By: Dan Slaubaugh
I'll start off by saying that Sam Mitchell should not have ever been the Timberwolves head coach. He was thrust into the position when Flip Saunders tragically passed away just a few days before the season began. With that came grief, anguish, and sadness from everyone within the Minnesota Timberwolves organization. But there were games to be played and jobs to be done.
Mitchell didn't have time to install an offense or adequately prepare for a season as a head coach, and the team was full of a bunch of (talented) kids who couldn't even get into a bar. The odds were stacked against Mitchell before the season even began.
The season begins!
The season began with a pair of road wins against two subpar teams, the Lakers and Nuggets. The team was 2-0, and promptly returned home November 2 for what would be an emotional home opener, as fans and players said goodbye to their beloved coach.
A theme began that night -- a theme in losing at home, that is -- that continued throughout the year. In fact, they didn't win their first home game until November 23, their 7th home game of the season.
Minnesota maintained a competitive record early in the season because of the grit it showed on the road. After the first 11 games, the Wolves already had road wins at Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami. This is, in hindsight, very impressive considering 2 of those teams now have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
After 16 games, the Wolves stood at a .500 record of 8-8. Mitchell clearly valued defense over offense, prioritizing giving minutes to savvy veteran defenders Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett over younger, offensive-minded players such as Shabazz Muhammad, and it was working. However, questions remained. Most notably, Mitchell's repeated decision to play Zach LaVine at the point guard position received constant scrutiny.
As it turns out, the Timberwolves wouldn't sniff .500 the rest of the season, losing seven of their last eight after reaching that 8-8 mark.
Fans and local media were befuddled with Mitchell's methods. The team was blowing huge leads. Rotations were poor. The offensive system was outdated. On top of all that, Mitchell consistently displayed an icy demeanor during media sessions, a change of pace from Saunders' warm and respectful demeanor towards the media. Combine all those factors together, and what support Mitchell had was dwindling quickly.
As the season wore on, Mitchell began to sacrifice defense for offense and experience for development. LaVine grew into a starting shooting guard role and Tyus Jones took on the backup point guard role. Meanwhile, veterans Tayshaun Prince, Andre Miller and Kevin Martin all began to see less playing time. In fact, Miller and Martin saw their contracts bought out. Indeed, the youth movement was in full swing.
While the losing continued, fans' distaste of Mitchell's methods lessened as they saw he was seeking to maximize his young players' potentials through frequent rotation schemes each night.
After 56 games, the team sat 27-39. To everyone's surprise, they proceeded to go 12-14 in their final 26 games while playing LaVine a ton of minutes and Jones (who needed the experience) in a regular role as a backup behind Ricky Rubio. The transition offense was much better than it was 3-4 months ago, and the system used was becoming more modern by the game. Things were looking up.
Down the stretch, it's no secret that LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Gorgui Dieng thrived late in the season. And it'd be a shame if Mitchell didn't receive at least some credit for that.
The quartet's stats pre and post AS break:
Pre: 24.3mpg, 12.8ppg, 2.9rpg, 3.2apg, 43%fg, 34%3ptfg
Post: 35.mpg, 16.4ppg, 2.5rbg, 2.8apg, 48%fg, 44%3ptfg
Pre: 35.1mpg, 20.8ppg, 3.7rbs, 1.8asts, 45%fg, 24%3ptfg
Post: 35.1mpg, 20.5ppg, 3.5rbs, 2.4asts, 48%fg, 41%3ptfg
Pre: 30.1mpg, 17.1ppg, 10.1rpg, 1.4apg, 54%fg,
Post: 35.7mpg, 20.8ppg, 11rpg, 3apg, 53%fg
Pre: 25.5mpg, 9.4ppg, 7.1rpg, 1.6apg, 53%fg
Post: 29.9mpg, 11.5ppg, 7.3rpg, 2apg, 53%fg
Yes, Wiggins and Dieng's stats pre-AS and post-AS numbers are strikingly similar, but consistency is a major step in progression. If anything, they were amazingly consistent.
Mitchell also deserves at least come credit for how amazing KAT was throughout the entire season. Yes, KAT probably puts up excellent numbers if under a different coach. But he did it under Mitchell, and there's credit to be given there.
The Wolves also figured out how to be road warriors under Mitchell. In that 12-14 stretch they put together at the end of the season, they earned road wins against Oklahoma City in OT, Washington in 2OT, Golden State, and Portland.. The fact that Mitchell had this young, inexperienced Wolves team winning games, against teams that are either elite (OKC and Golden State) or fighting for a playoff spot (Washington and Portland) on the road, is extremely impressive. In fact, the Wolves finished 15-26 on the road for the season, having beaten half of the NBA's playoff teams on their own home floors. That's impressive for any team, but especially for one as young as Minnesota.
Defense is still an issue, finishing 28th best out of 30 in the NBA. But, it's tough to have an adequate defense when the players logging the most minutes can hardly drink alcohol legally. The inexperience, lack of stamina and strength was just too often exploited by more veteran-heavy teams. It's no secret that defense is a major process with any young team, and the Wolves are no exception.
Mitchell's coaching career in Minnesota comes to an end
Wednesday night, roughly an hour after the Wolves' colossal win over the Pelicans, the Timberwolves PR department reported through Twitter that Sam Mitchell had been relieved of his coaching duties.
Many were stunned that the Wolves made the announcement so soon and that Glen Taylor was uncharacteristically quick to his approach because of his recent history and laid-back personality.
Because the announcement was made without hesitancy, it is most likely that Taylor (shockingly) made up his mind weeks ago. He understood Sam Mitchell wasn't the best coach the Wolves could hire to capitalize on this outstanding opportunity. There are superb coaches on the market interested in this team. Glen Taylor acknowledged that, and came to a decision he thought would be best for the future of the organization.
Sam Mitchell did a fine job as interim head coach of the Timberwolves. He may be remembered as the ill-tempered coach who called us all pedestrians, but he did a rock solid job of developing players while producing wins in the last couple of months.
With that, the Wolves, for the first time in years, have legitimate momentum heading into next season. Mitchell deserves a lot of credit for that.
So, thank you Sam, and farewell.