Timberwolves

How Finch's Time In Sheffield Influenced His Coaching Style

Photo Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

British media outlet The Conventional 9 recently released a short video on YouTube detailing Chris Finch’s time with the Sheffield Sharks in the British Basketball League. Several people interviewed in the video pridefully reminisced about Finch’s incredibly successful tenure with the Sharks. Mike Tuck, Captain of the Sharks, said, “the Chris Finch era was the golden era of the Sharks. … He set the tone for the club, and he left quite the legacy.” Wikipedia, our #1 source for things most likely true but almost always agreed upon by a faceless set of moderators, wholeheartedly backs this sentiment up with a single vague paragraph titled “The Golden Era.”

Finch’s praise is well deserved. After four years playing for the Sharks, he became the coach in 1997 and immediately made an impact. The Sharks won the British League Cup in 1998, then went on to win back-to-back British League Trophies in 1999 and 2000.

Finch won the BBL Coach of the Year in 1999 and was widely praised as one of the league’s best coaches, along with former turned boss turned rival once again, Nick Nurse.

“The rivalry between Chris and Nick never ended,” recalls Sarah Backovic, Managing Director of the Sharks. “It was a must-win position on both sides of the fence, you know, it was quite fierce.”

In one of many grudge matches, Finch’s Sharks and Nurse’s Giants faced off in the final game of the 1999 season to determine who won the league. The game was tied with four seconds to go, and Terrell Myers drained a jumper just in front of the three-point line to give the Sharks the win.

However, possibly the most interesting informational nugget in the video came from Yuri Matischen, Chairman of the Sheffield Sharks. Yuri commented that it’s “quite interesting with Chris in the NBA now, he’s been lauded as one of the best offensive coaches. Well, I can assure you, everything was about defense.”

I also noticed that throughout Chris Finch’s time in the NBA, many articles and comments analyzing what he brings to his teams primarily focused on his skills as an offensive coordinator. Upon joining the Toronto Raptors, Nick Nurse called Chris Finch “one of the best offensive minds in the NBA.” When Finch was on the New Orleans Pelicans coaching staff, William Guillory of The Athletic called Finch “an offensive mastermind who has constructed offensive systems that were adaptable to some very unique stars.”

Those articles were all correct, and offense certainly is a forte of Finch’s coaching. Last year, in Finch’s first full season as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team ranked 7th in the NBA in offensive rating. They ranked 25th the season prior and 24th the season before that. He helped develop an offense that integrated the young talent in Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels into the already established core of Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.

However, possibly the most impressive thing he did in his first full year as Minnesota’s coach was completely reinventing the defense. Past Timberwolves defenses had been relatively conservative, primarily using drop coverages with a “solid is enough” mentality. But Finch’s defensive scheme encouraged players to cut passing lanes, gamble, and get out into transition for easy buckets. It worked wonders, and the Wolves jumped from 28th in the league in defensive rating in the 2020-21 season to 13th last season. They were also 3rd in steals per game and led the league in points off turnovers, demonstrating the aggressive play style’s effectiveness.

There were certainly a few problems that came with it too. Players occasionally got burned while going too far out of position for a steal, and they sometimes sacrificed rebound positioning in the name of defenders scrambling to help on rotations. However, the scheme played to the strengths of the young and athletic Timberwolves core and covered up the roster’s lack of secondary rim protection and rebounding depth until the playoffs. It demonstrated Finch’s ability to create outside-of–the-box strategies to help his players succeed on defense and offense.

Yuri’s view of Finch as a defensive-minded coach is enlightening because it suggests that American audiences may have been undersold on Finch’s defensive acumen as a head coach. This is no one’s fault in particular, of course. Before joining the Timberwolves, he hadn’t been a head coach of a team since 2011, when he led the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Although Finch won a D-League championship and Coach of the Year in 2010, that championship only held enough weight to earn him an assistant coaching job in a highly-competitive NBA job market. Assistant coaches are understandably in the spotlight less than head coaches or players. Therefore, it’s hard for people outside of an NBA organization to tell what specific jobs each assistant coach is tasked with and what on the court has happened as a result.

What’s more, Finch built up half of his 24-year-long coaching resume on four European teams, including the Sheffield Sharks, Giessen 46ers, Euphony Bree, and Dexia Mons-Hainaut. Most Americans have probably never heard of any of these teams and would have difficulty accessing game stats, much fewer broadcasts of the actual games. Likely, even the most hardcore international basketball fans and journalists are still missing a few data points on the statistical plot of Finch’s long career. Therefore, they could not have projected how well-rounded an NBA coach he would become.

However, the select few who are old-school Sheffield Sharks fans and were there during the Golden Years of the Chris Finch era swear by his coaching talent on both sides of the court. They saw this coming. Things would come full circle if Finch and Nurse got a chance to reignite their rivalry in the NBA, only this time in a Timberwolves-Raptors championship series. Currently, that seems a bit far-fetched, given that the Wolves just made a huge move to win now by trading for Rudy Gobert, and the Raptors are patiently rebuilding around Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, and several other youngish players who are around 6’8″.

Regardless, Finch will have a new set of players to work with next year and thus face a new challenge of creating the optimal defensive schemes for the new and improved roster. However, if Sharks lifer Yuri (and Minnesota’s performance last year) can teach us anything, Finch is just as talented at coaching defense as he is offense, if not potentially more. Only time will tell.

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