The Curious Fate of Sam Mitchell

Sam Mitchell

A little over a week ago, Sam Mitchell appeared on Darren “Doogie” Wolfson’s podcast The Scoop. Sam was as forthcoming as I’ve ever heard him, and although I’m not going to recount the specific quotes (listen to The Scoop for that), suffice it to say, he is not happy with how the Wolves let him go. And who can blame him?

To say that Mitchell started out last season in a tough spot is a gross understatement. Flip Saunders was more than the head coach and president of the Timberwolves; with the arguable exceptions of Kevin Garnett and Kevin McHale, there was no one more connected to or invested in Minnesota basketball. Mitchell knows that as well as anyone. He played for Flip and coached with Flip. He saw firsthand how much Flip loved basketball and, in turn, how much the sport loved him back. When Sam took over as interim head coach, no matter what he said, there was no way he was prepared, emotionally or logistically, because in that situation no one could be.

But every time LaVine checked in at point guard or KAT sat too long on the bench or a player passed up an open three for a two just inside the line, I pounded my coffee table and ground my teeth. I fell victim to two major flaws in fandom: arrogance and impatience. I saw a coach who didn’t understand the modern NBA, who was stubborn when he should have been flexible, and who couldn’t grasp the strengths and weaknesses of his own players. And because the Timberwolves are known more for loyalty than audacity, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Mitchell would be the head coach for the foreseeable future. They weren’t going to fire the man who stepped in for Flip under the worst possible circumstances. That just wouldn’t be Minnesota nice. And being from Minnesota, part of me didn’t blame them. But a larger part of me was already dreading the inevitable “Mitchell sheds interim tag, becomes official head coach of the Wolves” headlines.

But a funny thing happened on the way to another year of long twos and LaVine turnovers. The Wolves got fun. They shot more threes. They played faster, taking advantage of their supreme athleticism. LaVine started at the 2 and turned into a flamethrower. Wiggins took his shooting (especially from three) from dismal to exceptional and became a bona fide closer. KAT ran roughshod over the hopes and dreams of grown men, took a Usain Bolt-like lead in the ROY race, and had people contemplating whether he’d be the guy you picked to start a franchise, over KD, over Steph, over Anthony Davis, over even Lebron.

From the All-Star break on, the Timberwolves played with purpose. Their confidence built. They started to trust each other. With every game, I wondered a little more whether I’d been wrong about Sam. Maybe the early season offense had seemed like a pale imitation of Flip’s offense because Sam hadn’t had time to install a faster-paced, better-spaced offense. Maybe handing LaVine those point guard minutes forced him to see the game at a different speed and from a different perspective. Maybe he saw Wiggins in practice and knew his shooting would come around, knew that his quiet demeanor belied a killer instinct. Maybe he knew that KAT was the type of player who attacked every challenge you gave him, who understood that, even as the Number 1 Pick, he was entitled to nothing. Maybe Sam Mitchell knows more about basketball than I do. By the time the Wolves rolled into Oakland on Tuesday, April 5, I hadn’t been fully swayed, but the thought of Mitchell for another year no longer put a pit in my stomach.

I’m not going to apologize for making too much of one game, not when that game is between my moribund Timberwolves and the GREATEST REGULAR SEASON TEAM OF ALL TIME (who still managed to squander a 3-1 series lead in the NBA Finals). Not when that game is a glimpse into the future. LaVine outshot the Splash Brothers from three. Shabazz was a wrecking ball off the bench. Bjelica flashed the skills that had made him Euroleague MVP. Even Ty Jones had 5 assists. For long stretches, Wiggins was the best player on the court. When he wasn’t, KAT was; even on a night when he shot 44% from the field, 50% on free throws, and picked up 5 fouls, he still had 20, 12, and 4. They came back from 17 on the road against a team that hadn’t given up a 15-point lead in 114 games. They were down three with under a minute left in regulation and came back to tie the game and rode Wiggins to an OT victory. They played their asses off. And a lot of the credit for that has to go to Mitchell. Teams don’t fight that hard, don’t topple Goliath without at least respecting, maybe even loving, their coach. I was ready to give Sam another year with no misgivings.

And then the Timberwolves turned into a different franchise. Long criticized for the “country club” and placing more importance on fraternity than on intelligent decision-making, Glen Taylor became a stone-cold killer. Make no mistake, Sam Mitchell wanted this job. He lobbied for it. He felt he’d done enough to deserve consideration. So I can only imagine how he felt when he woke up the morning of the last game of the season to see that rumors were already spreading that his hold on the job was tenuous. By the end of that day, he was fired via a phone call and a week later Tom Thibodeau was the new head coach and President of Basketball Operations.

In his conversation with Wolfson, Mitchell says that it’s not the firing so much as the way it was done. And what comes through most in the interview is not so much anger but pain. Sam was hurt and some of that pain comes through in petulance (e.g., not speaking with Scott Layden when Layden called him). But in the same situation, I’m hard-pressed to believe I would have risen above the fray. Sam thought he deserved more respect after all he had given the franchise. After playing most of his career with the Timberwolves. After coming back to be an assistant coach. After stepping into an impossible situation and, overall, doing better than we had a right to expect. He’s right. I want my team not just to play well on the court but also to treat their players, fans, employees, and coaches well off the court. They failed in this case, failed miserably. Even if I think they made the right choice in moving forward, they should’ve treated Sam better.

The good news is that, outside of the Timberwolves situation, Sam sounds like he’s doing well. He’s helping a friend coach high school ball. He’s preparing himself for possible college coaching opportunities. He’s staying involved with the game he loves. I’m happy for him. Wherever he lands, I’ll be rooting for him.

Look around the league and you’ll see plenty of situations in which losing has instilled bad habits and bad attitudes. Mitchell didn’t let that happen to the Wolves. Even at the beginning of the year, they played hard. They learned from their mistakes and kept getting better. A good portion of the excitement for this year’s team comes from how they played as the season wound down. Mitchell could have coasted. Heaven knows he had an excuse. But he coached, and the entire franchise is better for it. So thank you, Sam, for all you’ve done for my favorite team, for laying the groundwork for what looks to be a strong future. In a couple years, when the Wolves are contenders, we’ll look back and see that they couldn’t have done it without you.

(By the way, if you’re not already listening to The Scoop, I highly recommend you add it to your podcast subscription list. Wolfson’s coverage runs the gamut of Minnesota sports, he always has great guests, and he is the type of interviewer who can both make it sound like a conversation between friends and tease out honest and interesting quotes. Plus, his dulcet tones are easy on the ears.

And it goes without saying that you should also listen to The Howl, HTW’s podcast. We’ve got a lot of great things lined up for the season.)

Arrow to top