Timberwolves

Chris Finch Pushes Back On Excessive Pick-and-Roll Usage

Photo Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

When the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Rudy Gobert last July, a new challenge appeared in Chris Finch’s inbox. Suddenly, he had to blend Minnesota’s diverse offensive talent. The Wolves already had the greatest 3-point shooting big man of all time in Karl-Anthony Towns, an up-and-coming superstar who thrives when attacking the paint in Anthony Edwards, and an isolation-heavy, ball-moving guard in D’Angelo Russell.

The offense seemed to flow when those three shared the floor, primarily due to the team’s lack of size in the painted area. Players moved the ball freely around them, and the team produced consistent offense. Adding 7’1” Gobert to the mix was an extensive change for everyone, from the coaching staff to the players.

However, Finch seemed to be the perfect coach to make it all work.

Coaches with multiple All-Stars must let them play somewhat freely, read what the defense gives them, and occasionally make an unscripted play. However, there needs to be a healthy medium. Either that coach allows their players to operate too loosely, which results in poor shot selection, or they implement too many concrete plays that can hamper a player’s ability to create their own offense. That has been a balance Finch has tried to strike since taking over as head coach in 2021.

Finch has discussed imposing more of a “structured offense” quite a bit lately, most notably on JJ Redick’s podcast. However, he must find something to help balance his offensive game plan from being too structured or loose.

MinnPost’s Britt Robson sat down with Finch and primarily discussed the two-big lineup. Robson brought up pick-and-rolls, how Finchy is “not a PnR guy,” and how to lean into that play.

I don’t dislike pick-and-roll. I just think that in the league today, pick-and-roll is the safety blanket [for] too many people. They call up the big (to set a pick on the perimeter) and (otherwise) don’t know what else to do. Everybody uses pick-and-roll for different reasons – they use it to create for others or use it to create for themselves. Some struggle to do either.

The Memphis Grizzlies come to mind as a team that relies heavily on the PnR. I can recall vivid memories of Ja Morant scorching the Wolves in the 2022 playoffs with his decision-making while running that play. In real-time, it felt like every PnR set would either end up in a Morant finish in the paint, him dumping the ball off to Jaren Jackson Jr. or kicking it out to Desmond Bane for a wide-open triple.

Morant is a unique player. Not every guard can find his teammates on a back-cut, hit an open triple, and jump two feet above the rim. Over the last two seasons, Morant handled the ball on the PnR 46% of the time – ranking him in the top five for both seasons. Sure, the Wolves don’t have a guy like Ja at their point guard slot, but their 2-guard operates effectively off screens.

As shown above, the screener, in this case Naz Reid, sets the flare screen and retreats to the three-point line. Edwards is so prolific when attacking the rim that the opposing team needs to pack the paint with multiple defenders. Otherwise, it would be a long night of Ant slams and layups. However, this isn’t NBA 2K; you can’t run the same play repeatedly and expect the same outcome. There needs to be a median.

In the interview with Britt, Finch further explained how the team views the PnR.

We certainly want to use pick-and-roll for sure. When I am talking about structure, I’m probably talking about narrowing down the actions we use when both bigs are on the floor. It is not like we are all of a sudden going to be a robotic, heavily patterned team. It is just that we have learned what early actions suit that (two bigs) lineup the best. Because it is the spacing that happens after that, that is the most important. And that is more predetermined through certain actions rather than others.

Early last season, it was apparent that Edwards endured the most considerable growing pain as he learned how to share the floor with Gobert. When the Stifle Tower enters the game, prioritizing the PnR seems essential because he is at his best rolling hard off screens. Gobert led the NBA in effective field goal percentage for three seasons by operating off pick plays. Of course, you can’t space Gobert out as you can with Towns or Reid. Still, Finch and his staff need to figure out plays that can benefit both Gobert and Edwards offensively without leaving out other key players.

Below is one of my favorite plays from last season. Towns sets the first screen, then pops out to the three-point line. Gobert set the second screen, then rolled hard into the paint. Edwards attacked and realized he had Christian Braun and Nikola Jokić defending him. He kicked the ball back out to Towns, who pump faked, drove in, and found Gobert in the dunker’s spot.

That play alone had three possible outcomes for a bucket:

  1. Ant pulls up from the mid-range if the defenders drop on the screens.
  2. KAT takes the triple if the defender doesn’t rotate over.
  3. Rudy slams it home after waiting in the restricted area.

Keeping Towns involved in these plays is an area of importance, too. KAT has quickly gone from Minnesota’s only source of consistent offense to taking a step back and sharing the workload pretty much equally with Edwards. It would be easy to lose track of KAT, leaving him spotted up from beyond the three-point line while Ant, Gobert, and Mike Conley run PnRs and other paint-oriented plays. That’s exactly what Finch is looking to avoid.

“There was a big concern for me,” said Finch on Redick’s podcast. “I didn’t want to just turn him [Towns] into a 2-guard, play him in the corner, and tell him to take more threes. I do think he can increase his three-point rate, but he has so much success driving against fives. I think now he has to realize that he needs to shoot over more fours.”

Edwards and Gobert both pose incredible gravity as the two of them attack the paint. And while their play style may conflict, they need to continue to figure out proper ways to use the pick-and-roll to their advantage. In the same breath, it is still crucial that Finch and his staff find balanced ways to find other key guys such as Towns, Conley, and Jaden McDaniels. A play as simple as a pick-and-roll could fix that problem, should the team use it right.

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