The NBA awards are starting to be handed out as the postseason gets underway. Jordan Clarkson won the NBA Sixth Man Award, while Julius Randle won the Most Improved Player Award. The Coach of the Year candidates are down to three, and former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau is one of the finalists.
So it got me thinking: What would it take for current Wolves coach Chris Finch to get nominated next year?
Let’s preface all this by saying that if Anthony Edwards doesn’t win NBA Rookie of the Year over LaMelo Ball, we storm NBA headquarters. Okay, not really. But give Ant the award; he deserves it. LaMelo Ball making the play-in tournament with the Charlotte Hornets only to get blown out by the Indiana Pacers doesn’t count as a postseason nod favoring his Rookie of the Year candidacy.
Onto Chris Finch. Looking at this year’s finalists for NBA Coach of the Year, one common factor is readily apparent: playoff teams with massive swings.
Thibodeau is a finalist after helping to completely turn around the New York Knicks. The Knicks won 38 games combined in the last two years before Thibodeau’s arrival. In his first season? How about 41 wins and the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference? It’s New York’s first playoff appearance in eight years.
Then there’s Monty Williams. Sure, getting Chris Paul helped, but there’s no doubting Williams’ coaching pedigree and the way players love to bust their tails for him. In just his second year as the Phoenix Suns’ head coach, they went from non-playoff team that was a fun NBA bubble story a year ago to No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with legitimate title aspirations.
And lastly, there’s Quin Snyder. While the Utah Jazz have been a steady playoff presence under Snyder, nobody expected the Jazz to hold down the fort with the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference this year. And that’s exactly what they did.
The Timberwolves were a disaster this season, and while there’s no ribbon given out for finishing the year 16-20 in the second half, it was a significant improvement. Finch took over after they went 7-24 in their first 31 games, and the team slowly but surely bought into whatever message he was preaching. Perhaps the most notable stretch for the Wolves came when they beat Snyder’s Utah Jazz in back-to-back games at the tail end of the season. It sent good vibes through Minnesota and suggested that things might genuinely be on the upswing.
The NBA Coach of the Year Award can be narrowed down to a fairly simple metric. It’s largely given to teams that have a big turnaround from one year to the next, or to a newer coach. Perhaps a coach who’s been around for a while but has a change of scenery, too. Unless you have a historic mark like Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors did in 2016 when they went 73-9, you aren’t getting Coach of the Year nods, not if you’re coaching Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, or players like that.
There are a couple of factors working in Chris Finch’s favor for next season.
First, while it’s hard to imagine a team can actually carry momentum from one year into another, it bodes well for Minnesota’s mental makeup that they had so much success with a nearly fully healthy unit to close out the 2020-21 season. Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards had chemistry on the court and D’Angelo Russell was back to his regular form on offense to close out the year. Finding late success instead of fizzling out to end the year should give them some sort of juju heading into the offseason.
Secondly, just about every important player should be back next season. The potential of a healthy Wolves roster could hatch into a postseason berth for the first time since the 2017-18 season. If Finch is to be taken seriously as a Coach of the Year candidate, the Wolves will need to wrap up a spot in the dance, at minimum.
Not since the Memphis Grizzlies’ Hubie Brown in 2003 has a coach won the award without his team going to the postseason. It won’t be happening anytime soon, either.
With DLo, Towns, Edwards, Malik Beasley, a potential top-three pick in the NBA Draft, and whatever Minnesota does in free agency, making the playoffs should be an attainable goal for the Timberwolves. Just because the franchise has in large part been a disaster for years doesn’t mean it will continue that way. If anything, Finch’s arrival, coupled with the results in the second half of the season, sparked faith that this thing is headed in the right direction.
For Finch to get some love in the NBA Coach of the Year voting as early as next season, the Wolves must follow a simple formula. They need a playoff berth. And to get one, the players need to continue to buy into his message and build on the successes they saw at the end of the 2020-21 season.