Mitchell latest hiring to come from Saunders’ inner circle
MINNEAPOLIS — Welcome back to the 600 First Avenue North Country Club.
Those without previous Timberwolves and/or Minnesota ties need not apply for entry. Those in Flip Saunders Glen Taylor and the Land of 10,000 Lakes’ good graces, though, are welcome any time.
Saunders, the Wolves’ president of basketball operations and newly self-appointed head coach, built his career upon loyalty and a gritty ability to ascend the American hoops ranks, no matter the starting point (for him, it was the Continental Basketball Association). He constructed his inner circle in similar fashion.
And this time around, as Saunders seeks to once again spur the franchise in an orderly direction, is no exception to that philosophy.
After announcing on Sirius XM NBA Radio he’s taken a position on Saunders’ staff and telling Twitter followers Tuesday he’ll no longer have time for social media, Sam Mitchell becomes the latest member to rejoin the Country Club. Before serving the past 2 1/2 years as an NBA analyst on Sirius XM, NBC Sports Radio and TSN, he spent two stints playing for Minnesota then delved into the coaching ranks.
His second Twin Cities go-around came under Saunders, from 1995-2002. The first saw him endeared to fans as a core player on the organization’s earliest squads from 1989-92.
The team confirmed the hiring Tuesday afternoon.
"We are excited to add Sam Mitchell to our coaching staff," Saunders said in a statement. "As a player, Sam was always one of our more vocal leaders in the locker room and was a great influence on our team. Additionally his coaching experience, both as an assistant and as a head coach in Toronto, will make Sam a valuable member of our coaching staff."
When Mitchell coached the Raptors from 2004-09, he ran the system he’d learned under Saunders in Minnesota.
"Weâre very familiar with each other," Mitchell said when announcing his new position on Sirius XM NBA Radio’s "Off the Dribble" program. "I respect Flip as a coach and as a man, as a person. It’s going to further my basketball knowledge as far as me learning the game and becoming an even better coach.
"There’s a lot of ways of doing it right; the key is finding what works for your team."
To Saunders, owner Taylor and the Wolves, that’s usually meant playing things close to the chest.
This year, it started with the search to replace retired Rick Adelman. After reaching out to former player and assistant Fred Hoiberg and longtime friend Tom Izzo — among a handful of others — and nearly hiring Minnesota native Dave Joerger, Saunders settled on himself as head coach for the time being. Despite desires to the contrary, Taylor agreed.
Almost immediately, Saunders went after Mitchell and fellow former player Sidney Lowe. The team introduced the latter last week.
It’s Lowe’s fifth return to the club he coached from 1992-94.
"I like a couple of the hellos I’ve gotten," Lowe said. "They basically said, ‘welcome home.’"
But hiring from within a tight-knit sphere of trust isn’t just a Saunders thing. It was Taylor himself who brought back Saunders last spring to take over as president of basketball operations.
Taylor had fired the same man in 2005.
"Flip and I are friends, have been friends and continue to be friends," Taylor said when Saunders was announced as head coach. "He’s someone that I trust and have a great deal of confidence in."
Such familiarity goes back to before Taylor even owned the operation. Franchise founders and previous owners Marv Wolfenson and Harvey Ratner tabbed former University of Minnesota coach Bill Musselman as the team’s inaugural head coach in 1989. Similarly, both Saunders and former personnel chief Kevin McHale were originally hired in part because of their status as one-time Gophers.
Reaching back into the old-boy network seems to be the default when things have gone awry. When the Wolves went south under second coach Jimmy Rodgers, they hired Lowe to try and clean up the mess. When Bill Blair couldn’t do much better than Lowe, Taylor and McHale went after Saunders.
And when David Kahn plunged the team into extended disappointment via a series of baffling personnel moves, Taylor went straight back to Saunders.
It’s not a phenomenon limited to Minnesota; the web of NBA higher-ups is a tight one.
But undying allegiance remains a particularly central theme of the Timberwolves organization. So, too, does mediocrity — their 10-year playoff drought is the league’s longest active one, and they haven’t been there since Saunders’ first stint as head coach.
The most successful head man in the team’s dingy annals still has two more assistants to hire. One of them may be his own son, Ryan Saunders, who coached under him in Washington and is still with the Wizards. Flip Saunders also is reportedly interested in European coaching star David Blatt, but luring him to Minneapolis may be a tough test with a handful of other NBA clubs seeking his services as either an assistant or head coach.
David Adelman and R.J. Adelman are still under contract. Fellow 2013-14 Rick Adelman assistants T.R. Dunn, Jack Sikma and Terry Porter are on the hunt for jobs.
It’d register low on the shock scale if one of them ended up back on the Wolves staff.
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