If Kevin Garnett is “Mr. Timberwolves,” then Sam Mitchell at the very least would have to be “Mr. T-Wolves.”
(The Timberwolves hate it when you shorten the team name to “T-Wolves,” by the way, as they prefer “Wolves.” However, “Mr. Wolves” doesn’t scan as well, and it reminds too closely of “Mr. Wolf” from ‘Pulp Fiction,’ a character that Phil Jackson used to splice sayings from into 1995-96 Chicago Bulls game tape. As a matter of course, Sam Mitchell will stay “Mr. T-Wolves.”)
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After an up-and-down season running a ridiculously young Timberwolves team as interim head coach in 2015-16, Mitchell was let go as interim head coach in the hours following the team’s end to a 29-53 season. For the second time in this offseason, Mitchell is taking issue with the way he was moved to the side by Wolves owner Glen Taylor, in eventual favor of 2010 NBA Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau.
Mitchell, the 2007 NBA Coach of the Year, discussed as much with Darren “Doogie” Wolfson at ESPN Radio recently. Thanks to Pro Basketball Talk’s Dan Feldman for the transcription:
“I’ve known Glen Taylor a long time, and I have had the utmost respect for him. And my whole thing, Doogie, was, whether you thought I earned the job or not, that’s fine. That’s a decision that he has to make. But I felt like after 13 years of being in the organization, after being the captain, after having been the guy that was whenever there was things going on and they needed players to do things, being that go-to guy – I thought I always carried myself and conducted myself when I was in the Wolves uniform as a coach or a player. And after 13 years and being knowing Mr. Taylor for about 10 or 11, to be treated that way, that just did something to me.
“It just left a bad taste in my mouth, and Doogie, to be honest with you, it’s something that I don’t know where to place it emotionally or mentally. It’s just tough, man. I don’t know where – still to this day, I don’t think about it or dwell on it, because I understand that the NBA is not fair, that life is not fair. Bad things happen to good people all the time, and good things happen for bad people all the time. I’m about to turn 53, and I understand that. But I’ve always held Glen Taylor in high regard. And just to be treated that way – a 30-second phone call – it just didn’t sit well with me. It’s something I don’t understand, and I’ve had a hard time trying to figure out, where do I place this?
“Because, again, it would not have been easy to sit down with me and have that conversation. But I think after the years in the organization, that’s the least that you could have done for me.”
Mitchell apparently lives a good 90 minutes away from Taylor’s offices, which was utilized as the excuse for lack of face-to-face meeting, and the former coach was informed during a brief phone call on the afternoon of the final game of the regular season that he would not be returning as head coach. Later that evening, the Timberwolves sent out a press release confirming as much.
In the discussing with Wolfson, Mitchell went on to complain that newly hired Wolves general manager Scott Layden decided to call the former interim head coach to discuss the departure a month and a half after Mitchell was let go:
“It was so disrespectful to even call me a month and a half later. I think when I realized it was him, I was hanging up the phone as he was talking. There was nothing really much to say. A month and a half later – you think a month and a half later, you think I haven’t read the tea leaves and understand what is going on? Especially, a month and a half before that, I talked to Glen Taylor. So, what was there to call me about?”
That’s fair, as nobody wants their noses rubbed in it. With that in place, you’ll recall that Mitchell is but a month removed from putting Mr. Timberwolves himself in an impossible position by guessing on record that “KG was just so hurt by the way things happened,” making Garnett look like a traitor of sorts should he decide to suit up for the Wolves this season.
Garnett was a longtime teammate of Mitchell’s in Minnesota, but he also worked for three seasons with new Wolves head coach Tom Thibodeau during three successful years in Boston. Thibodeau, who entered the NBA as a rookie assistant coach in 1989 in the same season that Mitchell entered as a rookie player, has yet to get in touch with the man he replaced. Which, in a departure from his frustration with the discussion with Layden, has Mitchell annoyed.
It’s all very annoying, and unfortunate. Sam Mitchell is a tough sell, but he’s also a major part of Minnesota Timberwolves history. His inconsistent work last year didn’t make his removal from the franchise as obvious as one would assume. Nothing about 2015-16 was easy, as you’ll recall that Mitchell only took over as interim head coach when head coach and team president Flip Saunders had to step away from the team due to complications from Hodgkin lymphoma. Saunders passed away just days before the season started.
Minnesota sportswriting legend Britt Robson, as hearty a Wolves analyst as they come, brought his typical brand of nuance to the situation in a discussion about Mitchell’s removal from last spring:
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.
This is all true. However, the Timberwolves also just hired one of the best coaches in the NBA to run their team. Even if Tom Thibodeau hasn’t learned from his many missteps as Chicago Bulls head coach, he is still a formidable talent that should have this young and talented team assured to vault up the Western Conference ranks over the next few years.
It’s clear that Sam Mitchell thought his service with the team – ten seasons as a player, one as lead assistant, one as interim head coach – left him in line for deep consideration for the job. That said, rarely are interim head coaches given 82 games’ worth of time to be considered for a gig, and even if Mitchell had turned in better work from the outset he would still leave a legitimate argument to be passed over for the job just hours after the final game of the season.
Should we believe him when he says he’s “not bitter” or “angry” and that he doesn’t “think about it or dwell on it?” Probably not. He’s well within his rights to dwell, or to be and act bitterly and angrily. Getting fired is a big deal, especially when (as Mitchell points out) there are only 30 of these jobs to go around.
Sam Mitchell was asked a series of questions, and he answered as he often does. Honestly, and straight up the kilt. Kudos to him, at the very least, for that.
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