When defending Sam Mitchell, people are quick to point to the hardware he collected for the Raptors' improvement in 2006-07.
However, considering much of coaching involves player rotation management, player development, play-calling and intelligence, one might argue that Sam Mitchell has been far from spectacular in his first four seasons as the Raptor's head coach.
His resume includes two trips to the playoffs, two trips to the draft lottery including an atrocious first season (33-49) and an even worse second season (27-55). Surely any unproven rookie coach who started his coaching career (60-104) would be fired without hesitation.
When one factors in the numerous chemistry issues including a rumored altercation with former star player Vince Carter, a public blow-up from Rafer Alston and the fact that aside from Chris Bosh, not one young player has developed into anything worth noting since 2003 and one would have more luck understanding George Bush's foreign policies than attempting to crack the code on Mitchell's coaching philosophy.
Fortunately for Mitchell, he's never taken the fall for his shortcomings. Former GM Rob Babcock was first. Joey Graham, who was once considered a solid prospect and a potential lottery pick has now been labeled an absolute bust. Andrea Bargnani has vented his frustration over his up-and-down position on the Raptor Roster and surely one cannot blame this one on Babcock's inadequacy because Bargnani was a Colangelo pick. Instead, it's been Bargnani who's taken the fall for not being able to shoot or rebound.
It seems that in the NBA coaches seem to take the fall when things go badly and superstars are glorified when things go well. This hasn't happened to Mitchell.
In his first season, his team simply wasn't talented and the blame went to Carter and Alston. Ironically, the Toronto media forgot to mention that Carter and Alston turned things around in New Jersey and Houston respectively. In fact, Alston drew plenty of praise for his leadership with the Rockets last season.
Are we to believe that Alston left Toronto and simply decided to stop being a pain? Was it simply a coincidence that he walked out on Mitchell's practice and was suspended for two games and has yet to repeat anything of this nature for the past three seasons? When one factors in that Alston played a strong leadership role in Miami in 2003-2004 prior to being signed by the Raptors, one has to wonder who was really at fault.
Carter and Rose spent a considerable amount of time chatting on the bench in the fourth quarter. While Sam Mitchell was trying to make a point to his two highest-paid players, he dipped Carter's minutes and points to the point where casual observers concluded that he had regressed as a player.
Was Carter benching himself and averaging a career low in minutes because he was out of breath? It certainly made it hard to market him and along with the poor performance and lack of development from Rafael Araujo, it ended Rob Babcock's tenure as a General Manager in the NBA.
In his second season, Mitchell had a fresh chance. Both Carter and Alston had been moved. Instead of improving, Mitchell lost six more games than the year before. Towards the trade deadline, a disgruntled Jalen Rose was also moved and considering Rose was playing the role of game-closer for the Raptors, their struggles worsened with him in New York.
It wasn't as important that Toronto was losing games. They were clearly less talented than most NBA teams and no one was expecting any miracles. What was crucial, was that during the losses, the younger players were able to learn.
However, instead of having Jose Calderon and Joey Graham playing major minutes in order to develop, Raptor fans were treated to Mike James' best Allen Iverson impression. What did the Raptors gain by losing 51 games while Mike James worked for a new contract? Certainly the losses could have been used to build Bosh's experience by getting touches down the stretch.
It was strange to hear Chris Bosh after his first few playoff games, saying he'd never been in a role where he had the ball in his hands down the stretch. While it was understandable in his rookie year under Kevin O'Neill with Carter and Rose in the mix, what was Mitchell's excuse for not getting his franchise player the ball with his second and third best players being Mike James and Morris Peterson?
Towards the end of the season, by some divine miracle, Bryan Colangelo was brought in. Mitchell's days in Toronto seemed numbered. The media started talking about possible replacements that Colangelo could bring in to replace Mitchell. When the day came, Mitchell was still the Raptors head coach. Something seemed very strange.
The Raptors overhauled the roster before the 2006-2007 season, adding veterans like Anthony Parker, TJ Ford, and Jorge Garbajosa. They also lucked out in the lottery and added Colangelo's pick, Andrea Bargnani. They added a young bruiser in Humphries while ridding themselves of Rafael Araujo.
They also added a former NBA Champion by trading Matt Bonner and Eric Williams for Rasho Nesterovic. This roster seemed dramatically changed and the only regulars who remained were Bosh, Calderon, Peterson, and Graham.
When the season started, however, Sam Mitchell's club fell to 2-8 and Colangelo had a meeting with his coach. The meeting was discussed in detail by Colangelo afterwards, but the general point of emphasis was the playing time of rookie Andrea Bargnani. The young Italian was in Sam Mitchell's doghouse and it seemed that Colangelo couldn't understand Mitchell's logic of hindering the development of his talented youth while the losses mounted.
After the meeting, Bargnani's minutes took a leap and the Raptors were looking much improved. In fact, following the new year of that season, the Raptors had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Andrea Bargnani missed games towards the end of the season due to an overnight emergency and had he not gotten injured, he may have given Roy a run for his money for Rookie of the Year honors.
As the Raptors won twenty more games than the year before and exceeded expectations, both Colangelo and Mitchell received some hardware. Sam Mitchell became Toronto's first coach to win Coach of the Year honors.
In the playoffs, the Raptors met a familiar face in ex-Raptor Vince Carter and his New Jersey Nets. The Nets boasted a trio of star players who simply wiped the floor with Toronto. The Raptors made it interesting. In the end however, the Nets won the series in six games and ended Toronto's miracle season.
The loss to the Nets was blamed on Bosh's poor performance and NBA experts stated that the Nets were simply too experienced for the young Raptors to have a chance. No one was mentioning that Nets' coach Lawrence Frank had just coached circles around Mitchell.
No one was mentioning the strange move which saw Joey Graham open as a starter in game one. No one mentioned that Mitchell continued to use Juan Dixon against the Nets' bigger guards. It seemed that Bosh's struggles were his own fault. It seemed that the NBA analysts had spoken. The Nets were just a better team.
After his first season of success, Mitchell opened last year with an arrogance which had been seen in glimpses in years past. He jokingly threatened reporters, took personal shots at radio show hosts, and lost his temper on more than a few occasions. Some people embraced this new Sam Mitchell. I'll never understand why.
Going into the season, the Raptors were expecting a huge contribution from Andrea Bargnani and Jason Kapono. Instead, they got two players who looked lost, confused, and simply out of their element. While Kapono was still shooting a great percentage, but at one point he just stopped shooting 3-pointers.
Considering he's a 3-point specialist, this was a little strange of Kapono. Instead, Carlos Delfino took both his minutes and his shots. While Delfino was far from being the sniper Kapono, Parker and Calderon were, he seemed to be the hard-nosed player Mitchell seemed to embrace.
Another story which unfolded was the battle of the two-headed point guard. What was considered the Raptors' biggest strength had turned into a headache as Calderon's play shifted a disgruntled TJ Ford to the bench.
After returning from his injury, Ford seemed to force the issue on more than one occasion. In one game, he started a quarter by taking every shot for the Raptors for at least four minutes. It seemed he'd lost his mind.
The Raptors won 41 games in the 2007-08 season and this time opened the playoffs on the road against Orlando. This time, they failed to even be competitive. Hedo Turkoglu penetrated at will and Jameer Nelson carved up the weak perimeter defense while Nesterovic, Bosh, and Bargnani were absolutely helpless against Dwight Howard.
The loss this time fell on the shoulders of Andrea Bargnani, who was inserted into the starting line-up as the Raptors seven-foot, 255-pound small forward. While he battled Howard later on when he was moved to the center spot, Bargnani was arguably the worst player on the floor for the Raptors.
The Raptors were eliminated again—this time in five games. People continued to harp on the play of Andrea Bargnani and the fact that the Raptors simply lacked the bodies to match Dwight Howard. Once again, no one was saying a word about Stan Van Gundy coaching circles around Mitchell.
Perhaps it was Mitchell's poor luck that in his first two trips to the playoffs, he bumped into two of the best X's and O's coaches in the NBA. Or perhaps it should speak more of Mitchell's lack of coaching ability.
The fans in Toronto will quickly start to badger a great coach like Lenny Wilkins who simply lost interest. They're a little more lenient with a coach who has no idea what he's doing, but still gives the impression that he cares.
When Jason Kapono, and Andrea Bargnani reflect on last season, they seem to bring up the fact that they were always unsure on a night-to-night basis about their role. They were never sure what was expected of them. One could argue that telling players what's expected of them would be a coaching issue.
Furthermore, Sam Mitchell seems to favor players he's personally invested in. Mitchell did not have much of a say in picking Andrea Bargnani, but he certainly had a hand in picking Jamario Moon from the group of hopefuls who worked out in front of the Raptors brass.
Did Moon, a 27-year old rookie who at best will amount to nothing more than a solid rotation player, have a longer leash last year than two players Bryan Colangelo hand-picked as the starting pieces to compliment Chris Bosh?
Was it likely that after two or three bad shots, Moon was going to go to the bench and sit there for the rest of the night, like Bargnani and Kapono became all too accustomed to last season? People were curious when Kapono stopped shooting last season. Perhaps in Kapono's mind, he knew two misses would mean he was going to sit out for the rest of the game, and he wanted to try and contribute in some other way.
Ultimately, Mitchell has the tools this season to win over 50 games. The fact is, if he does, people are no doubt going to credit him. But as you watch the games this season, watch with a more critical eye at his moves as a coach.
A coach doesn't control whether a ball goes in or not, so scratch that. Watch his rotation management, his team's performance out of timeouts, exploitation of mismatches, or how well players like Kapono and Bargnani are used off of Bosh and O'Neal.
Having a couple of guards like Calderon and Ford has certainly given Mitchell a lot of success. They play as the coaches on the floor and while I don't have a lot of respect for what Ford did last season, the Coach of the Year trophy Mitchell has placed on his mantle belongs in TJ's basement.
Raptor fans can be sure that Mitchell will have a lot to say. Judging from recent interviews, he's already in mid-season form. One can only wonder what to expect, when a coach prepares to best utilize a Bosh-O'Neal combo by studying tapes of Duncan and Robinson in San Antonio.
Mitchell would be better off going to Gregg Popovich's house in Houston and just trying to steal his playbook. However, he'd have to have assistants Jay Triano or Alex English explain all the fancy lingo.
On media day, a reporter questioned Mitchell about Bosh's play in the Olympics. Mitchell snapped back at the reporter stating that Bosh was an All-star and that he did nothing differently.
I couldn't help but wonder if Mitchell felt that Bosh's play this summer exposed his own coaching and that by playing down the defensive role Bosh played by simply ignoring that the reporters were talking about defense, he would be able to save face. It certainly didn't fool anyone.
Bosh played a defensive role for the first time because there was a defensive system to play in. By ignoring his improvements, one not only has to question Mitchell's coaching ability, but also his powers of observation.
John Hollinger mentioned that the Raptors had the performance of a fifty-one win team on paper last season despite only winning forty-one games. He based this on the fact that the Raptors won the games they won by an enormous margin.
But even this stat tells a tale. Was it not curious that the Raptors seemed to lose almost every close game down the stretch? Is it a good sign that Hollinger says that their stats show that they should be a fifty-one win team?
Perhaps the same reason they can't close out close games is the same reason they've been unable to move into the second round of the playoffs for two consecutive years. Perhaps it is the final minutes of a game where coaches play their chess match of witts. Check mate.