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Three Thoughts on the Timberwolves’ Coaching Change

The Timberwolves made a much expected change on the bench, but the way they did it may have surprised some people.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I remember lying in bed when the news of Ryan Saunders’ firing broke. “Well, they finally did it,” I thought. No one who was following the Minnesota Timberwolves this season should be surprised Saunders was eventually let go.

You can have the worst record in the NBA without Karl-Anthony Towns, but you cannot have a 1-6 record in his first seven games back, too. It seems Gersson Rosas waited for Towns to return and things still didn’t improve. It’s not like the team was getting rolled every night, but blowing winnable games late due to questionable coaching decisions likely didn’t sit any better.

Again, Saunders’ departure is unsurprising. What was surprising was who replaced Saunders. Like most people, I expected the team to evaluate lead assistant David Vanterpool as interim coach for the rest of the season. Instead, The Athletic reported Toronto assistant Chris Finch and the Timberwolves had agreed to terms on a multi-year deal.

Memphis did something similar in 2009 hiring Lionel Hollins from Milwaukee’s staff, but this is not a common happening.

Justifiably, the Timberwolves faced questions for their process of replacing Saunders. Who else did they interview? Were minority candidates, including Vanterpool, also considered? Why did Saunders coach on Sunday? When did this all come together?

All of these were fair questions to wonder.

According to Rosas during Finch’s introductory press conference, the Timberwolves received permission to talk to their new coach during Sunday’s game in New York, Saunders was dismissed after the game, and the two sides came to terms early Monday morning. Clearly, Rosas had the motivation to replace Saunders and had an inclination Finch would pick up if he called.

Asking The Important Questions

The first question Rosas faced during Finch’s introductory press conference on Monday was about diversity considerations in the hiring process and his conversations with Vanterpool. This was a two-part question and this is the full quote:

Anybody who knows me knows how important diversity is to me. It’s a big part of who I am and what I’m about. The staff we have speaks for itself. We’re in very unique times and in a pandemic, being in the situation we’re in, we’re not guaranteed anything right now. We weren’t part of the bubble last season but we’re hopeful to finish the season this year.

We’re working through what might be next season in the offseason, but being in a pandemic, it really changes things because of the platform we’re at, a lot of what this process and search was about our original search when we hired Ryan. Chris [Finch] was a finalist there. There were other candidates, minority candidates that we considered at this time. Unfortunately, when you’re in the middle of a season you’re really at the mercy of other teams in who can become available and who cannot. That was a challenge as we went through the process.

In terms of David Vanterpool, Pablo Prigioni, and other assistants on the staff, we looked at those as internal options as well. But at the end of the day, where we’re at, we have to be realistic with ourselves. We’ve got the worst record in the NBA and we’re really struggling on both sides of the ball. We really lacked confidence as a result of that. We can get the real change we needed. We needed to be bold and direct with this opportunity. We are very thankful to the Toronto Raptors for giving us the opportunity to talk to Chris and when we got that opportunity, we were very aggressive with it because he’s a candidate we have experience with from our last process and a candidate we identified as a target for us.

There seemed to be a lot of assumption that Vanterpool would be the interim coach if Saunders were let go before the end of the season, but now it seems (at least after listening to the introductory press conference) that Rosas simply didn’t feel any of his assistants were ready (yet) to be a NBA head coach. Moreover, this entire situation may be as simple as Rosas had zeroed in on Finch back in 2019 when he originally interviewed him and was biding his time until he could replace Saunders with his own guy.

As for this latest coaching transaction, it’s apparent that Vanterpool didn’t get an interview, but neither did anyone else. Rosas clearly knew who his guy was going to be, had an opportunity, and capitalized. Look at the answer to the second part of that question asking about his conversations with Vanterpool about the future. He stops talking about Vanterpool in the fifth word and never returns to him. That’s fairly telling.

The issue isn’t as much about Finch over Vanterpool as it is a broader league-wide trend of teams passing over Black and minority candidates for white candidates. No one here at Canis Hoopus or myself are accusing the Timberwolves of prejudice — they have clearly prioritized diversity in their front office like few other teams in the league.

2020 NBA Draft Minnesota Timberwolves Team Operations Room Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

However, the fact that Rosas’ availability led off with a question about diversity regardless of the makeup of his front office is a good sign. Holding the decision-makers accountable is smart and decision-makers should expect questions in these situations every time something like this plays out.

Finch, like Vanterpool, appears to be a qualified candidate. The optics are bad when it seems like a team went out of their way not to promote their lead assistant to interim head coach midseason. When you add in the racial dynamics, it looks worse. Given Rosas’ long history with Finch, it’s easy to see why he was most comfortable hiring him.

Why Bother Hiring Saunders In 2019?

There is no question Saunders was put in a difficult situation. Few coaches could have succeeded with the rosters he’s had, but a coach at this stage in his career is going to have even longer odds. As Rosas noted, there was no lack of effort or trying to make this work from Saunders.

Rosas was also put in an awkward spot by his new boss, Glen Taylor. By all accounts, Taylor gave Rosas the freedom to hire the coach of his choice. However, Taylor was also telling the media how much he believed in Saunders as a head coach. Saunders was also well-liked by his players.

So, you’re Rosas and have been told you can choose anyone you want. Yet, your new boss is publicly campaigning for the interim coach who also has a rapport with the locker room (oh and he also has an ownership stake in the franchise). Taylor may not have told Rosas he had to choose Saunders but he may have also unintentionally applied public pressure to do so.

Rosas retained Vanterpool on Saunders’ staff but lost Finch until Sunday night. The team could have avoided most, if not all, of this awkwardness by allowing Rosas a pressure-free environment to pick the candidate he wanted most.

Though there were pieces written at the time about how Rosas and Saunders were on the same page and shared philosophies, it’s evident by Rosas’ urgency to hire Finch who his first option back in 2019 truly was. Hiring Saunders was a career decision. Firing Saunders to hire Finch the way he did was a business decision.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Reminder: Rosas Embraces Bold Decisions

Sunday’s coaching change was a good reminder that Gersson Rosas will stop at nothing to make a move he thinks will help the team. For further evidence, revisit his trades he made leading up to last season’s trade deadline. The same man who turned over three-fourths of his roster just hired a new coach from another team’s staff in the middle of a season.

Like Rosas’ other moves, we’ll have to wait to see how this decision plays out. You can look at some of Rosas’ moves and debate whether they worked out. That’s perfectly fair. Much like a languishing Timberwolves team least season, we knew Saunders wasn’t the answer. There was no sense in waiting any longer to make a change if it meant time to turn the season around (as best as possible).

Will Finch be the answer? That’s hard to say, especially if he wants to be judged on wins and losses early on. More than anything, this latest wave of Timberwolves news simply reminded us that Gersson Rosas will do whatever it takes to improve the team, no matter how bad the external optics are.

Editor’s Note: this story has been updated to include a recent statement from the National Basketball Coaches Association: