A few weeks ago, MinnPost’s Britt Robson published a conversation (broken into two parts, which you can find here and here) with Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell. As is often the case with Robson’s work, the contents were illuminating for anyone hoping to gain insight to the team. Britt has covered the Wolves in some capacity for more than two decades, and is completely unafraid to ask tough questions. It’s been difficult to persuade Mitchell to speak at length about both player development and the nature of his offense – and Robson got both subjects on the record.
Britt specifically dove into the lack of three-point shooting by the Wolves this season – a thorny subject for Sam (as it was for his late predecessor) nearly every time it’s mentioned. Here’s what Mitchell said prior to the season about three-point shots:
“You have to earn the right to shoot threes… When I was in Toronto, we had things that guys had to do on a day-to-day basis in practice if they were going to be allowed to shoot threes. Just because you do those things, you still must shoot a certain percentage in practice. If you put the time and work in, then you’ll have the right to shoot them.”
“But there’s not a lot of plays that you can run to get open threes. They kind of have to come in flow. You see it all the time at the end of games – when a team needs a three, how many wide open three-pointers do they get?”
Sam went on to say that if any of the assembled media knew how to draw up plays for three pointers, they ought to be sitting at the podium with him, rather than writing about the team.
During pregame, postgame, and shootaround interviews, Mitchell has pretty much stuck with the talking points laid out above: threes must come in the flow of the offense, guys must earn the right to take them, and that there’s no magic answer or plays to be called to get those kinds of looks. But Robson finally got Mitchell to elaborate on the subject:
MP: But you guys shoot the highest percentage of your shots of any team in the NBA, from 16 feet out to the three point line. And you shoot the lowest percentage of your shots of any team from three-point territory. Logic would say less long twos and more threes is called for, even if you are not making them very often, if just for the habit of trying them.
SM: But who is going to shoot them?
MP: Well, Zach [LaVine], Bazzy [Shabazz Muhammad] and Wigs [Andrew Wiggins] would be three guys I’d most want to develop for that skill, because they can all penetrate so well and threes would complement that.
SM: You just saw the folders and the work we put in with those guys!
MP: I know, I know. I get it. But I mean …
SM: Because it is more than just taking them. It is footwork. It is leg strength. It is understanding that when your shot is short, do you get more arm or do you get more leg? I am telling you it is more leg. You shoot a basketball with your legs…
I can shoot enough to teach the fundamentals. But you need a Dave Hopla, who is going to start from your feet, up to your knees, to your hips, to your elbows and wrists and shoulders, to your arm position. He is going to break that shit down in phases, to where you can get it, and why you shoot it that way. And then as he gets you to shoot it that way, now he is going to speed you up. But first he has to teach you.
I can show you how I shot. And I can show you a couple of things that help. But I don’t teach it like Hopla because that is not who I am and what I do — I am a basketball coach. I am not a professional shooting coach. And that is something I have talked to Mr. Taylor about. We have got to search high and low. We have got to find someone. Because our guys are not — our best shooter is who?
SM: Thank you! He is 20 years old and a rookie and he is my best shooter. On the whole team!
MP: He is accurate from everywhere on the court.
SM: Yes. He is our most consistent shooter. K-Mart is supposed to be a shooter. Karl is a better shooter than him. A 20-year-old rookie.
MP: Who has a lot of other things to concentrate on.
SM: Exactly. He has a ton of stuff to learn.
MP: I mean, if you are relying on Towns for jumpers as the focal point of your offense in order to win …
SM: We are relying on him to shoot jumpers, we are relying on him in the post. It is a lot for a 20-year old. Welcome to my world.
It’s a fascinating exchange – coaches almost never discuss their current personnel, on the record, in the middle of the season, in such honest detail. But something else Sam said also caught my eye, and deserved some follow-up research:
“We averaged more threes in Toronto than anybody. Go back and pull up my record. We led the league in three-point shooting. But we had shooters. When they came in the door we didn’t have to teach them to shoot. They could shoot. Matt (Bonner) could always shoot. Donyell Marshall could shoot. The only guy we had to help work on his shooting was Jose Calderon.
I was curious… is that true? While Sam Mitchell was coaching the Toronto Raptors, did they really average the most three-pointers in the league? Were they tops in three-point percentage? Did they have shooters, or did they become shooters in Mitchell’s offense once they got there?
I decided to do what Mitchell prescribed – I went back and pulled up his record.
Here are rankings of various statistical categories for the Raptors in the two years prior to Sam Mitchell’s tenure, as well as the two years following his dismissal. It should be noted that he was fired 17 games into the 2008-09 season – but for the intents and purposes of the chart below, that is counted as a ‘Triano’ year rather than a ‘Mitchell’ one.
Technically, the Raptors didn’t take “more threes than anyone,” so if picking nits is your thing, there you go. But if that’s your main takeaway – that Mitchell didn’t know the specifics of where his Toronto teams ranked, or that he (gasp!) succumbed to a rhetorical tactic in the middle of a conversation with a reporter – you’re missing the forest for the trees. There’s a lot of interesting things to glean from that relatively simple chart.
For starters, Mitchell spearheaded a top-10 offense in each of his four full seasons with the Raptors. Also, those teams ranked in the top-5 in three point attempts twice, and were among the very best in three point percentage every year. He managed to do all that with a roster that was in constant upheaval, with only Chris Bosh (who wasn’t a three-point shooter yet) as the mainstay over the course of his tenure. He had a different starting point guard and different starting center in each of his four Toronto campaigns, as well as a plethora of wings around them:
Now, as you may have noticed, the Raptors’ tendency to shoot three pointers predated Mitchell’s arrival; they were trending upward in that category under both Lenny Wilkens and Kevin O’Neill. The number of total threes his teams took also fell over the course of his stay, falling from 4th in the league (during his second season) all the way to 14th (in his final full season).
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t allow guys to shoot – even veterans without a proven track record of success from beyond the arc:
Morris Peterson, Jalen Rose, Donyell Marshall, Lamond Murray, and Carlos Delfino each experienced a serious bump in their three-point shooting rate under Mitchell’s tutelage. Marshall was the most dramatic example; two years prior to arriving in Toronto, Marshall tried fewer than 1 three-pointer per-36 minutes (with the 2001-02 Jazz). As a Raptor, the former 4th overall pick from UCONN hoisted nearly 6 threes per game, and 8 per-36 minutes. Lamond Murray posted the second-highest effective field goal percentage of his career in his one year under Mitchell. Mike James had a career year in 2005-06. Anthony Parker returned to the NBA after six years playing abroad, stepped into the Raptors’ offense, and knocked down 44% of the threes he took with Sam as his coach. Carlos Delfino built his reputation as a shooter after the Pistons sent him north of the border prior to the 2007-08 season.
In other words, three-point shooters succeeded in a Sam Mitchell offense – and it wasn’t a fluke. It happened repeatedly over a four year stretch, during which time Mitchell’s teams hoisted the sixth-most threes in the entire NBA.
Clearly Sam Mitchell is comfortable with players taking threes; as much as everyone would like to paint him as some halfwit who is ideologically opposed to them, his track record speaks for itself. But the question remains… Why hasn’t that track record followed him to Minnesota?
One theory might be that he had veterans and a shooting coach in Toronto, but even looking at the rookies that played significant minutes under Mitchell pokes a few holes in that story, especially compared to Minnesota’s current crop of very talented young players:
What’s Mitchell to do? Wiggins, LaVine, and Muhammad have struggled to hit threes consistently this season. Nemanja Bjelica is one of the best shooters on the team, but has yet to find his comfort level and lacks the confidence to shoot freely. Kevin Martin is a mess, and looking to be traded away. Tayshaun Prince obviously feels way more comfortable firing from midrange as opposed to outside the arc, as he often ducks just inside the line on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Ricky Rubio is fine, but ultimately, remains Ricky Rubio, hitchy and slow to pull the trigger.
Overall, the Timberwolves’ offense ranks last in the league in three pointers attempted, and second-to-last in three point percentage. Believe it or not, they’re actually shooting 0.6 more threes per game than they did last year, but given the rapid rise in the frequency of the shot across the league, it doesn’t seem like it. All that’s apparent from watching the Wolves play, as well as watching the rest of the league, is that the Wolves are lagging far behind in that department.
Two things Mitchell could try – more playing time for Damjan Rudez, whose singular NBA skill is spot-up shooting (he made 41% of his threes for Indiana a year ago), but never sees the floor for some reason (he’s logged 10 minutes of action in the 14 games Minnesota has played since New Year’s Day). The other is to make Karl-Anthony Towns a more focused part of the gameplan, especially on the perimeter. Sam admitted it in his conversation with Britt Robson (referenced above): Towns is the team’s best shooter. It’s a small sample, but he’s hit 14-of-37 tries this season (38%) and his shot chart is a pretty green color from pretty much everywhere on the floor.
At any rate – the Wolves’ interim coach has to try something. A new report from Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press indicates several players are concerned about the “outdated offensive system” (among other things):
“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.”
There’s no denying Mitchell is in a tough spot. He took over in the worst imaginable circumstances – the head coach’s life was lost, relatively suddenly and unexpectedly, at a young age. Unfortunately, fair or unfair, he’s being judged on his performance, and while he might feel as though he doesn’t have the shooters to expand beyond the three-point arc, it may be pragmatic for him to put those concerns aside and allow his players to let it fly.
Mitchell’s run an offense that averaged over 20 threes per game before; that’s still short of ideal, but if he were able to coax that out of his team the rest of the way, it’d go a long way toward improving his own chances to retain the job, as well as preparing his young players for life in the modern NBA.