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Wolfson: 30 minutes with Sam Mitchell on the future of the Wolves, his job security

Jan 23, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell discusses strategy with guard Ricky Rubio (9) in the game with the Memphis Grizzlies at Target Center. The Timberwolves win 106-101. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Warren LeGarie, Wolves interim coach Sam Mitchell’s agent, is expected to reach out to owner Glen Taylor before the second half of the season begins Friday, according to a source.

The reasoning is simple: with 28 games to go, Mitchell is seeking any sort of clarity on his future.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported late last week that there’s been cursory contact between Wolves’ folks and former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau/his agents at CAA. Sources tell 1500 ESPN that neither Taylor nor general manager Milt Newton has talked to Thibodeau.

Another source indicates that soon-to-be limited partner Steve Kaplan hasn’t talked to Thibodeau either. However, Kaplan will have as many as 12 silent partners as the finishing line approaches for his 30-percent purchase of the Wolves, a dollar amount that’ll reach nine figures. It’s entirely possible that one of those individuals is connected to Thibodeau, or it was a seed planted by one of his agents.

Kaplan and his group are expected to have some level of say in what the Wolves do with their president of operations and head coach positions for 2016-17, according to a source. Whether Taylor will allow them full say is unknown. Taylor and Mitchell have a good relationship, which can only help Mitchell’s future cause. Mitchell has no relationship with Kaplan, or his group.

Taylor is expected to remain the majority owner for at least 1-2 more years. At that time, Kaplan will have first right of refusal on becoming the majority owner.

Mitchell’s future, and the present were discussed heavily in a 30-minute sit-down chat last Tuesday.

D. Wolfson: The casual fan and even the hardcore fan will measure progress by simply looking at wins. Well, 17 wins right now (got win No. 17 after our chat) is more than last year’s total. But it’s not that simple. How do you measure progress?

Sam Mitchell: Well, you always have to say wins. I’m not going to come out and fool with people, and change the formula. Winning always matters. But you always have to look at where you are with your team and your development. You have to look at who you’re asking to win. If Andrew Wiggins was 24 or 25, and Karl-Anthony Towns was 24 or 25, and Zach (LaVine) and G (Gorgui Dieng) and those guys were 28, it’d be different. But the reality is we’re trying to win games with Ricky (Rubio), who with injuries is at about 2 1/2 years as a player when you look at all his injuries; Zach LaVine, who’s in his second year, who played 18 minutes a game in college — Flip Saunders had the foresight to recognize his talent and draft him where he did. People thought he had Lottery talent, but he hadn’t played enough. Then you look at Andrew Wiggins, the talent speaks for itself. But he’s 20. Karl-Anthony Towns should be a sophomore at Kentucky and he’s 20. Gorgui Dieng didn’t play much in previous years and now he’s an integral part of what we’re doing. Shabazz Muhammad was always considered one-dimensional, someone who can score. Now we have him handling the ball and playing defense. We have him playing help defense and doing other things.

When you look at that core, are they getting better? The numbers say they are. Are we playing better defensively? Yes. Offensively? Yes. Would we like to win more games? Absolutely. Our young core is learning how to compete and win each and every night. There will be some nights when we played the Clippers or Atlanta or Chicago and we look good. There will be nights when we play Portland, or New Orleans where we don’t look as well. But we’re going to sink or swim with these young guys. The best thing about our team is our best players are 20. The tough thing for our team is our best players are 20. So, it depends on how you look at it.

I feel good about this team from this standpoint: as a coach you either want to be coaching San Antonio, Golden State, Cleveland, Toronto, one of those teams that you know has a chance to be in the conference finals or better, or you want to have a young team with Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, those guys who you know you’re building around. And Ricky Rubio. And they’re winning enough and beating some quality teams where you see that a little more experience and Milt Newton the general manager and Sam the coach, and they add the right free agents and get the right draft pick, we can really take a significant jump.

I say all of that knowing that winning is important. You should always be judged by wins and losses. But put it into context and look at who we’re asking to win right now. Our future is bright. For a coach it’s never enough unless you win a championship. But the right thing for me to do with this team is to make sure our young players, who we’re building this thing around, get the opportunity to grow and develop mentally and physically the way they should. My job is to put them in the right environment to do that. If I do my job, which is hard because the people say you need to win more, you need to do this, you won some games early, but if you go back to training camp and I said this, if your young team is in shape coming out of training camp you can beat some veteran teams early because they’re never in shape. So we got some wins early because we were in shape, and I wanted to get some wins early for their confidence. I know as a coach that at this point in the season when those veteran teams are in shape, it’s hard to win.

I’m proud of our guys’ growth as professionals, how competitive they are, attention to detail. They just aren’t ready to win like how we want them to win. Trust me, nobody wants them to win more than I do because it benefits me. But I will not sacrifice one minute of development for our young guys for one extra win to go by name. If I did that, I wouldn’t be doing justice to Glen Taylor and the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the fans. I would not be doing my job. As a coach when I walk out of this job whether it’s next year or like I hope in 20 years, I have to be able to look back and know I did the right thing by the players and the organization.

DW: I suppose there’s something to be said to not be in that 9 or 10 seed range and lose your draft pick. There is something to be said about building this thing the right way. You have to now maintain that draft pick.

SM: You got to. I know everyone wants to win a championship tomorrow. I do. You think my coaches don’t? Our livelihood and jobs depend on it. But I remind my coaches every day that we should never be considered for another job in the NBA or college if we don’t show the people that we can do the right thing with this team with what we’ve been given. It’s a blessing to have this team. Under no circumstances would I lay any personal ambition or anything about wanting the job or the interim tag removed from my name, and I would never compromise this organization and these players’ ability to grow and develop into a championship team. I would never do that for one win to go onto my resume. It’s bigger than that. It’s not about me or the coaches. This is about the Minnesota Timberwolves — Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, or if I missed anybody, it’s about them. It’s not about me.

Coach (Saunders) brought me back here for a reason. We didn’t see any of this happening with Flip passing. I will not disgrace his honor by doing the wrong thing with this group of talented young players he left me.

DW: Who are these people you’re referencing about needing to win more and other outside noise?

SM: Just people in general. NBA people know what we have to do right now. They know the right thing to do. Fans don’t. They look at the bottom-line. Most fans turn the TV on and see if we won, ‘Yeah my team won,’ or if we lost, ‘They suck.’ That’s the fans. I get that. We understand that. But for the people that are in this game to try and win championships, how to build a team and organization, they know the pain and the bricks you have to lay. You don’t put a brick here (has left hand near the floor) and then put a brick here (reaches right hand way up in the air). It has to be done the right way. If you do it the right way, not only will you win and have a chance to win championships, but you’ll be able to win for 8, 10, 11 years. Look at Brooklyn. They tried to do what Boston did and bring in these veterans. It worked for Boston, but even though it did, look what Danny Ainge had to do. He had to break it up, and start all over again. So Brooklyn tries the Boston formula — trade draft picks and young players. Look at where Brooklyn is at right now.

DW: They’re screwed.

SM: No draft picks, and no young players.

DW: Who would want that job?

SM: Look at where we are. You have to resist the temptation and get over yourself to do the right thing and not make it about you, but about the organization. It’s hard to do sometimes because sometimes as a coach you may not get rewarded for it.

DW: Do you think about that?

SM: I do for about 10 seconds and then I know I’m doing the right thing. Look, this is what I tell people: it’s easy to do what I’m doing because I know it’s the right thing. It’s in my mind and in my heart and my gut. I just know it’s the right thing to do. I’ve been down this road before. I did this in Toronto. So I know it’s the right thing to do. There’s no other way to do it. The path has been laid before me by others. All I have to do is follow it. All I have to do is not worry about, when we play bad, the criticism that comes with it. That’s part of the game. I shouldn’t be a coach if I can’t handle criticism or explain what I’m doing. You just shouldn’t be a coach. It shouldn’t be that I do what I’m doing and you watch and see. No. You should be able to ask me a question, ‘Coach, why did you do this?’ and I should be able to give you an answer. You may not agree with my answer, but I should be able to give you an answer. I’m ok with that.

DW: OK, here we go. Why don’t you shoot more 3s (Wolves rank last in attempts per game)?

SM: I would like to.

DW: You have the personnel?

SM: No, not right now. We are shooting more 3s than last year. 3s were a big part of my teams in Toronto. But we don’t have 3-point shooters right now. We are trying to develop the guys we have to become better 3-point shooters. You see that I let Karl take some 3s, you see G taking some 3s. So we are encouraging. I want to pull the little hair I got left out every time Nemanja [Bjelica] turns down a 3. Shoot the ball. I encourage that. We work on 3s every day. All our guys have to shoot so many 3s a day. I’m not going to have you work on something and not allow you to do it in the game. So we want to shoot more 3s. We just have to get better at it. The guys aren’t shooting them because they don’t feel comfortable. It’s not because we as a coaching staff aren’t encouraging them. We include (shooting 3s) in our daily practice.

DW: Is your offense designed to get open 3s?

SM: Absolutely. It’s designed to get that corner 3 like everybody else. When we swing the ball, swing, swing, we get corner 3s. That’s why you see Shabazz, who’s been one of our better 3-point shooters in the corner, you see him in the corner a lot. But we have to get there. We have made tremendous strides in shooting more 3s. We don’t like to just shoot them, we like to make them.

DW: How much of your offense are you able to implement? Are there elements of your offense that we’re not even seeing because it takes a while for these youngsters to grasp everything?

SM: We’re giving it to them in doses. We give it to them as they show they can handle it. Lately, like the last three weeks, we’ve been able to open it up. You are seeing us run more.

DW: You want to run more, right?

SM: Absolutely. We wanted to run from Day 1. But getting them to that point, putting in plays — Andrew is a young player, ‘Call my play, get me a shot.’ Well, you have to learn how to play without me calling your play because it’s too predictable. Everyone scouts you and they know what’s coming. So if you can play in flow and transition and score that way, people can’t load up on you. So he’s had to learn. He plays Atlanta a second time and they had one guy on him, brought another guy over, and trapped him from the top. I said, ‘Look I’m trying to get you to run and play in transition. You’ll see that every night, three guys in front of you. But if you get out and run, you’ll see one guy. Which defense would you rather play against, the one or the three?’ Well, OK. But guess what? He had to experience it first. Me just telling him wasn’t enough. It had to happen to him in the game and then all of a sudden, he knows he has to add that to his game.

DW: Does he grasp that? Do your guys as a whole grasp things? Can there be some give-and-take too?

SM: Yeah.

DW: Can you be tough on these guys? Are you tough?

SM: Yeah!

DW: I know you’re tough on these guys. Can they embrace your toughness?

SM: The thing that’s funny thing, and I say this all the time, the coaches who were tough on me, I loved them because they loved me and cared about me. I can be as tough as I want to be on you if you know I care. If you don’t care about me, you can’t be tough. There’s a difference. If you care about me, you can be tough on me. Now I know you have my best interests and the team’s best interests at heart. But if I think you’re just tough on me just because you want to have this persona of being a tough guy, no. Second of all, I consider myself fair. Not necessarily tough. I’m demanding from the standpoint where we’re gonna do it over and over again until we do it right. Now, is that tough, or paying attention to detail?

DW: Sounds logical to me.

SM: Thank you. Some people think because you yell sometimes that makes you tough. No. These guys are used to getting yelled at. I talk to our guys way more than I yell at them. Like today we had a conversation about the game last night (blowout loss vs. New Orleans). I didn’t go in there screaming and yelling. You can’t scream and yell for 8 months. You’ll lose your mind, and you’ll lose your team.

I know that persona is out there that all I do is yell and scream, that’s the least of what I do. What I do is communicate. I talk to the players. I talk to each and every one of them every day.

You can go in there and ask any player about me, and if I’m fair, if I’m tough. They may laugh and say he thinks he is. But he’s really not. That’s ok. I don’t want to go through life trying to be a tough guy. Who wants to go through life with a frown on their face trying to be tough? I want to smile, laugh, enjoy life. I want to come coach this team, and enjoy it. I do every single day.

DW: Do they know you care and love them?

SM: Every day they know it because I tell them. They see it, and how I deal with them every day. They see how I talk to them. I tell them what my goal is for them and for the team. What they understand is that if they get better individually, we become a better team. If they get better individually, they’ll make more money. My job is to get them better individually, which will make us a better team, which also comes back and helps them. That’s the job. That’s the job. Classic example: ‘Bazz can score the basketball, but he hasn’t been a great defender. My job as coach is to make him a better passer, and a better team defender to go along with his scoring.

Let me ask you this if you’re an opposing GM: ‘player A’ scores, but he’s not good at the other things. You have a number in mind, a certain amount. But if he can now score and he’s a good teammate and he’s a good team defender and a good guy and he can pass, how much more…

DW: Cha-ching!

SM: There you go. In order to get to that point there’s some habits you have that we as a staff have to break. I told Chris Bosh when I took over in Toronto — think it was my 3rd year. I said, ‘You ready to make the playoffs,’ and he said he’s ready. I said, ‘OK, I need you to average three less points a game.’ He said, ‘Hold up, you want us to make the playoffs, I’m your leading scorer, and you want me to average less per game?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Why?’ I said it’ll give him more energy to play defense and average one to one-and-a-half more assists per game, and one to two more rebounds a game. By him doing that it increases the confidence of his teammates and it makes us a better team. We won the division and made the playoffs. He got paid.

DW: Hypothetically, you’re here next year. Is KAT the kind of guy that would grasp that sort of message?

SM: Yeah, it’s all about winning. The money isn’t going to change. You’ll get the money anyway.

DW: Will actually go up.

SM: Exactly. You’re going to win. So you increase your value as a player and winning then expands your horizon. Peyton Manning throws for 141 yards and he’s all over the TV. Now, he’s been a great player, but in that game in the Super Bowl (demonstrates a hand-off) he was a care-taker. But guess what? He’s a winner.

I tell the guys all the time that when I averaged 14, 15 points a game and we were losing, no (free-agent) interest. When I came back here from Indiana where we went to two Game 7s in the East Finals, I had 5 or 6 teams offering me more money than I ever could’ve imagined. I told my agent that I only averaged 7 points a game. I didn’t know why they were offering me three times more than what I made with the Timberwolves the first time. When you win, you have to make sacrifices, so you show teams you can make sacrifices, and when you win, you have to play defense, so you show teams that. When you win, you set screens, you move the ball, you make the extra pass. When you win you step out of yourself and don’t worry about you. You worry about everyone. All teams want guys who have won because they know what it’s like to make sacrifices. You reward guys for winning.

It then hit me that I can make more money coming from a winning situation than averaging three times more points on a losing team. Everything is built around winning. We’re gonna get there. We’re gonna win. We’re losing games, but we’re not losers because we’re playing the right way, planting the right seeds. You have to prepare to win, and if you don’t do it today, when you think you’re ready a year or two from now, it’s not going to happen.

DW: You said “we,” but you have to make sure it’s not “they” and you’re here. You obviously want this job.

SM: I don’t worry about that. This is bigger than me. Say I’m not here. The next coach walks through that door. I want him to say that the coach that sat in this chair before me did his job.

DW: So Mark Jackson into Steve Kerr maybe.

SM: He did his job. You think Steve Kerr doesn’t sit there, and he may not say it, but you don’t think he’s sitting there saying that Mark Jackson planted some good seeds.

DW: Especially defensively, right?

SM: Defensively, and about family, and playing hard and together. Those seeds were planted when Mark was there. Now Steve Kerr cultivated it, he watered it, he gave it some love, he added his own gift to it, and look what you got.

They might not have won it last year if Mark Jackson doesn’t plant the seeds.

DW: I agree.

SM: And if Steve doesn’t do his job, by watering it and cultivating it, loving it — But Mark Jackson had to do his part first.

My job as the coach — and I signed up for this — is to not worry about next year or the year after, or five years down the road. Obviously you want to be in a place as long as you can. Minnesota is my second home. My kids were born here and I cut my teeth in the NBA here. I made my first playoffs here. I proved to people who doubted me that I was an NBA player here in Minnesota. There’s nothing more I want than to be in Minnesota and win in Minnesota. But when Coach passed away and Glen Taylor put me in this position, it was a bigger responsibility than the one to me. It’s a responsibility to we. Regardless of whether I am here or not, I want the next coach who sits in that chair – now, I want that to me, but if it’s not me — sits in that chair and says the coaches before me laid the foundation so I can start here (moves right hand halfway up his body) instead of here (motions hand to the ground). That’s the job. If you’re not willing to do that, you shouldn’t sign up to be a coach because you’re not always going to get what you think you deserve in that situation. But you can get it somewhere else. If I don’t do the right things here, then why would you trust me somewhere else to do the right thing?

We as coaches have to understand it’s not about us. It’s about them (the players) and the organization. If you’re an owner, do you want somebody who has shown they know what’s right, or the one who’s only out there milking it for themselves?

DW: I’ll go the former.

SM: There you go. So we have to do the right thing as coaches, or we won’t have a future as coaches. That make sense?


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