OTTAWA – On Wednesday night in Ottawa, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and the Timberwolves’ Sam Mitchell will work opposite sidelines against each other for the second time in three nights, two men given a second chance to be an NBA head coach meeting the team that fired each from his first one.
Now in their 50s, both men call themselves older, wiser and smart enough now to know just what they don’t know.
Casey coached Kevin Garnett and the Timberwolves a decade ago and lasted almost exactly a season and a half before he was fired with a 20-20 record midway through the 2006-07 season.
Mitchell coached the Raptors for four-plus seasons, won the NBA Coach of the Year award the same season the Wolves fired Casey and then was fired himself little more than a season later.
“Huge,” Casey said of the difference between the first and second times around. “You learn so much from your mistakes, more from your mistakes than the success you have. So I’m sure Sam has learned. I don’t know a coach who has been fired who felt like he should have been fired. I didn’t feel like I should have been fired in Minnesota. We were in the playoff hunt.
“You never feel that way. I made mistakes in Minnesota. Everybody does. But you learn from them, you grow from them. I’m sure Sam has. He’ll tell you that.”
Casey drew a paycheck from the Wolves for a season and then spent the next three seasons as an assistant to Rick Carlisle in Dallas, where the Mavericks won the 2011 NBA title a week before the Raptors officially hired him. Now he leads a revamped team aimed at contending in the Eastern Conference a season after they were swept out of the playoffs’ first round unceremoniously by Washington.
Mitchell, too, took time off after his firing, then did television and radio commentary in the U.S. and Canada and returned to coaching as an assistant in New Jersey in 2010 and joined the Wolves last June. He was promoted from associate head coach to interim head coach at age 52 last month when the Wolves announced Flip Saunders was on indefinite leave from the team while he is being treated for cancer.
“I learned from the first time,” Mitchell said. “I wore myself out the first time. It’s a long season.”
Mitchell also learned he didn’t know everything and couldn’t do everything from that first time around.
“I delegate more now, I use my staff,” he said, referring to assistant coaches Sidney Lowe, David Adelman, Ryan Saunders and Bryan Gates. “I realize I’m not the smartest guy in the room, and there are certain things we do that other coaches bring to the table better. When I feel that, I let them teach. … These are good basketball coaches and they’re smart and you have to understand that. You don’t know everything.”
Now 58, Casey said he learned to let go of some things from working for Carlisle in Dallas. Those three seasons showed him how to trust others more. That 2011 championship didn’t hurt, either.
“I felt I had to do everything,” he said. “That’s one great thing I learned from Rick Carlisle. There’s no ego with him. There’s none with me. Give guys responsibility, hold them accountable, don’t disagree with them in public. We do it behind closed doors. … You have to delegate in this position. There’s just too much: Too much to do, too much to think about. Rick’s one of the best at that. He gave [current Portland coach] Terry Stotts and me supreme responsibility and I learned from it.”
Each man calls himself a better coach than he was once upon a time because of their failures as well as their successes.
“You just try to get better,” Mitchell said. “You try to have more patience. You understand Rome wasn’t built in a day and you’re not going to win a championship in a day. You understand the process, the ups and downs a little bit better. You understand how difficult the league is. Everybody wants to win right now, but it just doesn’t work. You put in your time and you keep your players focused, understanding it’s a process.
“There’s no quick fix. There’s nothing we can tell them that will take them from A to Z. They have to go from A to B to C, D, E, so forth and so on. I think I understand that process better now.”
• Mitchell said point guard Ricky Rubio did some live contact practice Tuesday in Ottawa and remains aimed at practicing fully Friday and Saturday. If the team’s medical staff then clears him, he’ll make his preseason debut Sunday at Memphis.