'The joy is gone': Simon Mitchell steps down as South East Melbourne Phoenix coach

Simon Mitchell won't pursue a new contract and has stepped aside as head coach of the South East Melbourne Phoenix.

Mitchell had been the head coach of the Phoenix since the franchise's inception in 2018, leading them to three winning records and two postseasons during his tenure at the helm. His contract came to an end at the conclusion of the 2022-23 NBL season -- where the Phoenix had a 15-13 record, but missed the playoffs for the second straight year -- and he made the decision to not pursue another deal.

"I think it's time for myself, where my head's at, and for the club, I think they'd be better positioned with somebody else running the place," Mitchell told ESPN on Tuesday.

"I've reflected upon the season, reflected upon the year. Even the month leading up to the season, which was frustrating, and the start of preseason was frustrating, the regular season was frustrating, and weighing up: is this something I really, really want to do again?"

Mitchell says he's watched "about three minutes of NBL basketball" since his Phoenix were ousted from playoff contention in a loss to the Perth Wildcats in the league's first play-in qualifier.

That would be his last game for the Phoenix, and he's yet to watch it back. "I've played it over in my mind though," he said.

That dispirited feeling wasn't new for Mitchell this season. He says it began back during the height of Covid, when he wasn't able to consistently work out players, nor take part in the community events that have been the backbone of the franchise since it began. It would then carry on to the most recent off-season.

Mitchell has played a significant role in the Phoenix's off-seasons during his time with the team, and the decision-makers within the franchise -- led by CEO, Tommy Greer, and Managing Owner, Romie Chaudhari -- seemed to have put together its most competitive roster yet. Mitch Creek and Ryan Broekhoff returned, while the additions of Alan Williams, Gary Browne, and Trey Kell II gave the Phoenix arguably the most talented starting unit in the league.

That process, Mitchell says, exhausted him, and the adversity that followed only made things worse.

"Going into preseason, I found myself a little bit angry, and people asked me about it," he said. "I was short tempered and just not getting the group together. And then, when we got them together, guys getting injured and then re-injured. There was just a dissatisfaction. This was the year where we wanted to have a real tilt at the championship; I felt we were close to having that roster.

"Even the wins. Everyone brings up the Sydney double-overtime win: 'what a great game'. I'm sitting in the car after the game, absolutely f------ exhausted. All I can think about is that's Zhou Qi's last game potentially, Rowdy's injured, Gary Browne's injured, and I've got a two hour f------ drive home. There was no 'f---, what a win, this is great'. It had me thinking on the drive home, f---, where's your joy coming from?

"It's little things like that throughout the course of the year that you self-evaluate. Am I enjoying the wins? The losses always hurt, but can you enjoy the wins anymore? The Perth win. We get a great win over Perth, but f---, all I can think about is Rowdy. I guess the joy for me is gone. This job really requires you to grab it with both fists.

"Ultimately, we've stagnated. Regardless of why, we have. We've had the same record a few years in a row. I just don't have the desire to do that right now. It's a culmination of all these things that have helped me come to a very clear decision that the club is better positioned finding someone who's got that energy, a different view. I think the players could freshen up (from it)... A fresh mind, fresh new ideas I think would be a really great rejuvenator for the club."

The Phoenix has begun its process of hiring a new head coach, and whomever that ends up being will have a roster that'll see both Creek, Williams, and Reuben Te Rangi return, while Junior Madut has a team option that will mostly likely be picked up. The team has a desire to bring back Ryan Broekhoff, sources told ESPN, and that interest is mutual.

In Creek and Williams, the team has two elite-level post players, but it's the other end of the floor that has plagued the Phoenix. The team had the ninth-worst halfcourt defence for the fourth year in a row so, in a league where good defensive teams generally achieve the most success, that's the key thing that would need to be addressed.

As for what's next for Mitchell: after some time off, he expressed a desire to get involved in the media side of basketball: "game commentary could use a coach's viewpoint," he said. "I think for the growing for the game, there could be more insight, more perspectives given."