Trail Blazers 109, Timberwolves 103: The good and bad of Sam Mitchell
The pitchforks are out. The prickly Sam Mitchell has been old school and hard-nosed during the first 19 games of his interim stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He gets blamed in wins. He gets blamed for losses. He gets blamed for not building upon the surprise start to the regular season that has everybody wondering just how quickly this current roster build can get to the postseason.
For those of us covering the team (more locally than afar), the dismissive nature and rudeness of his Q&A sessions is growing tiresome. Now, that shouldn’t really have much to do with our assessment of his coaching job, but when we’re trying to figure out answers to why things go correctly or poorly and he acts like this… it leaves us up to filling in the gaps ourselves.
The question here is why did Sam take Karl-Anthony Towns out of the game with 37 seconds left and the Wolves down two. Towns’ defense has been good — not just good for a 20-year old rookie big man but good for any NBA player. When Mitchell saw Terry Stotts had replaced Ed Davis with Al-Farouq Aminu in the game, he brought Tayshaun Prince into the game to defend Aminu. The question for Sam was why take Towns out in this situation.
Mitchell’s response of the Blazers putting a small forward (Aminu) who can dribble into the game is fine, I guess (we’ll get into that in a minute). The idea of positional boxes to put players in is a bit archaic because the attributes should outweigh the listed position on a piece of paper, but there is merit to that. It’s the way he justifies it that is disheartening.
To then ask, “did y’all see that?” and correct Britt Robson about the Ed Davis mix-up by saying, “Before you ask me a question, make sure it’s the right question” is where you lose me (not that he would care he lost me; he once tried to kick me out of his office for asking him questions he knew I was there to ask and he agreed to answer).
Britt got it wrong and admitted such on Twitter. But the question was valid and the reasoning doesn’t appear to have an updated scouting report on both his player and the opposing team’s player. Aminu is technically a small forward (although he’s played a quarter of his time at the 4 this season). As far as one who can dribble, he’s had 85 drives this season and taken 44 shots on those drives. He’s shooting 27.3% on these shots and has registered just 42 points because he gets to the free throw line quite a bit. That’s a horrendous level of offensive production on drives.
Not to mention, if you’re going to have someone beat you, wouldn’t it be better to have them see a potential Aminu vs. Towns match-up and say, “there’s our go-to play” instead?
Towns is capable of staying with Aminu. Not only that, he’s also a much better rim protector than Gorgui Dieng is, despite the difference in experience. So far this season, Towns has defended 168 shots at the rim (8.8 per game) and allowed just 44.6%. Of players who defend at least 8 shots at the rim per game, Towns is the fourth best player in the league. Only Rudy Gobert (an absurd 35.7%), Brook Lopez (I have no idea), and Hassan Whiteside allow a lower percentage.
Dieng (who I’ve been tough on but has played much better the last two weeks) allows 55.8% on 5.5 attempts per game. Of all players defending at least 5.5 attempts at the rim per game, Dieng is the sixth worst rim protector in the NBA. This isn’t a new thing, either. In the chaos of last season, Gorgui allowed 55.7% at the rim in 10.5 attempts per game. He’s simply not the rim protector we assume he’s supposed to be.
There are many issues with this possession:
Ricky Rubio does a great job of denying Damian Lillard for as long as he did, but I’m not sure you’re ever keeping the ball out of his hands there. And let’s not pretend that Towns being in the game immediately stops this shot from Lillard from 1) happening or 2) going in. But it does appear to be a strategic mistake fraught with poor assumptions made by the coach. The fact that he catches someone asking a question in a mistake or with a loophole doesn’t absolve him of his mistake.
This leads to a greater question about what kind of job Mitchell has done. The majority of my interactions with fans during and after games (both wins and losses) are them killing Mitchell. He gets none of the credit for when things go well and seems to get 100% of the criticism (well, minus whatever overreaction we’re having to Zach LaVine) when things are bad. I want to start off with what Mitchell is doing correctly before we get to the problems with this team.
What Sam Mitchell is getting right
1. The thing I’m entirely sick of hearing about is Sam Mitchell getting blamed for the team losing big leads. You’re not praising him when the team gets the big lead so don’t kill him when the team loses the lead. This is the NBA and runs happen all the time. Great teams have them and have them happen against them. This is just a part of professional basketball.
The Wolves are one of the best first quarter teams in the NBA. They’re tied for ninth in first quarter net rating (+4.2) with the Bucks. That’s not nothing. Mitchell has them well-prepared and motivated to play the game. There’s no problem with admitting that’s the case.
2. Mitchell has fostered an identity of being aggressive attacking the defense. This has resulted in the Wolves ranking first in free throws per field goal attempt and third in overall free throw rate. Considering the Wolves shoot 80.6% from the free throw line (only 52 teams in NBA history have done this heading into the season), that’s a big advantage for keeping them competitive offensively.
3. The Wolves regularly play three 20-year old players and yet somehow are 14th in the NBA in turnover rate. A low turnover rate has often been a staple of Mitchell’s offenses (top 5 in all four full seasons coaching the Raptors). Teaching these guys how to value and take care of the ball is very important toward the development process, not just individually but from a team execution standpoint as well. Valuing the basketball is key toward playing a balanced attack.
4. Defensively, the Wolves have played inspired basketball. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster depending on how the Wolves have played defensively when Rubio is sitting out, but they currently sit 17th in the NBA in defensive rating. That comes with a difference between Rubio on the court (defensive rating of 94.4) and Rubio off the court (106.4). The Wolves don’t foul a lot and they defend the 3-point shot pretty well. Mitchell deserves credit for those defensive accomplishments.
What Sam Mitchell is getting wrong
Now let’s get to the problems of Mitchell. While I think it’s important to mention the credit Mitchell deserves (I’ve had people call him the worst coach in Wolves history which is just insulting to the legacies of Kurt Rambis and Randy Wittman), it is also important to recognize the things he does that holds everything back.
1. The offense is archaic. The sets are so simplistic that you really do see the individual talent of these young guys having to overcome the easy scouting to neutralize what the Wolves are running. I’ve had two different scouts and an executive tell me that if the Wolves weren’t so good at drawing fouls, they’d be down near Philadelphia as an offense. That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement of what they run.
There is a real math problem with the way the Wolves play. Much like last season, when the opponent hits a 3-pointer against the Wolves, it means the Wolves likely have to score on two possessions to overcome it. Mitchell has alluded to the idea that a lot of teams don’t run plays designed to get 3-point looks. It’s 2015 and it’s embarrassing if you still have this mindset. As I pointed out in this breakdown of Andrew Wiggins as a go-to scorer on CBSSports.com (SELF-WHORING ALERT), that’s simply not true.
These types of plays simply aren’t being thought up for the Wolves and it puts them behind the 8-ball. They take the most midrange shots in the NBA, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (San Antonio is right there with them) except they’re not particularly good at them. They’re 16th in the NBA in midrange field goal percentage, so what is the benefit of taking so many of them?
The Wolves have also taken 49 corner 3-point attempts and made 18 this season. To put that in perspective, Trevor Ariza has taken 64 corner 3’s this season. Al-Farouq Aminu is just behind the Wolves at 48 attempts. Klay Thompson and Hollis Thompson have attempted 40 each. Ariza has eight more makes from the corner 3 than the Wolves have. Four players have 17 makes from the corners this season. How are the Wolves so bad at setting up what is thought to be such an efficient and easy shot?
They simply don’t have the floor-spacing designed to maximize what they want to do and that’s a horrendous logistical problem for the Wolves. The Wolves are 12th in the NBA in field goal percentage, but that’s mostly because they’re so good at the rim. Everywhere else, they’re mediocre and there doesn’t appear to be a fix in sight. That’s why they’re 22nd in effective field goal percentage.
2. As good as the Wolves’ defense has been (relatively speaking when compared to our expectations), they’re pretty bad at defending the rim (outside of Towns). Wolves are 15th in restricted area attempts allowed per game and fifth worst in restricted area percentage allowed. They’re the fourth worst team at defending ball handlers in the pick-and-roll, which is problematic in a league that is pick-and-roll heavy. They’re bad at defending hand-offs, they’re bad at defending guys coming off screens, and they’re bad defending in transition.
The majority of this (outside of the transition) is due to the defensive scheme of the Wolves going under the screen. This relates to not respecting the 3-point shot, which is just an antiquated way of coaching. You don’t have to be extreme in your love or acceptance of the 3-point line, but you should respect its effectiveness and the Wolves don’t do that by constantly going under the screen.
I’d love to ask Sam about the strategy behind this, but I doubt he’d respect me or anybody asking enough to give a real answer about it.
3. Where are the in-game adjustments? The Wolves have been good at getting leads in the first quarter. They’re also the sixth worst team in second quarters (-4.7 per 100) and the sixth worst team in third quarters (-10.7 per 100). The Wolves do a great job of getting a lot of those points back in the fourth quarter (sixth best at +7.8 per 100), but the holes they put themselves as the opponents adjust in the middle of the game put them in bad positions late in the game.
This also ties into the rotations and lineups Mitchell has fumbled often. I have no problem with the games in which Towns is playing poorly and gets limited time (or even no time) in the fourth quarter because of it. That can be a teachable moment for Towns. I do have an issue with Towns playing well and getting his fourth quarter minutes yanked. Even if you’re developing Gorgui Dieng in the process (which may be more important than Towns), you can actually play the both of them pretty evenly, if not at the same time.
There’s a lot of good going on with this team and Mitchell deserves credit for it. But he’s also limiting what they’re capable of in this development season and seems to be unwilling to explain answers to the questions we have about it. This was a tough situation to take over and he’s doing a pretty solid job considering. But it can be better, it should get better, and I’m not sure it actually will.
You saw Saturday night the difference between a coach like Terry Stotts and what Sam Mitchell does for this team.