Mitchell for coach of the year?

STEVE BUFFERY

, Last Updated: 10:55 AM ET

There are three teams in the NBA who have improved dramatically from this time last season: the Raptors, Utah Jazz and New York Knicks.

The Raptors are 18 games ahead of where they were last season. On Feb.16, 2006, they were a sad 20-33.

Heading into this weekend's all-star break, the Raptors are 29-24, leading the Atlantic Division by 41/2 games over the New Jersey Nets and seemingly on their way to the post-season for the first time since 2002.

20-GAME BOOST

The only team that has improved more than Toronto is the Jazz, who were two games behind .500 at this point last season (25-27) but now are a stellar 35-17, good for a 20-game improvement.

The Knicks were a woeful 15-37 this time last season yet now are only seven games under .500, an improvement of 15.

You don't have to be the second coming of Red Auerbach to appreciate the job the respective coaching staffs have done with all three teams, and the head men in particular -- Sam Mitchell with the Raps, Jerry Sloan of the Jazz and Isiah Thomas of the Knicks. All three should get serious consideration for coach-of-the-year honours. But if the award was decided right now, who would or, better yet, should win?

New York, while playing better, remains a losing team, and Thomas is the founder of his team's current mess.

So forget him.

Which leaves Sloan and Mitchell.

Like the Oscars, Sloan may be the sentimental favourite, and that may put him over the top when it's time to cast the ballots. The McLeansboro, Ill., native earned his 1,000th victory as an NBA head coach on Dec. 11, becoming just the fifth man to reach that milestone.

He has coached Utah to two NBA Finals and 15 trips to the playoffs and is the longest tenured coach with one team in all of professional sports, but has never won the NBA coach of the year trophy, named after the aforementioned Auerbach.

And so it may be Sloan's time.

On the other hand, it could be argued Sloan has a much better roster than Mitchell. In Sloan's defence, the Jazz play in a tougher Conference.

Flip a coin.

Mitchell would be a more intriguing choice as coach of the year because while Sloan has regularly been saluted over the years as one of the best, Mitchell has been consistently vilified and ridiculed during his 21/2 seasons as a head coach.

It was less than a year ago that a poll of 248 players found Mitchell to be the worst coach in the NBA. Any loss by the Raptors was immediately followed by a spate of e-m ails from Raptor fans demanding that he be fired. And they're still out there. Listen to the commentaries, read the editorials, and you'll find that most of the credit for the Raptors' new-found success goes to general manager Bryan Colangelo who, no doubt, has done an excellent re-tooling of this former sorry franchise.

Still, Mitchell is the man calling the shots on the court every night and preparing his team for every contest.

According to those in the know, he has gone from being a head coach whose strength was motivating his players to a coach who still possesses those qualities but has become a much better x's and o's guy -- with the help of his quality support staff, Jim Todd, Alex English and Jay Triano.

But perhaps more than anything, it has been his ability to forge together a roster with nine new players, from five different nations, into a cohesive unit. It's a pretty tight locker room.

"He has done a great job from the beginning," said Spanish forward Jorge Garbajosa. "This was my first experience in the NBA, and since that very first day he told me that it's not important where you come from.

"What's important is to try to be a good guy, try to be a good player to help this team win. And I think the new guys feel really comfortable in this locker room and a big part of this is how we feel about Sam."

Mitchell bristles when asked how he has managed to bring this collection of international players together. If you're a basketball player, he says, you're a basketball player.

Morris Peterson is one Raptor you might think would not be a huge fan of his coach right at the moment.

The longest-serving Raptor is in the final year of a contract but has struggled. He is averaging 14 fewer minutes this season, has only started in six games, after starting 77 last season, and is scoring six fewer points per game.

But Peterson points the finger at himself for most of his problems.

"He has matured a lot as a coach," said Peterson of Mitchell. "But h e's still an underdog. When he came into the head coaching job a lot of people doubted him. But you can never doubt an underdog."

Meanwhile, despite the turnaround, Mitchell doesn't even have a contract for next season.

He's a lame duck coach.


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