By Ryan McNeill
This month I’ve been reading through a book called “Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People who Made a Difference” and the opening paragraph of the introduction by Bill Bradley is something that has been running through my head whenever I read or hear something about Sam Mitchell. Bradley wrote that “leadership means getting people to think, believe, see and do what they might not have without out. It means possessing the vision to set the right goal and the decisiveness to pursue it single-mindedly. It means being aware of the fears and anxieties felt by those you lead even as you urge them to overcome those fears. A great coach embodies these qualities and transforms them into a force that can effect powerful changes in those they lead.”
Can any Raptors fans argue that Mitchell doesn’t match this description of a leader? Say what you want about Sam but you can’t argue the fact that he’s a great motivator and inspires his players to perform above their abilities. During his time as Raptors head coach he has helped Chris Bosh blossom into an All-Star, he’s helped a NBA vagabond in Mike James average 20 points per game and he did a great job of helping to ease Charlie Villanueva into the NBA last season. Some of his critics will argue that he wasn’t able to turn former first round Rafael Araujo into at least a solid role player but even the illustrious Jerry Sloan hasn’t been able to much with Hoffa.
Some Raptors fans will argue that centring out Andrea Bargnani in front of the media last week or getting in an argument with Rafer Alston two seasons ago make for horrible coaching practices. I’d like to make the arguement that it’s great he doesn’t play favourites and that everyone on the team from star Chris Bosh to 12th man PJ Tucker need to be held accountable for their actions during games or in practices. If you’re a NBA player you need to have thick enough skin to deal with constructive criticism from your coach.
Other pessimists will argue that Mitchell isn’t a great strategist and that he’s unable to organize his playing rotations. The truth to this argument is that last year Mitchell was hampered by having only three quality players on his roster which meant he had to overplay Mike James, Chris Bosh and Morris Peterson out of fear of playing the rest of the “scrubs” on his roster. Now the Raptors have 10 legit players on the roster and it’s meant that Sam has been able to dispense playing time based on how players are performing. With role players like Jose Calderon, Kris Humphries, Jorga Garbajosa, Fred Jones and Andrea Bargnani showing that they are worthy of minutes off the bench this season it’s meant that Morris Peterson and TJ Ford have been given a quick yank when they are hoisting up ill-timed shots or not playing with the intensity that is expected from them. Add Rasho Nesterovic as our starting centre and Euro MVP Anthony Parker into our starting five and Sam actually has a solid core of players to work with this season.
The only question I had heading into the season is if Sam’s going to be able to adapt during games to strategies opposing coaches throw at the Raps. Last year they lost over 20 games by six points or less and they were unable to stop players who got hot (as shown by Kobe scorching them for 81 points). On Friday night Sam started to squash this concern when he formed a great game plan during halftime to contain Joe Johnson. In the first half Johnson went 8-10 from the field to finish the half with 18 points but was then limited to four field goals in the second half.
After the debacle that occured last season I never thought I’d write this but I’m enjoying what Sam Mitchell is doing with the Raptors this season. It would be nice to have squeeked out victories against San Antonio and Atlanta but I like the direction that this franchise is headed with Mitchell at the helm.