A conversation with Sam Mitchell about coaching and leadership
Sam Mitchell has a long, storied history with the Minnesota Timberwolves that dates back to the team’s inaugural season in 1989. Besides Kevin Garnett, no player or coach in Wolves history is synonymous with the word “leadership” quite like Mitchell. And keep in mind, Mitchell is often credited with being a mentor early in KG’s career.
Everyone has their high and low moments as an NBA coach, but nobody in the basketball community has ever questioned Mitchell’s prowess for leadership. That’s why I was so excited when he was nice enough to take time out of his week with the Timberwolves caravan and talk to me about just that: leadership on a basketball court.
You’ve played, coached, and had a strong reputation for your mentoring ability for a long time in both posts. From a leadership standpoint, how different is it to lead a group of guys as a coach versus later in your career as a player?
When you’re a player, you’re in the locker room. You’re one of the players. When you’re a coach, you’re more of an authority figure. But when you’re a player, you’re also the friend. The coaches, it’s about the respect, not about being the friend. It’s about leading them, getting them to do the things they need to do, and realize how important working together is.
So, it’s different, but you have to have a relationship, and the thing you have to have in both of situations is trust. They have to trust that you have their best interest at heart, and that you’re going to do the right thing.
As a teammate, you have to make sacrifices as a team, and somebody’s got to do it, and most of the time it’s the guys that’s going off the bench. The starters get all the shots, they get all the money and publicity, but the guys that really make the team go are the guys that come off the bench. If you’ve got good people coming off the bench that aren’t complaining or upset about their roles, you’re going to be successful.
On that note, what can veterans like Kevin Garnett and Andre Miller bring to the table as leaders that the coaching staff can’t?
It’s not so much that the coaching staff can’t. Players don’t want to hear what Sam Mitchell did in the 90s. They don’t remember it. They know that I played and respect that, but they’re about the here and the now. As a coach, I rarely talk about the days when I played, because it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t mean anything.
The game has changed, and the players have changed, so these (young) players need guys who are playing today that know how to mentally prepare for a game, how to prepare for 4 games on the road in 5 nights, how to get your mind and your body right and in shape.
They need those type of things. The things that they don’t need is Sam Mitchell sitting around telling stories about how it was when I played. Those things are fine for guys I played with and played against, but these players don’t want to hear that.
As a coach, how do you go approach coaching young guys (Towns, Wiggins, LaVine, etc.) vs the veterans (Garnett, Martin, Miller, Pekovic)? Do you treat them differently?
Every player is different, so you treat every individual differently. You also have team rule, team expectation, but you still have to treat everyone differently. Some players you push a little harder, but it’s just different.
You figure out what it takes to get the best out of him, and that’s how you coach him. Now obviously, there’s still an expectation that everybody has to do as a group that can’t be avoided, but you try to deal with people and teach people and coach people in a way they’re going to be more receptive to.
How important, if at all, is it for a young guy like Wiggins, Rubio, or anyone else to take leadership roles early on in their careers? Is it something that’s taught at a young age, is it more inherent?
It’s something that gravitates towards you. Look, when you’re in your first year in the league, your first concern is taking care of yourself and trying to figure out what you need to do on a daily basis, much less trying to be the leader of the team.
We think Andrew, Ricky and Zach LaVine will be leaders, but right now they need to learn. They need to learn from the Kevin Garnett’s, the Kevin Martin’s, the Nikola Pekovic’s. They need to learn from those guys first. And then, in time, there will be some leadership roles. But first, they need to learn what it takes to be successful in the NBA.
Garnett is back on your team with you on the staff. In the last several years of your Wolves playing career, Garnett was a youngster. What’s it like seeing him seeing him in a similar mentor role now, with you as part of the coaching staff?
Well I don’t really think about it. You guys ask me these questions, but I don’t really think much about it. Kevin and I are friends, and now I’m a coach and I’m still going to be his friend. We just have a different kind of relationship now, going on 20 years in the league he’s older. And so I can be more of a friend than a coach with him, because he understands what he’s supposed to do to get ready for a game.
I’m still going to coach him, but you coach a Kevin Garnett differently than you would an Andrew Wiggins, because we have a different kind of relationship. Not only are we friends, but we also played together. And so there are things I can say to him that other people can’t say because not only am I his coach, but I was also once his teammate.
We have a different relationship, but that’s okay. At the end of the day, I’m going to do my job and coach, and if I see something he needs to improve on, I’m going to do my job and tell him. It’s just different because did play together, we’re such close friends and still are.