I think we can have something pretty special here in Minnesota.
— Former interim coach Sam Mitchell at practice before the team’s final game this year
The Minnesota Timberwolves have an opportunity to become what the Oklahoma City Thunder could have been. OKC reached the 2012 NBA Finals with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden — then dealt away Harden the next season. They haven’t been back since.
The Wolves have a generational star in Karl-Anthony Towns, a sublime scorer in Andrew Wiggins and an athletic marvel in Zach LaVine. Now they need the right coach to get the most out of their talents, the right management to put a team around them and ownership that will create a winning culture that encourages fans to fill the Target Center and Towns, Wiggins and LaVine to stay in Minnesota long enough to win it all.
Sam Mitchell, of course, won’t be around to see it through.
The final few days of Mitchell’s tenure as the interim head coach were as odd as they were unceremonious, a direct contrast to last year when the late Flip Saunders held a final press conference at the end of the season where the president of basketball operations and head coach offered his take on the team’s key players, tied up loose ends and explained his vision for the team once again.
The Wolves have a generational star in Karl-Anthony Towns, a sublime scorer in Andrew Wiggins and an athletic marvel in Zach LaVine
“When I look back, it’s not very many times where you lose as many games as we lost, and you feel you were able to accomplish something during the season,” he said. “But I felt we accomplished what we set out to do when we made that decision, and that our young players developed at a rapid pace.”
This year that synopsis came after the second-to-last game of the season, a 129-105 loss to the Houston Rockets at Target Center. Sam Mitchell offered his plea to be retained as head coach, relatively unprompted, in a five-plus minute speech at the end of his postgame press conference.
“No one talked about, ‘This was a good job.’ No one! It’s amazing to me!” he exclaimed. “Now, all of a sudden it’s a good job. But when we started the season, in training camp, no one thought it was a good job. No one thought we had a foundation. Did anybody see a foundation? I did not see one article about a foundation that we could start building around.”
Then he was relieved of his duties two days later.
Reports started to surface before the team’s final game suggesting that there would be a coaching search. “The Minnesota Timberwolves are planning to engage in a coaching search that will include interim coach Sam Mitchell as part of the process, league sources told The Vertical,” wrote Adrian Wojnarowski a couple hours before the game. The Star Tribune clarified that the search would begin with only outside candidates first, then Mitchell would be considered later. Finally, Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press reported that Mitchell would not be retained as head coach at the end of the game on a local radio program.
“No one talked about, ‘This was a good job.’ No one! It’s amazing to me!”
Mitchell apparently thought he would be considered in the process, because in his postgame press conference after a 144-109 blowout of the New Orleans Pelicans, he said, “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.’”
It should be acknowledged that Mitchell got the head coaching position under undesirable conditions — Saunders, a close friend, had passed away — and essentially developed a strong core that another coach will take over. It’s not entirely true, however, that nobody said coaching the Wolves was a good job, as he was able to coach two No. 1 overall picks and one of the most athletic players ever to enter the league. But as he pointed out in his press conference after the second-to-last game, Towns and LaVine blossomed under his tutelage and Wiggins continues to be a reliable scorer.
The team also finished strong, including a late-season road trip where they beat the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers. What he lacked in in-game strategy and rotation logic, he made up for in player development. And he did it all after a tragic start to the season.
The team finished strong, including a late-season road trip where they beat the Golden State Warriors and the Portland Trail Blazers
Britt Robson wrote that the way Mitchell was fired was disrespectful in a recent MinnPost article. At the very least, it was pretty awkward. Other people knew he was going to be fired before he did, although the team did not issue a statement until well after the game was over.
“Due to the sudden onset of Flip Saunders’ illness leading to his untimely death, the team was unable to conduct a search for these two critical positions (head coach and GM) in the timetable leading up to the start of the 2015-16 season,” it read. “In these unusual circumstances, Sam Mitchell was named to interim head coach and Milt Newton was asked to act as the head of basketball operations, filling the void left by Saunders.”
In truth, he was a long shot to be retained once it became clear there would be a coaching search with bigger-name candidates. Jeff Van Gundy led the New York Knicks to the playoffs six times, including the 1999 NBA Finals, as well as the Yao Ming Rockets. Tom Thibodeau was named Coach of the Year in 2011 after tying the record for most wins by a rookie head coach with 62, and became the fastest coach to 100 victories the next year. Issues with the front office led to his firing last year, but the Bulls finished 42-40 this season and missed the playoffs without him. Scott Brooks is the guy who took the Durant-Westbrook-Harden Thunder to the 2012 Finals.
Tom Thibodeau was named Coach of the Year in 2011 after tying the record for most wins by a rookie head coach with 62, and became the fastest coach to 100 victories the next year
Mitchell coached the Toronto Raptors from 2004-08 and was named 2006-07 Coach of the Year, but the team appears to be aiming for someone to fill the head of basketball operations and head coaching position. His disdain for the media didn’t do him any favors with the local press, and his odd rotations and dismissal of advanced analytics upset fans and bloggers alike. But ultimately the opportunity to coach Towns, Wiggins and LaVine is enticing to people with more credentials than he has.
Thibodeau appears to be the frontrunner, being that management appears to have held him back in Chicago, and he could be both the head of basketball operations and head coach in Minnesota — although it should be noted that he has no front office experience. Van Gundy has been out of the coaching game for a while, but his brother, Stan, is head of basketball operations and head coach of the Detroit Pistons and it would set up a unique dynamic. Dave Joerger is from Minnesota, but is under contract with the Memphis Grizzlies and the team would have to work around that. Brooks could finish the job that he wasn’t able to once Harden was traded in OKC.
No matter who ends up coaching the team, one thing is certain: The Wolves have a good thing going on right now.