Raptors coach a lame duck

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

Sam Mitchell arrived at Glen Abbey Golf Club yesterday to play a friendly round of golf, not to answer questions about water fowl.

Or, to be more specific, lame ducks.

But whether he likes it or not, the third-year Raptors coach is a lame duck. And until he gets a contract extension this season, or is fired, he will continue to be a lame duck. That's not a knock. It's the reality of the situation.

A coach on the final year of a contract is considered a lame duck because he has limited power within the organization. He has no hammer. He has no say in the future of the team because he is coaching only for the present. The players know this and, when things go wrong, eventually stop responding to his direction -- or so goes the theory.

Last year, when he was asked about the prospect of being a lame-duck coach, Mitchell fumed, yelling at a reporter that he wasn't "buying into that b*** s**t theory of yours."

A relaxing summer of golf and spending time with his family must have mellowed the big man.

When asked about his lame-duck status yesterday, Mitchell shrugged, suggesting that it doesn't bother him that a contract extension is yet forthcoming and that, basically, if life is fair, he will get his just reward down the road.

"We have more important things to worry about," Mitchell said, prior to teeing off at the Raptors Charity Golf Classic. "We feel we have a basketball team that can compete night in and night out, and I'm just going to concentrate on getting those guys to play together as quick as we can and play as hard as we can and see what happens."

Incidentally, the man who Mitchell replaced as the Raptors head coach for the 2004-05 season, Kevin O'Neill, was practically obsessed with his lame-duck status. O'Neill, a one-season wonder, was not given an extension.

Mitchell won't be given one either, unless the Raptors show signs of improvement this year. That's not to say the team necessarily has to make the playoffs. But an improvement on a 27-55 record certainly is a must.

The Raptors have more depth than last season, with the addition of T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker, Fred Jones, Jorge Garbajosa and Rasho Nesterovic. NBA all-star Chris Bosh has another year under his belt, so there is no excuse why this outfit shouldn't win more games.

But it will be up to Colangelo to determine whether the Raps are playing to potential. The players have to play hard every night, which has been a strength of Mitchell's. They also have to start playing better defence.

Mitchell and Colangelo seem to be as thick as thieves, but Colangelo will not reward his coach with an extension until he has a good read on how the team is progressing. That's his prerogative as the GM, but to be fair, he should give his coach until at least the new year before making a decision on Mitchell's future. This is a team with nine new faces on the roster. A team that will need some time to jell.

That's a tall order. Throw in the fact the NBA didn't do the Raptors any favours with its first-half schedule and it would be unfair to judge the coach after a couple of months. Twice before Christmas, the Raptors have extended West Coast trips, which are streak-killers even for good teams.

Mitchell can only hope his club does jell quickly and the new players, particularly the Europeans, adjust. He's confident they will.

"The refreshing thing about European guys is their culture, the way they were brought up in the game," he said. "It's the team-first (mentality). And I think with Chris and T. J. and Mo (Peterson), our core players, I think the reason they're staying here is because that has been their attitude (as well).

"I've never, ever heard a European player talk about how many points they had. It's always about wins," Mitchell said.

Mitchell better hope that when it comes to Colangelo judging his performance, it's not just about wins.

At least not until later in the season.


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