As part of the Timberwolves’ final practice Tuesday, interim coach Sam Mitchell and the players spent time talking to each other about the season, which ends Wednesday against New Orleans at Target Center.
The players talked about what they had learned. Mitchell told the team how proud he was of their development in a season that began under the cloud of losing Flip Saunders,the team’s coach and president of basketball operations, to cancer in October at age 60.
Mitchell said his players “should be proud of themselves,” praising their improvement and predicting a bright future.
“I thanked ’em for allowing me to coach ’em this year,” Mitchell said. “I pushed ’em. And they responded in a positive way.”
The big question is whether Mitchell will be retained. The decision lies with Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who will first consult with General Manager Milt Newton.
Most players who talked to the media Tuesday spoke highly of Mitchell.
That’s not necessarily surprising. But in several cases, the responses seemed immediate and heartfelt.
“Definitely,” said Andrew Wiggins when asked if he would like the 52-year-old Mitchell back as coach next season. Wiggins then talked about how much Mitchell and the staff have helped him. “It’s been huge,” he said. “They put me in positions to succeed. They’ve never steered me wrong.”
Wiggins and Mitchell frequently worked together during Wiggins’ rookie season, when Mitchell was Saunders’ top assistant.
“I talked with him the most out of all the assistants,” Wiggins said. “And this year he was the head coach, so I already had that relationship with him. So it’s good.”
Shabazz Muhammad had a similar response. “I think he’s developing us great,” Muhammad said. “I think Sam is a players’ coach. … He’s really been a teacher to us. We’re a young team. He’s really hands-on, which is good. I love coach and I hope he’s back next year.”
This is what rookie Karl-Anthony Towns had to say: “I’ll tell you one thing. We’ve done a great job this year, especially the coaching staff. With the tragedy happening, I think they did a great job for us this year.”
Only Gorgui Dieng shied away from the question. “I’m going to leave that to Glen and Milt,” Dieng said. “I’m just a player and I’m going to stay in my lane.”
As he has done a few times in recent days, he spoke with pride about a team that has a chance to win its 29th game Wednesday after the Wolves won only 16 last season.
When asked about his own immediate future with the franchise with which he began his NBA playing career, Mitchell said: “I’m not worried about me. All I can do is do the best job I can. I’m comfortable with that, whatever happens.”
Seeking a final win
For a team that has, on balance, been more competitive on the road than at home, winning Wednesday’s finale in front of the home crowd is an important goal.
The Wolves completed a 3-0 road trip by winning at Sacramento and Portland after their upset of Western Conference-leading Golden State. But they returned to Target Center on Monday with a lopsided loss to Houston. The Wolves have lost four of their past five home games.
“It’s one of the things we talked about,” Muhammad said. “That’s something we want to do. I think we’re doing something good here. The next thing we want to do is win this game, end the season on a great note.”
Said Mitchell: “I know the effort will be there. I can’t promise a win. But the effort will be there.”
Before tipoff Wednesday, the first Flip Saunders Legacy Award will be presented to a Wolves player.
The Flip Saunders Legacy Fund was established to aid and support deserving individuals or groups to continue the positive impact of the life of Saunders in the community. The award will go to the player whose work in the community most lived up to that standard.
Saunders’ wife, Debbie, and his son, Wolves assistant Ryan, will present the award, which was voted on by the entire Wolves team.