The Timberwolves are already half-way to their win total from last season and it is only the beginning of December. So if comparing this season to seasons past, its been a significant improvement. There are things you can attribute to coaching, roster moves, team chemistry, and to player development. But just because things have improved does not mean that couldn’t be better. The Wolves have won some games they shouldn’t have (sweeping the Hawks and winning in Miami) and lost games they probably could’ve won (twice against the Magic).
Part of the tug-of-war between the front office and the coaching staff is always one of player development vs the outcome this season. The beauty of having a GM-Coach like the role Flip Saunders had is that there is absolutely a balance. Although the Wolves were terrible last season, its clear that Wiggins and LaVine developed a lot over the course of the season into this one and the Wolves were able to identify that the ROI (Return on Investment) on Anthony Bennett wasn’t worth it. Wiggins & LaVine look like they are among the best rookies from last season because of this balance and the Wolves are now better positioned to be a contender in the future. Now with Mitchell in his position, he is fighting to prove he is worthy of being a coach passed this season.
Mitchell biggest criticism thus far which is probably evenly split between Wolves fans is Karl-Anthony Towns’ minutes. He has seen a dramatic decrease in minutes and has struggled in the limited minutes after having a historic start to the season for the rookie. Gorgui Dieng has seem more minutes and to his credit, has produced nicely. But many believe that Towns does give the Wolves a better chance to win and should see any minutes in the fourth quarter. Over the last five games, Towns has averaged 22 minutes a game and on many occasions hasn’t played in the 4th quarter.
Mitchell has come out and finally spoke on the minutes issues for Towns and says he doesn’t want to burn him out and says its part of the learning process. Trusting the process can be rough though, just as the Sixers. This was the first time Mitchell actually spoke about it, as there were many questions as to why Towns was not playing and the Wolves continued to lose in close games. Towns did take the high road and said his minutes in College prepared him for this. Sam Mitchell is trying to win games, which is understood. But you have to believe, Karl-Anthony Towns playing in the fourth quarter a little more would probably help that cause along.
The next criticism against Mitchell has been his handling of another young prospect, Zach LaVine. Mitchell started training camp naming LaVine the starting shooting guard and then moved him to the bench as the back up point guard. After a slow start, it was clear LaVine was most effective as a shooting guard and not effective at the point. Once it was realized the Wolves couldn’t afford Tayshaun Prince in the starting lineup, the struggling Kevin Martin was moved in to replace Prince. LaVine currently has a PER of 18.2, which is an improvement from last season 11.3 PER. LaVine also has the 4th highest Win Share on the team at 1.1, where Martin has a .5 WS and Prince with .2. LaVine’s Box Plus/Minus has improved leaps and bounds from last season, where he has a BPM this season of 2.2, where it was a terrible -4.5 last year. Kevin Martin has a BPM of -4.3 right now. Long story short, not only has LaVine improved, but he is playing much better than Martin or Prince this season.
The concern in all of this worries fans that followed Mitchell in Toronto. In case you didn’t know, Sam Mitchell was awarded Coach of the Year 2006-2007 but was the coach who allowed Kobe to score 81 points and also failed to develop a lot of key pieces while there, namely former number 1 pick Andrea Bargnani. Bargnani was restricted on minutes early on and never built the kind of relationship you would want out of your top draft pick and your head coach. He also failed to develop many draft picks who seemed to have the potential to succeed in this league. Many players left Toronto disgruntled, which led to a poor season and his termination soon after.
Lastly, the rotations Sam Mitchell is using are questionable at best. Staggering and balancing bench players with starters is a way to keep the level of talent on the floor at least even while you rest your best players. Mitchell has played his bench through long and important minutes through the 4th quarter which usually puts the team in a deeper deficit than it needs to be. It seems like substitutions are more reactionary than tactically decided. It also seems that even if a guy is playing well, they still seem to not get the minutes, like Shabazz Mohammad. It is just difficult to see the logic Mitchell is using to decide who is on the floor.
It is important to point out that there are things Sam Mitchell is doing right too. Mitchell is a players’ coach. He seems to be able to relate to players and understand them. Mitchell also seemingly has a good relationship with KG, in which he probably serves as the most important person to Garnett in the organization at this point. But on the court, the Wolves have clearly improved as a team. They have moved away from the bottom of the barrel in the league defensively, to at one point one of the best teams in that category this season. There have been woes offensively where the team has shot below 40% a couple of times and are not leveraging their young by struggling in fast break points.
The Wolves are also playing with a grit that they lacked in previous seasons. They don’t give up after they go down by 10. They stay close at the end of games. And it doesn’t feel like we are going to lose every game within 5 like a few seasons ago with Rick Adelman. Its hard to tell if this is because Garnett is inspiring the young guys or if Mitchell is motivating these guys to play hard, it does deserve praise. For this alone, its clear Mitchell is not warranting any sort of dramatic firing. But again, this team’s number one priority is development and what the franchise is banking on. So the criticism is warranted.
The truth of the matter is this Sam Mitchell will likely coach out this year. The Wolves are not in a position to win a championship at the given moment and the team is performing at about their expectations. I also believe Glen Taylor is going to try and figure out how to move forward on what happens with the GM & Coaching void Flip left behind. What will be said, the hope is Sam Mitchell is not the Wolves coach the 2016-17 season. The development of the key pieces on this roster is far more important than Sam Mitchell’s wizardry on the bench. I don’t believe the Wolves as an organization can afford Mitchell as head coach another season, especially with the talent pool of available head coaches.