Mark Jackson never would deign to do it. You look around the NBA and you don’t see George Karl, Jerry Sloan, Avery Johnson, Scott Skiles, Vinny Del Negro or either of the Van Gundys doing it.
But Sam Mitchell is about to move 18 inches over – 18 inches down, in terms of career trajectory – and he’s fine with it.
“It looked like that was the only way I was going to get back in. You do what you’ve got to do,” Mitchell said this week, after the official announcement that he was joining the Minnesota Timberwolves as an assistant coach on Flip Saunders‘ staff. “I said to myself, if I’m ever going to coach again and I’ve got to come back in as an assistant coach, it doesn’t get much better than this.”
It doesn’t get much more rare, either.
It’s uncommon enough to find former NBA head coaches working as assistants, for several reasons. The move can be perceived as going backwards in their coaching careers – a CEO settling for a VP’s job – and knocking them the lead horses on the league’s long-established coaching carousel. Some head coaches don’t like having right-hand men who are too qualified. And the guy himself can struggle in a role where he only suggests after time spent being the one who decides.
It’s even more rare that a former NBA Coach of the Year would make such a move.
Of the 309 men who have been NBA head coaches (per basketball-reference.com), 42 of them have won the league’s 52 COY awards. Yet over the past 20 years, only Del Harris (COY 1995, Lakers) worked again as an assistant, filling slots in Dallas, Chicago and New Jersey after his head coaching jobs in Houston, Milwaukee and L.A.
Karl? Johnson? Mike D’Antoni? Mike Brown? Byron Scott? Rick Carlisle? Larry Brown? Mike Dunleavy? Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, nope and nope. Never mind Phil Jackson or Pat Riley.
Mitchell won his COY in 2007, after his third season with the Toronto Raptors. Hired in 2004 by former GM Rob Babcock – their connection dated to Babcock’s personnel days in Minnesota while Mitchell still was a player there – he had been on the job for only a few months when Toronto traded its star, Vince Carter, in a reluctant rebuild. Six months later, the Raptors drafted Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham. A year after that, Andrea Bargnani.
But Mitchell helped that 2006-07 team improve from a 27-55 finish the season before to 47-35, good for first place in the Atlanta Division and a playoff berth. Toronto went from a 112.7 defensive rating to 106.0, a climb of 17 spots in the rankings. It ranked 29th in offensive rebounding and 23rd in free throw attempts, but 11th or higher in points, assists, turnovers, 3-pointers and field-goal percentage.
“A lot of people said we didn’t run,” Mitchell said, “but we were so efficient, we didn’t have to run up and down the court 100 miles an hour. That’s how we played.”
The roster inspired no awe. Chris Bosh, 22, played in his second All-Star Game but the other most-frequent starters were Anthony Parker, T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic and Jorge Garbajosa. Juan Dixon, Fred Jones and the rookie Bargnani were first off the bench, averaging a combined 74 minutes.
“We traded Vince Carter, a marquee player,” Mitchell said. “We had to rebuild, and we did it. I look now at all these rebuilding projects – two years after we traded Vince, we were a playoff team.”
The Raptors that postseason lost in the first round to the Nets in six games. They also got torched by Kobe Bryant in January for 81 points. In 2007-08, with Bosh missing 15 games, Toronto finished 41-41 and got eliminated by Orlando in one round again. From a high of eight games over .500 (32-24) on Feb. 27, they went 9-17 the rest of the way, 1-4 against the Magic and then 8-9 to start in 2008-09.
That 18-30 stretch was enough to do in Mitchell. It didn’t help that the man who fired him, Bryan Colangelo, wasn’t the man who hired him. He was replaced by assistant Jay Triano one day after a 39-point beatdown by Denver with nearly two full years, at $4 million annually, left on his contract.
Mitchell has interviewed for head coaching jobs since but shifted into broadcasting with NBA TV, TSN in Canada and Sirius XM’s satellite-radio NBA channel. The Raptors? Six years passed before they made the playoffs this spring under Dwane Casey. Triano was fired in 2011 and Colangelo, despite his two NBA Executive of the Year awards, was pushed out last spring.
“I think people look at what I did in Toronto as a fluke,” Mitchell said. “If they want to look at it that way, look how long it took [after] that fluke for them to make the playoffs again.”
Frankly, that quote reads more bitter than Mitchell actually is. Compared to some of the names cited at the top, whose egos and/or advisers wouldn’t let them accept an assistant’s job, Mitchell is accentuating the positive. He played seven years under Saunders in Minnesota, and while he credits inaugural Wolves coach Bill Musselman as his great influence, Mitchell admits to lifting liberally from Saunders’ playbook.
“First of all, I’m not sitting on the bench with just anybody,” he said. “I’m sitting on the bench with a guy who taught me about coaching. I used the offense and a lot of Flip’s philosophies as a coach. So my learning from him is totally different than going to be an assistant under someone else.”
Also, for good or for bad, a lot of the people in Minnesota’s organization when Mitchell played and mentored Kevin Garnett still work there, from owner Glen Taylor down. His pal from the 1989-90 expansion team, Sid Lowe, just signed on as another assistant.
Then there is this: Saunders is back on the bench allegedly as a temporary measure, one or two seasons, steering the Wolves through the Kevin Love crisis before, presumably, retreating back to his duties as president of basketball operations.
Said Mitchell: “As Flip says, there’s opportunity here. Or I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m not doing this to be a career assistant coach.
“I know I can coach. I’ve been successful. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do sometimes. I can sit around and try to win that battle [that he is a worthy head-coaching hire], but I’d rather show people that I can coach.”