Sam Mitchell got fired yesterday. You won't read those words anywhere in the announcement posted on the Minnesota Timberwolves team website. Instead, you'll see that the team is deeply grateful to Mitchell, a former Timberwolves player, for taking over as head coach... and that they're launching a search for a a new head coach.
To do so, owner Glen Taylor has hired Korn Ferry, a sports business consulting firm, which will focus its search on candidates "outside the organization."
Says Taylor: “The future of the Minnesota Timberwolves has never been brighter. It’s important that we find the best leaders to shape our talented team and help them realize their full potential."
Translation: Don't play it again, Sam. Door's over there.
The shortlist of potential replacements includes Tom Thibodeau, formerly of the Chicago Bulls, and Dave Joerger, currently of the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Wolves gave Mitchell a not-at-all fitting sendoff last night, blowing out the New Orleans Pelicans 144-112 at the Target Center for their 29th win on the year.
In his announcement, which also spelled the end for Milt Newton, the head of basketball operations, Taylor acknowledged that the two found themselves in "historically challenging positions" this year. They suddenly inherited a team previously run by Flip Saunders, their boss, a beloved local figure, and the greatest coach in team history, when Saunders died just days before the season started.
Not only that, but the squad was a weird amalgamation of good or great players past their prime (Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Kevin Martin, all 33 or older) and good or great players before their prime (Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, Shabazz Muhammad and Andrew Wiggins, all 25 or younger). The dynamic would've posed problems even for Flip.
Instead it all fell to Mitchell, who made do, and didn't make friends. MinnPost reported he frequently challenged the press, inquiring after mistakes made during losses, with the line, "if you're so smart you should be sitting up here next to me." He also didn't put much stock in analytics, the newfangled statistical analysis system that's driving personnel decisions and on-court strategies across the NBA. But not here in Minnesota.
Midway through the year, about half the team told the AP they weren't sure if Mitchell was the right fit. His offense was old-school in a league that fell in love with the 3-point shot, and he didn't take any blame when things went wrong. If Mitchell deserved a second season, he did himself no favors alienating the press and his players during his first.
It's poignant to look now at the Wikipedia page picture for Sam Mitchell, a man who spent 13 years in the NBA as a player, and just finished his fifth full season as a head coach. The above photo is actually an expansion of the original photo, dated 2006, back when Mitchell coached with the Toronto Raptors. Mitchell's page actually, shamefully, looks like this:
Is that even Sam Mitchell in that picture? Probably. Would Minnesotans recognize it if it weren't? Maybe not. In a way, this picture is how he'll be remembered here. A man out of focus, not facing up to the eye of the camera, and always heading toward the exit.
Still. Mitchell is a legitimate NBA coach, one who took two teams to the playoffs, and he'll get another job somewhere, either as an assistant or a head coach. He just spent 82 games with the Wolves, 41 of those at the Target Center, where every ticket-buyer and their kid has an iPhone that can capture things in bright lines and vivid color.
Please, someone upload a nice picture of Sam Mitchell. We owe him at least this much.