Tuesday , Nov , 16 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

From ‘Player Coach’ to ‘Video Game Coach’

I was a bit worried the first time I heard that the Toronto Raptors had hired Sam Mitchell as their new head coach. Who was this guy? Oh yeah, some guy from the Timberwolves. What did he know about coaching?

From 'Player Coach' to 'Video Game Coach'You will have to forgive me for being wary of first year head coaches. At that time, the Raptors had just ended their previous season under first year coach Kevin O’Neil. The team’s record? We’ll just say that it was bad – Reggie Miller defense bad.

So there I was, a little concerned about the coming season for the Raptors when I suddenly hear more cringing news: Sam Mitchell was a “player’s coach.” What does that mean? “Player coach” appears to be synonymous with bad coaching. Here are your usual suspects for “Player’s coach”: Randy Ayers, Paul Silas and Lenny Wilkens. There’s something lacking in the “player coach” strategy that makes teams playoff bound successful.

The entire philosophy behind a “player’s coach” is that the coach puts his trust in the players. Maybe too much trust. There’s something a little bit disturbing, when your coach yells “Don’t look at me for plays” at his point guard. It’s like a parent, throwing his child into the deep end, expecting him to tread water. Sink or swim. Most of the time, it’s sink. Best example: Lenny Wilkens.

Lenny Wilkens is someone I feel I have the right to strongly criticize, since he had coached the Raptors. I watched helplessly as the Raptors moved their stuff into the league’s basement and made themselves comfortable. It was comfortable, just like Lenny’s practice sessions, famous for being “relaxed.” His “trust” in letting his players “play” usually resulted in everyone standing around, watching Vince Carter play 5-on-1.

Randy Ayers did the same with Iverson. One thing consistent about player’s coaches is that they usually don’t make it past one season. Although Lenny Wilkens is the all-time winning coach, he’s also the all time losing coach. Stay in this game long enough, you’re bound to hit a milestone.

This leaves us with Sam Mitchell, player’s coach. Initially, he said that he would put his trust in his players and let them call the shots. What is happening now is that he has some degree of control amidst letting his players play. He has benched Vince Carter and his starters on more than one occasion for the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

His strategy relies upon sticking with players (starter or bench) who seem to be effective. If Milt Palacio is on a roll, why bench him? How often are we going to see him make his jump shots? Mitchell has also adopted Hubie Brown’s strategy of using “line changes” where all five players on the floor are replaced by a new set of five. I guess if it works for hockey, it could work for basketball, too.

Due to these reasons, I now dub Sam Mitchell “Video Game Coach” because he’s not exactly a “player’s coach,” but more of a “Video game player.” He coaches the exact way I play basketball video games. Usually, video game basketball players all have stamina meters that run out at the same time, hence I change the starting five for the second line, just like Sam Mitchell. Secondly, if I see that a player is on a roll (signified in the classic NBA JAM with a flaming basketball), I sure as hell won’t take him out the game for an ice-cold Vince Carter (just like Sam Mitchell). Finally, just like Sam Mitchell, I say to hell with the plays. Just keep passing the ball until someone is open.

Whatever works will work. This is what I call “controlled chaos.” The season is still early, but the Raptors, at 4-3, are doing better than I expected. They have had legitimate chances of beating good teams but have just fallen a bit short. I’m not predicting a successful season, but I am predicting an interesting one from the perspective of a video game fan. Go Sam Mitchell!