Timberwolves coach running low on patience with sportswriter

Anybody who saw Saturday’s Timberwolves game against Portland had to wonder why interim head coach Sam Mitchell yanked future superstar Karl-Anthony Towns in favor of the over-the-hill-and-out-of-gas Tayshaun Prince late in the game Saturday night. It didn’t help the mood when an easy layup by Portland proved the dagger in the heart of the locals.

So it wasn’t surprising at all that someone asked coach Sam Mitchell what that move was all about.

It also wasn’t surprising that Mitchell, who seems to have no patience with sportswriters here, did his best to embarrass the reporter asking.

There was more to the outburst than what the Pioneer Press’ video showed, including some slamming of the table and a challenge to other reporters.

I will argue that a little respect for people doing their jobs isn’t a bad thing, especially when reporters are asking the questions on behalf of a paying public that can’t.

Mitchell, the immediate consensus online seemed to confirm, was wrong to call out the sportswriter, even considering the circumstances, his team having kicked away a big first-half lead.

You know who doesn’t agree? with that consensus? The sportswriter.

It was the erudite Britt Robson of MinnPost, who is probably the finest basketball writer in Minnesota.

In a stand-up post today, Robson says he was wrong to ask the question.

For example, even if I’d had a proper clue about who Tayshaun Prince was being brought in to guard on Saturday night, Mitchell’s patience would have likely ended with his response that Portland brought in a smaller lineup and he followed suit to better match up with them. Unfortunately, this stands in sharp contrast to his predecessor Saunders, who reveled in explaining what was on his mind and how he regarded the outcome of his decisions during postgame press conferences.

Had it been Saunders (and still assuming I’d had a clue that night), I would have asked why he chose to lift Towns instead of Gorgui Dieng when he went small. I would have asked what happened on the play — did Rubio and Dieng miscommunicate the potential pick-and-roll defense or did Lillard wisely ambush the scheme with his sudden drive to the hoop? And seeing that Lillard’s layup barely made it over Prince’s outstretched arm, I may have even risked asking Saunders whether he regretted substituting Prince for Towns.

I am very confident in asserting that any of those questions would be met with either derision or anger by Mitchell, depending on which he thought would more quickly end the discussion. And that’s a shame because it makes me less capable of accurately analyzing this team.

Is there a chance I would use Mitchell’s answers to second-guess his decisions? Sure. But that’s not my primary motivation. It is invaluable for me to know why the guy most intimate with the team’s personnel uses one player over another in certain situations and who is properly reading and adapting to the schemes that are being devised. Absent that hard information, I’m more likely to speculate — and be wrong — about what has happened, which ironically feeds into Mitchell’s suspicion that those covering the team don’t know what we’re talking about.

Mitchell’s use of Towns has invited more questions since he started benching the number one NBA draft pick in the 4th quarter. On Saturday night, it should be noted, Towns was the best player on the team.

It’s Mitchell’s team, like it or not. If he wants to disrespect reporters for doing their job, that’s up to him. It’s low-risk, given the low popularity of the media in general.

But the franchise has been in a losing struggle for credibility for a decade and while the fans might not have the basketball acumen that Mitchell possesses, the image of a coach telling off a reporter — and by extension, the fans who paid their money to see the product the franchise is selling — seems illogical, misplaced and counterproductive.

  • Rob

    No doubt it’s a thankless (though fairly lucrative) task to be coach of, as this blog put it “… a franchise [that’s] been in a losing struggle for credibility for a decade.” But like my folks always said, “If you can’t take the heat of being a well-paid coach for a losing team, then quit for God’s sake — don’t take it out on the reporters.”

  • Jack Ungerleider

    It’s interesting to see the back and forth on these things. Sam Mitchell has been around the NBA and NBA rookies I suspect more than anyone who is part of the direct discussion here. We hear all the time about rookies “hitting the wall”. The NBA regular season is basically twice the length of a the college season plus the NCAA tournament. Maybe Mitchell has an idea on who to lessen the impact of “the wall” on his young, eventual superstar. When Towns has less fall off than the average rookie later in the year, no one will remember that the coach gave him some time to watch early in the season and maybe learn some things while resting his legs.

    • Sure. so when the question comes, the proper answer is the one you just provided. It’s not real hard.

      • Jack Ungerleider

        I know you pay attention to these things, I don’t. Did Mitchell make any attempt to explain how he’s using Towns at the start of the season? If so might he now stop answering the question since it appears they didn’t believe or pay attention to his earlier answer?

        • He says he likes Gorgui defending the pick and roll.

          But your comment ignores the fact that Towns wasn’t removed for Gorgui and Mitchell wasn’t asked about it.

      • Jerry

        Do Robson and Mitchell have a combative history together? They’ve both been involved with Wolves basketball for a long time.

        • Short answer: “no”. Long answer: He addresses it in the piece.

  • lindblomeagles

    It seems like head coaches and sportswriters generally have a mistrustful relationship because, on the one hand, head coaches are trying to keep their jobs, while sportswriters, on the other hand, are trying to explain why the team is good, great, or garbage. Sam and Robson are both correct in the actions they took because Robson is evaluating Sam’s performance as Head Coach which will may help Wolves’ ownership decide to promote him from interim to full Head Coach, and Sam, I’m sure, is aware, that misrepresentation of the facts by the media might cost Sam his dream job, NBA Head Coach.

  • ec99

    I’ve always been impressed by the fact Twin Cities sportswriters have never had a problem with criticizing teams and celebrities. Of course, with the exception of Sid Hartman, who never turned down the chance to shill. Compare them with towns with university athletic programs, where the writers seem to be on the institution’s payroll.

    • I’ve never understood the “Sid thing” in this market. Never will.

      • ec99

        Sid is Sid. I always believed he was a prototype of the troll, writing columns praising failed teams, coaches and players in order to generate reader response. Rumor has it he hasn’t written his own copy for years.

  • Yang Gao

    I heard that there was another incident between Sam and a sportswriter during the post-game conference on last Tuesday after Timberwolves lost to Orlando. Was that true?

  • Paul

    I feel maybe challenging the man who has already got us to half of our wins last year correct? Right now such questioning and speculation about personnel decisions on a team still learning what it has and which combinations work and which don’t is ridiculous by the reporter and why isn’t he focusing on the positives of the team last year we would not be in half these games even talking about getting a win. We would have been down by so many most of us would have turned the T.V. off unlike me who watched the progression of Wiggins and LaVine and others. Why not focus on the fact we are competing with a playoff team early in the season and our young guys are learning and playing. Throughout the game the vets do not even play that much they mainly come in during crunch time to explain to the young guys what’s going on in the game at that moment everything is about learning and having vets a.k.a “coach on the floor” tell them what to do out there and what to expect helps them learn. Why is it wrong to sit towns during the beginning of the season to rest him and allow him to see what is happening on the floor and where he can make his mark when he gets his chance to which is and will start to happen later in the year when we need him to play big minutes in case we are in a playoff hunt or race!! The smart thing is not to let our number one pick who is proving to be a stud burn out quickly when we have a heck of a back up center who can help us win games now reason why we have 8 wins (already half of our total wins last year) and why we are still in the mix for the 8th seed early in the season. We are right were we need to be in earshot of making a move and possibly making some noise and all the while our young guys are learning, being well rested, competing in close games against good teams and playoff contenders, gaining chemistry especially with multiple lineups learning how to play with everyone on your team is valuable just look at the best team in the league Golden State any of their players can play with each other and are fluid with each others games, and last but not least we are winning and in the hunt and not last in the league like projected after getting a number one pick! watch out the t-wolves are on the right track just be patient with Sam Mitchell you warm up to him i’m sure he will warm up to you and by that I mean looking at the positives he is trying to tell the media this season and the beginning is for and so important for the success of this team not only this year but for years and years to come. Thank him for what he has accomplished not his “failures” which are really just a young team learning how to close out games and becoming more battle tested by the game. It’s a two-way street media that’s all I’m saying