In case you missed it earlier this week, the incomparable Britt Robson unveiled Part 1 of his two-part series in which he sat down for 65 minutes with Minnesota Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell. In what I believed to be an eye-opening and revealing Q&A session, Mitchell described a lot of the issues he believes exist with the team, the process of taking over after the unfortunate passing of Flip Saunders, the development of the team, and much more.
If you’re going to only read one thing today, make sure it’s Part 1 of that Q&A if you already haven’t done so. If you’re going to only read two things, make sure the second one is the rest of this roundtable session with Steve McPherson, William Bohl, Tim Faklis, and myself. We decided to ask ourselves some questions based on the Q&A between Britt and Sam.
Q: Do you feel more understanding of why the Wolves’ offense looks the way it does based on Sam’s comments about getting ready for the season, or does it not make a difference to you?
Steve McPherson: It’s always helpful — just from a human perspective — to be reminded that what we’re seeing with the Timberwolves this year is ad hoc, and was always going to be that way, given Saunders’ untimely death. Just how ad hoc it looks is exacerbated by the players’ overall youth and inexperience, but I still feel like this exact roster with a couple more years of experience playing this exact brand of basketball would still have a very firm ceiling on how good they could be in today’s NBA.
William Bohl: Yes, I’d say I do feel as though I have a better grip on what Sam is thinking – and not just about the offense. His entire stance on player development is very interesting – that it’s very structured, incremental, and that you cannot skip a step. What I’ve inferred from the article is that Sam may view shooting more three pointers as a goal, but feels he cannot allow his young team to take them without checking off the items on his list first. I disagree with that assessment, but it’s always great to get into the mind of a coach and hear things from his perspective.
Tim Faklis: I think it was helpful, yes, and the thing that stuck out to me was his defense of the lack of shooting three pointers. He pointed to having Calderon, (Anthony) Parker, Kapono on his Toronto team, and how this team has nobody like that. To a degree, I get his thinking, especially when you look down the impressive list of shooters he had in Toronto, and what he has to work with here. But Shabazz only takes 1.5 threes per game. Towns takes less than 1. I’m not on the same thinking level as an NBA coach, and I know he’s considered (and probably tested) this, but I see tweaks that could help things. So, yes, it helped me understand his offense, but I still feel in the dark to an extent.
Zach Harper: While I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily at peace with what the Wolves run on a nightly basis, I would say that I completely buy Sam’s explanation of what he felt the need to emphasize when he was taking over on an interim basis. I also wonder if at some point, the organization was in denial about the status of Saunders because it did seem too unbelievable for him to pass away. Were they unprepared with how to handle such a tragedy? I don’t think that’s something to knock them for either; it would just explain a lot of what Sam says about focusing on defense and believing Flip would be back relatively soon. I very much buy that they didn’t have a lot of time to implement more of what Sam wanted to do in Toronto and couple that with trying to get so many young guys on the right page and I can see the clutter that exists. It still needs to be corrected but I get it.
Q: Do you feel better about where Zach LaVine is right now when you read Sam breaking down what they’re trying to work through?
Steve: I guess I’m torn because on the one hand, I want to believe in the importance of the craft and on the other, I sometimes wonder how much craft is genuinely necessary. Today’s players aren’t playing against yesterday’s players — they’ve all more or less come from the AAU system, so they’re all working from that template. How come some of them get it and some of them don’t? It’s more than just that system.
William: You know – what’s fascinating to me about the entire piece is how much time is devoted to the topic of Zach LaVine. Andrew Wiggins gets a little bit of attention, Karl-Anthony Towns is barely mentioned at all – those are the two franchise cornerstones! – but LaVine is the subject of huge swaths of the chat. LaVine’s development is both an enigmatic topic for Britt (I think we all recognize he is one of Zach’s most consistent critics) and is also a huge priority for the organization. In that respect, I guess I feel better, because I don’t think Sam would be this worked up if a) Zach didn’t possess such a high ceiling and b) the organization felt he was too much of a shithead to ever figure it out.
Tim: It’s clear that Mitchell has taken a special interest in LaVine’s success. Even during last night’s game, Mitchell was singing his praises after an excellent bounceback game against OKC. I love the effort and the meticulosity he’s bringing forward to help develop all the youngsters, though I find LaVine’s to be the most interesting. I’m not sure I’ve agreed with every step he’s taken with him (starting shooting guard, to backup point guard, to backup shooting guard, back to backup point guard, etc.), but I trust that he’s exhausting everything in his development arsenal to help move him along.
Zach: I guess I’m of a more old school mentality that if a player can’t prove they absolutely deserve minutes or can’t handle the mental anguish of a hard-nosed coach pushing them then they’re probably being weeded out of the core you are trying to build. I find what LaVine is going through to be pretty fascinating, as well. He’s struggling a lot right now and I am a fan of making him play out of position in order to foster a deeper skill set and better instincts that will help him thrive at his natural position. It also seems like Sam is getting to him a bit, based on recent post-game comments with LaVine admitting it can be tough. But I think it will show us who Zach is in the long run and that it will pay off one way or another. I think I feel better about the way Sam is approaching LaVine’s development, but feel the same as I always did about LaVine.
Q: Is Sam too caught up in physical attributes of his players or is this simply math the Wolves can’t avoid?
Steve: It’s difficult because while it’s true that the physical part of the game matters more than we think — a generation of basketball fans has been raised on video games where physics are simulated and a player’s weight doesn’t really affect the game — I think it’s also true that being so close to the physical part of the game can lead to assumptions. How many giants are drafted on the assumption they can hold their own and how many undersized guys are passed over even when they can really defend? As in all things, the important thing is to get to a deep, nuanced understanding of what guys are capable of, regardless of ideology about what’s important.
William: I think that’s a huge part of basketball that we don’t always appreciate as writers and fans – the pure mathematics of size, and strength, and all the minutiae that goes into gameplanning and scouting. Like, it’s one thing for us to say that Wiggins, LaVine, and Towns need to get stronger, but we all just sort of shrug and think, “Oh well, three or four years from now, after they’ve lifted a ton of weights and grown into their bodies, that won’t be a concern anymore.” Sam isn’t afforded that luxury. For him, a lack of size and strength has real, tangible consequences right NOW. I think it’s good to be reminded of that every now and then.
Tim: I get where he’s coming from on this one. As mentioned, Mitchell’s near-obsessive logs of each player’s development doesn’t just include activities with a basketball. And it shouldn’t. Mitchell likes to use the term “grown man weight” quite a bit, and mentions how valuable it is to a player’s success over a long season, and against bigger opponents. I’m inclined to believe the former player on this one.
Zach: I loved the stuff Sam said about the growth of Andrew Wiggins’ body and where he wants him to get stronger. I’ve talked about this with several people around the league and they’ve all said the same stuff that Mitchell believes when it comes to where he wants Wiggins to be physically. I also think he needs to trust the strength and body of someone like Karl-Anthony Towns more. He seems overly concerned about the weight Towns is giving up in certain matches and not trusting of what Towns can do with his physical stature in a way to counter his opponent. I think there’s a lot of good and some overly cautious stuff to extract from what Sam says here, but thinking smarter about how the Wolves’ young guys get stronger is definitely something Flip was all about.
Is the personnel really so inadequate at rebounding, or is there something else going on, here? It’s clearly a huge concern for Sam.
Steve: The rebounding thing is weird, for sure. If you watch the games, it feels like they’re awful at rebounding, and to hear Sam talk about it, they even feel like they’re bad at rebounding. They’re 26th in rebounds per 36 minutes, but their rebound percentage is middle of the road (15th at 49.8%). Maybe this is part of it: They’re 27th in uncontested defensive rebounds per game and 4th in contested defensive rebounds per game, which means the boards they are getting, they have to fight for. Sound familiar? It’s not just the offense that’s tough for this team — everything is a bit of a slog.
William: I don’t really know the answer, but it seems odd to me that a team that spends so much time inside the arc on offense can’t grab offensive rebounds (21st in offensive rebounding rate as of 1/12). They’re also about league average in overall rebounding rate, but given how often they play “big” lineups (Dieng with KAT, and now Pek with either of them) perhaps it’s fair to wonder if they should be better. Towns is a fine rebounder; I’d put some of the blame on Gorgui. He’s so keen to hunt for blocks that I feel like he’s often out of position to grab boards.
Tim: Pek’s return will help, but only some. It’s weird. I think Towns, Dieng, KG, Pek, and even Bjelica are decent-to-good rebounders, but they don’t seem to bring any down. Even Rubio and LaVine rebound the ball well (though, as Britt mentions in the interview, that means playing them 94 feet). Is it something simple, like boxing out (something even KG, a great rebounder in other ways, was never great at)? The stats listed above suggest a lack of effort, so it’s definitely something to look into, and definitely strange.
Zach: I agree with what Tim is saying here. I feel like the individually good rebounders exist, but I wonder why they aren’t better at rebounding as a team. Is it because of giving up long jumpers and the ninth most 3-pointers per 100 possessions? Does that take them out of more traditional rebounding zones and they’re slow to react to the ball? Towns, Bazz, KG, Dieng, and Pek are all good rebounders. Rubio is a good rebounder for a point guard. But something isn’t translating here and I don’t know how to quantify it. Their increasingly poor defense may mean they’re out of position and that can permeate into the rebounding.
What do you make of Sam’s claim that the Wolves had no streamlined, documented player development program prior to this season?
Steve: I long ago stopped being surprised at any organization at any level that evinces a lack of systems or completely broken systems. Consider the fact that the Wolves were one of the first teams to really push for SportVU cameras back in 2012 and yet where is the concrete evidence that they’ve really done something with that data? In organizations with a lot of moving parts, things fall by the wayside and it’s not necessarily in anyone’s personal best interest to make more work for themselves. It’s a problem, and it’s good to see it might be being tackled in this case.
William: If it’s true, it’s friggin’ insane. This was the most amazing revelation from part one of Britt’s conversation; I still can’t quite believe that Sam got the folders out and was showing them to a member of the media. It’s good, I think, to have a streamlined process, but again, I just wonder if Mitchell is the right guy to spearhead such an effort.
Tim: With regime changes occurring at a decent frequency the past 11 years, it wouldn’t surprise me if some groups documented their player development better than others. While all guessing on my part, I have my doubts this is the first time a Timberwolves coaching staff has ever documented the progress of their young guys. But who knows? I’m just glad that this year’s group is taking it seriously.
Zach: This doesn’t shock me nearly as much as it should, but I don’t think it means they didn’t believe they were doing the right thing in player development. I’m willing to throw out the entire David Kahn era as anything competent being possible when it comes to this stuff. They probably did stuff (charting, individual skills, etc.) but nothing in such an organized fashion. Flip and Milt Newton were banging the drum on player development when they came here so I think that with the inclusion of Ryan Saunders and Bryan Gates was a long time coming, but ultimately inevitable.
Perhaps a follow up to that. Do you feel more or less confident in Sam since reading the article? Does the article lead you to believe the organization will remove the interim tag? Why or why not? (This is a SPECULATIVE question, not a “SHOULD THEY? question.)
Steve: I have always felt that Mitchell is doing good work with the young players on an individual basis, especially with regard to trying to hammer home some of the fundamentals that players are missing out on nowadays in AAU and the one year of college many of them get. If Mitchell is not the coach next year and the Wolves start to look good, it’s too bad that he won’t get enough credit for the groundwork he’s laying right now. But I also don’t think he should be the coach next year. My opinion, though, doesn’t count for much. Based strictly on this franchise’s woeful history with regard to making the tough choices when it comes to personnel, I think Mitchell will still be the head coach next year, minus the interim tag.
William: My level of confidence in Sam is about the same. My level of confidence that the Timberwolves will open things up this coming summer to find a new power structure, including the coach, has dwindled considerably. This conversation was, in some ways, a PR boon for Mitchell; it shows he’s committed to development in very tangible ways, and it reinforces (from his perspective, anyway) just how far he has to go with the young players. Glen Taylor is a very loyal guy. I think Mitchell will be the head coach on Opening Night in October.
Tim: My thoughts on him didn’t change much after reading. The young talent Flip Saunders put together has progressed well individually, and to Sam’s credit, he isn’t asking them to do more than they should right now. In the interview, and in several past occasions, he reminds us all that the core is full of 20 year olds. I trust him with the youngsters. In regards to the way he runs and offense? I’m still not sure his style fits this team long-term, so in that respect, the level of trust in him is also unchanged.
Zach: My confidence level in Sam is still the same. I’m not sure how capable he is of being the solution with many issues regarding the organization, but I also think we’re overanalyzing everything he does to a petty degree. He doesn’t get credit for the good and he gets skewered for the bad. I’m not exactly with that. In terms of whether or not I believe Glen Taylor is going to give Sam a shot at being the coach moving forward after the season, I’ll put it like this. I’m much more concerned with whether or not the Wolves decide to hire a front office person to replace Milt or work over Milt while retaining him as an influential but not the main decision-maker. After that, the coaching decision will be made. I think Glen is far more cutthroat when it comes to this stuff than he used to be, but that doesn’t mean sentimentality won’t make an appearance and keep everybody on board.