Kevin Garnett joined the chorus of people who have offered reviews of Sam Mitchell’s coaching acumen, stumping last week for his head coach and friend like a savvy politician.
“I feel real good about the progression of this team since Day 1, and I think it needs to be said and needs to be understood that I’m endorsing Sam Mitchell and our coaching staff and this organization,” Garnett told reporters.
KG’s comments served as a rebuttal to a groundswell of public sentiment that believes Mitchell’s stint as Timberwolves interim coach should last only until the end of this season.
Mitchell’s job performance rating has become a popular talker with respect to the nucleus of young talent in the organization and whether he’s the right coach to oversee their future.
The attention paid to Mitchell has deflected focus from an issue of equal importance, if not greater: What will owner Glen Taylor do with his top leadership position?
Will he keep interim basketball boss Milt Newton in place, or look outside for someone else to run the operation? Another theory floated is that Taylor perhaps could retain Newton as general manager and hire a president of basketball operations.
If Taylor decides to clean house, the ideal situation would be to hire his top executive first and then allow that person to pick his preferred head coach.
Those two front-burner items — Newton’s and Mitchell’s fate — loom as transformative decisions that could determine whether Flip Saunders’ master plan comes to fruition, his vision for this project teardown and rebuild on the promise of young stars.
The Wolves — Taylor specifically — can’t afford to get this wrong. The organization can’t afford to stumble upon another David Kahn.
And yet the tormented legacy of Kahn can’t cause a paralyzing fear of the unknown that entices Taylor to play things safe.
The Wolves find themselves in a more desirable position than at any point since Garnett’s prime years. Their blueprint and direction finally make sense.
Both jobs — president of basketball operations and head coach — should be more attractive to credible candidates because of a foundation that includes Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, another lottery pick upcoming and a new practice facility that is second-to-none.
Those factors should allow Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, to fish in different waters if he chooses to hire an experienced basketball czar. He can aim high knowing his organization has more to sell now.
Guys that might have laughed at Taylor’s overtures previously now probably recognize that the Wolves already have bottomed out and that their upside is real. Taylor shouldn’t have to settle for the fifth or sixth candidate on his list.
He elevated both Newton and Mitchell after Saunders became gravely ill. The owner promised both men a chance to prove themselves before deciding their long-term futures with the team.
To outsiders, Mitchell’s job is much easier to evaluate because his performance is on public display every game. We can critique his rotations, his offense, the way he handles certain players, his strategy in late-game situations.
Newton’s evaluation is more difficult to define because he operates primarily in the background. He worked alongside Saunders in constructing the roster, but to what degree has Newton put his stamp on this team? Hard to even guess.
He eventually could trade veteran guard Kevin Martin, but that figures to be only a minor, logical transaction. In the absence of something more substantive, Newton’s future will hinge on Taylor’s observations of his day-to-day leadership outside of public view.
Important roster decisions await whoever fills that seat. The Wolves desperately need outside shooters to complement their young talent. They also could use a power forward capable of stretching the floor.
The next president of basketball operations also must decide if Ricky Rubio is the long-term answer at point guard, a complicated and far-reaching issue given the importance and evolving skill set of that position in today’s NBA.
To call this a critical time in team history would not be overstating things. Yes, watching Wiggins, Towns and LaVine grow and develop gives reason for optimism, but that guarantees nothing without the right people surrounding them and guiding them.
It’s easy for us to focus on the coach, but Taylor’s decision on the coach’s boss ultimately could have more impact on whether this blueprint succeeds or fails.