MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — In his first three months being coached by Sam Mitchell, Minnesota Timberwolves youngster Zach LaVine has endured it all. Position switches, benching, yelling, pushing, prodding, all methods Mitchell employs to mold a 20-year-old in his second season.
Mitchell said he has treated LaVine the same way he coached Jose Calderon in Toronto and the same way Spurs coach Gregg Popovich developed Tony Parker back in the day.
“I tell Zach all the time, when he gets through this, he’s going to be a much better player because he’s going to have went through the fire,” Mitchell said earlier this month after LaVine broke out of a shooting slump. “He’s going to be tried and tested. He’s going to have felt low and dejected sometimes. But that’s how point guards are made.”
When presented with that theory, LaVine appeared to grit his teeth.
“It’s not fun. Sometimes unfair,” LaVine said. “But he’s the coach, I’m the player and sometimes that’s what you have to deal with. You can’t really do anything about it but play good on the court.”
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 some players quietly grumbling about their 52-year-old interim coach.
Mitchell believes his approach is starting to pay dividends for his youngest players — 20-year-olds Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and LaVine, 23-year-old Shabazz Muhammad — who are tasked with rescuing a woebegone franchise.
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15 players privately expressed concerns to The Associated Press about Mitchell that centered on three basic tenets: His outdated offensive system, his tendency to platoon his rotations and a lack of personal accountability for the struggles.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.
Kevin Garnett, who has known Mitchell since the two were teammates in 1995, was asked about the heavy criticism Mitchell has faced from fans this season before a victory over Memphis last Saturday. He quickly replied: “Next question.” Garnett often swipes aside questions he views as negative, but one of Mitchell’s close allies passing on a chance to back him didn’t help the coach’s cause.
LaVine joked on Tuesday that “as much as they’re on me, they must love me to death. I’m OK with it.”
Owner Glen Taylor told The Associated Press he knows Mitchell has a difficult task taking over for Flip Saunders, who died from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in October. Taylor also said the team’s 14-32 record and struggles at home that have led to dwindling attendance have not been easy to watch.
“If anything at the beginning of the year I said I needed to be patient. If anything I have learned this year I probably have to be even more patient,” Taylor said before the Memphis game.
Taylor told Mitchell at the start of the season that he would give the coach the season to perform before making a complete evaluation and he plans to keep that timeline.
“I’ve got to realize where we’re at and I’ve just got to stay with the coaching and stay with the players and not do something that disrupts the long-term plans,” Taylor said.
One of the biggest outside criticisms of Mitchell has been that he runs an offense better suited for a bygone era, long before the 3-pointer took over the league and pace and space supplanted post and pound.
In games played through Tuesday, 25.3 percent of the Timberwolves field goal attempts fell into the “long 2-pointer” category — the area 16 feet from the basket out to the 3-point line that has been rendered a virtual no-man’s land by the analytics of the modern era. That is easily the highest percentage in the league, with the Los Angeles Clippers (23.7 percent) and the Indiana Pacers (21.1 percent) the only other teams in the league with a rate higher than 20 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, the Houston Rockets have the lowest percentage of long 2s at 8.6 percent and Golden State (12.1 percent) is fourth.
Mitchell argues that the Timberwolves’ lack of shooters demands the current approach, and the Timberwolves’ 32.5 percent is third-worst in the league this season. They attempt a league-low 15.5 3s per game, almost half as many as the Warriors (30.1), and they make just five per game.
Mitchell accurately points out that his teams in Toronto were consistently near the top in 3s attempted and made because he had more capable marksmen on the roster.
GOOD OL’ DAYS
Mitchell has often lamented the lack of coaching his young players received in AAU or during their brief college stints, noting those who spent four years in college were much more polished when he was in the league.
“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.
“I talk to the players. I talk to the coaches,” Taylor said. “I’m glad that they’re frustrated. I’m sure they’re trying very hard in practice to improve their skills. I know they want to win. I’m confident that it’s just going to be some game that we win against somebody that probably has a better team than us and it just kind of gets us going.”
Mitchell is fond of saying “there are no shortcuts,” and one need only look to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who visit the Wolves on Wednesday, for support of that theory.
Kevin Durant went 20-62 in his rookie season. He and Russell Westbrook went 23-59 in 2008-09 before breaking through with 50 wins the next season.
“It was a struggle just trying to win games every night,” Durant recalled. “Our championship was every single game. It was like, ‘If we win this game, it’s the top of the world.’ And then after we win it, it’s like, wow, that’s it? … That made you hungrier.”
Mitchell knows the feeling.
“There have been nights I wanted to crawl under that floor and dig a hole and crawl home. That’s how bad I played,” Mitchell said after a home loss to the Bucks last month. “But those nights stuck with me. And some nights coach left me out there and he’d tell me, ‘I left you out there so don’t let this happen to you again.'”
Mitchell said he can’t be concerned with his job status.
“It’s bigger than me. And I learned that a long time ago,” Mitchell said. “It may turn out that I’m here to see it (through). But it may turn out I’m not. The people in this league know there’s a certain way we have to do this.”
The team is 2-3 after a miserable 1-13 stretch, and Mitchell likes what he sees.
“There’s no other team I’d rather coach right now,” Mitchell said. “These young guys are turning into pros before our eyes.”
Taylor said he wants to be able to see tangible progress from the young core from the beginning of the season to the end. That it appeared to be the inverse before a win over the Grizzlies and a competitive loss at Cleveland on Monday is what concerned him the most.
“If we would have lost the first 12 games and then all of a sudden now the last 16 games or so be playing .500, maybe our record would be the same but I would be feeling a lot better about it,” Taylor said. “We started out pretty good and now we’re just having difficulty finishing games — that makes all of us concerned about how long is it going to take for us to get some wins in here with the young guys.”
(© Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)