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Whatever you think of Sam Mitchell, the way the Wolves fired him was disrespectful

I’m not sure Sam Mitchell was the best person to coach the Wolves going forward, but there’s a chance the team may come to regret the decision to fire him. 

While we talk about the growth and maturation of cornerstone players such as Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the truth is that Sam Mitchell improved on the job as much as his young team.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig

After the Minnesota Timberwolves had gleefully caroused their way over the outmanned New Orleans Pelicans, 144-109, to close out the 2015-16 season Wednesday night, their poised and pleased head coach Sam Mitchell did not seem like a man who had just been cut loose by the franchise.

Indeed, as he had for the last month or so of the season, Mitchell lobbied to retain his job. He talked about the value of continuity in the NBA. His most emotional moments were reflecting on the passing of President of Basketball Operations and his predecessor as coach, Flip Saunders.

“We put together a video about the season and about coach and about what the season meant for us,” Mitchell said. “And under difficult circumstances how these guys came together and played together every night and how they bought into what we were selling…I’m proud of my coaches, proud of my players. Now we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Lest there be any doubt, Mitchell’s closing words to the media Wednesday night were, “I am happy that Mr. Taylor gave me the opportunity under difficult circumstances; he could’ve done a lot of other things. Now I’ll just go through the process, and continue to work. I’m under contract I think until June 30 so we got draft work to do and things of that nature. I’ll take a few weeks off, like everybody. And then I’m sure you guys will see me around. I’ll be around until I hear, ‘Don’t come around no more.’”

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Shortly after midnight, a press release landed in my email box, titled “Minnesota Timberwolves Launch Search for Head Coach and Head of Basketball Operations.” The first sentence stated that the team “announced that Sam Mitchell has been relieved of his interim head coaching duties, effective immediately.”

The press release went on to state that the Wolves had engaged a search firm, Korn Ferry, to fill the vacancies for head coach and President of Basketball Operations, the latter position filled this season by general manager Milt Newton. It pointedly noted that “the search will focus exclusively on candidates outside the current organization.”

Near the end of the release, Wolves owner Glen Taylor is quoted as saying “We will always be grateful to Sam for his contributions this season and wish him and his family the best in the future.”

The final paragraph reads, “The team’s search for these two basketball leadership positions will be wide-ranging and extensive. Milt Newton will continue to serve as General Manager as the new leadership team is assembled. No timeline has been set and no further updates will be provided until the conclusion of the searches.”

In other words, Sam Mitchell, “Don’t come around no more.”

Bait and switch

It is difficult not to feel conflicted by this latest turn of events.

Taylor has been notorious, and justly criticized, for overweening loyalty to the people he has hired, and for his stubborn refusal to depart from a familiar circle of people with ties to him and the organization. There is even a catchphrase, “the country club,” for his chummy insularity.

The latest apparent manifestation of this behavior occurred just last month, when Taylor announced during a radio interview that Newton would be in charge of the June draft and the July free agent process, an absolutely crucial period in the ongoing construction of the Wolves roster. With a number of big-name candidates for both the head coach and head of basketball operations positions currently on the sidelines, and yet sure to be attracted by the Wolves tantalizing collection of young talent, it felt like a missed opportunity.

Here is how I concluded a column about Taylor’s naming of Newton to run the franchise over the summer:

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Does anyone who has watched Taylor in action over these decades seriously believe he will pull the plug on Newton because of a faulty process?

It seems pretty apparent that Milt Newton is on board for another year and only slightly less apparent that Mitchell will likewise be retained.

Let’s not pretend all options are being explored. Unless there is some sophisticated chessboard bait-and-switch totally at odds with the Taylor normally conducts his business, many significant options have already been foreclosed.

In fact, a “sophisticated chessboard bait-and-switch” is exactly what Taylor seems to have executed.

As a result, Milt Newton is no longer a candidate to become POBO of this team and is only assured of remaining General Manager as the search process unfolds. There is now a good chance he won’t be running the draft and free agency over the summer, and his future employment is apparently at the discretion of the person who is chosen to become President of Basketball Operations.

Mitchell’s termination is a less-blatant reversal — unlike Newton, Taylor never committed to keeping him on in his expanded interim position — but perhaps even more awkwardly executed.

The morning of Wednesday night’s finale against the Pelicans, the story began to break that Mitchell’s job was tenuous. ESPN’s Marc Stein tweeted that there was “a rising belief in NBA coaching circles” that “Mitchell would be ousted.”

Then the reporter renowned for delivering swift and mostly reliable scoops on the NBA due to his extensive ties with agents and executives around the association, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, weighed in with his own very specific tweet: “Sources: Minnesota embarking on head coaching search that includes Sam Mitchell as part of the candidate process. List: Jeff Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau, Scott Brooks.”

The way Mitchell conducted himself immediately before and after the Pelicans game indicates that his perception of events mirrored that of Wojnarowski. How else to interpret statements like “I’ll just go through the process and continue to work,” and “I’m sure you’ll see me around”?

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Star Tribune beat writer Jerry Zgoda has subsequently reported that “Taylor informed Mitchell during a 15-minute phone call that he will search for a new coach,” and that players were informed of that before the Pelicans game. The key point, yet to be determined, is whether or not Taylor explicitly told Mitchell he was no longer being considered for the job.

It wasn’t until the game was already underway that Fox 9 reporter Dawn Mitchell (no relation to the coach) who only tangentially covers the Wolves beat, was the first to report that Mitchell would not be included in the coaching search. Regular beat writers Zgoda and AP’s Jon Krawcyznski had details of the Korn Ferry search firm by then, but no specifics on Mitchell’s future.

Respecting Mitchell

Wojnarowski’s breaking news tweet made me feel much better about the operation of the Wolves. This new tack seemed to strike an ideal middle ground between immediately setting out to plumb the interest and solicit the strategies of high-profile candidates for the coaching position while granting Mitchell the respect of being included in the process.

Mitchell earned that respect this season. While we talk about the growth and maturation of cornerstone players such as Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns and the even more dramatic development of starters Gorgui Dieng and Zach LaVine, the truth is that Mitchell improved on the job as much as his young team.

He began the preseason openly mocking the notion that specific plays could be run to generate three-point shots. Perhaps that was in deference to Saunders, who disdained the trey and was still in a coma at the time. But although the Wolves finished next-to-last in three-point attempts (up from dead last under Saunders a year ago), their frequency rose dramatically over the course of the season, rising every month from January’s 14.8 attempts per game up to 20.6 attempts in April. In the finale, eight players made at least one three-pointer and the Wolves shot from 13-for-28 from distance overall.

Mitchell’s salty relations with the media and the general public likewise improved throughout the 2015-16 season. Mitchell came into the job under tragic and tumultuous circumstances, without a chance to install his own offense due to the uncertainty of Saunders’ health. What’s more, he had a chip on his shoulder from the harsh blowback he received from the analytic-friendly blogging community and fan base in his first attempt at the head job, which Saunders unsurprisingly claimed for himself anyway, naming Mitchell lead assistant.

Mitchell’s NBA career was built from scratching and clawing his way to relevance. He is a battler and a competitor who hates to lose and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Put it all together and he was too frequently a jerk who needlessly antagonized the people assigned to cover the team on a regular basis. It was a hard perception to erase and likely worked against him when toting up the reasons to keep him on the job. That said, Mitchell’s mien and ability to communicate strategy and analysis steadily improved over the course of the season.

Most notably, however, Mitchell made the Wolves better in a manner that enhanced the team’s prospects for the future. Ironically, it was on Groundhog Day when the Wolves were showing every indication of being the same bunch of dreadful underachievers that failed to make the playoffs for more than a decade, sitting with a record of 14-36.

But from February 2 through the finale on April 13, Minnesota was 15-17, an upgrade accomplished by relying on the young core of talent due to a bench stripped bare by injuries and buy-outs of veterans. Neither Kevin Garnett nor Nikola Pekovic played a minute during this span due to injury. Veterans Andre Miller and Kevin Martin played a grand total of 65 and 44 minutes, respectively, before being bought out in the course of those final 32 games.

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Meanwhile, the Wolves surged on the strength of a starting lineup that included the magical rookie Towns, second-year players Wiggins and LaVine, 25-year old point guard Ricky Rubio and 26-year old, third-year forward Dieng. The bench unit was comprised third-year swingman Shabazz Muhammad, teenaged point guard Tyus Jones, D-League signee Greg Smith, inconsistent 27-year old rookie Nemanja Bjelica and aged veteran Tayshaun Prince on increasingly diminished minutes.

Mitchell coached that squad to a nearly .500 record over the final two months of the season. Sure, some of the victories came over opponents tanking for a better draft pick or wracked by injuries. But a significant number of wins were earned against quality opponents fighting for playoff position.

In his lobbying to retain his job, Mitchell was fond of saying these past few weeks that at the beginning of the season nobody regarded the task of coaching the Wolves as a desirable position. This is nonsense. Just two games into the season I was gushing that Towns’ “ceiling was too high for me to see,” and that the Wolves were about developing Towns and Wiggins as cornerstones using Rubio as the fulcrum. “If the fates and some far-sighted management enable the synchronized maturation of those three foundational pieces to happen, the rest is the easy part,” I wrote, adding that such an outcome “feels like more than a pipedream.” And I was hardly the only person with such an optimistic outlook for the future.

That said, the “far-sighted management” had more to do with Mitchell’s coaching than anyone else with influence over the roster. It can’t be emphasized enough that developing Towns and Wiggins was by far the top priority for this season. As it happens, Towns is a coach’s paradise, a phenomenally complete and consistent player with a “teacher’s pet” persona and bottomless desire.

Wiggins is more complicated; a quiet person whose stupendous athleticism is best engaged when the opponent or game-situation is at its most challenging; but who occasionally flags in his desire under more mundane circumstances.

Wiggins is also a person who doesn’t respond well to yelling and public displays of criticism, which happens to be a regular component of Mitchell’s coaching arsenal. But from Wiggins’ rookie year forward, Mitchell has always circumscribed that aspect of himself when dealing with the talented swingman. While Flip Saunders always wanted to give his son and assistant coach Ryan Saunders the most credit for grooming Wiggins during the 2014-15 season, anyone who kept their eyes open noticed that Mitchell was the go-to person on the coaching staff when the then-rookie needed instruction or advice.

That carried over into this season. The normally reticent Wiggins has been vocal in his praise of Mitchell’s coaching, both to Sports Illustrated writer Rob Mahoney and to local media in recent weeks. Given that Wiggins can declare for restricted free agency in just two more seasons, and become an unrestricted free agent after three years, getting a coach and a management team who can foster his ongoing development in a positive manner is perhaps the top priority for any new hires now under consideration.

Last but not least on this subject, Mitchell and Newton are both black. The majority of the players under their guidance this season were black. The owner is white, as are all of the major candidates being discussed to replace Mitchell and Newton. And the process by which Mitchell and Newton have been excised from the authority they held this past season has been disrespectful.

Some may think those distinctions are too simplistic and politically correct. I think those distinctions are highly relevant and noticed by members of the black community — fans, players, coaches, media — and others in Minnesota and throughout the United States in 2016. At the very least, those distinctions need to be acknowledged and factored in while determining the best way to move forward with this franchise. Ignorance isn’t bliss for anyone who cares about this team.

Obviously, Sam Mitchell isn’t coming back. And as I’ve written many times, I am not sure he is even the best person to coach the Wolves going forward. I endorse the hiring of a search firm and the need to get a head start on soliciting the high profile candidates. There is too much at stake not to explore every avenue in search of the best possible outcome. But, like the firing of Dwane Casey during the middle of the 2006-07 season, there is a chance that the Wolves will come to regret their decision to let Mitchell go.

Because the statute of limitations on unfulfilled promises, even with this beguiling collection of young players, is drawing to a close. The need to transform potential into tangible achievement begins in earnest next season. This is now a team that finished up the season 15-17 without a decent bench, and with a bunch of young players just learning to play with each other. They will own at worst a top-9 draft pick and have the resources to pursue quality free agents. Their future is tantalizing enough to garner a top-notch coach and personnel manager, and to avoid overpaying for solid role players.

We need only look at the recently completed season to realize how unpredictable fate can be. But barring any dramatic, currently unforeseen setbacks, it is reasonable to expect the 2016-17 Timberwolves to play .500 basketball and stay on the fringes of playoff contention — and to engage in some serious postseason play in the years to come.

This season began with the death of Flip Saunders and ended with the firing of Sam Mitchell. But there was a lot of good in between.

Update: My statements in Friday’s story regarding the reportorial time line on Mitchell’s ouster are inaccurate. I have subsequently learned that beat writer Jon Krawczynski of AP and Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune both reported in the late afternoon that Mitchell was no longer being considered for rehire, and that the Wolves would focus exclusively on outside candidates for the head coach and basketball operations positions. On the television side, Dawn Mitchell of Fox News and Chris Long of KSTP, also reported details of Mitchell’s ouster before the game started.

This does not change the story’s narrative regarding Mitchell’s knowledge of his fate, which remains in dispute. But had I accurately tracked the time line of reports, I would have included a sentence stating that it was possible Mitchell knew of his fate before the game started.

What is not in dispute is that I failed to give due credit to the diligent reporting by those on the Wolves beat. I regret that error. —BR