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Analysis: Mitchell firing not a surprise

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
Posted Dec 4 2008 1:42AM

After his Toronto Raptors were drilled in Denver, 132-83 Tuesday night, Sam Mitchell could not have been surprised at what transpired Wednesday. The 2006-07 NBA Coach of the Year became the league's third coaching casualty of the young season, fired with his team under .500 and underachieving, in the view of team president Bryan Colangelo. Colangelo named assistant Jay Triano interim head coach.

The only surprise is that it took Colangelo almost two years from the time he came aboard in Toronto to make a coaching change. There was never any personal animosity between Colangelo and Mitchell. It was Colangelo who gave Mitchell a four-year, $12 million extension in May of 2007, following a season in which Mitchell led Toronto to a 47-35 record and its first postseason appearance in five years.

But it was always clear that Colangelo and Mitchell had differing views on Toronto's personnel and on how to best utilize it.

One area of conflict was the development of forward Andrea Bargnani, whom Colangelo chose first overall in the 2006 draft. Colangelo had to press Mitchell to play the rookie the following season. Mitchell said that he couldn't reward Bargnani with minutes while he struggled with his defense, but Colangelo and Mitchell ultimately reached a kind of agreement. Still, the Raptors haven't been able to break through in the postseason, and after a big off-season trade brought Jermaine O'Neal from Indiana to team with All-Star forward Chris Bosh, Mitchell was on notice.

RELATED LINK: Raptors' Official Statement on Mitchell's release

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"This team's a lot better than an 8-9 record," Colangelo said during a late afternoon teleconference. "Despite the criticism of this roster, this is a roster that was put together on a consensus basis...you might look back at last season, and the games, a series of games, where we underachieved. Expectations were high."

Of equal concern in Toronto is how the franchise is progressing between now and the summer of 2010, when franchise player Chris Bosh becomes a free agent. The Raptors, according to a source, were concerned that a poor playoff performance this season--or missing the postseason altogether--was unacceptable when they only have 18 months to convince Bosh to stay in Canada. The Raptors have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs each of the past two years.

"How bad would (missing the playoffs) be?," the source asked.

A source close to Bosh said Wednesday that the All-Star forward enjoyed playing for Mitchell, but will certainly consider who the coach of the team is going forward when deciding whether to stay with the Raptors or entertain the numerous lucrative offers he's certain to receive from teams in the lower 48.

Colangelo pointed to several early-season losses this year as tipping points:

• A 94-87 loss in Boston Nov. 10, when the Raptors blew a 16-point third-quarter lead and couldn't stop a torrid Paul Pierce down the stretch. "That was a very winnable game," Colangelo said. "That was a difficult game to swallow;"

• A 129-127 home loss to New Jersey Nov. 21, when the Raptors blew a seven-point lead in the final 30 seconds of regulation, and which ended with former Raptors icon Vince Carter being left alone under Toronto's basket to receive an alley-oop pass for a game-winning reverse dunk in the final seconds.

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"How that game was lost was one that we'll be talking about for a long time," Colangelo said. "And that may have had an effect on our game (two days later) against Boston, when we got steamrolled (118-103)."

• And, of course, Tuesday's 39-point loss at Denver sealed the deal.

Mitchell's cell phone was full Wednesday night and unable to accept additional messages.

He emerged as a coaching candidate after a solid playing career, mostly with Minnesota, in which he served as mentor to emerging stars like Kevin Garnett. After two years on Milwaukee's bench as an assistant, MItchell joined the bench of the expansion Bobcats, and was believed to be the heir apparent for Charlotte's head coaching job. But he was suddenly hired by then-Raptors GM Rob Babcock in 2004 to try and improve Toronto's fortunes.

The Canadian-born Triano, 50, has been an icon in his native country as both a player on and, later, coach for the national team. He joined Toronto's staff four years ago as an assistant under Lenny Wilkens, becoming the first Canadian assistant coach for an NBA team. He continued to impress Bryan Colangelo with his work as an assistant on the U.S. Men's Select Team that trained with the U.S. Olympic team in 2007. Triano was picked by Jerry Colangelo, Bryan's father and the majordomo of the U.S. OIympic men's basketball program.

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

Mitchell joins P.J. Carlesimo (Oklahoma City) and Eddie Jordan (Washington) as early-season head coaching casualties.

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."

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