Chris Finch's Creativity and Adaptability Made Him An All-Star Coach

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With the Minnesota Timberwolves’ win Sunday night over the Houston Rockets, Chris Finch and his coaching staff earned the honor of coaching the Western Conference players in the All-Star game. The first-place team in their conference gets to send their coaching staff to the All-Star Game, and the top of the West has been extremely close this season. The Wolves and Oklahoma City Thunder are tied for first place, while the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets are only a half-game back. Minnesota had to win Sunday to prevent Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault or the Clippers’ Ty Lue from stealing the spot.

Finch will be coaching against Doc Rivers, who just got the Milwaukee Bucks coaching job after they fired Adrian Griffin and is 1-3 as their coach. Despite some issues that led to Griffin’s firing, he coached them to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference when the All-Star coaches were determined. And because a coaching staff can’t go to the All-Star game two years in a row, Joe Mazzulla and the Boston Celtics staff won’t get the nod despite being five games ahead of the second-place team.

There hasn’t been a whole lot of coaching in the past several years of All-Star games. It’s become more about making highlight plays than winning or playing defense. I can’t imagine coaches get to do much more than sub players in and out of the game, and it would be mostly pointless to do more because the game has no stakes.

Still, it’s great that the Wolves coaching staff is being recognized for the job they’ve done this season. They’ve turned a Play-In team that many in the national media thought was destined for disaster into a championship contender vying for first place in a stacked Western Conference. It’s also a historic moment for the franchise. Finch became the second coach in Timberwolves history to get the honor, along with the great Flip Saunders, who coached the All-Star game 20 years ago. Because Finch earned this honor, I’d like to highlight a few of my favorite parts of his coaching style that have contributed to Minnesota’s ability to hold onto first place in the conference for most of the first half of the season.

The thing I appreciate most is Finch’s creative approach to coaching. He will adapt his strategies to what the best players on his roster need to succeed. He preaches a flow-based offense similar to the Golden State Warriors’ “pace and space” offense and the San Antonio Spurs’ “beautiful basketball” era, some of the most exciting and effective offenses in modern history. The main similarity between all three offenses is that they encourage ball movement to keep defenses working and keep role players involved on offense while discouraging iso ball and overuse of pick-and-roll. Finch is quick to point out when the ball gets stagnant for the Wolves. He will reflect on how he can encourage ball movement in press conferences.

In Minnesota’s recent loss to the Orlando Magic, the Wolves moved the ball well throughout the first three quarters and went into the fourth up eight. However, the team stagnated in the fourth and lost 108-106. In the post-game press conference, a reporter asked Finch how he encourages Anthony Edwards to move the ball when it gets sticky. “We called some movement sets,” Finch responded. “I just thought there was a hesitation to go downhill. I thought he had a guy in space several times in the fourth quarter, and he just held. He should have had opportunities to go off the catch and in space but called over a pick-and-roll, and that kind of jammed us up. So yeah, I thought [there was] just like hesitancy over and over and over.”

These movement sets are a core part of Finch’s coaching. He wants to make plays that force defenses to make split-second decisions and allow his players to improvise offense after the initial action is over in response to the choices the defense makes. In the post-game interview, he explained that the Wolves were not making the right decisions off the actions, saying players were “not coming off the action to turn the corner to put pressure on the defense, which commits the defense to make the right play. We come off the action looking for the all-too-often isos.”

However, he also noted that there were some lineup choices he felt he should have made to help encourage ball movement in the second half, saying, “I thought we were doing a good job moving the ball [at first], really kind of carving em up, making the extra pass. I should’ve played J-Mac in the second half, that’s on me. He’s always a catalyst for ball movement. But we just stopped completely.”

Finch is a forward-thinking coach, and his desire to play movement-based basketball comes from his coaching philosophy and his experience as a coach in the European Basketball League. Finch was putting modern basketball analytics into practice and winning with it in the EBL before the movement began in the NBA. He encouraged his players to prioritize shooting threes and getting to the basket. The Houston Rockets studied his work before they hired Finch to coach their G League team. Finch spoke about his role in the analytics movement on JJ Redick’s podcast The Old Man and the Three.

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.

Finch’s influence on modern basketball strategy was born out of necessity. He needed to find a way to win with the players and resources he had. Finch had to adapt creatively and has continued since becoming Minnesota’s head coach. While Finch’s coaching style has a basis in analytics, he stressed in the interview with JJ that analytics are guides, not gods. “We’re not doing this stuff just because the numbers say it,” he said. “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 isn’t beholden to one coaching style. His willingness to shape his strategies to the roster he’s working with has been a major part of his success in Minnesota, especially when it comes to defense. In Finch’s first full season with the Timberwolves, the team’s roster leaned towards offense with the Ant, Karl-Anthony Towns, and D’Angelo Russell in the starting unit. That year, the Wolves earned the eighth-best offensive rating in the league (114.3). Finch found that what the team lacked in traditional defensive prowess, they could make up for with athleticism and hustle.

Therefore, Finch installed an aggressive defense, often referred to as a “high wall,” that encouraged Timberwolves defenders to pressure opponents’ ball handlers and try to force turnovers. The concept worked for the Wolves. That year, the team ranked second in opponent turnover percentage at 14.2% and ended the season 13th in defensive rating. Both marks were impressive, given the personnel and the roster’s youth. That was Ant and Jaden’s second season in the NBA, and they’ve both improved greatly as defenders since then. 

After the Wolves traded for Rudy Gobert, one of the best defenders in NBA history, they changed the defense to play to his strengths. Instead of hunting steals, Finch encouraged the team to stay home on their perimeter assignments and trust that Gobert would be behind them to protect the paint if an opponent got by them. It took a season and a few adjustments for Minnesota’s roster to learn how to play with Gobert. But now that everything has clicked into place, it is clear that the redesign of the Wolves’ defense around Gobert’s strengths has paid dividends. The Timberwolves have been first place in defensive rating all season by a wide margin, holding a 108.7 defensive rating, while the next best team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, are at 111.1.

Many things make Chris Finch a great coach, including his ability to be tough on players without being rude or losing their respect. He also collaborates with and shouts out his assistant coaches when they have a big role in a win. However, his ability to creatively adapt his coaching strategies to the talents of the players he has on his roster makes him special as a coach, offensively and defensively.

Almost everyone thought trying to play two centers simultaneously in an era where small ball is the dominant form of play didn’t make sense. Finch got his first job in the NBA by succeeding with small ball, but now he’s winning with two bigs. He has found a way to play three centers in a nine-man rotation. Finch has more than earned being an All-Star coach this year and will be a front-runner for coach of the year after the season ends as long as the Wolves continue their success.

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