Like Alvin Gentry, Sam Mitchell doesn’t possess the most illustrious head coaching record, yet he has a characteristic that separates himself from much of the crowd, one that could nudge Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins to even greater heights.
A sharp outspokenness.
Quick! Name a coach from last year’s cast who was known to be up in faces yet also commanded a high level of respect based upon reputation. A person who was not afraid to consistently carry a big stick behind closed doors, regardless of the star power in his audience, and listeners always felt compelled to heed his voice. Some may point a finger at Darren Erman, but admittedly his case would be considered stronger had he once played in the league, guided a professional team through a successful campaign or say stood up to a Vince Carter whilst in his prime.
Now, this isn’t to say the leadership sitting on the bench last year was ineffective. The team’s defense held fast throughout the season despite 26 different players suiting up for New Orleans. Davis took another step forward in his development, feeling more comfortable in creating his own offense and becoming a better system defender. Upon Cousins’ arrival, the organization enacted Operation No Technical Fouls, and it resulted in Boogie getting slapped with just one measly tech in 17 appearances.
Yes, there were some good positives, but it feels like there should have been more. Executing down the stretch of close games was a particularly troublesome area, with the Pelicans winning only 17 of 44 games in clutch moments. The inability to knock down a key shot or avoid a costly turnover were commonplace. A lack of talent undoubtedly deserves a lot of the blame, yet don’t dismiss how intelligence, determination and execution can, at times, overcome the odds. Certain teams just find a way to overachieve — New Orleans was far from one of them.
Both Robert Pack and Phil Weber had plenty of responsibilities on the coaching staff but providing plenty of motivation on the sidelines was a common denominator. Weber, in particular, is known for being a relentless positive thinker so it’s not entirely surprising that both assistant coaches are moving on after two consecutive disappointing seasons. Right after ownership had given Dell Demps and Gentry the nod to start another campaign, Mickey Loomis did hint other changes were possible.
"We will continue to evaluate important roles on both the administrative and coaching staffs, which will be resolved at the appropriate time."
Chris Finch, an X’s and O’s offensive guru who aided in the development of James Harden and Nikola Jokic, is already in and has the look of being a solid addition on paper. However, the Pelicans probably could still use another motivator so hence the Sam Mitchell news makes a lot of sense.
As I stated earlier, Mitchell’s less than stellar record at the helm deserves discussion, but realize he isn’t going to be handed the keys to everything. Erman is the associate coach, and after vast team improvement on defense, the organization is not going to bypass him for Mitchell in the event Gentry needs a replacement. Moreover, all coaches have strengths and weaknesses, yet in an assistant capacity, Mitchell would only be asked to to focus on the positives from his bag of tricks.
However, I feel it necessary to make mention of the job Mitchell did with the Timberwolves in his lone season. Although the 2015-16 team posted a 29-53 record, they went 15-18 once the calendar flipped to February. Conversely, Tom Thibodeau’s squad finished similarly overall (31-51), yet the 2016-17 Wolves failed to finish as strongly: a 12-22 record over a similar portion of the schedule.
During his final season, Kevin Garnett noted the improvement of the 2015-16 squad before the Timberwolves finished on such an upswing. In addition, he also gave Sam Mitchell a strong vote of confidence.
"I want you guys to understand that not only do I endorse Sam Mitchell, but the other players do, too. We believe not only in him, but the system and what we're trying to do here. I think everybody needs to understand that. The transformation and what we're trying to do here is build something for the future and these are the first steps of that.”
Despite the endorsement of the franchise’s best player and a finish that offered hope, Mitchell was unceremoniously let go by management. Some say his abrasive style was partially to blame, yet he was considered for other jobs irrespective of this so-called flaw. Before hiring Dave Joerger, the Kings looked at bringing Mitchell in to help coax the best out of Cousins while keeping his demons at bay.
Why do organizations continue to look Mitchell’s way? Because he helped mold one of the greatest competitors the league has ever seen.
Mitchell was Garnett’s first and most influential mentor, a 32-year-old veteran when Garnett joined the Timberwolves at age 19. They played seven seasons together before Mitchell retired at age 39 and eventually went on to coach the Raptors.
Asked if he is the Sam Mitchell to Jared Sullinger, Garnett said, “I’m more like a — yeah, never mind. I was going to say something but I won’t.
“When I came into the league, I was trying to prove something to myself and everybody who doubted me, and to this day I think I am still driven by those same things. I’ve never been short of encouragement. I’ve never been short of inspiration and things that’s going to get me going. I’ve always found an edge and been able to keep it.”
Mitchell concurred with Garnett, saying that he has never gotten over the doubt surrounding his entry to the NBA out of high school, that he is still trying to prove worthy of that selection — 18 years later.
“Kevin has always taken the attitude that he’s not good enough,” said Mitchell. “The great players feel that way. After 18 years playing in the NBA, why does he play so hard? Not the money. It’s the love of it and the fact that he’s still proving to himself that he deserves to be in this league and he has to go out and earn it and prove it every night.
Look, I love what Kevin Hanson has done for Davis, but he doesn’t walk around with a loaded diary full of personal experiences that make for great stories. Nor is he familiar with every trick in the book, something that could positively influence Cousin’s mental side of the game the most.
Sam Mitchell might be that guy, or at the very least, he’s got a very important connection to a legend. I have to believe he would call upon Garnett at any given time, or maybe even get him to become a vital team consultant. Interestingly, they’ve both gone on record in describing how they would try to get DeMarcus Cousins to maximize his talent. This, after lauding him with high praise.
Just how highly regarded is Garnett from an advisory position and why should the Pelicans being interested in seeing him giving advice to Boogie and The Brow? Read what Doc Rivers had to say on the topic.
“He’s such a great teacher in practice. He should start a course in leadership. The NBA should designate who the best player is on each team and then they could bring Kevin in and he could teach them how to be the best player and the best leader. “
There are several ways to improve a team: bring in better talent or shoot for internal development. Well, we’ve witnessed firsthand how difficult it’s been to surround Davis with legitimate help for years, yet Dell Demps did manage to hit that unthinkable home run during last year’s All-Star break. Please don’t expect lightening to strike twice so let’s focus on getting the best out of the guys already here.
The Pelicans have two certifiable studs on the roster, but both have been questioned throughout their young careers on whether they can carry a team to the postseason, let alone enjoy a lot of success once there. Kendrick Perkins was brought in last season to lead by example, but he was overwhelmed by the amount of work needed. It’s a far different roster now, more blue collar and with everything primarily focused on two massively skilled bigs. Perkins, I’m sure, can help a lot of players, but he never possessed the skill set of Garnett or was considered one of the league’s biggest stars.
Why not give Mitchell, who has been credited with also assisting in the development of Karl-Anthony Towns, and perhaps his cohort, KG, a chance? DeMarcus Cousins already walks around with a chip on his shoulders, but oftentimes his energy isn’t of the right variety. Anthony Davis already commands respect from foes and referees alike, but many believe he should be able to dominate further, impose his will greater. Draymond Green isn’t as athletic or as big as nearly all of his competition yet he’s always one of the most instrumental players any given night. What if the Pelicans duo were to develop an edge that squeezes more out of that God-given talent on a nightly basis?
Imagine a world where, instead of getting whistled for every infraction and being at the mercy of a referee, Cousins would dictate more in games than just the points scored column. Envision Davis literally feeding off opponents at every turn instead of taking what defenses give him. Both guys doing just as they please...like a LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard.
So, don’t dismiss the idea of a Sam Mitchell hire because there is a world where his presence could be a game-changer for this squad. Through his old school teaching style and close link to Kevin Garnett, New Orleans young stars would be held more accountable, possess more knowledge on how to win and might finally be able to fulfill all those expectations laid upon them when they first entered the league. If the plan were to go awry, remember the cost would be minimal and the team could then choose to easily proceed down yet another path.