When I awoke this morning, I learned that Sam Mitchell was fired by the Timberwolves. There have been several Timberwolves coaches where their firing has resulted in me literally dancing in place the second I heard the news. I have repeatedly called for Sam's firing, yet I did not do my Lowe/Rodgers/Blair/Wittman/Rambis jig when I heard the news. This felt very odd, almost as if I had a soul or something. But I have had some time to digest the firing (which I am still in favor of) and the reason for my ambivalence, and I will attempt to explain it here.
As I have stated a number of times this year, it is rough being a Wolves fan. http://hoopramblings.blogspot.com/2016/01/things-get-worse-and-worse-for.html http://hoopramblings.blogspot.com/2016/01/my-continued-lament-as-timberwolves-fan.html
Sam isn't a particularly good coach, and as I stated on December 8, 2015 (see last link above), the problems that the Timberwolves had were many and needed immediate correction in early December.
The Wolves needed to find 5-7 guys to rely upon and play that rotation a lot, play Tyus Jones as the backup PG, move LaVine to shooting guard (where he likes to play), jettison Kevin Martin, stop playing Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince, and do basic NBA things like making offense-defense substitutions late in games. Wiggins was regressing, so he needed to be told how to improve.
The Wolves were 8-12. They fell quickly to 22 games under .500 (14-36) by going 6-24 over their next 30. They ended the season 29-53, so it was those 30 games where it all went wrong. What happened in December and January? Well, KAT played about 30 mpg. Why? Who knows. Why would you play your best player 30 mpg? The rest of the year KAT played roughly 36 mpg, and the Wolves went 15-17.
So....settle on a rotation. Use your best players. Pretty simple stuff.
Tyus Jones through Jan. 31 had played 98 minutes. And Andre Miller was starting to play some PG minutes in early February. Tyus then started to play more in late February and March, ending the season as the backup PG. Zach LaVine as a starter (off guard) had a Net Rating of negative 8. As a bench player (PG) - negative 14. As an off guard his scoring went up and his assists stayed roughly the same. During the Wolves' darkest days, LaVine's terrible PG play really hurt them, as is reflected in his advanaced stats during that period.
Ricky Rubio, who never liked the fact that Sam liked to play LaVine 20+ minutes at PG, thrived when Miller and then Tyus became the backup, having his best months in February and March.
Andrew Wiggins, once informed that he actually needed to try to be involved in most possessions every game and attempt some jumpers and pass when tripled on drives to the hoop, played his best in March.
So, all of the things I begged for in early December of 2015 started to change around in February and March of 2016, but not until a 6-24 stretch that ruined the season. If I can notice glaring weaknesses/issues with an NBA club, and see what needs fixing, why does it take SO long for an NBA coach to get it fixed? It is really baffling.
An above average coach does things where a fan doesn't quite understand why they are doing them, but they seem to work. Rick Adelman ran the exact same out of bounds play under his scoring basket 90% of the time - worked for a basket 40% of the time, got the ball in 100% of the time. A guy like Brad Steven just baffles you with the mystery of why his team believes they are good and then goes out and beats teams with far superior talent. Same with Pop - when the Spurs play only bench players 6-12, they still often win against good teams.
I am not asking that the Wolves hire the #1 overall coach ever to stalk the sidelines, but I would like it if I did not have to watch every single game and see the opposing PG stroll into the lane off the pick and roll for a layup or a pass for a dunk. There ARE other ways to play the pick and roll rather than yelling at Rubio "Come on Ricky, get through there!" Sam's team would get absolutely pounded to death with the same play, and we would still defend it the exact same way (poorly).
Sam could be petty and condescending to the press and the fans, and I didn't appreciate his idea that the Wolves played better on the road because the home fans sucked. He also had an odd habit of blaming his young players for poor play when, in fact, those young guys were having the best games.
So, do I think Sam should be fired - yes. Do I hate the guy - no. Why?
I mean, it maybe took him 2-3 months to see the problems I was seeing and try to fix them, but at least he kept trying. He didn't insist, in most instances, that what he was doing was 100% correct. Eventually: He played Towns more. He moved LaVine (eventually) to off guard and convinced him that dribbling was a tool to be used when necessary and not a drug to make your brain think you are Kobe or Iverson. He got Wiggy to show a LITTLE more interest in the off the ball game, and some desire to pass the ball. He got rid of the old guys. He started to do offense/defense substitutions late in games (albeit some odd ones at times - taking out KAT for defense?). He stopped playing Prince 35 minutes and played him 10 mpg as a novelty defender/defender of last resort. All of that resulted in Sam's club getting better. He was trying. He also stood up for his club at appropriate times. Rambis NEVER stood up for his players with the refs. Wittman's tirades at the refs appeared to work off a random number generator program -- "OK, today, 7th call of the game, get really mad. 12th call, pretend you don't care."
Sam was interested in the game and appeared to grasp (albeit belatedly) the general concepts of the game that needed improvement from his team. He worked to make the young guys better. He tried to learn something about his players and his players SOMETIMES played hard for him. (The Wolves never played hard for Rambis). His guys weren't crying out for him to be fired.
So, good-bye Sam Mitchell. I won't really miss you that much, but I will appreciate that you tried hard and helped the young guys make progress. For that, I thank you for your service.