Sam Mitchell Strikes Back

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 23: during the preseason game on October 23, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Where are all the people that was criticizing us early about not playing Karl-Anthony Towns enough minutes?

— Sam Mitchell before the Washington Wizards game on March 2

It’s easy to second-guess Minnesota Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell. His rotations are sometimes befuddling. His old-school tactics have irked his young players at times. He can be hostile with the media. His team didn’t shoot a lot of threes in the beginning of the year. He didn’t give rookie sensation Karl-Anthony Towns a lot of minutes early in the season. And he benched his starters for most of the second half in a 116-101 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in early March.

As a result, he’s being attacked from all sides: locally, nationally and internationally.

“Mitchell was an admirable player. He won the NBA Coach of the Year award with Toronto. I thought he was worth a look as a head coach for this group. We have had a good, long, look,” wrote Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan back in mid-January. “Mitchell has had his chance. He has coached a talented young team for 40 games. He has produced 12 victories and no sense of progress for a team that should be defined by progress.”

“The Minnesota Timberwolves were supposed to be a team on the rise. Instead, they have lost six straight and 10 of their last 11,” wrote Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post around that time. “Part of that problem is a lack of three-point attempts,” he added, while also pointing out that Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng were either struggling or not taking large steps forward at the time.

There was even a fan from Italy who started a petition on Change.org to try and get Mitchell fired. “Dear Timberwolves Ogranization [sic],” wrote Giovanni Ferrari. “we are tired. We can understand everything, beacuse [sic] they are young, they need to learn, they need to grow. Ok, fine. But, I mean, if you are watching our games, you clearly have this question in your mind: “What is Mitchell doing?”. He’s wasting our time, our potential and we are losing another year.

“Please, if you really care about us, about the Timberwolves, sign a new coach. We don’t need someone like Steve Kerr or Pop (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) now, just a normal coach who could teach modern basketball to our modern players.”

Twenty-seven people have signed his petition, but there are many others who share a similar sentiment — or at least a combination of the three opinions. The Wolves were 17-37 at the All-Star Break. They had won three of their last four against the Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers, but also lost to the bottom-feeding Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. They were not shooting three-pointers. There had been late-game meltdowns. Even Kevin Garnett appeared to have turned on him — or at least was not publicly offering his support.

The fact that the young Wolves had a dominant presence in the All-Star Game — Zach LaVine was the NBA Rising Stars MVP and Dunk Contest Champion, and Karl-Anthony Towns won the Skills Challenge — justified to some people that Minnesota was a talented team that was not playing to its potential. A late-January report that some of the players were upset with Mitchell’s old-school coaching tactics appeared to be a breaking point.

“There is a battle of wills going on in Minnesota between an old-school coach and a roster built around new-school talent. The team’s surprising 8-8 start has been followed by a sobering 6-24 stretch that has left some players quietly grumbling about their 52-year-old interim coach,” wrote Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press. “Mitchell believes his approach is starting to pay dividends for his youngest players — 20-year-olds Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and LaVine, 23-year-old Shabazz Muhammad — who are tasked with rescuing a woebegone franchise.

“But nearly half the roster of 15 players privately expressed concerns to The Associated Press about Mitchell that centered on three basic tenets: His outdated offensive system, his tendency to platoon his rotations and a lack of personal accountability for the struggles. The players spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly criticize their head coach.”

Over the course of February, however, things have changed dramatically. It’s not as though their record has vastly improved, but individual players have gotten better. Tyus Jones is establishing himself. Gorgui Dieng and Towns have become a formidable tandem in the frontcourt. LaVine is becoming a dynamic shooting guard. Shabazz Muhammad is bringing energy off the bench. Most importantly, he got Garnett’s stamp of approval.

“I feel real good about the progression of this team since day one, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told the AP. “More importantly, I’m excited about our future. I’m excited about our young players.”

Mitchell may not be the most progressive mind in the game, and he may not be the most personable guy, but his player development methods are becoming more and more difficult to scrutinze — and he’s letting everyone know about it.

“The thing that I find funny is that, of all the things you write, no one has written Andrew Wiggins has upped his scoring average in less minutes,” he said at a practice on March 1. “He’s not playing 42 minutes a game like he was last year. He’s playing about 35, 36. But his scoring average has increased by 3.5, almost four points a game.”

He was also highly criticized for not playing Towns enough early in the season.

“Man, I’m just getting hammered about Karl-Anthony Towns: ’30 minutes is not enough for a guy who played 20 minutes a game in college at 20 years old?’” he said before the Washington Wizards game a day later. “And now all of a sudden he’s playing 41 minutes a game, and now all of a sudden it’s too many minutes.”

To his credit, the team has transitioned from one that started Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett and had Andre Miller as the backup point guard to a team that starts five core players — Ricky Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Towns and Dieng — with Muhammad coming off the bench and Jones, whose debut was so rough that Mitchell didn’t want to talk about it afterwards — as the backup point guard.

“I’m telling you, man. That’s why sometimes you gotta check your own selves,” he told the media before the Washington game. “That’s why y’all do what y’all do. I never come in that room back there and tell you what to write; don’t come past that door (to the locker room) and tell us what to do.”

It’s not just the media that is pressuring him, however. The fans have spoken as well. A recent comment thread on a Deadspin article about Zach LaVine’s 360 dunk against the Charlotte Hornets expresses what many Wolves fans are thinking right now.

“I want the Wolves to start winning so badly,” writes one commenter. “Such a great roster of young talent.”

“They’re getting better! The starting 5 is a legit NBA core. The defensive rotations are still a mess and SMitchell can’t decide if he wants Shabazz to play 10 minutes or 20 minutes a night,” responds another. “I firmly believe that they’re a good coach away from the 7th or 8th seed.”

Instead of giving into the Fire Mitchell! crowd, the Wolves need make their best effort to get the GM and coaching staff that they want in place in the offseason. They need to look at what’s out there: If there’s a GM they love, he’s going to want his own coach no matter how Minnesota finishes out the season. Maybe Tom Thibodeau really wants the Wolves job. Maybe Dave Joerger, a Staples, Minn. native, becomes available. But maybe it’s Mitchell, who has his young players playing well enough that they are starting games for him.

Getting rid of Mitchell just to appease a crowd that hasn’t seen playoff basketball since Garnett departed for Boston doesn’t do the organization any good. Maybe there is a method to his madness. Maybe it’s worth giving him another year and seeing who’s available after that. Really, what it comes down to is how much credit he deserves for the success of his talented young players.

If he wants to be the Wolves coach for the foreseeable future, they have to become bona fide stars. It’s a difficult job, but that’s why he gets the big bucks.

“And that’s why you guys get to second-guess us all the time, so it’s an even swap,” he said at the March 2 pregame. “I’ll take the money and your second-guessing any day.”

Photo credit: Minnesota Timberwolves

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 23: during the preseason game on October 23, 2015 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

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