Note: I apologize if this rambles a bit, and I know it’s a little long, but I don’t have the time to restructure it. That said, I hope it’s not a waste of your time to read it (because that would mean that it was really a waste of my time to write it).
For years I’ve been reading about how Sam Mitchell clashes with players. On occasion I’ll read about this problem on sports-news sites, but more often I read it on blogs. The problem I’ve had with this is that I’ve never heard much in the way of specifics about this supposed issue—so I decided to do some investigating. Is it true that Mitchell has trouble relating to his players? Did he have a problem in the past that is now resolved? Or, was the problem oversold in the first place? Since Mitchell is a candidate (however remote) for the Wolves’ head coaching position, I feel it’s important enough to clear up as best we can.
There are only a handful of names associated with Mitchell’s authority problem: Rafer Alston and Vince Carter are the most significant, while Jalen Rose, Eric Williams, Lamond Murray, Aaron Williams, and Donyell Marshall, and Morris Peterson have also been mentioned.
I’ll pause here to make this claim: Murray, Marshall, Peterson, and the Williamses are included in the Mitchell-conflict meme only by Marty York of Sportsnet. Reporting on an interview with Vince Carter’s mother, York relates that Vince and Michelle Carter
. . . still hear frequently from members of the Raptors, who tell them Mitchell has many of them shaking their heads in disbelief and wanting out of Toronto. Sources have told Sportsnet that four Toronto players have asked management to be traded. The four: Eric Williams and Aaron Williams, who were traded to Toronto from the New Jersey Nets in the Carter deal, as well as Lamond Murray and Donyell Marshall.
"I just heard from Mo Pete (Morris Peterson) yesterday," Michelle said, "and he's very, very concerned. All the players are having a tough time with Sam Mitchell."
Other than this article, I can’t find any mention of Donyell Marshall, Aaron Williams, or Morris Peterson expressing discontent. Hardly surprising—the three barely have any internet presence at all, and weren’t the caliber of players whose complaints would have engendered much media interest
It seems Eric Williams did request a trade, but it was due to playing time—not altercations with the coach. According to another Four-Letter article:
The troubled Toronto Raptors have another problem to deal with - forward Eric Williams wants out.
In the wake of another dispute between point guard Rafer Alston and coach Sam Mitchell, Williams wants to be traded to a team that will use him.
"No one is benefiting right now. This isn't good for the Raptors or for Eric," Mark Bartlestein, the agent for Williams, said Thursday. "If there is a deal that can be done it makes no sense to keep him here. He wants to play. He just doesn't want to collect a paycheck."
Toronto general manager Rob Babcock didn't immediately return phone messages left for him.
Before being acquired from New Jersey in the trade for Vince Carter on Dec. 17, Williams averaged 35 minutes a game.
In Toronto, he's averaging 19.9 minutes per game. But ever since he was demoted from the starting lineup after a 16-game run as Jalen Rose's replacement, he has barely played - including sitting the last two games.
And while Mitchell’s clashes with Alston seem to have been a contributing factor in Williams’ desire to leave, there isn’t any indication that Williams had a problem with Mitchell outside of playing time. From the same article:
Williams, who wasn't happy with being traded after signing with his hometown Nets over the summer, is also disturbed by the turmoil surrounding the Raptors.
I guess if I was Eric Williams, and I didn’t want to be traded away from my hometown team, and I wasn’t getting the playing time I thought I deserved, the Rafer Madness would have made me want to flee, too. But then I’d have to remind myself that I’M ERIC FREAKING WILLIAMS and I should be happy a team wants me.
Lamond Murray also definitely requested a trade. From a Four-Letter article dated Feb. 21, 2004:
Raptors forward Lamond Murray wants out of Toronto.
Murray ripped Toronto coach Kevin O'Neill after playing just six minutes in Toronto's 91-72 loss to the New Jersey Nets on Friday night.
Murray, who has barely played this season, didn't score or register even one offensive or defensive stat. He said earlier in the day that he was disappointed he didn't get moved before the trading deadline and he repeated it after the game.
"They should trade me," Murray said. "I've been here 10 years. I'm not a rookie, I'm not a second-year player."
Murray said he didn't get an explanation from O'Neill on why he didn't play more.
You may notice a few problems here. Murray is definitely unhappy and he wants to leave, but his unhappiness is definitely over playing time, not conflict with his coach—who is Kevin O’Neill, not Sam Mitchell. Maybe Murray did have a problem with Mitchell specifically, but I don’t see any evidence of that, and his griping started more than four months before Mitchell was hired to coach the Raps.
And that brings us to the two well-documented cases: Rafer Alston and Vince Carter. The Carter incident seems to have happened first, but the Alston issue was the more public of the two, so I’ll start with him.
There is no doubt that Alston and Mitchell butted heads. On December 3, 2004, Mitchell parked Alston and Loren Woods on the bench for losing their cool during a game against the Celtics. Alston’s response:
"It's tough right now for me," he said. "I'm going to talk to Sam and (general manager Rob Babcock). I think it's time. I'm tired of getting into it with my teammates and my coaches. I don't know if I'm a good fit for this team and I don't know if I'm a good fit for this league.
"I'm going to take some time off. I might not even play the rest of the season."
Alston didn’t seem to get along with anyone, and he seems aware that the problem is likely Rafer Alston.
In January, 2005 Mitchell suspended Alston for two games for conduct detrimental to the team. And then in February the real confrontation occurred. From the Eric Williams trade-demand article:
Alston and Mitchell argued during halftime of Tuesday's loss against Cleveland. Alston didn't come out of the dressing room for the second half and was seen crying as he was escorted to the team bus by security during the fourth quarter. On Wednesday, Alston said Mitchell owed him an apology.
Babcock refused to confirm or deny that Mitchell challenged Alston to a fight.
This relationship was clearly not working, but the more significant part of the story is the possibility that Mitchell was ready to throw down with a player over this. In no account of this incident does anyone claim there was a fight, or even a punch thrown, but that’s not the way adult human beings ought to be conducting themselves in professional settings. But who knows if the fight-challenge even happened? Even right away, the story was subject to different retellings:
"There was no shoving, there was no physical contact," Mitchell told The Fan, an all-sports Toronto radio station, on Wednesday morning. "There were words exchanged and that was more of less the extent of it.
"We've found in the past when things get like this, sometimes it's better if you let the player calm down and you go from there. We felt like last night would be better if Rafer didn't play the second half. That's all it was."
Some reports of the game saw more in it. The Globe and Mail cited a security guard who referred to a fist fight between coach and player although she said she did not see it herself. The Toronto Star called it a halftime argument.
So who knows exactly what happened? What we do know is that prior to this, Aslton’s conduct had caused him trouble for the previous three months. It also seems that Alston continued to be a knucklehead even afterward.
The tale of Sam Mitchell vs. Vince Carter is a fairly short one. Shortly after Mitchell was named coach of the Raptors, Carter requested a trade—not because of the coach, but because of the new GM and the recent draft:
According to a league source, Carter is not happy with the recent appointment of Rob Babcock as the team's new general manager nor with the team's selection of Rafael Arajuo with the No. 8 pick in last month's NBA draft.
So this is how the relationship starts. Mitchell is trying to establish his system, while his most established player wants to be anywhere but on the team. Carter’s half-assed effort to begin the 2004-2005 season has been well-documented, so I won’t go into that except to suggest that whatever tension existed in the coach-player relationship during this time likely stemmed from the coach’s demands for effort that the player didn’t care to commit.
At any rate, we have Mama Carter’s testimony above that Vince slammed Mitchell onto a trainer’s table. Other reports—and reports that include more information from Michelle Carter—bring that into question. From the Four-Letter again:
"You make an altercation (sound) like a fight," [Vince] Carter said when a questioner used that term. The reporter who asked the question explained that an altercation could be a fight, to which Carter replied: "Exactly." He had no further comment.
So that’s not very helpful. What did Mitchell have to say about it?
Mitchell, speaking to reporters in Toronto after the 76ers-Raptors game, said he and Carter merely wrestled. But Carter's mother, Michelle, said her son slammed Mitchell onto a massage table in the Raptors' locker room after the coach challenged Carter.
Mitchell said he was joking with Carter and guard Alvin Williams.
"I crack jokes in the locker room like I did the past 18 years about players getting old, breaking down, and having to get a massage," Mitchell said. "I smacked both of them on the rear-end, joking. When I laid down on the table, cause my back was hurting, because I am really getting old, Vince laid on my back and Alvin was laughing saying WWE. That's all it was, that was it."
Alvin Williams also said there was no fight and he laughed about the report.
Alvin Williams now? What’s with all of these Williamses? Anyway, if this version is true, then there’s nothing at all to the story. And then even Michelle Carter starts to change the implications of the story:
Michelle Carter said she found out about the altercation from the coach, not from her son, after Mitchell mentioned it in passing at the Raptors' Christmas party.
"So I asked Vince what happened. He told me he couldn't take Sam's challenges anymore, so he picked him up and threw him on the massage table. That definitely happened. No question about it. And if anyone says it didn't happen, they're lying," she told Sportsnet of Canada.
No sign of a threat from Mitchell here, just Carter getting fed up with his coach for riding his ass. If this version is true, then it’s more an indictment of Carter than it is of Mitchell. What the hell is a coach supposed to do to motivate his most important player when that player is clearly coasting? Should he just let Carter do what he wants? I think any coach would have been challenging Carter at that point. At least, I’d hope so.
So out of all of these names, the only real substance just might be in the Alston and Carter stories, and even they aren't as cut-and-dried as they sound at first. But here’s another thing to consider: all of this happened in the first nine months that Mitchell was the head coach of the Raptors, his first head coaching job ever. Could it be that even if his shortcomings contributed to the problems, he eventually matured as a coach so as to correct his shortcomings? He did coach in Toronto for another three and a fraction seasons. Did the player-coach conflicts continue?
In my quick search I haven’t found anything significant since that first season. In fact, there are indications that the players in Toronto appreciated Mitchell as a coach, and even acknowledge his maturation in that role.
Remember Morris Peterson, the supposed malcontent of 2004-2005? Here he is in 2007:
"[Mitchell]‘s done a great job with the ball club. He‘s really grown a lot over his first couple of years coaching. If anybody in the NBA deserves [Coach of the Year], it‘s him," said Raptors player Morris Peterson.
And Jose Calderon:
"I’ve got a lot of good moments with Sam. And bad moments, too," Calderon said with a laugh.
"But yes [I found him intimidating]. Yes. At the beginning, I didn’t know what he wanted me to do. There was a lot of stuff. He always tried to talk to me. I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I was on the court. Imagine being on the court [listening to him]. I was the point guard. So I understand that [he was thinking], ‘If this guy cannot understand me, how is he going to play basketball.’
"But after it was a great relationship. I think I understood what he wanted me to do on the court."
And in an article in which Mitchell credits his change in demeanor to a religious awakening, some kind words from others:
"The one thing that stood out more than anything else was he had the team ready to play every night," Colangelo says. "They wanted to go out and play hard. For a large part of that period, (star forward) Chris Bosh was out, yet the effort displayed was impressive. ... Sam has a unique way of dealing with these guys. Call it tough love, and it's equally distributed. That gains respect among players
"He's demanding of everyone, but he wants everyone to do well, and he does a good job of looking out for players," Bosh says. "Sometimes he got on players and they couldn't handle it. (Now) he can pick and choose his spots when to encourage people and when to challenge them."
"He had a barrage of criticism early," Hall of Fame coach and Miami Heat radio analyst Jack Ramsay says of Mitchell. "Now he has settled the team down, and he's doing an outstanding job."
And Mitchell himself speaks about the changes he’s seen in himself:
"I would say I've changed more as a person ... how I deal with people," he says. "I'm more easygoing. I look for the good in people. I learned to let things go and not dwell on it. Me changing as a person probably made me a better coach."
All in all, I don’t see anything in Mitchell’s history to suggest that he has insurmountable problems dealing with players—certainly nothing that would keep me from supporting his hire as a head coach in the future. He wouldn’t be my choice for the next Timberwolves coach because of other factors (his game-planning was apparently not that strong and even taking into account the roster chaos following the Carter trade his teams seemed to underachieve more often than not), but I wouldn’t rule him out based on this part of his reputation. It doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence. Of course, if others have more information, or if I’ve missed something, I’d be happy to hear about it. This was really to satisfy my curiosity, and is in no way meant to put the cap on this discussion.