Last night’s loss to the Bucks at home was both familiar and strange.
The familiar: Minnesota lost at home, again, falling to 5-13 in their own building, the third-worst mark in the NBA (ahead of only the Lakers and Sixers). The Wolves took just 14 threes, and made just 3 of them. Minnesota was plus-9 during the 33 minutes Ricky Rubio was on the court, and minus-19 during his 15 minutes of rest. Gorgui Dieng turned the ball over 4 times, and has 18 total turnovers over his past 5 games, but continues to be blessed with a long leash. Towns and Muhammad, despite their solid play, continue to have short ones.
The strange: Milwaukee went most of the first quarter without making a field goal, registering their first bucket with 3:21 to go in the period. O.J. Mayo completely lost his mind and had to be forcibly restrained by several teammates and coaches after he was ejected. The Wolves offense was stagnant for almost the entire night, but Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine hooked up on a sweet alley-oop out of nowhere. Ricky, by the way, was the Wolves’ leading scorer for much of the night, before Andrew Wiggins finally got it going in the fourth quarter.
Also out of the ordinary: interim coach Sam Mitchell gave long, candid postgame answers about the state of his team. This season, he’s reiterated time and time again that the Wolves are young, and stated that everyone’s expectations need to be adjusted accordingly. But last night he expounded upon what that youth really means, and the kinds of challenges it presents to the coaching staff, in very specific ways.
For example, he turned a pretty basic question about offensive struggles into to a long explanation of the young players’ bad habits and where they come from:
Once we get past (Ricky Rubio, Tayshaun Prince, and Kevin Garnett), we’ve got all young guys out there in that second unit. The execution, picks, spacing, timing – that’s all we do with our young guys. That’s what we work on every day. Habits. They’ve just got bad habits.
Those habits aren’t going to change (quickly). These are habits that have been acquired, that people who are supposed to have coached them have let them do for years. And we’re trying to break those habits because they’re not conducive to winning. Those are bad NBA basketball habits to have. When you were playing high school, college, AAU, or whatever, you could get away with that because you were the most talented guy on the floor. (But) everybody in the NBA can play, everybody, otherwise they wouldn’t have a uniform. So if you think you can do what you did a year ago in AAU, or one year of college, you’re sadly mistaken.
I played four years of college. I was joking with some of the assistant coaches – I walked around hunched over all the time because all we did was slide drills. So when we got on the court, I didn’t know anything else besides getting into a stance on offense and defense. Look at how many times our guys are standing straight up. We show it to them on tape, we work on it every day. Why do you think, during training camp, we did slide drills. You think we did that because I’m stupid? We went back to basics because we realized they haven’t gotten them.
I’ve been doing slide drills since the 8th grade. AAU don’t do sliding drills because the guy who owns the hardware store runs the team, but he never coached! He never took a coaching class or learned how to coach. It’s just some dude that’s got some money for sneakers and gear that’s coaching you. So what’s he going to do? He’s going to roll the ball out there, and jump and scream, and they think that’s coaching. That’s not coaching. That’s not teaching technique. That’s not teaching a guy how to set up his man when he’s coming off a screen to get an open shot. That’s not teaching the habit of every time you catch the ball, instead of putting the ball over your head and turning sideways, you rip through and into a triple threat to create some spacing, so you can get the defender off of you and see.
Those are habits. Our young guys, right now, the catch the ball and (put it over their heads). That’s what you do in AAU basketball. So we’re trying to break all those habits. You can’t play basketball standing up, you’ve got to be in a stance on both ends. You gotta be ready to shoot. What our guys don’t understand, is, if you’re standing straight up and I pass you the ball, what’s the first thing you’re going to do before you shoot? Bend your knees, get ready. So pros (are bent already) because they’re anticipating the ball coming. When it comes, they’ve got an extra split second to get the shot off. Young guys are standing (straight up), oh, now you throw it to me, oh, now I’ll go into my shot. It’s too late.”
Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press then asked if he’d like to see Karl-Anthony Towns drive to the rim when his shot isn’t falling. Mitchell answered (“Yeah, that, or move it to the weak side”), but then basically continued his train of thought from before, addressing his entire team:
… I left them out there for a reason. And I was hoping a little embarrassment set in on how they were playing. Sometimes, that’s gotta be part of their medicine.
You know, sometimes as coaches, we try to save them too much. We don’t want their feelings to get hurt. We don’t want them to get embarrassed. But when you get your butt kicked you need to be embarrassed. That’s how you wake up. Every coach in that locker room that played basketball at a high level got their butt kicked. There were nights I wanted to crawl under the floor, dig a hole, and crawl home – that’s how bad I played. But those nights stuck with me. And some nights the coach left me out there, and he’d tell me afterward, “I left you out there for a reason – don’t let this happen to you again.””
Jon followed up by asking if Mitchell thought the guys in the locker room were embarrassed:
When you guys go in the locker room, ask them. I think so. If they weren’t we’ve got the wrong guys on our team, and I’ll say that. And you can quote me on saying that. If somebody in there isn’t embarrassed about how they played, we’ve got some wrong guys in that locker room.
A bit of analysis…
I’ve been critical of Mitchell this season, as most writers have, and extremely critical of the offense and shot selection. But if you put all that aside for a moment, and simply consider what he’s saying, it’s very interesting insight into what the coaches are dealing with. And not just the coaches, either; Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince don’t contribute much to the box score, but when they are on the court, everything works smoothly. People are in the right places, setting screens, getting decent shots – and it’ because they have good habits. They make Wiggins, Towns, Muhammad, and LaVine look better purely by association.
The frustration, I think, is that Mitchell understands that the young guys have to play, even though it’s painful for everyone involved. What I appreciate about Mitchell’s candor is that he goes into detail about the little things the team is working on. It’s not just saying, “we’re young,” and leaving it at that. He explains the problems that all the inexperience causes. But there’s no way around it; when they’re on the court without a veteran, or when the second unit is out there without Ricky Rubio to set everybody up and direct traffic, the bad habits really start to take over.
On the flip side, of course, every team in the league has to deal with youth – perhaps not to the Timberwolves’ extreme, but this is the bed the team made, and Mitchell has been asked to sleep in it. It’s also completely fair to wonder if Mitchell is really the right guy to be tasked with breaking those habits, and then building them up to try to maximize their potential.
To be perfectly frank, despite Mitchell’s abrasiveness with the media and primordial offense, I find him a somewhat sympathetic figure, here. Think about it from his perspective – one of his closest friends and colleagues passed away in August, leaving him in the difficult spot of taking over for him. However, he has no real assurances beyond one season – a situation very few NBA coaches find themselves in. If the team decides to go another direction this summer, he’ll be gone – he cant be retained as an assistant after having the head job for an entire year. It’d be too weird. He’s never really been a front office candidate, either – his roots are in coaching and teaching. So instead of a multiyear gig as an assistant, it’s possible he’ll get one crack at the top job, with a roster full of inexperienced players, and that’s it.
If he spends the season working on fundamentals, and Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones have anything to show for it afterward, perhaps that’s all we can really ask.