever be able to learn to do that — that is just instincts.
You know there are things that Karl can do offensively that G is just never going to learn. Karl is just fluid, man, he can just go drop-step [claps his hands] and go up and under.
MP: He’s a baller.
SM: Yeah. Things that G is just going to struggle with. So we have got to teach G more fundamental things. I give G credit. I have coached G hard. But G has responded. He has become a better player.
MP: Does Bazzy have the brain chemistry — not intelligence but the concentration level — to do things? It just seems like he is running hot all the time, whether he wants to or not.
SM: When they make up their mind, they all have it. I think with Bazz, when he saw his minutes going down, it became important to him.
That is the only thing I’ve got as coach. If I’m yelling and screaming to them about doing certain things, and they’re not getting it, the first thing that is going to get their attention is when they look at that stat sheet and they have played 10 minutes. I say this to the guys all the time: When I am telling you to do something, and we are working with you to do something over and over and over and over and over and over again, and we are playing you, and you are not doing it, you put me in a position to do my job. So for me to get your attention, when you don’t do what we ask you to do, and you are making the same mistakes, come sit down.
That’s the attention-getter. That’s when it becomes important. So when Bazz’s minutes were peeled back, I told him, “Bazz, you play hard. But you need to make the extra pass. You have got to show me that when you go to the basket and another guy comes toward you, you can make your teammates better — you can’t just shoot that shot.” So once he started showing me that, then I think, Bazz, you are showing me two things: That you are a willing learner and two, that you want to play, because that is what is going to keep you on the floor. And when I do that, it is not that I am rewarding them to reward them — it is because they are making us a better basketball team. Because as a coach, I want to win and so I am going to play you.
MP: When you have that second unit, and you have Bazz, K-Mart [Kevin Martin] and Zach all on the floor, you cannot play defense.
SM: It is hard. But what people don’t understand is that KG only plays between 10-15 minutes.
MP: Yeah, I know that on defense he is the great equalizer.
SM: People scream, put KG back in! And I just want to turn around and tell them that after 20 years, it takes KG all that he has to give us the 15 minutes a night he gives us now. People don’t understand how much pain he is in. To play 15 minutes a game, he gets here at 8:30 in the morning. He’s in the weight room. I left here the day before yesterday, it was after 6 o’clock and he was back there getting his legs worked on. He lives in Orono. He got here at 8:30. And so he can play 15 minutes a game, he is here past 6 o’clock. Days between games.
So when people say put KG back in the game: Hell, I wish I could put him back in. Don’t you think? Don’t you think I wish KG was 32?
MP: What about Tayshaun [Prince] and Andre [Miller]?
SM: Same kind of thing, what it takes for them.
MP: Because sometimes this team is just crying for ‘dre to stabilize the offense coming off the bench in that second half. I know you can’t play with the pace you want with ‘dre, but …
SM: And you are limited in what you can run. Because he is not going to blow by people — he’s 39 years old.
MP: He’s an improviser.
SM: Yes. He’s 39. People don’t understand.
MP: He gets teammates shots that nobody else in that unit can provide.
SM: Yes. Because he does it on just knowing. But I have got to work with what I’ve got.
MP: So do you need to run sets just so guys get used to running sets?
SM: I like to play in flow. I like to play where the ball dictates what we do. Not calling a play.
MP: Which ‘dre can do, but maybe not in a flow.
SM: So we call motion and a guy here hits [claps hands] and goes strong corner and we do one thing. Ricky hits and goes weakside corner we do another thing. Ricky hits [claps hands] and goes down the middle we do another thing. That’s how we did it in Toronto. It was hard to scout us because we didn’t call a play.
Here, we have to put a set on to everything that we do, because if we don’t, our young guys don’t …
OK, last year, me, Chase Budinger, and Mike [then-shooting coach Mike Penberthy] — played A.P. [Adreian Payne], Glen Robinson III and Lorenzo Brown. We played them two games of 3-on-3 in half court. We played to 12. We beat them 12 to 4 and 12 to 7. We had one NBA player on our team — Chase. We had fat Mike and my old crippled ass. And we beat the dog crap out of them and we were laughing. Let me tell you all we did — pass and screen. Pass and cut. Read the screen. Slip for back door. Slip for layups. Step-back screens. If they screwed up, I’d pop for a 15-footer. And then Chase would just make plays.
The point was, we did it to show them something. All they are thinking is, “I’m quicker, I’m bigger, I’m more athletic, I can jump higher.” But guess what we did on defense? We pushed up and then stepped back and made them shoot. If they would have posted us up, they would have beaten us so bad it would have been abuse. But because we were letting them shoot, guess what they kept doing?
MP: Jacking shots.
SM: Thank you. And we are sitting there laughing, thinking, “All they have got to do is drive.” Hell, I can’t move. I have no cartilage in my right knee and a bad hip. If they just take one dribble then they are past me and Mike. Now Chase was different. But they could just abuse me and Mike. But Mike and I would run up hard on them, playing defense, force them out and drop back. And they shoot. And they clank clank.
They couldn’t figure out how we were beating them. Finally after we played twice, I said, “All you had to do is post us up and drive. We can’t stop you from driving. We just used our minds to beat you.”
Now think about this: Go play San Antonio with their minds and their athleticism. How you going to beat them right now?
MP: But it’s funny, you guys played San Antonio pretty tough the second meeting. It was like the example in front of you made you guys play more fundamentally sound basketball.
SM: This is what people don’t understand about our team. We are not the biggest, most athletic team, but the reason we could play with Atlanta is because Atlanta is very system-oriented. So we can try to take them out of their system. Atlanta keeps guys in the corner and runs a lot of DHO’s [dribble hand-offs]. So what we did, is we top-blocked [guarded picks and hand-offs with a perimeter orientation] and did other certain things to take them out of their sets.
Atlanta has to run its system. San Antonio has to run its system. If you can take them out of their system, you’ve got a chance. So, we could beat Atlanta because Atlanta is not really big, like San Antonio. And Kyle Korver — we force him to go back-door, he’s not an athletic finisher like Kawhi Leonard. So when we top-block Kyle Korver and they throw him the ball, he can’t finish as well. You top-block Kawhi Leonard and they get him the ball, it is any kind of dunk he chooses. See the difference? Ginobili is the same way. Tony Parker, same way.
So even though we could hang with San Antonio, ultimately their experience and their size and their athleticism just get us at the end. But we can hang with them. If you come in here and run a system, we can hang with you.
The thing that scares me tomorrow about Cleveland, is they just go. [The Cavs won that January 8 game, 125-99.] They are athletes and they are big. It is tough. I’m sitting here watching tape and normally I’m writing notes. [He grabs a note pad with plays and his notes in the margins.] These are notes for a game we had recently, against a team that runs a system, Milwaukee. We can take them out of their system.
But now, we played Philadelphia. People wonder how we struggled against Philadelphia. Well, we struggled last year against Philadelphia too. Philadelphia has just got athletes. They run down the court. So guess what they do? They throw the ball up and they just pounded us on the glass and kept getting extra shots. We get an initial stop …
MP: Plus they had some guys who don’t usually shoot that well get really hot from midrange.
SM: Yeah. But for us, if you talk about Cleveland, they just have athletes and they go. So the tough thing for us is they don’t have a system that we can take them out of. Against Atlanta, we can guard that system — our defensive principles match up well against that system. Where we have a hard time is where we just have to play basketball, because our guys just haven’t played enough basketball.
MP: So you will have a better shot against Dallas because they have a system.
SM: If they have a system, we can hang. But if you just come in here long, lean and athletic, whooo. They beat us up.
MP: You’ve been generous with your time so let me see step back a little and ask you a broader question about the goals for the season. I can tell you what I think, which is that development of Towns and Wiggins is priority one, because those are your cornerstones. Developing winning habits you have convinced me is priority-1a, meaning it accrues to 1 but also is its own thing. At the end of the day as you are measuring yourself, what are your goals?
SM: I look at it like this: Honestly, you are trying to win as much as you can. But I agree with you from the standpoint that regardless of how many games we win, if Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and our young guys are not better defensively, if they are not better understanding timing, spacing, execution, then we haven’t done our job.
And I think that if you look at our team, the things we are on them about are about timing, spacing, setting screens, execution. Not only how to set screens, but which kind of screens to set, the difference. Everybody thinks they know how to coach, but which screens to set is a huge thing. It is the difference between getting open and not getting open. Yeah, he set the screen, but it is how he set the screen and how our players respond to the screen.
That’s why I laugh at people [who criticize him]. I never walk into a place and try to tell other people. I may watch a lot of TV and I go to movies all the time, but can I direct a movie? I have been in movies and I have been on the set, but there are nuances about making a movie that I just don’t see. People don’t see what we see. They see the games. We see all the nuances. We see the play. We see that the reason we didn’t get that shot is because that screen wasn’t set right and something wasn’t read right.
I drew up a play last night, for Karl. [He gets out paper and draws up a half-court setting]. I had KAT here, and I had Ricky doing something, swinging the ball to KG. I had him go and set a screen.
MP: On KAT’s man.
SM: Yeah. All right, this is what Karl did. Ricky hit. And what I had told Karl, go here [shows Karl moving away], create spacing. And Karl goes here.
MP: He jammed it instead.
SM: Now you can’t run the play. Ricky still tried to run it. But this is what Karl doesn’t understand—the difference of him being here and waiting. But as Ricky passed, Karl started moving. So by the time Ricky had come to set the screen, he was here [in the middle of the action].
MP: Terrible spacing.
SM: And I told Karl, told him when I drew it up, “When the pass is to KG, your first step has got to be down here. To make the defender do what? React. As soon as you go 1-2 [moves the pencil jaggedly], Ricky goes 1-2 [moves the pencil for Ricky to set the screen]. He hits your guy here and now you come flying off for a layup. When the ball went to KG, Karl went 1-2 this way [pencil toward the action again, for emphasis]. He doesn’t understand that the play is dead now. Karl never took that step away. He jams it up. [He repeats what he just said, complete with pencil movements, for the third time, to make sure I get it.]
MP: Do you think a lot of your spacing issues arise out of instinctual mistakes like that?
SM: Yes. [Shakes head] They don’t understand. Flip used to tell us all that for every one foot of spacing you create, you really create three feet of spacing. [Using a chair, he demonstrates how drawing a defender away opens a gap and creates more options for the offense that the entire defense needs to account for, changing reactions and relationships.]
Instead of this man just standing there guarding, he has got to think about going 1-2 to get over there. If Andrew Wiggins is driving and that gap is there, you have got to go and you’re probably still going to have to foul him.
MP: Plus you’re committing to that gap.
SM: Absolutely! And the play continues. But if the man is allowed to just be standing there, then there is no gap, and Andrew Wiggins never can drive. No spacing can happen.
MP: And that is probably one of the reasons why you guys take more contested shots that anyone in the NBA.
SM: And it is because we are not patient. OK, today, we put in something to try and help our spacing. We swung the ball. A.P. and Rudy [Damjan Rudez] ran right — A.P. tried to feed the ball into the post to Pek [Nikola Pekovic]. Rudy and Tyus [Jones] ran right into the play and stood before A.P. So I blew the whistle and everybody stopped.
MP: So you had three guys next to each other and one guy in the low block.
SM: Now to me, it is common sense [not to do that]. When I see A.P. feeding the post, I am diving weak side. If I am Tyus I am getting as far away as I can but still in passing range, because I know somebody is diving. That’s just—I have been doing it so long, I don’t even think about it. They haven’t.
MP: So you have KG, Tayshaun, ‘dre and Ricky. Is anyone else on that continuum where you could say he knows how to play basketball?
SM: Yeah, K-Mart knows how to play.
MP: That’s right. Although K-Mart, I know you don’t want to get into it too much, but his shot selection this season — what’s up with that?
SM: I think a lot of the time when he is out there with Zach it is tough. K-Mart is a scorer.
MP: And he gets impatient without the ball.
SM: Yeeeah. Yeah. You know, an experienced point guard makes such a difference. I played with Terrell Brandon. And Stephon Marbury. They would tell me, go stand over there and I’ll get you a shot. So I would just go stand there, and just like that — boop-boop-boop-boop — they’d break their man and make my man help, kick it to me and I’d get an open shot.
Stephon would just tell me — “Mitch, you ain’t had a shot in about four or five trips. Go stand right there, right there in the corner.” Because I was a corner shooter. And he would just break his man down, one-on-one and get me a shot.
But that’s not Ricky’s game.
MP: It would be if he could shoot.
SM: But Ricky’s not fast like that, like Stephon was. And Zach maybe can beat you [the defender] off the dribble but he doesn’t how to make that guy [guarding the corner shooter] commit to him.
MP: And he’s not even looking there. If he thinks he is by his guy, he is going to the cup.
SM: I’ll say this: It is not that he doesn’t want to pass. He just doesn’t understand when to pass. Because the defense is going to put you in positions — they are going to fake, or do something. They are going to make you think. But what you have to read is their intent. “How do you know? What do you mean, Coach, read their intent?” And I answer, well, is he intending to help, or is he intending to stay home? How do I read that body language?
MP: Now I know that you have been solidly in Zach’s corner ever since he was drafted.
MP: He’s got to be the guy who makes you want to pull out your hair the most often.
SM: It is that way, from the standpoint that you see the talent. But I have to remind myself, he’s 20 and he hasn’t played the position ever. And he didn’t play a lot of minutes at UCLA. He played 18 minutes a game and I have no idea what kind of coaching he got before that. From watching him, he didn’t get a lot.
MP: Do you ever worry that these guys aren’t going to get it, whether it is Zach or Andrew or any of your young talents. Because some guys just don’t get it.
SM: Some get it and some don’t. For the guys who don’t get it, that’s what the General Manager is for. At some point he looks at the situation and says, okay, we’ve got to do this and this to make our team better. My job, I don’t focus on what to do if they don’t get it. I focus on teaching them to get it. At a certain point, management has got to decide when it is long enough for a guy to get it.
I don’t want to make that decision — I am a basketball coach. As long as they’ve got that uniform on and they are on this team, I am going to coach them. I don’t care if I have to tell them a million times. I am going to coach them and coach them until they are not here anymore. I don’t worry about how long it is going to take them to get it. I would like for them to get it sooner rather than later because it helps us out but I am going to keep on pushing and teaching and coaching. At the end of the day management will decide when they have had long enough.