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For many fans of the Minnesota Timberwolves, this has been an offseason of impatience and uncertainty. A team that lost more than twice as many games as it won during the 2020-21 campaign had no picks in this summer’s NBA Draft and, as of Monday morning, had made one consequential personnel move — a trade that sent veteran backup point guard Ricky Rubio to Cleveland for obscure forward Taurean Prince and a second-round pick. The deal enabled the Wolves to create salary-cap space to sign added personnel, but as of now, that most likely translates into new deals for restricted free agents Jarred Vanderbilt and Jordan McLaughlin.

Put simply, the Wolves are banking on a significant boost from last season’s status quo. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell are both entering their seventh seasons — prove-it time for two players who, frankly, have not met the hype that has followed them since they were the first two players taken in the 2015 draft. By contrast, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels both generated buzz for extraordinary, if uneven, rookie seasons a year ago and are entering sophomore campaigns that will reveal a lot more about their eventual ceilings in the NBA.

For the Wolves to even flirt with a playoff berth in the rugged Western Conference, Towns and Russell will have to mature into reliable two-way players who can better enable their teammates while retaining their considerable offensive prowess. Edwards and McDaniels will have to continue to blossom, becoming more consistent while expanding their skill sets.

Under these circumstances, head coach Chris Finch becomes a crucial protagonist in the drama of the 2021-22 Timberwolves. Finch was hired at the nadir of a disillusioning 2020-21 season when Minnesota had the NBA’s worst record, and president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas made the extraordinary move of filching him from the bench of the Toronto Raptors as the league schedule was in full throttle.

Finch was no miracle worker. The return to health of first Towns and eventually Russell was mostly responsible for the Wolves finishing 16-25 after going 7-24 under his predecessor, Ryan Saunders. But Finch’s presence was increasingly notable, and it was heartening as the Wolves won half of their final 22 games and seven of their last dozen. In sharp contrast to Saunders, Finch has enjoyed the full confidence of both the roster and the front office to begin executing his vision. His ability to attach innovative approaches to simple concepts is reminiscent of a storied head coach who once guided the Wolves, Rick Adelman. His style manages to be blunt and brash yet somehow shorn of arrogance. He is flexible and open-minded yet sure of himself and the outside-the-box decisions he frequently makes.

Put simply, Finch is the latest great hope to expertly guide this perpetually dysfunctional Wolves franchise into relevance.

As the Wolves began summer-league play in Las Vegas this month, I asked for and received extensive time with Finch — 75 minutes one-on-one in his suite at the Wynn Hotel — for a deep-dive question-and-answer examination into what makes him tick as a coach and his thoughts on the Wolves as they enter the first full season under his tutelage. The profile of Finch the coach is Part 1, which appears here. Part 2, how Finch sizes up this season’s Wolves, will appear later this week.

You obviously were hired under extraordinarily chaotic circumstances. In the middle of an already-turbulent 2020-21 season, you hop from being an assistant on the sidelines for the Toronto Raptors to the head coaching position for the Timberwolves. Yet your own demeanor was remarkably low-key. It seemed like you deliberately wanted to form your own impressions about the Wolves and not get too much information coming in from the outside as a way for you to distill and start fresh.

Yeah, I think is exactly the way to best phrase it. I really used those first five games before the All-Star break as an evaluation on players, lineup combinations, approach, care, character, whatever. I didn’t — well, I wanted to win, you obviously try to win — but the most important thing was figuring out what we could change immediately, what we could change gradually and what we could never change until the offseason.

I think that was probably the most important part of that period. Just getting away — I had to go back down to Florida at the All-Star break because my stuff was still there. And we hadn’t won a game yet. So I was very anxious over the break, just thinking, “Man, how bad is this?” And I thought, “OK, let’s simplify it, and let’s try and address the defensive issues first.” The defense was something we had to change now, the offense was something we could gradually work on. Like I have said many times, just trying to get them to compete.

You used the word “confidence” a lot back then.

Yeah, they didn’t have a lot of confidence. But you get confidence from competing. Not just every night, I mean competing every time down the floor. Competing through all the little parts of the play. I think that was important.

We were able to win a few times coming out of the break. And what happens to a team that hasn’t won very much is, when you do win, it doesn’t become a benchmark for what you do next; it becomes, “Oh, thank God we didn’t lose,” and then there is a natural letdown. And we had a lot of that — a lot of that. So then, it is about trying to maintain some sort of standard and expectation.

When you talk about simplify, was that more mental? Especially on defense, not having to think about where you are.

Right.

You were really preaching a go-to-ball philosophy that used their athleticism, knowing you were going to sacrifice a ton in terms of continuity. Was that a psychological move?

Yeah. It was more, “How can we activate ourselves?” The previous defensive approach was, like, bend but don’t break.

Solid is enough.

[Finch chuckles] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Those types of defenses can be really cerebral. You need a lot of guys who have been in the league for a while, who have great feel about that, because you are always making decisions.

And you need trust.

Yeah. I thought, better to have guys just flying around, go to the ball, keep rotating, just try to activate. And we knew; we were good guarding the 3-point line but terrible guarding the rim, and the best teams guard the rim. We just had to do that better. We knew we were going to get hurt from the 3-point line.

You activated Ant more than anybody, it seemed to me, if you are talking about a guy stymied in his own mind.

Yeah, he was better (focusing) on the ball. He was better when we said, “OK, just be in the gap, toward the ball.” Sometimes that would take him out of the action so we could switch behind him and just keep him in the gap. We told him, “Go for more steals.” It was the best way he could help us; it was a high-risk, high-reward thing.

A noticeable change you made out of the All-Star break was running more offense through KAT, especially in the low block. 

Well, obviously, he can score down there. He’s so efficient, and his passing is so great. I just feel that the game had moved away from posting up bigs in general, but when you have a guy like him, you have to use all of his skills at all of the levels. Like, we wanted to really play him at the elbow and in the block. Him on the perimeter, that is naturally going to happen. And then we just had to figure out how do we naturally cut and space around him.

One of the things I heard you say that really stuck with me was that the players will teach you how to proceed. Like, if they naturally started gravitating into effective two- and three-man actions improvised off a scheme you have put in, you’d say, “OK, let’s formalize that.” Was that happening as you improved over the second half of the season?

Yeah. The way we closed a lot of games, we’d have KAT and Ant at the elbows (a classic “horns” formation) with Ricky — and then D’Lo after he came back. In the beginning, that was all just very read-and-react. Then as we figured out — “that’s good, and that’s good” — we put play calls to it.

But we also took the opposite approach as part of the simplification mode. When I came in, there were a lot of actions that had a play call. Every little piece of the action had a play call, and I felt that made us a little robotic. We’d run the action, and we wouldn’t be reading the floor.

So we took away those play calls. We had the main action but not all the little stuff. At first, the guys were like, “What do you mean? I can do whatever?” And we said, “Yeah, you can read and react to the situation now.” And over time, I think they found that a little more liberating, rather than trying to do what was called.

You did that because if and when the X’s and O’s didn’t work, they didn’t know how or, if they even could, break it off?

Exactly. And that has always been my approach. I learned it way back from some great coaches when I was young once. Ultimately the opponent, if they are any good, is going to take away what you do. It is what you do after that defines whether you are going to be any good or not. So I was like: “Why don’t we just start there? Let’s just start from the point of randomness rather than end up there.” And from that randomness, then we can figure out how they play.


Chris Finch and Michael Malone (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Finch’s foundation
That blends right into getting a more concrete sense of your profile as a coach. Do you have any mentors or major influencers in how you operate? Let’s start with X’s and O’s — any mentors in that regard?

I don’t really. When I was young, I liked to watch Bobby Knight’s Indiana teams for their motion. Pete Carril is from my area, so I grew up going to Princeton camps and his system for a bit. My head coach was a big Dean Smith guy, so we ran a lot of high-low stuff that he would run. So that was my foundation of playing and learning basketball. And then when I played overseas, it was more pro sets and European sets. So when I started coaching, I wanted a blend of all of that.

I don’t really have a guy I look to, and it is not because I don’t respect all these guys. When I started head coaching at 27, the biggest thing for me was just trial and error. Like, this is what I like, and this is what I thought would work and didn’t work, so now I have to adjust. I probably learned way more through that process than I did trying to have a mentor or somebody I modeled after.

What about the leadership part, establishing a culture or demeanor? Any coaches there, in terms of how they ran a huddle or locker room or just dealt with people?

Yeah, again, I was fortunate to have super coaches at all levels of my development. But I think leadership is something that is inherent in you. You can cultivate leaders by helping with people-management skills, or you’re a great leader if you are great at your job and people believe in you. There are all different kinds of ways you can be a good leader. Like, I just cared about winning, so I was never afraid to say what I felt needed to be said. That was always my path as a player, and I hope and felt like my teammates always enjoyed playing with me.

I’ve worked for some really good leaders in a lot of different ways that have let me go through trial and error and were not afraid to support me when I failed or push me to be more creative. But we get into an environment where, by nature, coaches tend to be pretty conservative, you know? We do what we’ve always done. It’s hard: You have to be in an environment where the consequences won’t hurt you if you do something different.

That leads into another thing on my list of things to talk about. You have talked about always wanting to give your assistants meaningful roles and how important that is. So can you give me a thumbnail of your role at each of your stops as an assistant coach: Houston, Denver, New Orleans and then Toronto? 

So my role has been pretty much the same, offensive coordinator. Houston, my entrée into the league, I was the third assistant there and just kind of supporting Kevin McHale, who had been an interim coach — but this was his first time (as) head coach. I was lucky to work for guys like Mac and Alvin Gentry; those two guys, both ex-NBA players, are high-level guys, working at 30,000 feet and they let their assistants work. Nick (Nurse) and Mike (Malone) did as well, but those guys kind of grew up cutting their teeth coaching, so it was different. Mike was super detailed, and he taught me his processes; his preparation was like par excellence. Nick has this unbelievable mind, I don’t want to say shoot-from-the-hip mentality because it is way more strategic than that.

But yeah, in Houston, it was helping to develop a system that was basically formulated in the G League, that we were bringing to the NBA and kind of stewarding that through. In Denver, it was a little bit the same, changing into the modern game; (to) get away from set play calls. And Mike was great because he was more of a set-play guy. I didn’t even really know Mike when he brought me in, and we just played more free-flowing and played through (Nikola) Jokic and just kind of unlocked a lot of things.

When I went to New Orleans, the challenge there was like, OK, they just traded for DeMarcus Cousins, they have Anthony [Davis]; how are we going to make this work in the modern game? And my approach to that is we have two unbelievably skilled bigs, so there is no reason from a basketball point of view that these guys shouldn’t be a success. So my approach to those two was, we need to figure out the spacing and dynamic between you two guys, and once we figure that out, we’ll put the people around you.

The great thing was those two guys had great respect for each other. Their games complemented each other really well. DeMarcus is like KAT. He could shoot threes, could go in the post, he’s an unbelievable passer. And Anthony could score every way possible that you wanted him to, you just didn’t know how it was going to be. Runs, tips, dunks, post him up a little bit, play off a catch, shoot a 3. He just had this great randomness to his game. It was a shame when DeMarcus got hurt. They were playing really well.

And then, the short time with Nick in Toronto. Again, it was about the offense. But Nick actually pushed me to do more defensive game-planning, which I hadn’t done for a long time, not since my Houston days. I really enjoyed it because it got me back in that mindset, which was really important for what I had to do when I got this job.

It is interesting because I hear all the time that you were a defensive guy as a player, and that takes a certain mindset. The accountability in the locker room, that usually comes from a defensive guy instead of an offensive guy.

For sure. I have always maintained that I am defense-first. I work well with a lot of defensive coaches and coordinators. I don’t really care how much time we spend on defense as long as we are running out. The most important thing to me is the transition part in the early flow. That effort can get us into anything we want to do defensively.

One of the things impressed me about you early in your tenure here is that you take an organic approach to offense and defense that I hadn’t heard before. You concentrate on that space between what most people regard as offense and then regard as defense. That interim space is a neglected space. 

People talk about transition offense or transition defense. To me, it is more binary than that. You play offense until you score, and you play defense until you get the ball. So, as soon as you don’t have the ball, you’re on defense. And you just have to build that mentality of what happens between there and there. For us, our transition defense and our rebounding were poor last year. If we can address those two things, we have a chance to be an average defense.

And the guy who actually gets that “immediate defense” concept is Vando, Jarred Vanderbilt. When the other team gets the ball via defensive rebound, he is often still there immediately challenging the possession.

Exactly. And that’s why I’m a proponent of going to the offensive glass. If I ask the team how long do you play defense, most of the time the answer you get back is, “Uh, 24 seconds? Maybe 18 seconds?” No, you play defense until you get the ball.

Are there particular stats that are important to you? Aside from the bottom line, when you look at a stat sheet what things are triggers for you in terms of figuring out key factors?

The biggest stat for me is what we would call “Good Play Percentage,” which is the number of times down the floor that we get the types of shots that we want: Either at the rim, open 3s, or to the free throw line. If that is like 70% of the game, we’re pretty good.

And you need a new roster if that percentage doesn’t work.

Or we are not making the extra pass to get what we need, that we need to not settle. And the opposite is true on defense: We want obviously to eliminate those high-value shots.

So that is definitely one stat important to me. Other little metrics to that point — like, I talk 12-12-12, so if we can have more than 12 offensive rebounds, less than 12 turnovers and 12 or less midrange shots, then we are playing in (the) right way.

Like a modified Four Factors?

Exactly. Like all of these analytics, players get it best when you give them highly digestible pieces, where they can say, “Boom, I agree with that, let’s go.” So we don’t overload them with too much.

When you try and track the game from the sideline as it is going on, are you matchup-oriented or flow-oriented? Do you try and get the advantageous matchup, or do you try to run a flow and the matchups will occur? 

I’m more about the flow. I mean, I want to get the ball to my best players but in the flow. We may start by pushing it there and then create the flow off of that matchup. But the idea is not necessarily, “Hey, you’ve got a guy you can take, let’s go at that.” It is like, “Hey, you’re our best player, make something happen.”

But in general, you want the flow. It fits with everything you’ve said before about moving without the ball, and you seem to be comfortable with a lot of high-usage people on the court at the same time, trusting they will do what the system requires.

Yeah, and that is my job. These star players, superstars, whatever, they have the license to do what they do at any given time. That’s who they are, and I don’t want to stand in the way of that — and they know that. But the kind of deal that I try to strike with them is that we need to get the rhythm of the offense kicking over enough. Because we are only going to call set plays for you guys anyway, so like, it is going to come back around to you. And I’ve never not had buy-in on that. The guys have always … coaching at this level is creating an environment, creating structure and then just getting out of the way. Because these guys are so good. They’re so good.

So ideally, you want to call — and I know it is hard to put a number on it — but percentage-wise, maybe a quarter of the plays, or less?

Yeah, probably. We teach our offense, and it all has calls, but we strip the calls as we go through the season. And then we have a group of sets if we want to direct the ball to KAT or D’Lo or Ant, we’ll do that too. But it will be a quarter to a third at the most. There are some games where you just can’t get into your rhythm game and you’ve got to call more plays.

With all the switching you see in the league now, you have all this movement and this read-and-react, and then the switching can bog it all down. So we talk to our guys all the time that if you just stay in the flow of your offense, at some point they’ll break down. We try not to overmanipulate the switches (by opposing defenses).

So at crunch time, I imagine there are more play calls, or do you want to keep trying to push that flow and rhythm?

That’s a great question. It ends up being a little more play calls in crunch time because you obviously want to make sure that your best players are getting touches. But I actually believe that — again, go back to what I said: Why not start at being great by being random? And just trust that at that point in time you are going to get mostly a good look? I really believe that. I’ve been on teams where you don’t have star players, and our motto is, our go-to guy is the open man. You just gotta move it and find it.

Now, late in the game, it ends up being more play calls because it is a heavy pick-and-roll game.

And everybody knows it is coming, though, so there is more doubling even on the pick-and-roll. And so that’s when the open-man idea will be there too. I imagine at that point it is a choice for your superstars.

Right. As I said, with all the switching, now it is about manipulating switches, bringing smalls or getting the matchup that you want because they are going to switch it. But I think some of that stuff just bogs you down too much (in terms of executing a play).

I mean, these guys are really intelligent, but I am a firm believer that under stress, it is hard to be super creative and go totally off the board, so 99 percent of what we do is just a deviation of what we have already done. And it tends to be … I believe in simple and spacing and that kind of stuff. There is a lot of really cool stuff you can do in the league — again, these guys are so talented and you can do so much with them — but it’s hard. You’ll see it here in summer league. All these young coaches will be trying to do everything that they’ve always wanted to do — which is the fun part of it, but it is hard to do that.

I want to talk a little bit more about the balances you have to strike as a coach. For example, the pros and cons of molding your style to fit your personnel versus exercising your philosophy and scheme. Do you tilt one way or the other on that? Just from what we’ve been talking about it seems like the personnel may topple the scheme a little bit for you.

As long as we are getting to our higher-level philosophy, there are a lot of different ways to get there. I learned that in the G League, where you always lose your best players. And when that happens and you try and change like-for-like, you just don’t get the same return. So, say I had a great scoring point guard and all of a sudden my best player is a skilled four. As long as you are playing to the higher philosophy of getting the right shot, playing with pace, moving the ball, you can play with the same structure and same basic action and learn how to reinvent yourself on the fly. That’s where the team teaches you, “Oh, OK, we’ll do this now.”

One of my things has always been if you give great latitude, players will tend to do what they do best. And when they don’t, it is pretty obvious for everyone to see.

And thus easier to correct.

Easier to correct, yeah. And sometimes, it happens. Sometimes, guys have all this freedom and struggle with it, particularly at first. If they keep struggling, as a coach, it is my job to kind of nudge them back; OK, we’ll take these things away.

It is an interesting experience when a player joins a system. In my experience, no matter where I’ve been, generally they come and play really well right away because they play with a lot of freedom. And then when they start thinking and try to integrate and try to worry a little too much about their teammates, now all this stuff becomes paralyzed and they kind of dip. Then they figure out the balance between the two, which I think is a microcosm of what you’re talking about. And you just have to let that process play out. It happens so much now that it just is what it is.

Flip Saunders used to tell me that his definition of chemistry was when the pecking order on a team is the way it should be, with everyone knowing their role.  Do you have a definition for chemistry?

No, I don’t think I have a definition for chemistry. It is this thing that exists, and you know when you have it. But you can help in building it, and that’s the cool part. You know you have it when that team expects to win that night rather than hopes to win that night.

I think the connective tissue of the game is passing. And defense, of course. If you pass the ball, and you have a team that does, it is a very infectious thing. We are fortunate to have really good passers on this team.

It’s funny, here in the summer league, it seems like you are putting the ball in Jaden’s hands to watch him pass. Because off the dribble, he is never going to be the guy. But I think you are doing this because you want him to see the floor and make plays with that mindset for when he has the ball and is able to pass to guys who are better than him in the offense.

No doubt. The reason we are basically loading him up with usage right now is in the hopes that when he becomes a secondary playmaker, rather than just a spot shooter, that’s when the payoff from this will be.

When you gave him those secondary playmaker moments last season, he went up and down, and when he was on, it was a lot of fun. 

Yeah. I think — and this is obviously a stretch goal for anybody — but he can be Scottie Pippen-esque. We talked about competing every time down; well, he’s guarding Luka Doncic and guarding James Harden. These guys are phenomenal players, and (if) they beat him one time, he is right back guarding them the next. I love the kid. He, to me, has such a great foundation. I think his ceiling is high. Very high.

Another balancing act as a coach is enforcing accountability versus giving a player time to figure it out. Is that a intuitive thing as to when you want to insert some accountability? 

I have always taught that basketball is a game of a thousand mistakes. There are way more mistakes in a game than good execution, but it is about the ones that are too often repeated, or the behaviors that go into those mistakes. Those are the things that drive accountability. You can’t ask players to play fast and free without expecting — we’re going to make mistakes. We are probably going to be on the high side of turnovers. We are probably going to be sometimes wild or have a bit more volatility to our game. That’s why you see 20-point comebacks more often now. Because teams are playing more on the edge of volatility.

So yeah, everyone will tell you they want to be held accountable. The credit is that a lot of guys on this team actually mean that, instead of “I want everyone else held accountable.” These guys, they let me come in and coach them. It’s not … when I was a younger coach, it was far more like fire and brimstone and yelling and swearing and all that. Now, it is about brutal truth.

(Top photo of Chris Finch: David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)