Most fans had been screaming for it for a while now but yesterday it finally happened; Sam Mitchell was relieved of his coaching duties by Toronto Raptors General Manager Bryan Colangelo, and Assistant Coach Jay Triano was appointed as interim head for the rest of the season.
What does this mean for the team?
Well regardless of how you felt about Mitchell, the message is being sent loud and clear from up high; with Mitchell out, the rest falls on the players to get the job done. In his call last night with the media Colangelo let it be known that this was coming for a while, the Boston and New Jersey losses really got the ball rolling and Tuesday night’s loss to Denver was the final "kick in the gut."
On top of this, it sure sounded like Colangelo had some issues as early as late last season with the way Mitchell dealt with situations and getting the most out of players. BC repeated a number of times on the call that he often had to ask himself if "we are getting the most out of this roster on any given night that we step onto the basketball court?" With Mitchell gone, BC apparently feels that he can now do a better job of assessing just what the players he assembled can do.
Here at the HQ, we’ve been looking forward to a coaching change for a while. Of the three of us, I was probably the most supportive of Mitchell but his media tirades, rotation decisions and most importantly, use of players’ unique skill sets, always were a major thorn in my side. I liked Sam as a motivator, and as a coach that a young team needed to get going, but when Mike D’Antoni became available, I desperately hoped that BC would make a switch.
Unfortunately that did not happen, and I was resigned to the fact that he’d be here for the long run. And admittedly, up until the catastrophic Nets loss, I was ok with the job Mitchell was doing this year.
However winning masks everything in sports and once the wheels started to come off in the past week or so, it was obvious that the team needed to make a change if things continued to spiral down the drain. I think most people however were surprised about how fast that change came.
So now that the dust has settled a bit, the conference calls have been made, the media types (many of whom I want to add kept telling us that there’s no way Mitchell would be canned) have had their say, where does this leave the team?
In my opinion, not in too different a spot.
For all of Sam’s flaws, I still don’t see this as being an elite team. I ask you, would Joey Graham, Jamario Moon, Kris Humphries or Roko Ukic play ahead of anyone off the Celtics’ bench? What about ahead of anyone on lesser elite teams like the Nuggets or Jazz? I mean, these are the teams Colangelo expected Toronto to compete with this year right?
Jay Triano in his call with the press talked about wanting the team to run more but as John Hollinger astutely pointed out in this article last night, with whom?
Joey? Jamario? Hassan?
This club just wasn’t built to get up and down the court like a Nuggets or even a 76ers and I found it strange that in his talk with the media yesterday evening, Colangelo expressed displeasure at being 29th in the league in fast-break points. Remember, just over a year ago it was Colangelo who was trumpeting the appeal of having big bodies in a half-court setting who could command double teams to open up shots for his prized 3-point shooters. Yes, the same shooters who were to be so accurate that the need for rebounders would be diminished.
From his call with the media, it was quite evident that Colangelo likes the group he has assembled and feels that they have under performed. I’d agree, but aside from losing to the Nets, the Celtics the first time, and possibly Detroit, I’m not sure the club is THAT far behind where it probably should be right now. And while I agree that by removing Mitchell, the onus is now squarely on the players to prove that they can live up to expectations, it was admittedly a bit concerning to hear from BC last night that Calderon is in fact 100 per cent healthy considering Jose’s defensive play of late. Statements like this and the whole "best Raptors’ team he’s had yet" do make you wonder a bit about the various pairs of rose-coloured glasses that the Raptors’ GM has on his bureau.
Now before I start sounding too much like Dave Feschuk here, I do want to say that I’m a lot more excited to see this team play going forward.
Colangelo has a ton of faith in Triano and I do think that he will look to initiate change, especially on the offensive end in terms of creativity. I still worry about the team’s defense, and overall talent, but I still feel in the East that this team is a lock for the playoffs, and Triano will get full leeway to implement his style and run with it.
I’m sure the "Steve Nash to the Raptors to join Bosh in 2010" anecdotes will start spewing in with Triano, his former National Team coach, at the helm but of utmost concern to me is still the games at hand in December. Miami took down Utah last night so the Jazz certainly aren’t in peak form as of yet. The Blazers however appear to be well on their way so tomorrow night’s game looks to be much more of a must-win affair.
Welcome to the big time Jay,
It's an end of an era to be sure.
However, just what is Sam Mitchell's legacy? He is undoubtedly one of the most interesting people to put on the coach's suit, and has been the undisputed king of dressing sharply, but at the end of the day, what can you say about Mitchell as an instructor? Sam Mitchell is a coach that managed to develop players into men but does that make him a good head coach?
I'm not sure. However, we have to be thankful for at least his help in grooming Chris Bosh into the player he is; a guy that brings it, dayin, and day out.
At times Mitchell was able to infuriate and puzzle fans and reporters alike. People will talk about his lack of X's and O's, his inability to explain himself when the team lost its identity, and his incredibly random substitution patterns, but I for one am thankful for the fresh air and attitude Sam Mitchell brought. Let us not forget that Sam followed up the craziness of Kevin O'Neill as well as the laissez-faire attitude of Lenny Wilkins, and at the time Sam brought a new kind of attitude for the club. It was also Sam Mitchell that allegedly fought Vince Carter in year one, which always brings a smile to my face.
However, the time for chance has long since past.
I'll acknowledge that Bryan Colangelo had little choice but to sign Sam to a long term contract at the end of his Coach of the Year season. I'll even admit that Sam has largely remained unchanged about how he does his business, and what he expects from his players. For that, we can at least say he has stuck to his guns and has largely done the same things that earned him his contract in the first place, save win. But I said it two years ago on Hoopsaddict, and I'll say it again here:
Sam Mitchell is a great coach to get your team into competition.
However, you need another coach to bring your team to the next step.
The example I'm fond of using is that while Doug Collins coached the Bulls and helped pave the way for the eventual rising of Michael Jordan, it was Phil Jackson who ultimately took the team to the level that we remember it. The Raptors need a coach who will bring them that last 30% towards being a championship contender, and that, unfortunately, is not something I feel that Sam Mitchell can do. He has to be an excellent tactician who can see the bigger picture, and one that instills confidence in his players because of the level of preparation he has doled out. Yes, someone with a coaching pedigree and with the confidence of winning because winning is essentially in his DNA.
And this takes us to Jay Triano.
I cannot think of another more deserving person on the Raptors' staff, save Alex English (who I think will now try to find a head coaching position elsewhere in the league at the end of this year, but that's another story). A man that has dealt with international players, but has coached in the NBA for years within the Raptors organization and the US Olympic basketball team, Jay has survived three coaching regime changes to become the Raptors' new head coach.
Unfortunately, I believe he's been put in an extremely difficult position. This team is not merely a coaching change away from being a contender. (And I do mean a contender for the Eastern Conference Championship, and not a contender for advancing to the 2nd round.) Fundamentally, the Raptors are still too unathletic and lacking the tenacity needed to make those hustle plays each game. Yes, a coach can and should make a team more competitive via defensive schemes and new kinks in the offense etc, but unless some additional moves are made, we will continue to see more of the same glaring faults that have become apparent over the last few weeks.
I, for one, don't believe that this is anything but the first shot across the bow.
And it seems Bryan Colangelo is in the mood to make the hard decisions and make serious changes.
Triano goes from overseeing one great point guard with the National Team, to another with the Raptors...
There's a ton to talk about the Mitchell firing here and it's impossible to cover all the angles but the ones that interest me the most are:
1. MLSE's commitment to BC and his vision of winning.
Despite what people say eating the rest of Mitchell's contract is a significant move. Obviously Triano is paid a fraction of Mitchell's salary so there is some "savings" there but this is a clear signal that if BC thinks it is the right move, the franchise supports it, even if it affects the bottom line. If the Raps can turn it around I feel more comfortable today then yesterday that the ownership is committed to winning, even if it costs more than originally desired.
2. Colangelo's expectations are high.
When MLSE brought BC in it changed the culture of the club. The vision is to win a championship. As a fan you have to love that. However, there seems to be some disconnect as to how far along this team is, or should be, towards reaching that goal. BC has high expectations, but are they unrealistically high? This team is no Boston, or LA, or even Cleveland for that matter. I do agree with BC that we don't know how good this team can be because Mitchell was not allowing players to play to their strengths, but I am not sure if any other coach would have brought this team that much further along.
3. The players and system need to mesh.
The reality of the NBA is that the coaches with real success are those who have a system they want to employ and GM's that bring in the right players to fit that system. For example look at Utah, San Antonio and LA. Mitchell didn't have a system. He was very resolute in that guys needed to play a certain way in terms of "getting after it," but he didn't have a tried and true approach. I think this made it hard for Colangelo. In Phoenix it was clear that D'Antoni wanted to run like hell and BC helped get him the players to do that. What did Mitchell want? I am not sure anyone knows. Of course I also think BC had a vision for this team and Mitchell was not executing on that vision. There always seemed to be a disconnect between the two whether it was with Andrea Bargnani, or TJ Ford. Hopefully BC and whoever is brought in down the line (if Triano doesn’t last beyond the year) will be on the same page, with the same vision, and the roster will be molded accordingly.
4. The ongoing Chris Bosh saga continues.
I can't help but wonder how much Bosh's experience this summer had to do with this move and his frustrations as of late. Having spent the summer on the Olympic team surrounded by some of the best basketball minds out there it’s hard to believe that he didn't come back to TO and wonder if Mitchell was really the coach to take this team to the next level. I think Bosh has outgrown Mitchell. Mitchell has helped groom him and turn him into the man he is but now Bosh needs someone who can help him achieve greater things.
5. The off-season.
The obvious question is who the next coach should be should BC go shopping this off-season. I have no idea at this point but I hope it is someone that will be here for a long time and be BC's right hand man. Colangelo reiterated that while many thought Sam was not "his guy" when he first came to Toronto, that was not the case and the re-signing of Mitchell should have put that to rest. Unfortunately it did not and despite this comment, other mentions by BC during the call this evening made you think that the disconnect existed for a while.
One thing is for certain – what looked like an interesting season to begin with just got even more intriguing.