MINNEAPOLIS — The young Minnesota Timberwolves’ strong finish to the season has helped interim coach Sam Mitchell’s case to land the permanent job, and now some of the team’s most important pieces are voicing their support for him as well.
On the day before the Wolves wrapped up a 12th straight season without a playoff berth, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns were among those who stumped for Mitchell’s return next season.
Mitchell was thrust into the head coaching job just days before the season after Flip Saunders died after battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Following a rocky January, Mitchell made several key adjustments, has had a big role in developing the team’s copious young talent and has the Wolves finishing with a sense of momentum.
“I talked with him the most out of all the assistants,” Wiggins told reporters at the team’s final practice of the season on Tuesday. “And this year he was the head coach, so I already had that relationship with him. So it’s good.”
The Wolves won three straight games on the road last week, including an overtime victory at Golden State, which is on the cusp of setting the single-season record for victories with 73. Those good feelings were spoiled on Monday night with a blowout home loss to the Houston Rockets in which they trailed by as many as 33 points, but a 14-17 record over the last six weeks has helped Mitchell’s cause.
“You can see the development, you can see the team coming together, you can see them learning,” Mitchell said on Monday. “But you have to stay true to what you’re trying to build and what you’re trying to instill in the guys.”
For a coach who got the job under the most tragic of circumstances and endured a miserable stretch of 20 losses in 23 games as December bled into January, it’s been a crucial turnaround. The Timberwolves were 14-36 after a loss to the lowly Lakers on Feb. 2. Players were frustrated by the losing and Mitchell wasn’t helping his public approval rating with fans who watched his combative pregame and postgame press conferences.
Right before the All-Star break, Mitchell made the shift to playing his young players even more and the Wolves jettisoned veterans Andre Miller and Kevin Martin to free up even more minutes for Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Tyus Jones.
A new starting lineup with LaVine at shooting guard and Gorgui Dieng at power forward next to Towns helped the Timberwolves morph. With Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett in the lineup, they had relied more on defense and scoring in the halfcourt. After going to a more dynamic, vibrant unit, the Wolves got out in transition and used Ricky Rubio’s strengths as an open-floor passer to get the ball to Wiggins, LaVine and Towns on the break.
“It’s been huge,” Wiggins said of the guidance from Mitchell and the rest of the coaches. “They put me in positions to succeed. They’ve never steered me wrong.”
Wiggins has improved his scoring and efficiency in his second season. LaVine has solidified himself as a starting caliber shooting guard as a sophomore. Towns has enjoyed one of the best rookie seasons from a big man in the last two decades and Dieng has blossomed as a versatile post player.
“We’ve done a great job this year, especially the coaching staff,” Towns said. “With the tragedy happening, I think they did a great job for us this year.”
One of the biggest issues Mitchell has faced this season is getting his team to play with the same kind of energy and effectiveness at home as they do on the road. They have won two fewer games at home than they have on the road and too often the home fans have walked out of Target Center disappointed in the product they paid to watch.
The Timberwolves have one more chance on Wednesday night against New Orleans.
“Everybody thinks the season is such a grind and is so tiring,” Mitchell said. “But when you get close to the end, you wish you had one more game. That’s the feeling that I want them to have.”