Raptors fire Mitchell, Triano takes over on interim basis

{eot} Staff
12/3/2008 11:07:05 PM
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Sam Mitchell was fired as head coach of the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, a day after the team suffered the fifth worst defeat in franchise history, a 132-93 loss to the Denver Nuggets. 

Raptors President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo called it a "difficult but necessary step the franchise must take."

"It's safe to say that after the debacle that we all witnessed last night against Denver - a 39-point loss - not to mention several other incidents this early season where we gave up double-digit leads or had mental breakdowns with respect to the effort on the court," Colangelo said in a conference call. "You come to a point where you realize some of the things you want to see out on the court are not taking place."

In an exclusive interview with TSN, Mitchell spoke 'Up Front' with Michael Landsberg on 'Off the Record' after the firing, and was asked if he was surprised by the move. 

"When you have tough games and the expectations are high, and you're not meeting those expectations, then you can be subject to something like this happening," Mitchell told OTR. "It's not about being shocked or not shocked.  It's unfortunate that it happened, but these things happen."

Landsberg asked Mitchell if he felt 17 games was a fair amount of time for the coach to put his stamp on the Raptors' team.

"I don't want to get into what's fair or not fair," Mitchell replied. "I learned a long time ago that the world's not fair and life isn't always fair.  I had a great run.  I have nothing but respect for the people at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.  I have a lot to be thankful for.  They gave me an opportunity to have a career in coaching, which is something I always wanted to do after I played."

"It's a disappointment that I wasn't going to get a chance to finish what I started, but I feel like I accomplished a lot of good things there.  I think the players that played for me all got better.  Even the players who moved on to other teams have gotten better, so instead of looking back at the disappointing part of it, I want to look back at all the good things that happened."

Mitchell also told OTR he did not want to get into particulars about whether or not he knew his job was on the line prior to being fired. 

He did say that he had a chance to talk to a few of the players before leaving, but that he wanted to move on to avoid being a distraction.

"I felt like the best thing I could do was, once the decision is made, you need to get on out of there so those guys can move forward and continue to try to do the things that they need to do."

"You get a sense when people are being heard, or disregarded," Colangelo said about Mitchell's relationship with the team. "I have to say Sam has always had a relationship with the players..There comes a time when you feel that the best way to improve a situation is to make a change at the top and a change in the voice."

Mitchell did offer some gracious parting words to the city that has watched the ups and downs of the Raptors' squad since he took the helm in 2004.

"I'd like to thank all the fans in Toronto, who always treated me well and supported me," Mitchell told Landsberg.  "It's a great city and a great sports town and I wish them well."

"We appreciate all that Sam has done for the organization, applaud him for his successes and wish him nothing but the best with his future in basketball," Colangelo added in a statement.

TSN basketball analyst Jack Armstrong weighed in on the Mitchell firing on Wednesday.

"I'm a little surprised," Armstrong said.  "When you talk about today's economic times and all those types of things, you have to say, 'Boy, this is a big commitment by MLSE..they have high expectations for this team'".

"I think some of it always goes on the shoulder of the coach.  You've got to get guys to carry out things," Armstrong said.  "Quite frankly, this team has not been good enough defensively and there have been some issues late in the games in terms of clock managements and strategy..but there are personnel issues as well."

In the interim, Canadian assistant coach Jay Triano will assume the position of head coach.  Triano, the longest-serving member of the coaching staff, becomes the first Canadian-born head coach in NBA history. Colangelo said that Triano would likely stay on as coach for the rest of the season.  The remainder of the coaching staff will continue with the organization.

"It's a little bittersweet," Triano said in a conference call. "Sam..gave me the opportunity to work with him, and was great to work with. When you're together for three-and-a-half years, as well as being coaches you become friends, so it's a little bittersweet that way. But it's an opportunity and I look forward to moving forward and seeing what we can do with this basketball team."

Triano got a ringing endorsement from the Raptors' former head coach.

“I think Jay will do fine," Mitchell told TSN upon landing at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.  "Jay is a basketball guy, he's a good friend and I'm glad that somebody on the staff is getting the opportunity and I think Jay will do fine.”

Armstrong also had kind words for Triano, saying, "He's a capable strategist, he's a good motivator, he communicates well with his players and, most importantly, he's a good man.  It's not easy  being an interim coach, but the onus right now is on the players."

"I have a lot of respect for Jay's basketball acumen," Colangelo said earlier. "He will be a fresh voice for the players to listen to."

The Raptors are off to a disappointing 8-9 start to the season, and have suffered back-to-back defeats on their current road trip - the Denver game, as well as Sunday's 112-99 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

"It comes down to an entire body of work that you study," he added. "You look at all the circumstances that may have gone into our failures and there comes a time when you can honestly say it is time to make a coaching change, and that realization was met over a period now of a couple of weeks, with finality of (Tuesday) night after the game."

Despite the Raptors' slow start, power forward Chris Bosh has posted MVP type numbers this season.  He's second in league scoring averaging 26.6 points per game.  The six-year pro is also pulling down 10.3 rebounds per game.

Mitchell was named the sixth head coach in Raptors history June 29, 2004. He posted a 156-189 (.452) record in his four-plus seasons at the helm of the Raptors. He garnered the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA Coach of the Year for the 2006-07 season.  In May of 2007, he was awarded a four-year, $12-million contract extension with the team.

He also captured The Sporting News 2007 NBA Coach of the Year honours in a vote among his head coaching peers. In January 2007, Mitchell became only the second coach in Raptors history to earn Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honours.

Jay Triano is in his seventh season as a member of the Raptors' coaching staff. He became the first Canadian born and Canadian trained coach in the NBA when he served as an assistant coach to Lenny Wilkens during the 2002-03 season.

A native of Niagara Falls, Triano was the head coach of the Canadian men's national team from 1998-2004 posting a 52-42 (.553) record. He led Canada to a semifinal berth in the 2003 FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Puerto Rico and to a 5-2 record, second best to the United States, in the 2000 Olympics.

Triano served as interim head coach for one game last season when Mitchell was away for a personal family matter. The Raptors defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 105-82, on February 10 at Air Canada Centre.

Triano's first game as interim head coach will be Friday when the Raptors visit the Utah Jazz. Game time is 10:30 ET. The game will be broadcast live TSN and TSN HD.

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