At some point, Minnesota Timberwolves President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas needed to usher his front office contingent and the entire on-court squad down the fire escape and flee from the inferno that was raging on throughout Ryan Saunders’ tenure as head coach. Of course, Rosas himself was responsible for some of the misplaced kindling, maybe even the sparked match as well, but Rosas was always going to sacrifice his head coach first before voluntarily putting himself on the chopping block.
Now, the task of fighting this fire is placed on the shoulders of new sideline figurehead Chris Finch. It’s unjust to judge Finch completely on four games in his first week as a head coach, especially with his D’Angelo Russell recovering from knee surgery and Malik Beasley sidelined due to suspension, but the 51-year-old has accrued a multi-year sample size during his previous stops in the NBA. In particular, his most recent roles as an offensive coordinator and assistant with the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans and Toronto Raptors.
For us living in the cold, desolate wasteland that is Timberwolves fandom, it’s hard to glean exactly what Finch’s influence was during his formative coaching years. So, before this Film Room session, I picked the brains of some of the best and brightest minds from around Finch’s prior organizations to really decipher what kind of fingerprints Minnesota’s new lead man has left.
With All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns playing the pillar in Finch’s new role, the obvious place to start is in Denver, where Finch helped mold the dime-throwing, shot-making cyborg that we now know as Nikola Jokic. Finch spent just one season with Jokic (2016-17), but he helped shape an offense around the Serbian giant. In that lone campaign Jokic increased his points per game from 10 to 16.7, his field goal percentage from 51.2 to 57.8 and his assists per night from 2.4 to 4.9. Bolstered by Jokic’s rise to prominence, Denver’s offense soared. They increased their offensive rating from 17th the season prior to 4th in 16-17 and, after that season’s All-Star Break, they were the best offense in the league.
To put it simply, Finch accompanied Nuggets Head Coach Mike Malone to create a monster. But how did he do that? Well, here’s Denver Stiffs’ Site Manager Ryan Blackburn on what changed when Finch arrived.
“The biggest reason for that change was Chris Finch, not Michael Malone. Finch prioritized the teaching of offensive principles and allowing players to read and react out of those principles rather than a rigid system filled with set plays. Denver occasionally ran those, but most of the time, they would run pick and rolls with a spaced floor (or Faried in the dunker spot), DHOs with Harris, Gallo, and Chandler (along with the two PGs) and institute a back cutting mentality.
Finch wanted a lot of back cuts to keep opponents guessing, and it worked. Jokic was the center of it all and he did a great job of making decisions in the middle, making the extra pass, or converting on shot shots around the paint when they had to go back to pick and roll. It was the best offense the Nuggets ever had, and it was Finch who instilled those principles.”
Running an ever-moving offense around a big man who can orchestrate it all with his passing chops is a Finch staple. As Ryan said, their plays were simple, and often more just structured reads than actual plays on a whiteboard, but they were incredibly effective thanks to the inverted offense they ran through Jokic.
Take this for a perfect example of what a simplified read-and-react offense can do when it initiates plays from the right area and runs enough action to amplify its star’s best qualities. Immediately after setting a screen for a curling Gary Harris, Jokic receives the ball at the elbow, now it’s all about timing and touch to lob the ball to Harris after he corners around another pindown and barrels toward the rim unopposed. Simple. Effective.
With very limited time for Finch to etch any offensive philosophies or play-calling into his new team’s collective mind, we haven’t got to see his full array of offensive wonders, but we been drip-fed snippets of what Towns can do when he is allowed the entire reins of a Finch offense.
According to NBA.com, Towns has touched the ball at the elbow (the area at or around either corner of the free throw line) an average of 3.1 times per game this season, a slight drop off from the 3.3 touches he got there last season. In his short three-game stretch under the offensive stylings of Finch, that number has ballooned to 5.3 elbow touches a night. And, in the admittedly tiny sample size, Towns is throwing out 5.5 assists per game under Finch, which, if it could hold, would blow his career-high mark of 4.4 that he averaged last season out of the water.
When Towns is operating as a face-up player from the elbow extended region of the court, he is able to see over defenders and lead cutters into the open areas behind the defense and under the rim. Here, Jaylen Nowell reverses the dribble hand-off and, as Towns’ shot-making gravity draws his man in to pressure the ball, Nowell is left alone to slip to the front of the rim and receive an on-point pass from his big man. Again, simple, but effective.
Perhaps the most elementary way to leverage Towns and Jokic’s passing ability is to run elbow give-and-go sets with athletic drivers partnering the big fellas. Jokic quickly found a rhythm alongside Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler with this, and Towns is starting to do the same with Josh Okogie and Anthony Edwards. Not only does a give-and-go with Okogie or Edwards allow Towns to flourish as a passer, but it helps the wing pairing impact the game positively on the offensive end without having to overstretch themselves as shooters.
The next step in Finch’s elbow-centric process is adding more intricacies to the off-ball movement and starting to use the diving wing as a decoy that then unlocks an even more open look at the rim. Here, it’s Murray playing off Jokic. The defender doesn’t overplay Murray, which essentially takes away the first give-and-go option. So, instead of cutting fruitlessly, Murray back screen’s Mason Plumlee’s man and helps Plumlee curl from the dunker’s spot along the baseline to the front of the rim unopposed, giving Jokic an easy read to make. It’s easy to envision this unfurling with a slicing Wolves wing and someone like Jarred Vanderbilt in Plumlee’s shoes.
The constant moving without the ball around an offensive fulcrum also facilitates effective offense when that initiator is in post-up situations. By moving players toward the rim, it not only creates the chance for easy buckets close to the rim if defenders are ball-watching, but, if the opposition is alert and shadow their man through the paint, it makes for open 3-point shooters that KAT can sling passes toward, like he does here against the Bucks.
And again here, as Vanderbilt’s cut sucks in Rui Hachimura and forces the defensive shell into rotation, leaving Okogie wide open to receive and cash in on a delightful one-armed bullet from Towns.
Although Finch and Head Coach Alvin Gentry had a generational big man in Davis and another of the league’s best bigs at the time in Cousins, the predominant feature of the Pelicans’ offense was the pace at which they played. Here is Bourbon Street Shots’ Lead Writer Shamit Dua on what that pace did for New Orleans’ offense.
“Both Gentry and Finch loved to play at a breakneck pace and operated under the premise that shots in the first eight seconds of the shot clock tend to be the most efficient. They didn’t hesitate to push off made baskets and always had defenses on tilt, frequently forcing cross matches due to the speed of play. They had many clever actions designed to get either a good look at the rim or an open three early in the clock and gave all players the freedom to take advantage of this.
This style of play requires a good bit of offensive improvisation and on bad nights can lead to a lot of turnovers. However, when it’s clicking, it’s some of the most entertaining basketball to watch.”
The most intriguing part about Shamit’s transition analysis is denoting the freedom in which Finch’s gameplan gives his players to make plays (and mistakes) on the break. That doesn’t just mean Lonzo Ball or Ricky Rubio, it means anyone who can willingly start a break and bend broken defenses to their will. This allows team’s coached by Finch to play at that high velocity all of the time, without having to worry about getting the orange to a traditional ball-handler before starting the break.
In the little we’ve seen from the Minnesota iteration of Finch’s offense, Jarred Vanderbilt has taken the newfangled liberation by the horns. The 21-year-old has always had some untapped potential as someone who can lead a break bubbling underneath the surface of his rough-and-tumble game, but he has rarely been able to flash it in the way he has over the past three outings.
In both of the plays below, Vanderbilt was empowered to bring the ball up in a broken floor situation, leading to open looks at long-range jumpers for his teammates on both occasions. It’s still very unlikely Vanderbilt will ever get to a stage where he does this more than two or three times a night, but it’s clear that Finch’s fingerprints are all over this push-the-pace-and-get-early-triples mentality.
New Orleans thrived offensively from the moment Finch combined his mind with the similarly offensively-geared mind of Gentry. In Finch’s first season in The Big Easy, he helped them move from 26th to 12th in offensive rating and from 8th to 1st in pace of play. In the following two seasons before Finch left to Toronto, New Orleans stayed in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency and in the top five leaguewide pace-wise. In Minnesota, Finch will be hoping to achieve similar jumps. The Wolves do already rank 5th in pace this season, but they are dwelling at 27th in offensive rating, per NBA.com.
One way to continue pushing the ball but also connect it with offensive efficiency is to get into sets immediately. As Shamit noted, Finch and Gentry were constantly pushing to get the Pelicans into their offense within the first eight seconds of the shot clock, and running early action to facilitate that mindset. As was the case with a lot of the things Finch did with Jokic in Denver, it doesn’t have to be mind-blowingly intricate to be potent.
Early pick-and-rolls were a key part of New Orleans’ success in Finch’s tenure, especially with a slick-passing Lonzo Ball. Here, Ball pushes the pace and forces Derrick Favors to roll quickly out of the rejected drag screen. Even without making real contact on the screen, the insistence to get into the PnR early makes it incredibly tough for the defense to rotate in time and stop the rumbling big man.
Early pick-and-roll sets can work even without a big man as the screener, especially when you can stretch the floor around the action’s nucleus. These sets specifically work to inject offensive value into a non-shooting wing or guard. Former Pelican Frank Jackson is a career 31.9 percent shooter from deep and struggled mightily to garner consistent minutes in New Orleans’ rotation. But, when he did play, Finch and Gentry often deployed him as a screening option to get him going toward the rim and prevent teams from daring him to shoot.
In Malik Beasley’s suspension-induced absence, Finch went to Okogie as the starting shooting guard, despite the 21-year-old having a career-worst season from virtually every aspect, namely his ghoulish 21.8 percent clip from behind the 3-point arc. Instead of going the Saunders route by trying to force the square peg that is Okogie’s shooting woes into the round hole that is a 3-point-heavy offense, Finch employed the same early pick-and-roll tactic, using Okogie to set and slip in the same way that Jackson did in the previous clip. Not only does this optimize Okogie offensively, but it helps Ricky Rubio tap into the quickfire playmaking aspect of his game that has so often been missing this season.
Here is the two plays side-by-side and broken down a little more visually:
Just like every coach in the Association, Finch just wants his team to get good shots. But, unlike some, he wants them to come through his best players’ hands and he wants them to come as quick as possible to prevent the defense from getting set up and being able to clamp down. Now, this might run into some problems in the playoffs when games inevitably slow down, but that seems a long way off for the Wolves. Let’s just cross that bridge when we get to it, shall we?
Finch’s system works in turning around subpar offenses. It has been proven time and time again. Even in his stops with Houston and Toronto that we didn’t dive deeper into, he has had nothing but success. This Timberwolves team has the talent, but right now it’s either missing or mismatched. With that said, if they can adopt and then thrive in a proven system like Finch’s, we could at least get back to fun and productive offense sooner rather than later.