This isn’t the way he wanted it, but Sam Mitchell is back as an NBA head coach for the first time since he coached Toronto in 2008.
The 2007 NBA Coach of the Year fired by the Raptors little more than a season later was promoted from Timberwolves associate head coach to interim head coach earlier this month when the team announced Flip Saunders had taken a leave of absence for at least the coming months because of complications resulting from his cancer treatments.
On Tuesday, Mitchell will lead the team through its first training-camp practice. Last week, he discussed, among many other things, his team and his time away from head coaching as a television and radio commentator and NBA assistant coach as well as the prospect of coaching longtime friend Kevin Garnett.
Q. It has been seven years since you were a head coach. These obviously aren’t the circumstances you wanted, but did you always want to do this again?
A. Yeah, once I made the decision to come back into coaching, to prove myself and show people I want to be a head coach again. I enjoyed my time in the media. I learned a lot, got to watch a lot of basketball. It still tugs at me a little bit with the circumstances, but we all have a job to do and we’ve got to be professional and do our jobs.
Q. How did being away from coaching change the way you look at the game?
A. When you’re coaching, you just watch your team and the opponent. When you’re doing TV and radio, you’re watching everybody. I got a chance to talk to different coaches. Why do you do this or do that? It was a great learning experience and it proved to me I can do something else if I needed to. A lot of guys panic if they’re not in coaching, like that’s all I know, what am I going to do? It gave me confidence in myself that I can do other things.
Q. You said it at the news conference yourself and Glen Taylor said he has seen you mature. How will people who watched those Raptors teams see it now?
A. That’s not for me to say. I think every day you try to get a little better. That’s what I try to do. I’m probably not as hard on myself and not as hard on people as I used to be. I’ll probably still have my moments. But I appreciate life in different ways now. I can appreciate what these guys do, I can appreciate what assistant coaches do, I can appreciate what the media does now because I was there. Hopefully with that experience I have more patience and I look at things a little differently. But I’m not going to sit here and try to list how I’m different. I guess if you’re around me enough, you’ll see it.
Q. Were you too hard, too intense the first time around?
A. Well, I’m not going to lose my intensity. I was talking to my minister recently and he reminded me don’t lose what got you here. You’re an intense person, but you can do it a little bit different. I can communicate a little differently. Hopefully my language is better.
Q. At this late date, will you run systems that Flip already has put in or bring your own?
A. When all this happened, we hadn’t met with Flip so we didn’t know what Flip planned on doing. Flip didn’t leave us a book with what he wanted done. The only instructions I was given from Mr. Taylor and Milt [GM Milt Newton] were to coach the team the way you see fit…I’m going to do things a little different. I’m not going to come in here and try to be Flip. That would be a disservice to me, the organization and the players. I can’t be Flip. There are going to be some times when you look out on the court and some of the things we do will be familiar and there are going to be sometimes it won’t. But it’s not necessarily going to be the same things I did in Toronto. I’m going to do some things different than I even did in Toronto. Why? Because I’ve watched enough basketball these last seven years to say “OK, if I had the chance to do this again…”
Q. This season: win or develop?
A. C’mon, do I have to say that? I guess I do, knowing the media. It’s develop. We’re in the Western Conference. We’ve got Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Tyus [Jones], Shabazz [Muhammad], all these young guys who had one year in college. What do you think?
Q. I wanted to see how you’d answer the question.
A. So you’re trying to trip me up already. Nice to know some things never change. Obviously, as a coach you want to win, but I won’t sacrifice the development of this team to win two extra games. Just because we have some talent, you don’t just wake up and be an NBA contender. That talent, they have to learn how to play, how to grow, how to dig deep in games. How do you learn those things? You learn from going through it. You know as well as I do, it doesn’t happen overnight. We’ve got to develop our guys so in two or three years, we’re OKC, we’re competing not just for a playoff spot or division championship but for an NBA championship one day. That’s the goal, but it’s not going to happen in one day or one year.
Q. You’ve got eight guys 24 years old or younger and four guys 32 and older. How much can, will the veteran guys play?
A. That depends on the game, that depends on how the young guys are playing. Mr. Taylor and I talked about this. We think our veteran guys add value not just in the locker room and at practice, but game time, too. But we’re going to give the young guys every opportunity to play.
Q. Do you use one or two or three of those guys at game’s end?
A. Let me ask you this: If I play the young guys the first 3 quarters and I play the old guys in the 4th, how are the young guys going to learn to win games. Chances are, those old guys aren’t going to be here a year or two from now. It might look better on my resume if I have to look for a new job one day, that I won a couple extra games. But when you take on the job as head coach with a young team, you have to understand the sacrifice you’re making. My first job is to do right by the organization, by the players, not by me.
Q. How will your relationship as a teammate and friend with KG affect your ability to coach him?
A. No, no, I got a job to do, KG got a job to do. He understands that. He has been in the league 20 years, he understands. I’m going to have a different relationship with every player on this team. You don’t coach every guy the same. We’ll have rules that are the same, expectations that are the same, but some guys I’m going to push hard, some guys I’m going to ease back on, depending on my relationship with them and what buttons work the best.
Q.. Are there things you learned from coaching Jose Calderon in Toronto that you’ll apply to Ricky [Rubio]?
A. They’re two totally different people. I have to learn Ricky for myself. I’m not going to have expectations for Ricky based on how I coached Jose. That wouldn’t be fair to Ricky.
Q. Is he healthy and ready for camp?
A. He’s getting there. I don’t know what that word “healthy” means. He’s getting there. That’s a question you have to ask the training staff. I left my doctorates at home, but I’ll bring ‘em with me tomorrow if you need me to.
Q. Do you know if you’ll get Nikola Pekovic on the court during preseason?
A. I don’t think he’s going to be ready preseason. He’s coming along nicely, but I have no expectations he’ll be ready then. My name is Sam Mitchell, not Dr. Mitchell. One thing I don’t do, I never walk in that (training) room and push for a guy to be on the floor. Our training staff tells me. I’m not going to ask the players. I’m going to ask our trainers. They’re going to tell me when a guy’s ready to play.
Q. Do you hate 3-pointers, too?
A. Do I hate 3s? What do you mean?
Q. There a certain segment of Wolves Nation convinced Flip hates 3s and the game has passed him by.
A. My thing is, if you can shoot ‘em, shoot ‘em. I have certain criteria in order to shoot 3s, as long as you’re willing to put in the time and reach that criteria. But just because you practice them, doesn’t mean you get to shoot them.
Q. You’ve seen how the league has changed in that regard even since you last were a head coach. How suited is this team to keep up?
A. Obviously, we don’t have the guys that Golden State and some of the other teams do, but we’ve got some guys: Kevin Martin, we think Zach will develop into a good 3-point shooter, Wigs has shown a capacity to shoot them, Adreian. We’re encouraging guys to work on that aspect, but if you working on it and you’re shooting 25 percent in practice with no defense, you have to get a little better at it before we let you shoot it in games.
Q. Is there a test to take?
A. No, there’s not a test. But you’ve got to shoot so many a day and you’ve got to make a certain percentage of them in the gym, by yourself, without 19,000 screaming people.
Q. So you know a three is worth more than a two?
A. Yeah, my kindygarten education helped me with that. When my kindygarten teacher told me to take my shoes and socks off and told me to count to 20, I realized two was more than one and three was more than two.
Q. You saw Karl-Anthony Towns’ versatility in Las Vegas. Have you figured out how you will use him?
A. We have some ideas. We’re starting to formulate that, but I’m not going to tell you so you can put it in the paper and everybody in the league will know how we’re going to play. Let us have at least one game, let them go through at least training camp trying to figure out what we’re going to do. Now the first game in L.A. all that will be on display, but at least let us have that.
Q. How much easier does it make your job to have a roster that looks like it has a good bit of versatility and flexibility?
A. I don’t like that word “easy,” but it gives you a chance to make it difficult for teams to scout you when you have players who can do multiple things. That’s the thing I like about what Karl can do. I like that he can play inside, play outside. I like he can get a rebound and take one or two dribbles to facilitate a break. I like that he’s an extremely hard worker. He’s a smart player, but he’s a young player.
Q. What expectations should there be for the No. 1 overall pick?
A. He’s got 32 games of college under his belt, at 20 minutes a game. So I wish people would not push pressure on him. Think about what I just said: 20 minutes a game for 32 games. I wish people would just give him a chance to learn. That’s what we’re going to do. He’s going to play and we’re going to give him an opportunity to grow. It’s OK if guys struggle a bit because that’s going to tell me what they’re made of, that’s when they’re going to get their growth.
Q. You just might have two legitimate candidates for Rookie of the Year, Karl and Nemanja Bjelica. He’s 27 and not your typical rookie. What are your expectations?
A. He has experience. I don’t have expectations right now. We’re going too far here. We’re just trying to get these guys in here and get a look at them. I’ve seen him on tape, watched him play on TV. But I haven’t seen him in an NBA game, haven’t seen him work with our guys.
Q. Why give up so soon on Anthony Bennett? Isn’t he the kind of raw talent that the best franchises develop?
A. I wouldn’t say we gave up on him. Look at the sheer numbers at that position and even take K.G. out of the equation and we have three, four guys who can play power forward. We just felt we had an overabundance of people at that position. It wasn’t us giving up on A.B. I think A.B. came to us. His representative felt like they’d have a better chance somewhere else with a fresh start. We never approached A.B. with that (a contract buyout).
Q. I know he’s only 20…but do you have watch Andrew Wiggins’ minutes after how much he played last season? Or does that take care of itself with roster and better health?
A. Exactly. We don’t have to watch his minutes. Bazz is going to play there. Andrew played a lot year because we didn’t have a choice. Look how many games we played with only seven, eight guys dressed. He had to play all those minutes.
Q. And you’ve got Tayshaun [Prince] at that spot, too, right?
A. Well, yeah, in case of emergency, break glass. We got Wig. We got Bazz. We got Tayshaun. If we stay relatively healthy, then Andrew doesn’t have to stay out there 45 minutes a game.
Q. Muhammad looked a little chunky in July. Has he been working with his unconventional trainer since then and have you seen him yet?
A. He looks good. That’s the thing about Bazz, it didn’t work for me but if it works for you…Bazz goes and gets in shape. He has his way of doing things. This time now is their time. Come the 29th, that’s our time, Timberwolves’ time.
Q. Who’s your starting 5?
A. Out of those 15 guys (he points through his office window toward the practice court), there’s a starting five out there. Now I have an idea, but you’ll know — when is opening night? When the first five names are called in L.A., that’s when I’ll know.
Q. Do you still plan to play Zach LaVine at point guard?
A. Depends, just depends. With Ricky, Andre [Miller], Tyus [Jones] and Lorenzo [Brown] there, I would not like to play Zach a lot at the point because I think it makes us a better team having two guys on the court who can handle the ball and facilitate offense. That’s something we’ll work with Kevin [Martin] about, get him handling the ball a bit better facilitating the offense rather than just scoring. Anytime you have a guy who can handle the ball and score, teams are going to commit two guys to stop him. It just makes you a better basketball team. We just paid a guy $14 million [Rubio], why would we not want to play him at his position?
Q. I heard you say Tyus Jones has a certain je ne sais quoi. You played in France, coached not far from Quebec. Can you translate, please?
A. The thing I like Tyus is he has won wherever he has been. How do you measure that? You can look at a guy and say he can only jump so high, only move so fast. But how do you measure winning? Some people just have that. That’s the thing I respect about Tyus.
Q. I know there’s that interim title, but what kind of say will you have in personnel decisions that might need to be made in October?
A. That’s conversation Milt and I have daily. When you’re interim or in the last year of your contract, they try to say guys are not going to listen. I haven’t asked one guy the status of his contract and not one guy has asked me. If you think you’re going to play on this team and have an advantage because I have an interim tag on my name, then you’re thinking wrong. I don’t coach that way. That’s coaching from fear. You hear coaches say, “I’m in the last year of my contract, if you don’t give me an extension I can’t coach the team.”
Really? I just don’t believe that. If you’re organized and confident and you treat people with respect and people respect what you’re trying to do, you don’t have to worry about those things. Those things take care of themselves and that’s what I’m going to do.