The Kids Are Alright - Part One - Sam Mitchell


 

Source: Sportsnet.ca

The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the most exciting up-and-coming teams in the NBA. They have three cornerstones to build around— Karl Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine.They will most likely have a top five pick in the 2016 NBA draft, and they will have cap space to potentially find a Power Forward to pair up with KAT, and to potentially find a three-and-D player to bolster the bench support. Optimism is high in Minnesota for the future of this very young squad. The national media sees it, the NBA’s best coaches and players see it, and the fans see it. However, this is part one of a two-part saga, so what this means is that you must eat your vegetables before you can have your dessert. The first topic being addressed is of Timberwolves coach, Sam Mitchell.  This will be focusing on his archaic offensive philosophy, how he has distributed minutes, and how he has utilized a few of his players this season. There are definitely more frustrations with Mitchell’s coaching philosophies, but this article would not end until next week if all were delved into. 

Sam Mitchell’s coaching has been severely lacking this season and an overhaul is detrimental to the future success of this young squad. Sitting at a record of 25-50, the Wolves feature the 27th ranked defense, and a bench that clearly needs to be upgraded. They have had problems closing out teams in the fourth quarter, and surprisingly they trail the OKC Thunder for second most blown leads in the league. Although they have had some pretty impressive wins this season against some of the leagues elite, they have also had some pretty ugly losses to teams that are considered in the NBA’s lower tier. With this being the 12th straight season of missing the playoffs, the Wolves need to stop making the same mistakes over and over, and do the right thing. Hire one of the great coaches currently available (Tom Thibodeau, David Blatt, Jeff Van Gundy anyone?) and let them develop this surge of talent the Wolves organization has never seen before. 

An Archaic Offensive Philosophy Leaves the Young Pups Behind

More than a handful of times this season it has been frustrating to watch how Sam Mitchell has operated this team offensively. His archaic offensive playbook is best saved for a museum. It features a hell of a lot of long-two jump shots, and it leaves little to the imagination. Winning NBA organizations have proven, to be successful in this league, you need to take three point shots and you need to be getting to the rack. Although the Wolves have looked much better offensively as of late, the fact that Mitchell has taken so long to make the necessary changes have proven how he's not the right fit for this team.

Let’s speak frankly about the progression of today’s NBA offense. Most (a handful are still in denial) teams in the NBA know that to win in today’s league, as I stated above, you need to be good at shooting three pointers and you need to be able to get to the rim. They also know they should not be settling for long two jump shots because they are extremely inefficient. Unfortunately for our pups, they are tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the third worst three point shooting percentage in the NBA. They also settle for the long twos more often than not. That combination is really not ideal if you want to compete in this league. Zach LaVine can become the three point specialist this team needs. Also Andrew Wiggins, Shabazz Muhammad, and Karl-Anthony Towns should be able to develop a stable three point shot as well.

Although the Wolves are doing pretty well at attacking the rim and getting fouled, ranking third best in the league with 27.1 free throw attempts per game – As stated earlier, too often they end up settling for long jumpers. It’s frustrating to watch an offensive play end when a screen is set in the high post and the player with the ball uses the screen to pull up for a 20-footer instead of looking for the better option with plenty of time still available on the shot clock. These chalk up to wasted plays and the Wolves need to get better at finding the better shot. This is seen way too many times with both Wiggins and LaVine. These guys are both good shooters and are athletically gifted enough to get to the rim at will if they want to. They need to grow a mindset that the long two should not be the first option.

With Mitchell’s offense mostly running plays that quite frequently look for the long two, this puts the Wolves at a disadvantage from the get-go. This team needs to get better at shooting three pointers, and they need to get better at finding the higher percentage shot. This type of offense seemed to have worked in the late 90s/early 2000s, but the NBA has evolved since then. It’s definitely time for this team to hire a coach who can run an offensive that is creative and progressive. They need to find someone who isn’t too stubborn or proud, someone who is willing to adapt their personal basketball philosophy if need be. They need to find someone who can come in with an open mind and adjust to the ever-changing landscape of the NBA.

Fitting Square Pegs into Round Holes

A good coach knows best how and when to use the players they have at their disposal. They should know the strengths and weaknesses of each player on the roster. If one strategy is clearly not working, a good coach will adapt and make the necessary tweaks until it starts working again. In a perfect world that’s what you would assume would happen. But we’re talking about the Minnesota Timberwolves, and if the right decision is as clear as a day, you sure as hell know that they’ll do the opposite. With head scratching bench rotations, absurd minutes distributed, and trying to fit square pegs into round holes, Sam Mitchell has been extremely disappointing regarding the usage of his players.

Zach LaVine is the first player to come into mind on the subject about Mitchell unable to utilize his players correctly. Is he a Point Guard or is he a Shooting Guard? That’s a question that has been asked about LaVine since he was drafted 13th overall by the Timberwolves in the summer of 2014. After Ricky Rubio went down for the majority of the 2014-2015 season, we were treated to the LaVine experiment at PG for many games. The verdict? It was not pretty.

From making bad decisions with the ball that lead to many turnovers, to not entirely knowing whether he should run the offense, or attack the rim—It was very clear that LaVine was in way over his head. A lot of people complain about Rubio because of his shooting deficiencies, but it is widely known that when he is on the court running the show, the Wolves are a much better team offensively and defensively. Watching LaVine run the point last year, and even at times this season, has had me yelling at the screen to either:

A. Put Rubio back in. Or,
B. Put in an actual PG who can make the right decisions running the offense.

However, even though there were much fewer positives, I do need to give LaVine props for his best month as a rookie. In the month of April he averaged 39.1 minutes a game, scoring 21.1 points, with 6.6 assists to go with 5.8 rebounds. His best game for example was against the Golden State Warriors on April 11, 2015. His stats were: 45 minutes played, 37 points scored on 13-21 shooting. He hit 6-10 three pointers, and added nine rebounds with four assists. After ending the season with a month like April, it ultimately extended Flip’s belief that he could develop him at PG. Thus, beginning with the 2015-2016 season of Mitchell to continually play him out of position until post All-Star break.

After the All-Star weekend, Mitchell finally budged on his stance of continually starting Tayshaun Prince, and he finally put LaVine in the starting lineup. Since moving LaVine to the starting unit at SG post All-Star break, he has averaged: 18.1 points, with a field goal percent of 50.6% and a three point field goal percent of 45.7%. The Wolves are currently 8-13 since All-Star weekend, with a few big wins against quality teams. They had some close losses and a couple of embarrassing losses that they would like to forget as well, but that is expected with such a young team. They took Golden State down to the wire, and had one of their most exciting wins over the Washington Wizards in a 2OT thriller. The insertion of LaVine into the starting lineup in his correct position at Shooting Guard has helped the Wolves become more competitive and has established LaVine as a cornerstone with Wiggins and Towns.

As said above, for half the season, Mitchell was adamant with starting and playing the old veteran of Tayshaun Prince too often. The signing of Prince, Kevin Garnett, and Andre Miller were positive. They were brought in to play the role of mentors and to show the young guys how to be a professional in this league. However, with the exception of Kevin Garnett, not many believed that Prince and Miller would or should get big minutes on a developing team. Prince had played way too many minutes for the production that he contributed to as a starter during the first half of this season. With 21.3 minutes a game pre All-Star weekend, Prince had averaged 3.3 points, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist per game. Mitchell tried to utilize him as a defensive piece, but that type of production was definitely not starter material, especially for half the season. His minutes should have been going more to Shabazz Muhammad, a high-energy player who brings a nice spark off the bench, but at times has made too many mental mistakes and attributes selfish play.

The last item to address regarding the rotations and minutes distributed by Mitchell involve the use of Towns earlier in the season. There were too many games where Towns was playing less than 25 minutes, and a lot of games where he was sitting on the bench to end the fourth quarter. Mitchell had opted to play Gorgui Dieng over him, and although Dieng has been playing great as of late—He had started the season very poorly. In his first few games of the season, Towns made some huge plays against Chicago, Los Angeles, and Atlanta. They included great offensive games, stellar defensive grit, and a couple of game saving blocks. He was the biggest reason why the Wolves started the season 8-8. Maybe it was because Towns was a rookie, and Mitchell believed he wasn't ready enough to be put into those situations? Because of those actions however, the Wolves could have been looking much better in the standings if Mitchell would have utilized his historically great rookie much earlier during the season in crunch time. 

With the surprising death of Flip Saunders, it needs to be acknowledged that Sam Mitchell was put into a very tough situation. However, with how this season has gone, the word of Interim should not be removed from his coaching title. There were plenty of opportunities for him to change and adapt his strategies throughout the season, but he stuck with his guns and he deprived the young Wolves a handful of wins with the decisions he made. He did finally make some changes post All-Star break that has brought upon rejuvenated excitement within this organization. However, with the availability of some pretty great coaches looking for jobs, it would be irresponsible for the Wolves organization to miss out on any of them and to offer Mitchell a multi-year contract.

 

*All statistics used within this article have been pulled from NBA.com/stats






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