I’m not imagining. I’ve been where they’ve been. I’ve been hopeful. I’ve had my hopes denied and I’ve had to find another route to success.
There’s earnest, and then there’s Patrick Mutombo. The fourth head coach in Raptors 905 history tried to establish an identity the minute his team arrived in the G League bubble. He was going to follow Raptors President Masai Ujiri’s advice – lead with empathy. He’d establish mutual respect by relaying his own experiences playing in the G League and overseas, and he would gain trust by showing he was guilty of the mistakes for which he’d hold his new team accountable.
“I was stubborn in college and that cost me two years of not playing, because I wouldn’t listen and I thought I knew more than my coaches,” Mutombo told the virtually assembled media midway through the season. “I keep that experience. I tell my players listen – understand. Sometimes, man. It saves you time to be humble, and to just give in and follow. Follow what’s in front of you.”
Not only were Mutombo’s bedrock philosophies of selflessness, service and sacrifice noble, they were backed up by statistical evidence. They had to be. Otherwise it would have been unreasonable to expect a first time head coach to convince a mixture of former NBA vets, recent NBA draftees on guaranteed contracts, and scrappy unknowns to coalesce. Thus, Mutombo relayed that two thirds of NBA call ups last season were from winning teams, so winning served their individual interests. The only way to win? Play unselfishly.
There was only one problem: the team wasn’t buying in. The 905 started the season 4-3, but Mutombo appeared exasperated even after victories. In the 905’s early-season win over the Agua Calliente Clippers, the team had allowed its 24-point lead to shrink to three with under two minutes left. They had possession and needed a quality shot. With 15 seconds left on the shot clock, Raptors first round pick Malachi Flynn launched a contested three from well behind the arc.
“They gave me some room and it was time for a bucket,” Flynn said. “We needed a bucket and I thought I had a good look.”
“I didn’t think it was a good shot,” Mutombo disagreed. “But we’re able to take that game situation and teach him. (He can) have it with him hopefully for the rest of his life.”
Aside: Flynn made the shot.
Mutombo would harp on shot selection at every other press conference: the importance of paint touches and kick-outs for three point shots rather than unassisted step-backs. He’d go deep on the technical aspects of his defensive scheme, such as implementing a more aggressive perimeter defence to compensate for the lack of a true paint protector. But Mutombo would also revert to the old school of “will” and “force” when his team wasn’t protecting the basket or rebounding to his standard.
“It’s a mindset. It’s a toughness thing,” Mutombo said after his team gave up a combined 35 offensive rebounds over their previous two games. “At some point the technique goes out the window. Just go and get it. We don’t have enough of that right now.”
The nadir came when the 905 lost to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, dropping their record to 4-3. The loss was bad, but the way they lost was particularly discouraging. They were facing Oshae Brissett, whom the Raptors cut in favour of Henry Ellenson during training camp. They knew Brissett was going to have extra motivation against the team that let him go, yet they conceded 28 points to the Mississauga-native, including a poetic crowning of Ellenson in overtime.
“68 points in the paint ain’t gonna cut it,” Mutombo lamented. “If we want to win, giving up SIXTY-EIGHT paint points. That ain’t gonna do it. We gotta be tougher.”
By the third quarter of their next game, the 905 had conceded another double-digit lead, causing Mutombo to take an unusual posture. Normally the fiery head coach can be seen stamping his feet, or barking emphatically in the huddle. But at this moment, with the lead down to two and the play in progress, Mutombo took a seat on the scorer’s table, projecting a look of resignation.
“I sat there, trying to figure out ‘how do we help these guys,'” Mutombo sighed. “These guys are a talented group of people that want to do well. But sometimes it’s misguided. Like after a free throw, somebody should not be able to push the ball and go lay the ball up. That’s just not serious enough. It’s disheartening. These guys want to get into thin air where the best players in the world play, and if that’s our approach then we have zero chance.”
After Mutombo found his perch on the scorer’s table, the 905 got tougher. They went shot for shot with the Memphis Hustle in a nail-biting finish, culminating in an Ellenson fadeaway with a second to go.
— Raptors 905 (@Raptors905) February 23, 2021
“We needed that one,” five-year NBA veteran Nik Stauskas told Mutombo as he passed him en route to the post-game press conference chair.
After Stauskas came Ellenson, who was thrilled about the game-winner, of course. But Ellenson would also drop a revealing hint about the internal issues the team was fighting.
“I think we’re a team who competes, that’s trying. (But) I think we gotta learn how to buy in together defensively.” Ellenson said. “I think we show flashes of that, but we haven’t had a whole game yet.”
From that point on, the team bought in.
Gary Payton II, who came in with 61 games of NBA experience over five seasons, became the team’s vocal leader. Forget about his jaw dropping dunks or recording a franchise-record seven steals twice. As the team’s oldest player at age 28, it was Payton’s buy in that galvanized his team. Ironically Payton would become the team’s undisputed leader in their next game, which he missed due to injury. With Payton unable to impact the game on the court, he made himself equally visible off of it – stalking the baseline like he was Nick Nurse against the Celtics, flexing after an And-1, relaying instructions during timeouts, and setting up the chairs for said timeouts. All while sporting a bright orange Bobby Boucher jersey from the 1998 classic “The Waterboy.”
The 905 won the game by 31.
“Gary was our best player today,” Coach Mutombo said, tongue-in-cheek. “I love it because when he coaches the team he resonates better than when I do. Players are 100 times better coaches than we are. We can say the same thing ten times and they won’t listen, but then one of them says it once and they get it.”
“I think you’re either an energy giver or an energy taker. Gary’s an energy giver,” 905 guard Matt Mooney added. “We feel it from him on the bench. He’s very vocal. Even when he’s not playing he brings the same energy.”
“We’re having a blast,” Payton said a few wins later, his grin almost bursting through his mask. “I’m sure you guys see me smiling all the time having a good time. This team that we have here – it just brings a smile to my face. Everybody has their own different personalities and on the court we mesh so good. We talk to each other. We figure things out with one another.”
Alize Johnson, who played 31 games with the Indiana Pacers over the prior two seasons, became the team’s touchstone of toughness. His stat lines after that Hustle game are borderline outrageous (PTS/REB): 22/20, 25/14, 36/17(!!!), 14/13, 19/19, 25/9, 10/14, 18/10, and 26/15 to close out the season. Mutombo isn’t stingy about praising his players to the media, but Johnson got the coach’s highest compliments.
“He saved us,” Mutombo said after a comeback win over the Westchester Knicks. “Thank God for Alize. I’ll ask my family to pray for him tonight and just thank him. Just a man. A grown man. A competitor. I loved his voice in our huddles. I loved his voice and his swagger on the court. He was not gonna lose this game. He carried us. ”
It didn’t matter that Flynn, who was leading the team in points and usage, had left the team on a private jet six games into the season. It didn’t matter that Jalen Harris, the Raptors’ second round pick, suffered a dislocated finger against the Mad Ants, which effectively cost him the rest of the regular season. It didn’t matter that their promising point guard Breein Tyree tore his ACL against the Hustle. With all their primary ball handling gone, they had Matt Morgan waiting in the wings. The 6’2 guard out of Cornell was brought under the Raptors umbrella in 2019 as a sharpshooting spark plug. But with his knowledge of the team’s system and some reps at point guard last year due to injury, Morgan was ready for the opportunity. He was thrust into the starting PG spot after the Hustle game (that Hustle game really was the turning point, eh?) and coolly scored 16 points on 6-for-7 from the field to go with four assists. Over the final stretch of the season, Morgan became the team’s steadying hand on offence, averaging over 12 points and five assists as a starter.
Another fun subplot was his budding friendship with Ellenson – the only other returnee from last season.
“I love his game. He’s very unselfish,” Ellenson raved of Morgan. “I love playing with him. Definitely a relationship that I’ve built with him for life. Our hotel rooms are right next to each other so we watch film every day and stuff. I just love the way he plays. I think it’s very underrated what he does for this team. I’m glad people are starting to notice it.”
“For me, playing with someone that skilled, it makes me want to take my game to another level,” Morgan said in a post-game presser with Ellenson sitting a safe six feet away. “That’s what’s driven me so far and he’s helped the team in a number of ways.”
Despite the typical G League roster churn, the 905 would win eight straight games to close out the regular season. They had the league’s best offence, the league’s best record, and the buy in.
“Coach Mutombo is gonna expect the most out of you at all times on the court. I think that’s what’s made us so good,” Ellenson said after the team moved to 11-3. “He pays attention to the details like no other, offensively and defensively. He knows why we’re all down here – to improve our stocks for teams to pick us up. He knows what winning comes with, so he’s not gonna let us shy away from that. He owns it and he holds all of us accountable.”
“He demands a lot out of us. Sometimes at the professional level they’re not like that. But I like that,” Mooney said. “He holds guys accountable. He gets us to play hard. He gets us to play unselfish. He’s been around. He’s coached in the NBA. He knows what it takes to win. We’re seeing that he knows what he’s doing and we’re starting to buy in and we’re winning a lot of games.”
“Um… I mean, yeah. In the very beginning, I’m not gonna lie, Coach Mutombo did intimidate me,” Morgan admitted after the team wrapped up its regular season at 12-3. “I don’t know whether it was his last name, whether it was just the presence, I’m not sure what it was, but definitely in the very beginning. As you get to know him he’s very detail-oriented. He wants to win really bad, especially this being his first head coaching job. Throughout the year, especially as I started to play a little bit more, building that bond and chemistry to where he trusts you. I think that’s one thing that he’s gonna focus on is being serious about the game at all times. He knows where we’re trying to get to, and at the end of the day he’s trying to help us get there.”
The 905 cruised in their first round playoff game, but hit a road block in their second. The team’s fast-paced offence was taken away by an athletic and more determined Delaware Blue Coats team, leading to a blowout loss, and an untimely exit. Mutombo lamented his team getting away from the habits that encompassed his philosophy – Just Win. But this game aside, Mutombo was not only proud of his team, but proud of himself.
“I’ve learned that you can indeed take them to a place that they can’t get to on their own,” Mutombo said on the day of their first round playoff victory. “At the beginning, I told them that’s my goal, and that they were gonna resent me at times. But I just asked them to trust the fact that I care for them or they wouldn’t be in this room. That was a big challenge. We’ve had some fights, we’ve had some tough conversations, we’ve had some arguments, but in the end, I think everybody understands that we all want the same thing: Just Win so we can have better opportunities.”
“We as players didn’t believe and didn’t want to buy in early to what they were saying,” Payton said after the season-ending loss. “But Coach Mutombo did a great job of just reiterating and just sticking to it and he turned us into believers.”
That belief has already led to tangible results. A day after being eliminated from the playoffs, Ellenson signed a 10-day contract with the Raptors. Johnson, Payton and Stauskas all improved their chances of rejoining the NBA and deserve another shot. Morgan and Mooney should at least be able to parlay their G League bubbles into successful international careers.
And Mutombo couldn’t have done anything more as a first year head coach. In the face of resistance and some troubling defensive trends, he never strayed from his philosophy. “Just win,” a cold-sounding mantra, a likely-unintentional ode to the less-than-beloved former Raiders owner Al Davis. Its crude simplicity belies the personality of the man who coined it. An artist. An orator who uses the words “cajole” and “acquiesce” like they’re everyday parlance. A former baller who can see through his players’ eyes. The phrase seems to imply that winning must be accomplished no matter what – a subtle, but significant misinterpretation. “Just win” means that winning can be accomplished no matter what.
“When I said ‘Just Win’ a lot of people thought I was crazy,” Mutombo said. “But I stuck with a message because I believed it in my heart. Because that’s all that matters. Nobody’s interested in somebody that doesn’t win. I’m thinking about the people who are put on a pedestal in our societies, people that have won. People able to speak up for worthy causes are people that have won because nobody wants to hear from somebody who hasn’t won. And then people are interested in being part of winning. I believe that in my core, and I wanted our guys to understand it. As they are pursuing careers and they are having these dreams that they were going after, I wanted to present that truth to them. And I wanted them to take it with them, so that they understand that if you’re going to have a voice, if you’re going to do anything of significance, you have to win. And if you don’t win you have to try like crazy to win. Because when it’s all said and done, just win.”
With a 13-4 record, and a team full of players sure to flourish at the next level, Patrick Mutombo Just Won.