Sam's willing to assist

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:44 AM ET

Everyone knew that someday former Raptors head coach Sam Mitchell would return to the NBA.

But the feeling was, when he did return once his Raptors contract had run its course, it would be as a head coach, and only as a head coach.

But now, speaking over the phone from his home in Atlanta, Mitchell acknowledged that, if he is back with an NBA team next season, it will likely be as an assistant.

"Some people have contacted me about working with their staff, but we'll see what happens when the dust settles and the playoffs are over and when we know where the free agents are going," said Mitchell, who brushed aside suggestions that he would be disappointed to have to accept an assistant gig.

"Why would I use that word, 'disappointed?' " he said. "I have to think better of myself than that."

For reasons not perfectly clear, the former Raptors head coach has been passed over for an NBA head coaching position, even though there have been a myriad of spots open. Basically, there were head-coach openings in seven NBA cities. Three teams have already hired new men -- Philadelphia (Doug Collins), New Orleans (Monty Williams) and Chicago (Tom Thibodeau, which will be formalized after the NBA Finals are complete. Thibodeau is an assistant with the Boston Celtics).

As well, the Cleveland Cavaliers are said to be in contract negotiations with Michigan State legend Tom Izzo.

That leaves just three vacancies, with the Los Angeles Clippers, New Jersey Nets (who look like they are going to hire ex-Dallas coach Avery Johnson) and Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks would seem to be an ideal fit for Mitchell, who makes his home in Atlanta, but, for whatever reason, Mitchell is not in the running there either.

The Hawks have interviewed a number of prospective head coaches, including Johnson, Portland assistant Dean Demopolous, current ESPN analyst Mark Jackson and Larry Drew, who was one of Mike Woodson's assistants before Woodson was let go after this season. But the frontrunner in Atlanta is said to be Mavericks assistant Dwane Casey.

The big news in Clipperland is that billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen is trying to buy a majority share of the team off Donald Sterling in the hopes of possibly signing LeBron James, who becomes a free agent this summer. Mitchell has not been linked to the Clippers.

Mitchell reportedly had two sit-downs with Philly, but as far as a head-coaching job, not more after that. So why is he being passed over?

On paper, Mitchell accomplished some good things during his tenure with the Raptors, leading the club to their first division title in franchise history during the 2006-07 season and was the NBA Coach of the Year.

That season he also led the Raptors to their first playoff appearance since 2002 and then signed a four-year contract extension. In Dec. 2008, after the team got off to a slow start, Mitchell was fired and replaced by current coach Jay Triano.

Some believe he's been overlooked this year because of his tendency to be outspoken, to the point where he might irritate his GM, though he has rarely, if ever said anything negative about the Raptors or GM Bryan Colangelo since being let go.

Mitchell believes that he will again be a head coach in the NBA. In the meantime, he's perfectly willing to work as an assistant and is eager to get back into the fray now that his Raptors contract has expired.

"Being an assistant would be fine," he said. "But I want to make sure it's in a good place -- a team that not only has a chance to win, but to be with someone who brings something different to me, where I can actually learn something. I'm still a young coach. I still have a lot of things to learn."

Mitchell scoffed when asked if he feels bitter that no one has offered a head-coach gig this year.

"For me to feel that way would be wrong," he said. "These guys (who have been hired), I know them, they're good guys who deserve an opportunity.

"I was chosen over people with that kind of experience when I got the job with the Raptors. So I'm not disappointed. A lot of head coaches go back to being assistants. That's the nature of coaching. It wouldn't bother me.

"That's just how it is."

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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