Remembering Mike Mitchell: A Capable, Efficient Player

| by David Berri

About a week ago, Mike Mitchell – an All-Star NBA player from the late 1970s and 1980s – lost a two year battle to cancer.  Mitchell’s passing prompted jbrett (the person responsible for the infamous jbrett codes) to ask the following:

“…does anyone have WP numbers for the late, lamented Mike Mitchell? He always seemed an efficient player, and as a Laker fan, he always made my palms sweatas much as anyone on those Spurs teams of the 80′s. Saddened to hear he’d left us.”

Before we get to the numbers, let’s just review some of the highlights from his career.  From the San Antonio Express

Mike Mitchell spent 10 seasons in the NBA, averaging 19.8 points and 5.6 rebounds.

With the Spurs, he averaged 20.1 in seven seasons. His 9,799 points rank sixth in franchise history.

… A one-time, NBA All-Star with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Mitchell was a first-round draft pick out of Auburn University in 1978.

He played in the All-Star Game at home at the Richfield Coliseum in 1981.

But within a year he would be shipped off to San Antonio to join the Spurs and coach Stan Albeck, who had served as Mitchell’s coach in Cleveland for one season.

Playing for the Albeck-coached Spurs, Mitchell made an immediate impact.

The 6-foot-7, 215-pound forward teamed with All-Star guard George Gervin and later with All-Star center Artis Gilmore to help the franchise win back-to-back Midwest Division titles.

After the Spurs claimed regular-season, division titles in both 1982 and ’83, Mitchell enjoyed perhaps the greatest moments of his career in playoff battles against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Both years, the Lakers with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson eliminated the Spurs in the Western Conference finals.

But not before Mitchell would have his say in the matter. Both years, the former Atlanta high school standout lit up the Lakers, averaging more than 25 points in each series.

He averaged 25.7 and 8.3 rebounds in the 1982 West finals, when the Spurs were swept 4-0.

Bolstered with the addition of the 7-2 Gilmore in the 1983 series, the Spurs put up more of a fight before falling in six games to the defending NBA champions.

Once again, with Lakers perimeter defenders Jamaal Wilkes and Michael Cooper focused on Gervin, Mitchell broke loose with his mid-range game to average 25.6 points and 10.3 rebounds.

When we think of the Spurs today we think of a title contender.  Since the 1999 season, the Spurs have won four NBA titles.  And even before the 1999 championship team, the Spurs and David Robinson consistently won 50 games.  But before the Admiral began playing in 1989, the Spurs had not won 50 games since the 1982-83 team.

As the above article noted, Mitchell was considered a star of that team (and as jbrett notes, that fits his memory as well).  Mitchell averaged 19.9 points per game, a mark that was second to the 26.2 points scored per game by George Gervin.  And since scoring drives perceptions, it is not surprising that people thought Mitchell was an important part of this team.  But what story does Wins Produced tell?

The following table reports the Wins Produced of each player employed by the Spurs in 1982-83.

As one can see, the Spurs in 1982-83 were led by Artis Gilmore.  The team also received above average production (average WP48 – or Wins Produced per 48 minutes – is 0.100) from Johnny Moore, Gene Banks, and George Gervin.  Of the team’s 50.8 Wins Produced, 47.5 wins could be linked to the production of this quartet.

What about Mitchell?  As one can see, Mitchell didn’t have much of an impact. Yes, he could score.  But his overall production was below average.

Part of this is because I think – given this team’s roster – that Mitchell might have spent quite a bit of time at power forward.  What if we think of Mitchell as just a small forward?

The above table reports Mitchell’s career Wins Produced numbers (if he is considered strictly a small forward).  Not surprisingly (if you read Stumbling on Wins), Mitchell’s most productive season was when he was 24 years of age (and playing in Cleveland). This was the year before he played in the All-Star game, and the only season where Mitchell was an above average player.

Obviously Mitchell at his peak was very different from what he was the rest of his career. What explains this difference?

At his peak, Michell was well above average with respect to shooting efficiency and taking shots from the field.  He was also above average with respect to rebounds, turnovers, blocked shots, and personal fouls.  So although he didn’t draw many fouls, pass the ball very often, or get steals; he was a productive player.

Across his career, though, we see a somewhat different story.  Shooting efficiency from the field was essentially average.  And he was below average with respect rebounds and blocked shots.  So although he took a large number of shots, his inability to hit these shots at an above average rate – or do anything else at a significantly above average rate – resulted in Mitchell’s relatively poor Wins Produced numbers.

So consistent with jbrett’s memories, Mitchell was capable of being an above average player.  But it was not in San Antonio where this happened.  No, it looks like Mitchell was an above average small forward who departed Cleveland.  One senses, though, that this departure did not quite have the same impact on the city of Cleveland as a similar story about 30 years later.

- DJ