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Is Sam Mitchell the Right Coach for the Toronto Raptors?

Franchise ponders the future of Sam Mitchell with the Raps...

Franchise ponders the future of Sam Mitchell with the Raps...

A few days ago, the National Post’s Bruce Arthur wrote an article discussing the lack of cohesion between Toronto Raptors’ GM Bryan Colangelo and coach Sam Mitchell.

It was funny for me to read this now considering it’s something we’ve discussed on the site months ago and first mentioned when Garbajosa, seemingly healthy, was playing spot minutes for Sam Mitchell. It seemed pretty obvious to us that there were some philosophical differences between Sam and Bryan in approaches to the team this year. And since the conclusion of the season, BC has made it quite clear that he was very disappointed with the way things turned out, something that obviously didn’t reflect well on the man in charge of the players’ on-court performance, Sam Mitchell.

So will Colangelo keep Mitchell around regardless of the Mike D’Antoni situation?

I think he will and Sam will get one more kick at the can next year, hopefully with some more talent to utilize. But perhaps there’s an even bigger question here; SHOULD Sam Mitchell be the coach of the Toronto Raptors’ to start the 2008-09 season and going forward?

To answer this question, I’ve decided to break things down into a few different categories; progress, leadership capabilities, tactical skills, and market demand.

1) Progress: Has Sam Mitchell improved as a coach? I’d have to say he has, especially in certain facets of the game like calling plays out of timeouts and paying more attention to detail. These are areas that used to make me cringe just over a year ago. Now, we’ve seen Sam throw out some real nice sets like the disallowed game-winning alley-oop to TJ Ford against the Hawks late in the year.

He’s not there yet though, and this season there were still too many times when I was left wondering about rotations or adjustments. However I felt that besides the first game of the playoffs against Orlando, where he probably should have stuck with his set rotation until he saw if they could compete, he did a nice job making Orlando do some things differently and gave them some different looks. And as opposed to last year against New Jersey when Mitchell was thoroughly out-coached, this year’s playoffs became more of an indicator of the Raptors’ lack of talent and internal development. There’s a fine line in the NBA between good and great coaching and as we’ve seen, a lot of the times the difference between crossing that line is the talent you have to work with. You could trot out Doc Rivers, Byron Scott, Mo Cheeks and many others as exhibits A, B and C here and looking at the past "Coach of the Year" winners is further proof; Doc Rivers in 99-2000, Rick Carlisle in 01-02, Mike D’Antoni in 04-05, Avery Johnson in 05-06, our own Sam Mitchell in 06-07, and this year Byron Scott…yes, the same Byron Scott who was driven out of New Jersey even after successive trips to the NBA Finals.

So in this category, while I do believe he has improved and grown as a coach, next year, assuming the squad gets a further injection of talent (be it from internal development or from new acquisitions) will really be telling. And furthermore, perhaps the next obvious question is, even if Mitchell has improved each year, is he getting the most out of what he has? And that brings us to the next category.

2) Maximizing Player Potential: This is, and has always been my biggest problem with Sam Mitchell. (Well, besides his media table-manners, which really don’t matter in this conversation.) While I think Mitchell is a good leader (something we’ll address in a minute) and someone who gets his collective group of players to overachieve as a unit, I think he suffers in terms of developing his individual pieces. And part of this is not using players in the best way to maximize their skill-sets. Jason Kapono, Andrea Bargnani, Rasho Nesterovic, even Kris Humphries and maybe even Joey Graham. These are all players who should be able to impact games in various ways and yet it wasn’t until the season was basically over that we saw just what Rasho and Kapono could do, and the other three frankly regressed this year.

And this is not the first year we’ve seen this. Rafer Alston was a cancer here but has become a huge factor in the success of the Houston Rockets. And Morris Peterson, who barely saw the court towards the end of his Raptor career, is one of the starting members of a New Orleans Hornets team pushing the defending NBA Champs to the limit.

In fact the Morris Peterson situation is eerily similar to that of Jason Kapono this year. Peterson and Kapono were both bench fodder at best until playoff time when Mitchell realized how valuable both could be to the club. It wasn’t until Peterson was injected into the starting line-up last year for Game 5 against New Jersey that we really saw a Raptor team that went toe-to-toe with the Nets. And similarly, Jason Kapono was a huge factor over the final few games of the series in terms of keeping the Raptors within striking distance.
For that reason, I’m extremely interested to see how players like Jamario Moon do next year. We really didn’t see much change in Moon’s game over the course of the year and if anything, he was more of a jump-shooter than when he first debuted for the Dinos.

Mitchell just hasn’t gotten players to develop the way I’ve expected and hasn’t done a good enough job allowing players to play to their strengths. I think this is something that was a big factor in Toronto’s disappointing season and I believe that a different coach would be much better in this area.

3) Leadership capabilities: The one thing you can’t argue about is that Mitchell has a great rapport with his players and has earned their trust and respect. In this area, there aren’t a lot of other coaches who can compete. We’ve seen great basketball fundamentals teachers like Scott Skiles and Rick Carlisle take the fall in recent years for their inability to relate and this perhaps has always been Mitchell’s saving grace.

4) Tactical Skills: On the other side of the coin, Mitchell has never been what Maestro would refer to as a tic-tac-tician. And while it’s hard for us to judge this when we’ve never been in a huddle or practice session, what I mean is that he’s no Jeff Van Gundy or Lawrence Frank. Coaches of that ilk weren’t successful NBA players who turned to coaching, but gym rats who loved the X’s and O’s of the game. Mitchell I’m sure has a greater understanding of the game than most as a former player, but let’s not confuse him with the likes of Coach K or Roy Williams. This is a player who returned to the NBA almost immediately after his retirement to be an assistant coach with the Bucks until 2004 before briefly becoming a part of the Bobcats as their top assistant coach.

The key of course is to find a coach who can combine both the analytical knowledge of the game with an ability to relate to the players he leads so as to impart that knowledge. The problem is that there just aren’t many of this type out there.

Of the head coaches in the league, I’d say that only Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Flip Saunders serve up the best balance of both worlds…and even then all three have come under fire at various points in their careers. Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich, Don Nelson, Nate MacMillan and Larry Brown have all been very successful but all need certain types of players on their clubs in order for their styles to be effective.

As for the rest, well the other 20 coaches (there are currently two vacancies in the league) fall somewhere between being more of a tactical coach, or more of a player’s-first coach.

And that brings us to our next category…

5) Market Demand: So if Mitchell has improved, but hasn’t done enough for player development and isn’t the best in-game strategist, who else is out there? And that’s where it gets tough.

It’s easy to say, Mitchell sucks, fire him, but who do you replace him with? The masses were calling for Mark Iavaroni last year and look how he turned out with Memphis? Is that a product of bad coaching, or a team that was almost void of talent that a rookie coach had to struggle to lead?

Right now, I just don’t like many of the options that are out there. I don’t feel there’s much difference between an Avery Johnson and a Sam Mitchell, and besides some possible Euro-league options, David Blatt etc, it’s hard to say for sure right now that things would have been much different this past season with someone else running the show.

Of course my one exception to that is Mike D’Antoni. While it looks like he’ll choose between the Knicks and the Bulls, I think D’Antoni could take this team to the next level. The complaints about him not being a "defensive coach" are ridiculous and as his agent recently said, "Mike can coach any style…he coached small ball with the Suns because that's what they had. He won a championship in Italy and he didn't have gazelles."

In Toronto, I think D’Antoni would bring the best out in players like Jason Kapono, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker and Andrea Bargnani and get this team playing to the top of its potential.

However with the ban on D’Antoni talking to the Raptors, it looks like he’ll choose between New York (reportedly making a huge offer for his services) and Chicago. Why he’d want to try and reign in that Knicks group is beyond me but the Bulls do make some sense.

The other part of this equation is that by winning coach of the year just a season ago and having his contract up at the same time, Bryan Colangelo was slightly boxed in in terms of re-signing Mitchell. Now Mitchell has a large contract that MLSE will not want to disregard to hire someone else, and in a sense, BC has jumped out of the jelly into a jam. If he lets Mitchell go, will another team bite and help pick up the tab?

So now what?

Does Mitchell have another year to try and prove his worth and consistent development?

Or are Bryan Colangelo and co. already scouting for other options?

I think Sam does get another shot at trying to get Toronto past the first round of the playoffs but he’ll be on his shortest leash yet with the club. BC has done his share of firing coaches while he was the Suns’ GM so I don’t expect him to be as patient as some.

And what about my original question, should Mitchell get another shot?

Based on our little breakdown I don’t think he should.

He’s improved each season as a coach, but the key for me is that he has yet to show that he can maximize the talents of the players he has to work with. Granted one could argue that he hasn’t been given a lot, but to that I say look at Mo Cheeks and his 76er squad this year.

No one picked Philly to make the playoffs let alone win 30 games and the squad started off slow. On paper, the Raptors were deeper and more talented and yet it was Philly who gave mighty Detroit a scare in the first round and finished the season strong. The Raptors wimpered down the stretch and looked lost at a time of the year when everything should have been automatic; from offensive sets to player rotations. Cheeks realized that he couldn’t play the way his previous Sixer teams had played and therefore changed their style to incorporate the athleticism and speed of the personnel he had. The result was a smashing success and now suddenly it is the 76ers that look like the deeper and more talented team.

Franchise's pick for coach of the year...

Franchise's pick for coach of the year...

That folks is a product of coaching, something I've yet to see from Sam Mitchell, and I just don't think that he is the one to coach this team to the promised land.

However considering everything we’ve discussed, I’m just not sure what other choices BC has right now based on who’s available, and the financial considerations associated with relieving Sam and hiring a replacement.

And above everything really, let's not kid ourselves, this team still needs more talent. This isn't the college game where a brilliant coaching mind can transform a lackluster bunch into a contending group using various defensive schemes and trapping sets. The NBA is much different. I just don't believe coaching has the same amount of impact at this level and therefore the gap between teams, needs mostly to be closed by acquiring more talent.

In addition to this, Mitchell and Colangelo need to come to an agreement on how to proceed with the personnel they do have.

It didn’t taken an article in the Post to see that the coach and GM weren’t on the same page this year. I mean, Joey Graham and Kris Humphries were signed to extensions by Colangelo and hardly played. Garbo, a huge part of Toronto’s success last year, was relegated to the bench at the start of the season with no explanation. Kapono gets used sporadically, and Maceo Baston, another Colangelo signing, might as well have stayed in Indiana. Bargs starts, sits, starts, sits (the same with Rasho), and we won’t even get into the TJ-Jose stuff.

This team can’t move forward if everyone in the organization is not on the same page and that starts with draft preparations, only a few weeks away. Last time there was a disconnect at this time of the year, Raptors’ fans were treated to the great Hoffa experiment.

If Mitchell is leading the troops next year so be it, there might not be any better options at present.

But let’s just hope he doesn’t end up having to coach Kosta Koufos…