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Flip Saunders on Leave for Health Reasons, Sam Mitchell Announced as Interim Head Coach

The Wolves announced today that Flip Saunders will take an indefinite leave of absence from the team to focus on his cancer treatment. Sam Mitchell takes over as head coach on an interim basis.

The Wolves officially announced today that Sam Mitchell will be taking over as interim head coach while Flip Saunders takes a leave from his positions as coach and president of the Wolves while he undergoes treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma. Here is the text of the Wolves press release:

Minneapolis/St. Paul - The Minnesota Timberwolves today announced that Sam Mitchell will serve as interim head coach while Flip Saunders takes a leave of absence from his duties as Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations. In Saunders' absence, Timberwolves general manager Milt Newton will assume an increased role in the day-to-day and strategic operations of the basketball department.

Saunders, who had been undergoing chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma earlier this summer, recently experienced complications from his completed treatments. Recently, he was admitted to a local area hospital where he remains at this time while undergoing further testing and treatment.

Of course we wish Flip the best as he undergoes treatment, and hope that he regains his health as quickly and completely as possible.

Meanwhile, below is an article I wrote nearly 18 months ago, before Flip hired himself as coach, when we were speculating about who would take over for the departed Rick Adelman. Sam Mitchell was the subject, and I think the article is once again relevant. --Eric in Madison

In his Yahoo article that got overwhelming attention for it's speculation about the future of Kevin Love, Adrain Wojnarowski also wrote about Sam Mitchell becoming a candidate for the head coaching job:

Sam Mitchell has emerged as a serious candidate for the franchise's head coaching job, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Mitchell left a good impression with Wolves president Flip Saunders in a recent meeting and has moved himself into consideration for the job, league sources said.

Darren Wolfson confirmed that Mitchell is in the mix via twitter yesterday:

Before we get into Sam Mitchell: potential coach, OF COURSE he has a fan in Glen Taylor. He's a former Wolf! This is such a classic Wolves situation: hire the guy you know, that you're "comfortable" with, he's the right guy!  We've seen it time and time again. The country club strikes.

Even if Mitchell turns out to be a good coach, they will have hired him for the wrong reasons. I've come to accept that this franchise is run like a little league organization.  They aren't going to win because they don't take it seriously, even if they think they do.

Better to have fun with it then let it get you down. So bring on Sam Mitchell. Why not? He was a good Wolf, played for Flip in his second stint here. Was a mentor to KG.  We know him.

Career Record: Mitchell played in the NBA for 13 seasons despite not making it to the league until he was 26 (stints in the CBA and Europe prior to that). He spent 10 of those years with the Wolves in two different stints, with three years in Indiana in between.  Flip Saunders was his coach throughout almost his entire 2nd go around with the Wolves (1995-2002), and he mostly came off the bench as a small forward for him.

He has a head coaching record of 156-189, all with the Toronto Raptors in four full seasons and part of a fifth. He was hired by the Raptors prior to the 2004-05 season, following a year in which they had finished 33-49 under Kevin O'Neill. Mitchell inherited some pieces: A promising Chris Bosh coming off his rookie season, and a prime Vince Carter. Unfortunately, Carter was traded 20 games into the season to the New Jersey Nets for nothing of note, leaving Mitchell with Bosh and a bunch of uninspiring veterans such as Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall, and Morris Peterson. The finished with a 33-49 record again.

After a step back the following year (when the team's two minutes played leaders were Peterson and Mike James), the team turned it around in 2006-07, winning 47 games and a division title. It was an impressive job given the talent on hand, as Parker and T.J. Ford were 2nd and 3rd in minutes behind Bosh. (Of some note: it was a very international team, as minutes leaders 4-7 were all from Europe: Jorge Garbajosa, Rasho Nesterovic, Andrea Bargnani, and Jose Calderon).  They lost to the Nets in the first round of the playoffs.

The following year, his last full season, they finished 41-41 despite a expected record of 49 wins (sound familiar?).  Mitchell managed to get a good season out of Jamario Moon, as well as some other guys like Anthony Parker (who again led in minutes as Bosh missed 15 games). Jose Calderon had a monster season.  They lost again in the first round of the playoffs, this time to the Magic.

The following year, the Raptors got off to a slow start, and Mitchell was fired when the team was 8-9. Things just got worse under replacement Jay Triano, as the team went 25-40 the rest of the way. The next year, their last with Bosh, Triano guided them to a 40-42 record that missed the playoffs.

Mitchell spent one season as an assistant with New Jersey after his Toronto stint, and hasn't coached since. As far as I know, he hasn't gotten any real interest in another head coaching job since Toronto, for good or bad reasons.

Accomplishments: Was NBA coach of the year in 2007. Made the playoffs twice in four full seasons as head coach, won one division title. That sounds rather meager, but I have to remark that he made the playoffs twice with some dubious rosters.  It was Bosh and a bunch of guys.  He got good years out of some pretty unremarkable players as noted above. He was saddled with some awful draft picks, including #1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani. In the end, it seems like he wore out his welcome a bit with some of his players.

Coaching Style: Unclear. The sample size is small, and thus the makeup of his roster likely had a disproportionate impact on the numbers compared to a guy like George Karl who has 25 years in with several different teams. To wit: in his four full seasons, the Raptors rankings in pace were: 10th, 14th, 23rd, 9th.  They were an upper half offensive rating team in all four years; the defense bounced around.  A bad sign is that his teams declined over all four seasons in both 3PA and FTA in the league rankings. They were top five in 3PA his first two years, then 11th and 14th. This despite the fact that they were a terrific 3P% team his entire tenure. FTA was worse: started at 17th, and were 30th in his final season.

IIRC, he developed something of a hard-nosed reputation while in Toronto.  The rumor has it that he got into a fight with Vince Carter, which might have been one of the things that precipitated Carter's trade. Here is a quote from a piece at RaptorsHQ just after the firing:

...(Mitchell's) media tirades, rotation decisions and most importantly, use of players' unique skill sets, always were a major thorn in my side. I liked Sam as a motivator, and as a coach that a young team needed to get going...

Back when David Kahn got hired and the Wolves were looking for a coach, Stop-n-Pop wrote a bit about Mitchell that is worth reading. As S-n-P points out, there is little in the record that stands out as positive.

Why He Would be a Good Hire: Hard to say. He did have a little success with some marginal rosters in Toronto, perhaps he could do the same here.

More from RaptorsHQ:

However, just what is Sam Mitchell's legacy? He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting people to put on the coach's suit, and has been the undisputed king of dressing sharply, but at the end of the day, what can you say about Mitchell as an instructor? Sam Mitchell is a coach that managed to develop players into men but does that make him a good head coach?

I'm not sure. However, we have to be thankful for at least his help in grooming Chris Bosh into the player he is; a guy that brings it, dayin, and day out.

The underlying sense of things is that he is capable of getting players (particularly young players) playing hard and with energy. It is unclear what other positive attributes he brings to the job.

I checked in with Adam at RaptorsHQ today to see how he views the Mitchell era in retrospect.  His thoughts on Mitchell's strengths remain similar:

Mitchell's passion and knowledge of the game would be up there, as would his ability to get clubs to play a tougher, grittier style of basketball then perhaps they had in the past. While the Raptors during his tenure had some players who you'd likely describe as being "soft," Mitchell's teams always played hard and fought on every possession, something that made up for a bit of the talent gap between them an elite clubs.

Mitchell was also a bit of a taskmaster, and players seemed to either love this, or immediately resent his approach. Mitchell certainly called it like he saw it...

Why it Would be a Mistake: There is little evidence that he's a good head coach. The Wolves hiring him would be about his willingness to take the job and the fact that he's a known quantity among the front office (Flip and Glen) from his playing days.  Those aren't good reasons.

More from RaptorsHQ:

Sam Mitchell is a great coach to get your team into competition.

However, you need another coach to bring your team to the next step.

The example I'm fond of using is that while Doug Collins coached the Bulls and helped pave the way for the eventual rising of Michael Jordan, it was Phil Jackson who ultimately took the team to the level that we remember it.

Of course, all of these quotes come from an article written at the time of his firing, when everyone was frustrated. Still:

The reality of the NBA is that the coaches with real success are those who have a system they want to employ and GM's that bring in the right players to fit that system. For example look at Utah, San Antonio and LA. Mitchell didn't have a system. He was very resolute in that guys needed to play a certain way in terms of "getting after it," but he didn't have a tried and true approach. I think this made it hard for Colangelo. In Phoenix it was clear that D'Antoni wanted to run like hell and BC helped get him the players to do that. What did Mitchell want? I am not sure anyone knows.

This is a major concern, and as I discussed above, it is reflected in the stats. It's unclear what Mitchell was trying to accomplish from a tactical standpoint during his tenure in Toronto. It's possible that he's developed a clearer sense of philosophy since then, but there is no evidence of that.

More from Adam:

"Mo Shaaaats!"

His offense sets were mostly of a fairly basic variety (Horns and...aaaah) and he seemed to be a bit too inflexible in terms of roster adjustments in key situations.  Often his explanation for losses simply came down to Toronto needing to hit more shots, hence the start of this post, which made him appear to be in a bit over his head in what was becoming an increasingly complex game.

It also makes me nervous that in the intervening five years, he hasn't gotten any attention for a head coaching job elsewhere. That might be due to bad reasons, but it's also true that a lot of smart people are running NBA franchises these days, and none of them thought Sam Mitchell would be a good answer as coach.

Adam again:

Mitchell was one of the most entertaining coaches I've ever dealt with, often members of the media and I would stay after practice and workout sessions just to hear him give his "off the record thoughts" on the NBA. And as the vocal leader of a club, he might be a good choice.

But only if he's got a slew of top notch assistants who a) provide the defensive, offensive and analytical expertise required in today's NBA, and b) he respects enough to listen to. As well, he and his GM need to be on the same page. That never occurred in Toronto, and the Andrea Bargnani disaster was partly due to this disconnect between he and Bryan Colangelo.

What Do I Think, You Ask? It's pretty clear. It isn't an idea that fills me with enthusiasm.  Mitchell is neither a guy with an extensive track record of success as a head coach, nor is he a young and coming assistant with energy and new ideas. If the Wolves hire him, it won't be for the right reasons.  If Mitchell is being considered, why not Alvin Gentry? Or a dozen other guys with similar if not better track records.  Just because he has a connection with the franchise?

This would be a completely Wolvsian decision, with nepotism combined with a failure of imagination and failure of salesmanship (to better candidates). It's hard to envision Sam Mitchell taking the reigns of this team and moving them forward.

Would He Take the Job? Almost certainly. He is currently doing some radio and TV work, but presumably wants to coach again and isn't getting any other offers.