Mitchell doing it his way

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:19 AM ET

Sam Mitchell, the rookie Raptors coach, is transforming the club, night by night, minute by minute, and man is this fun to watch.

With only one significant roster move, the installation of Rafer Alston at the point, the Raptors have been nonetheless transformed from soulless losers into something different. Just exactly what, well, that's anybody's guess.

But considering the rigours of an early-season Western trip, the Raptors' 4-3 record is spectacular.

They hustle. They rally in the face of 20-point deficits. They push the ball.

They leave Vince Carter and Jalen Rose on the bench if they're not playing well and keep Morris Peterson and Lamond Murray in. Now, if you measure skill with an imperial yardstick, like say, success, the Raptors aren't a very good basketball team.

LACKING IN SKILL

They lack physical presence in the low post. They don't defend very well. Rose and Carter are lower-case stars with upper-echelon contracts and well-entrenched reputations as statistically significant soft players.

But Mitchell's greatest obstacle isn't Carter or Rose. It's an ingrained acceptance not just of losing, but of the Raptors' unique brand of constant, unrelenting craziness.

The public is no longer amused. Thousands of empty seats a night at the Air Canada Centre have reiterated the club's fragile status in the minds of the city's consumers, Leafs or no Leafs.

With the Raptors and the rest of the NBA perhaps a year removed from their own labour impasse, the team has a narrow window to correct a franchise with one playoff series victory in 10 years of business.

Just seven games in, Mitchell often has been steamed at the work ethic of the team he inherited.

"If they do it their way, we're going to lose," Mitchell said the other night, "and if I don't do it my way, I'm going to get fired. But if I'm going to get fired, I'm going to get fired doing it my way."

Armed with a three-year contract and the unflinching support of general manager Rob Babcock, Mitchell has fixed his bayonet and headed straight for the windmills.

This is not easy work.

Randall Becker is president of Nexbridge Inc., a Toronto-based management consultant firm that helps take the teeth out of poisonous workplaces.

"It takes a long time to change culture, particularly a culture that has been in place a long time," he said. "If you're looking at fine-tuning, it could be accomplished in a year or two. But if you're looking at a wholesale culture change, like say, the Maple Leafs during the Ballard era, it can take 10 or 15 years to turn the organization around, to find the right people at the right places."

Hardball tactics, the ones Mitchell already has favoured, rarely take, Becker said.

"If someone doesn't perform well, do you punish them?" Becker said. "That certainly is often the tactic in the corporate world, but it does not help the organization in the long term and it doesn't advance the new culture you are trying to establish."

Imbuing some measure of pride in the Raptors uniform is like planting daisies in the desert. You can pull all the weeds you want. Sooner or later, you've got to plant something that takes.

This is the exquisite balancing act, being played out on the hardwood this winter by Sam Mitchell and the Raptors.

You don't even have to like basketball. All that's needed to watch the Raptors is a casual interest in human dynamics. Sam Mitchell is writing the book.


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