THE NEW HEAD COACH of the Wolves is running on fumes. It’s been a whirlwind past 48 hours for Chris Finch after being tabbed by President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas as the next head coach in a bold and rare midseason move. On a Zoom call following morning shootaround in Milwaukee, Finch says he’s slept about 3 or 4 hours the night before.
When Ryan Saunders was fired late Sunday night after another loss in New York, news that Finch was being plucked away from Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors’ coaching staff broke quickly after. A swift, almost dizzying introduction followed. There are no offseason workouts, nor training camp or preseason games, to implement his system or familiarize himself with the roster. Instead, a back-to-back awaits the league’s worst team.
Unsurprisingly, the question of system and style comes up. How fast can Finch put his stamp on a team that ranks 27th in offense and 23rd in defense with a net rating of -7.2 (only Cleveland is worse -8.6)? Installing different concepts and schemes on the fly with practice time in short supply this season is a complicated, unfavorable way to jump into the head coaching fire, but Finch doesn’t seem as concerned with implementation at this early juncture.
“Well, I think we’re not looking to install a lot of things,” he says. “In fact, I think we’re probably looking to uninstall more than install just to kind of streamline it, as much for my benefit as it is for them. We may put in one thing for every three or four that we take out. Like I said, less is more. I’ve had a lot of experience in the D-League; national teams are very similar. You get a very short amount of time, so the less is more approach is fine. Kind of create structure and get out of the way—these guys are incredibly talented and my job is to not be in the way of that.”
If uninstalling the Saunders system takes precedence over establishing his scheme in the short-term, it begs the question: What should Finch uninstall and what changes can he legitimately make to foster some discernible progress before another disappointing season in Minnesota comes to a close?
Before diving into that question, let’s briefly discuss the hand he’s been dealt. The Wolves have 1) a weak supporting cast next to Karl-Anthony Towns with 2) few two-way players and 3) rely on the youngest team in the league to 4) operate a system that exposes their glaring weaknesses on a nightly basis. They crave an uptempo small-ball style that emphasizes pace and space with smart, analytically driven shots but lack the firepower to consistently execute that vision. They can run out lineups that score well and can execute the offensive system Rosas desires but those same units can’t consistently get stops. Vice versa with the more defensive-oriented lineup combinations.
So, where does Finch begin?
Running everything through KAT
After news broke that Finch would be signing a multi-year contract to become the next head coach, he spoke with Towns about being the focal point of an offense in need of a creative jolt. “We talked about how I think we can get him back to being the center point of this team. You don’t often get that type of skill package in this league. When you have it and the way the game has trended in the modern game with the spacing and the skill and the speed, he should be at the center of everything.”
That’s exactly what happened in the first game under Finch. The Wolves’ superstar big man had 26 points, eight rebounds, and a career-high 11 assists. Everything was running through KAT in halfcourt sets. A consistent luring of the help defender into his space allowed for a simple survey of the floor in search of the open man. Given his new coach's previous work in Denver with passing extraordinaire Nikola Jokic, as well as experiences with other elite bigs across the league throughout his career as an assistant coach, it was no coincidence that Towns put on a passing clinic as the heavily featured primary initiator.
Ricky Rubio runs a P&R with Karl-Anthony Towns, taking advantage of the Bucks’ drop-scheme.— Timberwolves Talk (@threesley) February 24, 2021
Next, RR hits KAT at the top of the key, who immediately transitions into a ball-handler in a P&R with Malik Beasley, forcing a switch.
Then, KAT kicks it out for the open MB 3.
Leveraging the wide array of skills of an All-Star big man is nothing new for Finch. His résumé pops.
“I’ve been lucky to have some of the best bigs in the league, from Anthony [Davis] to DeMarcus [Cousins] to Jokic to Zion [Williamson] as a rookie. Julius Randle was with us. We’ve had a lot of skilled bigs and I think the synergy in what we did with them we can do with KAT. It feels like a natural fit to me.”
During his media session the day after his first game, Finch made a point to mention that Karl’s passing led to nine threes. He also was quick to note that while back-to-the-basket play is a little bit of a dying breed, it’s certainly not dead. Towns can and will feast in post-up situations on his watch. Fouls and free throws are analytically friendly, he reminded everyone. Two games into his coaching tenure and it's abundantly clear that those stretches of play that didn’t include a touch for Towns are a thing of the past.
Whether it’s through the low block or the mid-post, early elbow feeds to initiate the action, pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, or early transition offense, Finch’s system is set to revolve around Towns like never before. Two other All-Star centers may provide a template for his new usage. Jokic averages 102.8 touches per game to lead the league with Domantas Sabonis right there on his hip at 100.9. With the small two-game sample size, Towns is receiving nearly the same amount of touches per game (67.4) as he did under Saunders. The only real difference seems to be that his paint touches are moving to elbow touches, according to the tiny sample on NBA.com’s tracking stats. The 6.0 elbow touches per game under Finch would put him sixth in that category. There’s plenty of room in between that Finch’s offense can help make up if his slow system installation ultimately craves the same type of usage as Jokic and Sabonis. For instance, Towns ranks 45th in touches at the moment but we should see that increase as the season progresses. (He averaged 69.5 during the 2019-20 season.)
Karl-Anthony Towns can obliterate defenses when they double him, creating open 3s for the Wolves’ shooters.— Timberwolves Talk (@threesley) February 26, 2021
KAT is an awesome passer, and his scoring gravity opens up passing lanes like these.
KAT + shooting is a recipe for success, the Wolves just need the right ingredients. pic.twitter.com/PoXLfxPqh8
Would love to see Minnesota run something like this with Towns and cutters/shooters now that Finch is in charge. Ran this simple but versatile + effective action a lot in his first year with Denver. Multiple avenues to points and amplifies good passing bigs: pic.twitter.com/1wmFxc9qCz— Jake Paynting (@jakepaynting) February 24, 2021
Turn up the PACE and fix the transition defense
Pace is something Finch is focused on early in his head coaching tenure. It’s been brought up various times in recent media availabilities as the players are adjusting to an even faster approach. “We would like to increase our pace,” says Finch. “One thing that helps teams—particularly young teams—is continuing to run late in the game. Give us a cheap basket with a couple of minutes left on the clock, we’re not afraid of that.”
Currently ranked 8th at 101.39 possessions per game, it’s not as if the Wolves were playing slow before his arrival but in the first two games they’ve upped that number to 103.84, which would put them second only behind the Washington Wizards (104.14) this season.
“We don’t want to confuse playing with pace with shooting quickly—it’s not the same thing,” says Finch. “We want to play with pace and make quicker decisions and we don’t care if the shot comes with four seconds on the shot clock. If it’s a good one and it’s open right away we will take that, too.”
Jarred Vanderbilt was asked about the uptick in pace and the challenges of maintaining it throughout an entire game during his postgame interview in Chicago. “The last couple games I feel like we’ve increased our pace offensively,” said Vanderbilt. “I wouldn’t say we got to get in shape but we just got to get used to playing at that speed.”
Playing faster could help the Wolves improve their transition offense, an area they have plenty of room to grow as they rank in the 41st percentile at 16.9 points per game in transition. On the flip side, fixing the transition defense is an absolute must. They’re allowing 22.6 points per game in transition, the second-most behind Houston, giving up 1.20 points per possession. That puts them in the lowly 13th percentile of transition defense.
“Defensive transition starts with shot selection,” Finch says, direct and straight to the point. While true, the Wolves also routinely get beat down the court regardless of the shot attempt. “I know we need to do a better job of sprinting back in our first three steps, especially,” Saunders said back in January. “We have to be back because it’s on the scouting report now.”
Downhill Iso-Ant and free throw rate
One of the most common criticisms of Anthony Edwards during the pre-draft process was his questionable shot selection at Georgia. While the No. 1 pick has shown flashes of greatness at age 19—including an electrifying dunk of the year over Yuta Watanabe (RIP) and memorable 28 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assist, and 3 stock game as the lead ballhandler against LeBron and the Lakers at Target Center—that criticism remains a valid concern 33 games through his rookie season.
There’s plenty of fat to cut out of Ant-Man’s shot diet. A lackluster in-between game is damaging his shooting efficiency and Finch must work diligently to uninstall the bad shots he was getting away with under Saunders’ supervision. 28.9% of Edward’s shots (14.2 field goal attempts per game) are from the zones the Wolves actively try to avoid—3-feet to 3P but not a three—and do a pretty good job of doing so unless wide-open or instigated by the shot clock. The reality is that Ant hasn’t shown touch in the midrange thus far and his floater game would make Tony Parker cringe. Repurposing these attempts is crucial.
A month ago, Edwards spoke about how he wasn’t getting calls when attacking the rim and specifically how much easier it would be to get into rhythm if he were drawing fouls and generating free throws. “I just told him to dunk everything,” Saunders said at the time. That proved to be perfect advice given how thirsty Ant has looked ever since, eager to destroy any defender bold enough to challenge him above the rim. Now, his new head coach has some additional advice: fewer jumpers, more drives.
“With his downhill ability, I would like to see 2⁄3 drive and 1⁄3 jumper out of him,” says Finch. “He’s starting to kind of figure it out a little bit. The last play [in Chicago on Wednesday night] where he went downhill and created the contact at the rim, and put pressure on the official to make the call, he got the call. We need more of that. He has that ability.”
This Anthony Edwards dunk. Wow pic.twitter.com/Yx7Vl9Dlvk— Bestsportshighlights (@BSHighlights) January 26, 2021
Finch might be right in wanting an increase in drives, asking Edwards to focus more of his effort on putting pressure on the rim, but the results haven’t been great. To date, Edwards is averaging 8.5 drives per game—shooting 37.7% on 4.7 FGA on them—and producing 1.5 free throw attempts (83.3%) on those drives (4.8 ppg). He’s been prone to getting tunnel vision as evident by the fact he only passes 1⁄4 of the time (25.4%) on his drives. Establishing a drive-and-kick game will be critical in his development. The positive spin, of course, is that Edwards can already get to the hoop at will and perhaps a legit surge in attacking the basket will begin to boost his free throw rate, which is currently .164 on 2.9 attempts per 36 minutes. Ant shoots 80.5% from the stripe so getting there more often should be an immediate goal.
Another way to unlock the next level of Ant-Man is putting him in more isolation situations, where he’s shown great promise, albeit on only 46 possessions. His 1.20 PPP (points per possession) put him in the 89th percentile in the isolation play-type, via Synergy on NBA.com. With Malik Beasley serving a 12-game suspension and D’Angelo Russell sidelined as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery, exploring Iso-Ant should be a priority.
All of this leads us smoothly into a significant issue with the offense, but a clear opportunity for improvement that Finch can stress moving forward. The Wolves are 29th in free throw attempt rate at .221 (FTr = free throws per field goal attempt) and desperately need to find a way to get to the line for more freebies. Opponents are posting an FTr of 0.277 against them. No team makes fewer free throws per game (14.8) than the Wolves.
Anthony Edwards pour le dunk ! pic.twitter.com/SABzFS4RsO— First Team (@FirstTeam101) January 6, 2021
Defensive rebounding + shoring up the paint
The downside of playing small-ball is simple: you’re small. Rocket science, no doubt.
Under Rosas’ leadership, the Wolves have experienced a similar issue his former team in Houston faced with the same approach. They currently rank dead last in defensive rebounding percentage, collecting only 70.6% of available defensive boards. Nobody in the Association gets beat up worse by opponents on the offensive glass than the Wolves do, leading to second-chance points and fewer transition opportunities. Not being able to effectively box out plays into these numbers, as they rank 28th in box-outs per game at 8.5.
Given the roster construction and commitment to playing this style, Finch will likely encounter the same issues Saunders did in the rebounding department. That is unless he has a schematic change in mind that can help or decides to make a real commitment to Jarred Vanderbilt as the full-time forward next to Towns and feeds him starter minutes in pursuit of minimizing one of the most obvious pain points. He could uninstall any lineup previously deployed with a wing at the 4—sticking primarily to Vando and Jaden McDaniels, with Juancho Hernangomez on call if necessary.
If the rebounding failures aren’t enough to cause concern, the accompanying inability to keep opponents from scoring with ease in the paint should be. They rank 29th in opponent points in the paint allowed. It didn’t take long for Finch to identify this problem either. “We really have to start concentrating on shoring up our paint,” he said after starting 0-2.
“Last night’s game, and then the first half of tonight’s game, we really kind of let him drive to the paint too easily. We’re trying to influence certain things but we have to take away the paint right now and shore up our defense. I really liked in the second half how we got into the ball better and sent it into the direction we wanted to send it. We made life harder and then when we got beat we were a little late in some of our rotations but again these are things I think we’re going to have to be a little more aggressive with going and trying to cut off these driving angles right now.”
Lineups in clutch situations
This brings us to one of the most frustrating aspects of the season and ultimately a final uninstallation that comes to mind, among many others left out. Finch needs to be flexible with fourth-quarter lineups and especially closing lineups when those clutch situations eventually come along. Saunders was too random when the fourth quarter rolled around, only to become inflexible once the game started cracking at the seams.
When it comes to closing games, Finch should be more malleable. If Jordan McLaughlin is outplaying Ricky Rubio, he should close it out. If Rubio is vibing with a certain group and D’Lo is ice-cold from the field, they shouldn’t be forced to co-exist so everyone can be happy. If Anthony Edwards is exhibiting terrible shot selection and poor decision-making, he shouldn’t be gifted closing minutes in the name of valuable reps. He should deserve them if any reasonable growth is going to take place.
Tom Thibodeau’s most agreeable mantra is “the game tells you what to do.” Saunders used to say that same line but failed to practice it in real-time. If Finch can succeed where Saunders failed, making the right crunch time calls is imperative.
“It’s all a learning curve for me right now with what these guys are able to do,” says Finch. “I have some working knowledge of the roster, the skill sets that exist on the roster, but every day is going to be a huge learning curve for us. By kind of freeing things up a little bit hopefully it shows me what they are capable of in different situations. Then we kind of shape it from there.”
It’s no secret the Wolves have spent another disheartening season flushing wins down the drain when they’ve been in an excellent position to walk away victorious—sometimes against all odds. Installing Finch’s closing philosophy could help turn that around. “Some of their struggles are related to the fact that their go-to guys haven’t been on the floor,” he says, referencing the absences of Towns and Russell throughout the season.
“In general, my philosophy is if you don’t have a high-level closer, the closer is the open man. We got to create some movement. Stay in the flow, find the rhythm of the shot, and if it happens to be a Malik Beasley corner three, fine. If it’s a Jarred Vanderbilt role or dunk or finish, fine. I mean, at that point, the open man is way more valuable than trying to force up something in a contested situation.”
Finding the open man and getting the best shot possible is hardly disagreeable but then again forgive the dreamer who also envisions a creative play design for the team’s phenomenal scoring weapon. It’s up to Finch to develop a set of clever, imaginative sets that free up clean looks for Towns when everything is on the line.
“We didn’t feel like we were developing the things that we needed to do—especially in late-game situations—that are important for these young guys and our top guys to develop moving forward,” Rosas said at Finch’s introductory press conference.
The clock doesn’t just tick for coaches and players. Eventually, it’s going to be winning time for Rosas, too.