This wasn’t how things were expected to go in Minnesota this season — Flip Saunders was supposed to be on the bench guiding the development of the young team he put together. A veteran coach that drafted many of these guys, they trusted and had a good relationship with him.
Then Saunders was taken from us — screw you, cancer.
That left his old-school lead assistant coach Sam Mitchell — a former NBA head coach in Toronto — in the big chair.
Mitchell has a different style and pushed his young players — Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, and on down the line . While the team has struggled to a 14-33 record, it’s easy to see the potential for how very good they might be in a few years.
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 many players quietly grumbling about their 52-year-old interim coach….
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15 players privately expressed concerns to The Associated Press about Mitchell that centered on three basic tenets: His outdated offensive system, his tendency to platoon his rotations and a lack of personal accountability for the struggles.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.
In a lengthy Q&A recently, Mitchell talked at length about the challenges of developing young players who didn’t understand things like setting screens at different angles, or the other intricacies of high-level basketball. For that matter, he thought they lacked even basic fundamentals. He talked about the limitations of this roster. He said the same things in this latest piece, but what he’s said doesn’t play well in the locker room.
“We went to the basics because what we realized is because they haven’t gotten it,” Mitchell said earlier this year. “I’ve been doing slide drills since the eighth grade. AAU don’t do slide drills because the guy that owns the hardware store, he runs the team.”
This has induced some eye-rolling in the locker room, since NBA players have jumped to the pros either straight from high school or after one season in college for 20 years now. It also has given some the impression that the blame is being placed solely on their shoulders.
Mitchell can rail against the system and tell everyone to get off his lawn if he wants, but other coaches have gotten past this. Telling players their youth coaches sucked isn’t going to win guys over. The best coaches at player development strike a balance between criticism and praise that earns the players’ respect.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor said at the start of the season that Mitchell — as well as GM Milt Newton — would get the entire season to show what they can do. That’s only fair. There is no reason for a mid-season course correction.
But if the players are frustrated with and starting to tune out the coach — whether you think his old-school ways are right or not — that has to be a factor when looking at what to do next this summer.