In late June, Ryen Russillo had Chris Finch on his podcast to discuss the Minnesota Timberwolves’ turnaround last season. The Wolves were 46-36 last year after finishing 23-49 in 2020-21. Gersson Rosas fired Flip Saunders after a Feb. 21 game in New York and hired Chris Finch off the Toronto Raptors’ coaching staff. Minnesota was 13-40 at that time but finished 13-9 under Finch, who took over in the middle of a nine-game losing streak.
A year later, he doubled their win total.
The interview is worth listening to in full. But fair warning, the Wolves traded for Gobert on July 6, so there’s no mention of him. Russillo also asks about Patrick Beverley, who was involved in that trade – although Finch’s response about Pat Bev is pretty interesting. But most of it is still relevant, given he spends a lot of time talking about his tumultuous arrival and Minnesota’s breakout last season.
A lot of his answers are long, so I’ve broken his responses into sections. Still, they’re worth reading again before the season starts. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and to highlight the most relevant points heading into the season.
Turning the team around on the fly
Yeah, so obviously kind of unique circumstances, parachuting in in the middle of a season. What I really tried to focus on, like break things out into things I could change in the short term, things I could maybe impact over the medium term, and things that I couldn’t change until we got to the offseason.
And I just thought – the first thing I tried to figure out was how to get the team to compete more. Like, helping them to understand what that means. Compete when they’re fighting through a screen, compete when they’re getting back in transition – all the little pieces, break it down for them, just try to be way more competitive while at the same time building up their confidence because the team had really struggled with its confidence, as you could imagine any team going through that type of losing would.
From a defensive standpoint, Finch moved away from David Vanterpool’s drop scheme to his preferred chaotic scheme.
Then we looked at changing our defense, and that a little bit by little bit over the medium term, we were able to kinda – we weren’t anywhere good, but we were still a little bit more resistant. We moved from playing in a very conservative, drop-oriented defense to an extremely aggressive, fly-around, attack-the-ball style, which I felt suited just younger athletes trying to figure it out in the NBA. Just take the thinking out of it, be more attack-minded.
And then that little body of work, we were able to take into the summer, and kind of really use it as a – we had a proper body of work to evaluate what we thought we could and couldn’t do. And last summer was a lot about reconstructing our defense, keeping that same attack mindset, but putting in a little more structure, a little more rules with it. And then figuring out what coverages, etc. suited our guys.
And that’s where we had our biggest jump. There were a lot of holes in our defense, things that you wanted to do better, which is like transition and rebounding, which were two huge drivers. But we were able to generate a lot of turnovers – that’s probably the key to our defense. Just also kind of continuing to fly around and use our length and athleticism.
Finch felt he had the guys to generate offense, it was just a matter of figuring out how they all fit.
Offensively, I felt, looking at the roster we had coming in, we had all the skills we needed because how do you, like, blend them together? I think our three guys, D’Angelo [Russell], Karl[-Anthony Towns], and Anthony [Edwards], they all have complementary skillsets, it’s not like they’re all trying to compete in the same space, doing the same thing with the ball, so I thought that gave us a great chance right there.
And then I had the benefit of those guys being able to play with each other longer. Ryan Saunders, my predecessor, they had so many injuries, and they didn’t really have a chance to kinda gel and figure it out, so I think, as important as the start of the season, and the offseason was, the last 20 games for us last year, when we had all 20 guys being able to play, that gave us the best insight in how we felt we could be this season.
Russillo prompted Finch with an interesting question early in the interview. “I imagine all the years, we’re talking a couple of decades here as an assistant at different stops, and you’re thinking about your philosophy,” he said. “I want everybody to move off the ball, I want screening, I want early transitions, kind semi-transition threes. I don’t want to give up switches all the time.
“And then you get the players, and hey, some of these guys just don’t want to do that. How hard is that, realizing that your magic application of basketball philosophy is not always a realistic application?”
Finch laughed at Russillo’s question while acknowledging that it’s something he has to balance.
Yeah, great question. I think as you prepare for jobs, you do so pretty much in idyllic conditions or in a vacuum. Fortunately, I’ve been in a lot of scenarios, wherever I’ve coached, where there’s so much stuff out of your control, I just kinda learned to roll with it a little bit.
Coaching in the G-League was a master class in that. Like your roster is changing all the time, so you’ve got to still maintain the same high-level principles and philosophy and the things that you believe in, but you have to take a different route to get there, you know?
You can still value the same shots, but some of the concepts that you use to get to them might change because your best player one day is your point guard, he leaves, now your best player happens to be a skilled 4, you’re not gonna keep doing the same things you did for the point guard with the lesser-talented player in that role now.
Ultimately, Finch pointed to his staff, saying they can bring out the best in his players using Finch’s philosophy.
So I think the key for us is we built a real diverse staff here. I brought in Elson Turner to help run the defense. Elston’s been in the league for a long, long time. He’s been with Mike D’Antoni doing volume-switching. He’s been with Rick Adelman, where they didn’t switch a ton at all. He’s been with Dave Joerger, who’s a highly-touted defensive tactician, a lot about game-planning.
He’s been with a lot of really good offensive-minded coaches, too, which I think was important because you don’t get into that turf war where the things we choose to do offensively are gonna kind of impact the defense, too, and vice-versa, which I’ve been around some staffs where you have a flash point where it causes some kind of friction.
Russillo mentioned that an anonymous scout told him that Finch felt he had to be the opposite of a head coach’s personality when he was an assistant. Is that what he wants out of his assistant now?
As coaches, we have to be whatever your team isn’t. Maybe it’s your head coach, and you complement him, or whatever. I have blind spots in what I’m able to do in my personality, and I have assistants that can help me. If you have a team that doesn’t have a lot of leadership, we talk about this, every coach will go, ‘We don’t have enough leaders.’ Well, isn’t it our job to provide that leadership for them in some capacity?
Like, aren’t we supposed to provide that for them in some capacity? These deficiencies. If we’re not tough, we can be tough-minded as a staff, and hopefully, our team figures out how to be a little tougher, you know?
But yeah, I was always very lucky to work for coaches who gave me a big platform on the offensive side of the ball: Kevin McHale, Alvin Gentry, Nick Nurse, and Mike Malone. All the guys I worked for gave me a big platform, Alvin and Mac, in particular, were player-coaches, they spent most of their time with player relationships.
And in a lot of those roles, I had to be the bad cop, too, just because when you’re running the offense, running the defense, accountability in the film room begins and ends with you. Coach has your back, which is hugely important.
So moving into the head-coaching route, I just wanted to empower my assistants and have their back, and also set the tone and set the environment of what our behaviors are expected to be.
Ant’s superstar potential
Russillo sees what we all see. Edwards has the potential to change the Timberwolves franchise. He can drive winning, and he’s their only star who played at his best in the playoffs.
“There was a moment with Anthony Edwards this year where it felt like it was the start of something really special,” Russillo told Finch. “There are a lot of great young players who are sick athletes who can score 20 and take over games, but you’re around him every day. How special can he be?”
“Very,” Finch answered.
We feel he can certainly be a high-level franchise player and perennial All-Star. Some of the things he’s done at an early age are things that only those types of players do. He needs to obviously become more consistent in a lot of things. He’s still trying to figure out a lot.
The great thing about Anthony is he knows who he is and who he isn’t. He is very mature and self-aware. And through that process, he understands the value of playing with a guy like Karl-Anthony Towns, so he can space the floor, and he can live in the paint. He’s not trying to fight to be the No. 1 guy at any point in time. He just believes it’s gonna come as he gets older and better.
I was a little worried going into the playoffs about how he might try to do too much, and sometimes that stage might swallow you up, but he took to it easy, and he was comfortable, he was confident, and he was loving it. And he had never really played in a basketball game of that magnitude anywhere. Certainly not in college, and certainly not before that.
When I watch him go through these things, whether it be scoring 40 or playing well in the playoffs or dominating in the quarter, or finishing out games, I realize I’m watching somebody with an incredibly high ceiling, so it’ll be fun to work with him.
What I like about him is he’s really, really coachable, and that’s what gives us the hope that he’s gonna be this high-end talent that can drive winning for a long time for this franchise.
The question is, how soon? A couple of weeks after this interview, the Wolves traded for Gobert. Suddenly, they’re in win-now mode, and there is a lot of pressure on Edwards. “Is there another guy you had at a previous stop in the NBA whose timeline you’re applying to Anthony?” Russillo asked Finch.[itaics]
So maybe less about the timeline and more about the experiences that, or the evolution of it is that, I worked with James Harden when he came to Houston. James would see so many different looks, particularly in the playoffs, we’d get a lot of looks in the playoffs that maybe he hadn’t seen in the regular season. And then we’d have to figure out how to solve them, or we’d have to figure out how to solve them and work on it. The next year he’d come back, and…
With Anthony, we’re seeing these looks coming at him in the regular season now. A lot more game-planning, a lot more things he’s had to process. And I think partly because teams in the league now are just way more flexible defensively than they’ve ever been, so they’re able to kinda shift game to game, whereas five, six, seven years ago, you did less of that. You kinda set out your style, this is who we are. And then the playoffs will change.
But now we see so many different looks, so hoping Anthony works through those. Certainly drawing upon our experiences with James.
Who’s team is it, anyway?
“Does the who’s team is it stuff matter?” Russillo asked Finch bluntly.
No, I don’t get a sense that it matters at all. I think KAT has, well, I know KAT has embraced Anthony. Anthony understands the value of playing with a guy like KAT. He also knows KAT is the best player on our team. KAT understands that he needs help. All great players need great players around them.
I think that’s one of the signs of maturity for young players. They come into the league looking to prove themselves, particularly these high picks, prove themselves, make their mark, grow their brand, get paid, all the things that they want to do. And they always think they can do it alone, or damn near alone, but the reality is none of them can, nobody can, and so then they start to realize that, how hard it is to be the only guy out there.
So adding talent, I once heard when I got into the league, and it always resonates with me, that what superstar players need most is hope. They need hope coming that they have good enough teammates, good enough coaches, good enough organization, and a good enough environment to be able to maximize their potential. And I think KAT understands how good and special Ant can be.
How does DLo fit in?
Russillo didn’t hold back on Russell. Like many fans, he doesn’t always love watching Russell’s game, but he understands he’s a unique player. “DLo was tough to watch,” Russillo admitted to Finch, “but he’s made great strides. Not the talent, but more his decision-making. How has the Russell relationship grown?”
So, first of all, for me, I can only judge my experience with a player, and DLo’s been great. He’s been super receptive. Very coachable, very bought in. I think his impact on our success was overlooked this year, particularly in the first half of the season, defensively, where he was very impactful off the ball as a help defender, a very smart player.
I think, trying to figure out those three guys offensively, we thought it would be a little easier out of the chute, but everybody started the season with so much ambition that they’re trying to put their mark on things. That had to play out a little bit, we had to figure out some kinks there, but we got it sorted. We’ve had some really big games, and the play-in game was probably his signature game for us this year, and he certainly had a few of those.
But he’s been locked in and committed. His work ethic’s been great, no problem with him at all. He’s a basketball junky, he loves to watch hoop, talk hoop. Everything, he’s probably our biggest basketball student of the game, if you will. He is really into watching games. Last year when I got here, we watched more film together, this year I didn’t have enough time to sit down and watch enough film with him.
But yeah, I think, for him, his skillset fits perfectly between Ant and KAT. One of the best passers I’ve ever been around, but I just keep pushing him to keep leaning into that. Really good shot-maker, particularly in the clutch. And, for sure, with a lot of these guys, shooting just comes so easily to them that they think they’re gonna make any shot. He plays with great confidence.
Timberwolves Media Day is on Monday, and we’ll learn a lot more about how this team views itself. Gobert is in the mix now, as are a slew of solid role players. Everyone’s had an offseason to hone their craft. Will this team live up to the hype? We’ll have to see. But they’re certainly in a better spot than they were heading into last season.