How Much Is Chris Finch Leaning On Analytics In His Coaching?

Photo Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Finch, appeared on JJ Redick’s podcast The Old Man and the Three. In the hour-long interview, the two talked about a multitude of Minnesota Timberwolves-specific things, including coaching strategy, goals for the team for next season, and a few of the team’s star players including Anthony Edwards, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Zone Coverage’s Charlie Walton broke down those key points about the Wolves after the podcast came out.

However, there are a few interesting things about Finch’s career as a coach, and path to the NBA that I learned through the interview that may be also new information to other Wolves fans. Specifically, how Finch and the teams he coached in Europe had an influence on the NBA analytics movement before getting a job in the league. “I say all the time, ‘these analytics, they’re guides, they’re not gods JJ,'” Finch told Reddick. “We’re not doing this stuff just because the numbers say it. We have to figure out what’s best for our team, and if we’re within a certain paradigm we’re gonna be okay.”

Finch’s core tenant, that analytics are a guide, and not a god, is something that has shaped both his personality as a coach, and his teams’ successes throughout his career.

We’ve watched Finch bring this principal to Minnesota and seen the success it has created for the team, especially its young core. Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Naz Reid have all progressed a lot as players since Finch joined the team. Early on in his time with the Wolves, Finch used the metaphor of using analytics like bumpers in a bowling alley. He hoped to set up parameters that a player can be effective within to help the team, while also giving them the freedom to play their own game in between.

Finch has a knack for analogies that are helpful for learning the intricacies of basketball, both for players and for viewers hoping to understand what the team works on between games. On Reddick’s podcast, Finch presented a different version of this analogy that may be even better. One of his catchphrases is to tell a player, “You’re already wearing an Armani suit, I just wanna tailor it for you. You made yourself the player you are. I’m not trying to make you a different player, I’m not trying to change your game significantly. … Let’s clean up the edges where we can clean up.”

In the context of analytics, Finch says this in reference to coaching players who have a good midrange game, but are also good three-point shooters and could benefit from taking more threes instead of long twos. Finch has been adamant about helping players bring what they’re naturally good at to an NBA court, while also not forgetting to encourage the principles of efficiency that have made his teams successful throughout his career. He discusses having these conversations with Anthony Edwards as an example of a player who can do both. However, he could benefit from leaning into three-point shooting more, because he’s great at making catch-and-shoot threes.

From Finch:

My whole evolution in the statistical revolution, if you will, comes from the teams that I was coaching overseas, JJ, always played this way. Not because I understood the math back in the 90s or early 2000s. It’s just cause those were the guys that I could afford, and we’d run up and down, play undersized basketball and shoot a lot of threes. So then when I got here…I started working in the Rockets, you know a very heavy analytical environment, it made sense to me.

So I didn’t have this natural distrust of the math, because I’d seen it work. Most coaches are opposite during this evolution right? They’ve played one way and now they’re being asked to trust these numbers, and I’m not faulting anyone, but that’s just like the dynamic. And it’s no different with the player right? You’ve played one way and now we’re asking you to trust numbers you haven’t seen work for you, let’s say, but it is working for you in the background.

It’s incredible that Finch was practicing the main tenets of a revolution that was about to come, without knowing the math behind it, and just knowing that it worked for him and his teams in Europe. It’s even more incredible that he developed this strategy as a result of the monetary constraints his teams were under, given that he started coaching in smaller European leagues that couldn’t sign expensive big-name players. However, the part that’s possibly most interesting, is that the Houston Rockets were quietly studying what Finch was doing.

Later on in the podcast, JJ talks with Finch about his influence on analytics. “My understanding is…those teams you coached in Rio Grande [Houston’s G League Team],” Redick said, “that was like an incubator, a test run.”

“It was, yeah,” Finch responded.

“For how to play that way, you guys just shot threes almost every possession,” Redick continued. “Do you feel like the reason you got that job is because of how your teams played in Europe? Like very specifically that is the reason.”

Finch agrees that this was a big reason why the Rockets hired him. Finch then said that at first he was a little put off by his interviewers telling him they wanted to incorporate parts of the European game into Houston’s G League team because Finch wanted to protect the integrity of what he was trying to do in Europe.

“Once I took the job and sat down with them and they explained everything to me, then it made sense,” he said. “They showed data, ‘Here’s the data on your teams.’ You know, that’s stuff that I didn’t even have access to overseas. They had access to it. So it was pretty much a natural fit. And again, it was just me learning the science behind it, and why it was working for me overseas.”

Finch was an innovator in the analytics movement. He was also the coach of the team who first tested the limits of analytics within the NBA sphere is an incredible piece of basketball history, and something that doesn’t get talked about enough. Houston’s willingness to take a risk and be on the cutting edge of analytics when very few teams believed in them, gave their team a huge advantage in the James Harden era. Though they never won a championship with Harden, they proved the strategy could work in the NBA, and paved the way for teams like the Golden State Warriors to create their own brand of analytical small-ball basketball.

It retrospectively makes a lot of sense that they had the success they did, though. Finch recounts Houston’s front office team he worked with at the time. He recounts preparing for the G League draft in a room with Daryl Morey, Sam Hinkie, Gersson Rosas, Arturas Karnisovas, Monty McNair, and Sachin Gupta, who is currently in Minnesota’s front office. Gupta was also the interim President of Basketball Operations before the Wolves hired Tim Connelly. “That’s a lot of brain power right there that I got to go to work with every day,” Finch said. “That’s one of the most fortunate things that’s happened to my career.”

Almost no movement in an organization as big as the NBA is created by one person, and analytics were no exception. Still, it’s cool to hear Finch’s perspective of how they developed because he was one of a handful of people naturally at the forefront of the movement. And since Finch is a fan of analogies, I’d posit he’s an innovator to basketball like the Replacements were to Indie Rock, Iggy Pop was to Punk, or Sister Nancy was to Dancehall and later Hip-hop.

Finch was a proto-analytics coach. Like these artists, didn’t necessarily set out to create something new; Finch just made art that he liked with the resources he had available to him. The results were largely unseen at first because he primarily coached on small teams in Europe at the time. However, when he and his like minded peers began to collaborate, they created a new genre of basketball that people later took influence from to create similar art of their own. That in itself is something to be celebrated and remembered.

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