Mitchell takes all the heat

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:59 AM ET

If the Air Canada Centre had a retractable roof, there would no doubt be vultures circling overhead.

The Sam Mitchell death watch has taken wing and there is a profound feeling a misery down at the Air Canada Centre these days (once the Maple Leafs have vacated the premises).

Mitchell claims he doesn't read the sports pages, which is a common mantra among professional coaches.

But he most certainly does, because when there is something out there in print that he doesn't agree with, the writer usually hears about it.

Which is fair enough.

But imagine how the third-year head coach must have felt on Wednesday when an unidentified Raptors player called for his dismissal in print, never mind that the article's author is a veteran muckraker with no credibility, who was long ago run out of the mainstream Toronto media.

In fact, the writer in question has rarely, if ever, been spotted inside the Raptors locker room at the Air Canada Centre. His sources are said to be certain season ticket holders desperate for a sense of importance.

Still, radio stations and TV stations in this town are quick to jump on such stories and present them as facts, which invariably gets back to Mitchell.

And that was the case last night, prior to Toronto's 95-87 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers last night.

Whether Mitchell is close to being fired, no one knows for sure other than general manager Bryan Colangelo, who is not exactly raining votes of confidence down on his head coach.

Colangelo told Chad Ford of ESPN.com this week that his relationship with Mitchell was, quote, unquote, fine.

However, there have been times, he added, when he has "politely reminded" Mitchell that rookie forward Andrea Bargnani needs a certain number of minutes in aid of his development and that if the team losses and Bargnani doesn't play, the Raptors end up losing twice.

"We need to put (Bargnani) in a position to succeed and I'm not so sure that's happening yet," Colangelo said.

Read between the lines -- Colangelo has not been happy with the way Mitchell is bringing on the No.1 overall pick from this year's draft (though Bargnani had eight points and five boards last night).

And that is close to a death penalty for a coach who was not hired by the new GM, a GM who reportedly can hardly wait to hire an old colleague, Phoenix Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni.

One theory making the rounds is that the only reason why Colangelo hasn't fired Mitchell and hired Iavaroni already is that Iavaroni is still under contract with the Suns.

The unfortunate part of all of this isn't so much that Mitchell may be close to being forced off the plank and into the great unknown.

That's the life of a coach.

The sad part is that 11 games into the season, the players are being let off the hook.

Raptors fans seem to be united in the perception that the problems with the team rest almost exclusively on Mitchell's shoulders, and it has nothing to do with the fact nobody in uniform can seem to knock down a three-pointer or pull in a rebound.

"It would be really unfortunate to see somebody fired, who has given us all the tools that we need to win, and we just haven't done it," swingman Fred Jones said. "That would be hard for us to swallow. The coach is not playing the minutes. ... we are."

To his credit, Mitchell continues to answer questions about his supposed imminent dismissal.

"I think I know all those guys in the locker room very well ... and I haven't sensed any of that," Mitchell said, of the reported uprising in the ranks. "It does me no Earthly good to sit there and read (something like that). All it can do is sidetrack me from what I have to do."

There have been a number of ex-Raptors, once safely out of town, who have knocked Mitchell as a coach who lacks the ability to prepare his team for games. Mitchell has also been criticized for not being a brilliant X's and O'x kind of coach.

But at least they have spoken of their feelings on the record.

Shockingly, that "player" who called for Mitchell's dismissal this week was nowhere to be found last night.


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