Sam Mitchell is seven games into his tenure as the Timberwolves coach and has “interim’’ attached to his title. This could be done out of respect for Flip Saunders, the coach and basketball boss.
I’m not sure that Flip’s memory is in need of greater respect than has been shown since his death on Oct. 25. The outpouring of sadness and admiration for Saunders has been phenomenal, and in Minnesota, it has gone beyond our basketball world to an entire state.
The interim title also can be taken as a reflection of Mitchell’s current job status. He’s good for this season, but what happens after that is anyone’s guess, including (presumably) owner Glen Taylor.
The surface has been barely scratched on the NBA’s season, and yet there’s a strong indication Mitchell has adopted the long view. This is admirable, since a coach who chose to be paranoid over his future could be pushing more minutes on his best players and letting his less-efficient youngsters wilt on the bench.
The Timberwolves have been inept in many areas over the past decade, and nowhere more so than on defense. Until Tuesday, when Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Kevin Garnett were absentees, Mitchell had been starting those three, along with veteran Tayshaun Prince and rookie Karl-Anthony Towns.
You didn’t have to be Mike Fratello to figure out what Mitchell was attempting to do with this mix of veterans, recent No. 1 overall draft choices and Rubio:
He was taking five players with a respect for playing defense and trying to create a mindset this team hadn’t had for years – namely, to guard someone.
The bonuses are that Prince’s presence is Example A for inexperienced teammates on how to move and space themselves on offense, and Garnett remains reliable on the defensive board.
The same people who can’t figure out why Prince is on the floor also have decided that Zach LaVine “will never be a point guard.’’
LaVine is 20. He did not get workhorse minutes at UCLA as a freshman. Still, Saunders fell in love with LaVine’s wonderful athletic ability and took a flier on him at No. 13 in the 2014 draft.
LaVine is getting solid minutes as Rubio’s backup because Mitchell is taking the long view:
Zach can be a tough match-up for a defender there, if he can start seeing more of what’s going on in the half-court. Maybe he never will, but it’s idiotic to declare a 20-year-old as a no-chancer at point guard seven games into his second season.
The long view is two-fold for Mitchell and the Wolves: A veteran like Prince is teaching by example on both ends of the court, and an inexperienced, amped-up kid like LaVine is trying to learn.
So, if it’s a long view, why did Tyus Jones not get his first minutes until Tuesday’s manpower emergency?
Simple. Tyus isn’t close to ready physically for the NBA – as opposed to LaVine, who is more than ready physically, and could have it figured out on how to use those gifts 40-50 games from now.
OK, I got it: You want LaVine at off guard, and Wiggins at small forward. That’s fine, in spurts, but Wiggins (also 20) can make life miserable for an off guard at both ends, and it puts Andrew in the frame of mind that he has to make jump shots.
To see him making threes on Monday in Atlanta … that’s what Mitchell wants to see added to Wiggins’ game, to allow him to make the leap from a Rookie of the Year to a Western Conference All-Star.
And then there’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who will be 20 as of Sunday. Seven games. Timberwolves followers shouldn’t feel this certain about Towns’ future greatness after seven games. But we can’t help it, not even the hard-edged Sam Mitchell, who doesn’t believe in going into the locker room and “passing out candy’’ (as he said Tuesday.
“I say this and I don’t say it out loud, but sometimes I think about the things I’m asking [Towns] to do against the people I’m asking him to do it against …,’’ Mitchell said. “I always have to remind myself that he’s 19, that he should be a sophomore in college.
“I think about myself at 19, and I have so much respect for this young man, and so much respect for Andrew and Zach and some of our young guys, because at 19 I was still trying to find my way to class.’’
The classroom for these young guys is now the NBA, and the opinion here is that Mitchell is doing what he can to graduate them … his coaching future be danged.