NBA Roundtable

Raptors Fire Sam Mitchell

In Coaches Corner on December 3, 2008 at 5:48 pm

The Globe and Mail reports

The Sam Mitchell era in Toronto has come to an end.

The 8-9 Raptors fired the former NBA coach of the year on Wednesday, a day after Toronto’s humiliating 132-93 loss at Denver — the fifth-worst defeat in franchise history.

Canadian Jay Triano has been named interim head coach.

Before the season started I said that the Raptors weren’t going to be where Bryan Colangelo thought they were, and also that Sam Mitchell would very likely be blamed for something that is not his fault. I also commented that the Raptors struggles would be on Colangelo’s shoulders, but that he would use Sam Mitchell as a scapegoat if he felt the heat.

So, did that happen? I’m not convinced that it did.

I’ve been a big Sam Mitchell fan stretching back to his playing days, and I thought he did great work for the Raptors over the previous three seasons, but is he doing great work now? Is he the right man to take the squad forward? The previous strengths of Mitchell, have we been seeing them in this Raptors team? Is the squad playing to their best of their abilities? Is their a level of confidence that Sam will get them to play their best ball before the season is over?

No, I don’t think he’s done a good job. No, he doesn’t appear to be the right man to take the squad forward. No, we haven’t seen some of the previous tell tale signs of Mitchell’s positive influence on the team. No, the squad is not playing their best basketball. No, there is not a level of confidence that Mitchell can turn around this team and get them to play their best basketball.

Could a different coach do more with this team? Yes

Should Mitchell be fired? For the past 2-3 games I’ve felt it worthy of consideration, so yes it’s a solid call.

Did Bryan Colangelo make Mitchell a scapegoat? Too soon to tell, maybe.

Was Colangelo wrong to fire Mitchell? No, not necessarily. Was Sam Mitchell to blame for some of the failings of this team? Yes.

Will another coach make this team worthy of a playoff victory in the first round? No. The team doesn’t have that type of talent. This is not an issue of coaching.


Sam Mitchell is a good head coach and he’ll be back in this league shortly, likely be the start of next season.

Who should replace Sam Mitchell?

Normally I like to go outside the organization when times are tough, get a fresh voice who can come in and generate a new atmosphere. I also hate hiring rookie head coaches in the middle of the season because they badly need training camp to get their ideas/changes across.

There’s a few names in my head bobbling around (cheifly assistant coaches ready to make the jump), but I don’t like the timing. I’d rather see a solid coach hired to finish out the season and then a long term replacement hired in the summer.

I’ll try to think on it some more, and come up with a suitable suggestion.

Update: It appears Jay Triano will get a legitimate shot at earning the Raptors head coaching job. Bryan Colangelo has said that Jay will finish out the season as the Raptors head coach, and by his words it sounds like he’s quite optimistic about Jay’s future and the possibility of him staying on beyond this season.

I’m fairly happy with this situation. Jay Triano has a good reputation and his promotion to head coach reminds me a lot of Mike D’Antoni and the Suns a few years ago.

Here’s a video interview with Bryan Colangelo on


I’ll update the end of this post with some quotes from Bryan Colangelo and links to a few articles on the Mitchell firing.

Here’s ESPN news wire report with a quote from Colangelo

Bryan Colangelo

“This is a difficult but necessary step the franchise must take,” Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo. “We appreciate all that Sam has done for the organization, applaud him for his successes and wish him nothing but the best with his future in basketball.”

Jay Triano

The Raptors were ranked last in the NBA in fast-break points heading into Wednesday’s games, and Triano said he wants the team to play faster.

“I think running becomes a mind-set and a habit,” he said. “I think if it’s not enforced it becomes easy to walk the ball up the court.

“We’re committed to trying to find easier ways to score the basketball.”

Sam Mitchell

“I have a lot to be thankful for, they really gave me the opportunity to have a career in coaching, something I always wanted to do after I played,” Mitchell told Canadian sports network TSN. “So yeah, it’s a disappointment that I really wasn’t given the chance to finish what I started, but you know what, I feel like I accomplished a lot of good things. I think the players that played for me all got better.”

More from Bryan Colangelo from the Globe and Mail’s article

Too many blown leads, pillowy-soft defence, a pace of playing that had turned pedestrian and an all-around lacklustre approach. It all came to a head in a horrible loss at Denver on Tuesday and spelled the end of Sam Mitchell’s era in Toronto.

“It’s safe to say that after the debacle that we all witnessed last night against Denver — a 39-point loss — not to mention several other incidents this early season where we gave up double-digit leads or had mental breakdowns with respect to the effort on the court,” president and GM Bryan Colangelo said in a conference call. “You come to a point where you realize some of the things you want to see out on the court are not taking place.”

“I have a lot of respect for Jay’s basketball acumen,” Colangelo said. “He will be a fresh voice for the players to listen to.”

But the Raptors have on a slow slide downhill ever since, dispatched in the first round of the playoffs in the past two seasons, and Colangelo said the team has been underachieving for simply too long.

“It comes down to an entire body of work that you study,” he said. “You look at all the circumstances that may have gone into our failures and there comes a time when you can honestly say it is time to make a coaching change, and that realization was met over a period now of a couple of weeks, with finality of (Tuesday) night after the game.”

The team showed an utter lack of interest during this last loss to Denver, a sign perhaps that the players had tuned out Mitchell.

“You get a sense when people are being heard, or disregarded,” Colangelo said. “I have to say Sam has always had a relationship with the players. . . There comes a time when you feel that the best way to improve a situation is to make a change at the top and a change in the voice.”

Also (NBA analysis link, below)

“Jay has an opportunity to cut his teeth in a significant way,” Bryan Colangelo said.

Some reading material on Jay Triano – profileMeet Jay TrianoWikipedia

Other articles

Phil Jackson quote (NBA analysis link)

When Lakers Coach Phil Jackson saw Brian Colangelo traveling with the Raptors in Los Angeles last Sunday, “that caused some suspicions on my part that there had to something going on there,” Jackson said before the Lakers played the 76ers in Philadelphia last night.

“Sam’s a workman, a real blue collar worker in this league for a number of years,” Jackson said. “He’s done a really good job. It’s kind of the curse of the coach of the year, one of those things we’ve seen time and time again. A guy takes a team that’s struggling and rights it, gets it going, and a lot’s expected…he’ll find another job. He’s done a good job.”

More quotes from Bryan Colangelo (odd couple link)

When the Raptors get back on the floor tomorrow night in Utah, the critical eye won’t be on Triano. It’ll be seeing the rest of this season as a referendum on what Colangelo has built. And last night the GM sounded awfully conflicted about his creation. One moment he oozed faith: “This team’s a lot better than an 8-9 record.”

The next moment he wondered aloud if he shouldn’t just blow the whole thing up, and soon: “Are we getting the most out of this roster on any given night when we step on to the basketball floor? … That’s (the answer) we’re searching for right now, and a coaching change is the best way to find out what we have with this roster before we make significant changes.”


Give the GM credit, though. As much as he had his reasons for ending his odd-couple relationship with Mitchell, as much as he wants his team to run, he was hardly high-tailing it from the blame for a season that’s been slow out of the blocks. “I’m wearing this one just like Sam’s wearing it. This does fall on me,” he said.

Jermaine O’Neal chaired a players’ meeting prior to Sam’s dismissal but it’s not believed to have been about Sam, but more the player’s own performance in Denver

Jermaine O’Neal chaired a players’ meeting after Tuesday’s 132-93 thrashing by the Nuggets. Mitchell had not addressed the team afterwards, but through the media, reminded them that success hungry kids on outdoor courts play with as much intensity as NBAers, which O’Neal expanded upon.

“This is a business and we get paid a heck of a lot of money to play,” O’Neal said. “If we think we can turn it on and turn it off, we’re fooling ourselves. I’ve been in situations (with Portland and Indiana) where we thought we could do that.

“I think we realized (Tuesday) that guys looked embarrassed. They got beat by 40 points. The Denver Nuggets are a good team, but not that good.”

O’Neal said it wasn’t fair for people to use Mitchell as a scapegoat.

“Coaches will always take the blame, but right now it’s the players. It doesn’t matter what the coach or anyone else in the front office says. We play the game.”

Great article with a lot of quotes praising Jay Triano

Steve Nash

“I think he’ll be fantastic,” NBA star and fellow Canadian Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns said. “He absolutely loves the game of basketball. He’s passionate, a workaholic, and the kind of coach guys love to be around. He’s got all the ingredients to be an NBA coach.”

“We had a fantastic experience, one of the best experiences of my career,” Nash said. “The three, four years that I played for him were a lot of fun for me and the whole team. I think he’s a great choice for the [Raptors] job and he deserves it.”

Tony Ronzone

“He’s got extreme confidence, extreme knowledge of the game,” said Tony Ronzone, the Detroit Pistons’ director of basketball operations. “He can adjust to different styles of play. I’d think he’s going to be terrific.”

Ronzone saw Triano’s work first-hand the past two summers when Triano coached a select team of U.S. players in scrimmages against Team USA.

“If you’re Canadian, you have to be excited,” Ronzone said. “You have a Canadian NBA team and a Canadian coach. It’s a unique opportunity for everyone. But at the end of the day, you have to win games.”

Sam Mitchell

But Triano has his share of fans. One is Mitchell.

“He’s got a good, solid, basketball mind,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview in Toronto yesterday, where he was spending some time getting organized to move back home to Atlanta. “He’s a hard worker and he’s willing to learn. As long as you’re willing to learn, you’ve got a chance. But there are no guarantees, though.”

Triano, in turn, credits Mitchell for being one of his primary influences after spending four seasons as one of his assistants. An afterthought on Lenny Wilkens’s staff and looked on with some suspicion by Kevin O’Neal, Triano’s responsibilities grew each year under Mitchell.

I’ve got to give Sam a lot of credit for the way he’s left the club, very classy. He hasn’t rocked the boat. He has been generous to Sam Mitchell and now backing Triano. The way Sam Mitchell has left the Raptors has helped stabilize the club in this uncertain time. Well done Sam.

Some old coaching friends

His gift, those who have worked with him say, is a rare ability to lead without being authoritarian.

“He’s always had the ability to relate to people and make everyone feel like they belonged,” said Andrew Steinfeld, a star on Triano’s early SFU teams.

“He’s a very friendly guy, a very upbeat guy,” added University of Toronto head coach Mike Katz, Triano’s assistant on the national team. “And that kind of personality inspires a lot of loyalty.”

But he wasn’t always slapping everyone on the back.

“He had a line that guys didn’t want to cross,” Katz said. “He’s no pushover.”

Rob Babcock

“His teams were always well-prepared, well-coached,” former Raptors general manager Rob Babcock said.

  1. Sam Mitchell should come to Minnesota now.

  2. Travis, there’s an article on from Rick Kamla who’s praying that Mitchell returns to his ‘Sota roots. Thought you might be interested in it.

    Here’s the link

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