An arduous, though ultimately successful 2022 Timberwolves season came to an end last Friday night. It was an abrupt, disappointing finish to an otherwise captivating year of growth and progress. Now comes the period of reflection for some, and for others a brand new season of spicy takes. It’s the portion of the offseason where nobody can really do anything except contemplate what all happened and where to go from here, with a whole lot of waiting in between.
What better way to start those conversations than looking at what Chris Finch finished the season saying. There’s plenty to unpack from his last two media availabilities and if he’s proved anything in his time leading the pack in Minnesota, it’s that when Finchy talks, we should all listen closely and carefully. He’s nothing if not consistent, and that’s exactly the way he has jokingly described his teams’ familiar weaknesses in losses, like those lingering defensive rebounding woes.
Finch clearly recognizes the issues holding them back, and he tells it like it is, as closely as he can tell like it is, without disrupting the politics involved in being a head coach of a professional sports team. He sprinkles criticism with a dash of levity that always helps the message go down smoother. Finch knows damn well what’s right and wrong with this team, making their path forward easier to discuss and ultimately realize.
He’s already spoken it.
Baked in the DNA
One of the more revealing parts of the first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies was how bad the Wolves' 4th quarter and crunch-time offense could be. It wasn’t ready to shine, often devolving into the type of ISO hero-ball that critics of Tom Thibodeau loathed during his time in Minnesota; the movement and flow of Finch’s system stopped. No playoff team had a worse offensive rating in the 4th quarter than the Wolves did at 91.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, and the defense fell apart as a result of an offense that completely stalled out. Their 132.9 defensive rating (last among playoff teams in fourth quarters, once again) gave them an epically bad -41.6 net rating in 72 fourth-quarter minutes. And that was the series. One team was ready for closing time, and the other team was the Wolves.
“This just provides us with the foundation to keep moving forward,” Finch said after the Game 6 loss to Memphis that eliminated the Wolves. “We know what this experience can do for us headed into the offseason. What we have to do better. Our habits with our roster. Everything. This is a really, really good team down the hallway. They don’t beat themselves. We don’t have that in us yet. But that’s OK, in the sense that we’re still learning, and playing in these high-leverage situations is huge for us. I thought composure-wise, again, we showed it in our shot selection in the fourth and it’s baked in our DNA right now and we know we have to learn from this. We’re not all just going to be able to save the day. But moving forward we’ll learn and we’ll have hopefully grown from it.”
The Wolves were stuck in a loop, following the same patterns in their playoff losses. Finch described the root of the issue pretty clearly—as he always seems to do—that their shot selection was bad, and how that sort of shot diet isn’t going to produce healthy results. That was in their DNA, even if wasn’t such a massive issue in the regular season. When Brandon Clarke was crushing them on the offensive glass (3.8 offensive boards per game in 29.4 minutes) and finishing like a hall-of-fame forward with 16.5 points per game on 67.9 FG%, crushing them with his outrageously quick second jump, that was also in the Wolves DNA. Their defensive rebounding problem (28th in the league at 70.6 DREB%) has been well documented over the past few years of small-ball.
“We’re nothing if not consistent,” Finch said. “Every single game we’ve lost to them this season has been the same, not just this series. Sometimes you are who you are. We had a lineup out there that was working, but it was small, and we just get kind of beat up a little bit. There are not a lot of things that we could’ve done to change that with guys who are out there playing well. We knew it was a bit of a gamble, but the beginning of the fourth with the turnover and the three was very similar to the other day when we blew a coverage, they missed a dunk, got an offensive rebound, and a three. It’s just deflating plays ... a team that doesn’t beat themselves feasts on those.”
Some games will stay with you forever, as Finch candidly assessed. “Game 3 is one of those games for me and for our guys, I’m sure. We’ve talked about that enough. We’ve owned that. And every loss we’ve had a chance. But you are what you repeatedly do.”
Blowing those games to Memphis will stick with the Wolves, and the fans, for many moons given how competitive they were against a two-seed and eventually the nature of the collapses where it felt like victory was snatched. Outplaying a team for large chunks of a series without being able to close when the game inevitability tightens up during winning time leaves such a bitter taste, a sourness that will persist until the next playoff round.
“If we’re not able to close a game, these high-leverage games, then we need to work on that and we need to be better at that,” said Finch. “In some ways, it’s not a lot different than in a regular-season when you have a young team or a middle-of-the-table team that’s struggling, that’s beating a top-of-the-table team, and then can’t close the game. It’s just another version of that but at a higher level.”
When asked whether they needed to have five shooters on the floor, Finch gave an answer that might not seem terribly illuminating but suggests that playing with more two big combo’s next season may be in the cards
“Obviously, if you make shots at a really high level, you’re going to have a great offense,” he began. “But I think Memphis is a great case study. They play with two bigs. They don’t have a ton of reliable shooting. They have some really good shooters, but they live in transition, they live on the offensive glass, and they live at your rim. And those are the things that really drive efficient offense. If you can do all of that with great shooting, then obviously you’re building towards something special.”
Minnesota isn’t trying to be Memphis in future seasons, but an outcome of this series may be a chess move by the Wolves, at the recommendation and desire of Finch, to acquire a bouncy and bruising Clarke type four-man to unleash in this sort of matchup when it’s clear they need another chess piece to bail them out of a bad spot. Their lack of size and rebounding off the bench can’t remain an issue, as Finch alluded to throughout his final two media availabilities.
You are what you repeatedly do.
Those words rang loudly—so much louder than he delivered them.
Experience and Composure
Plenty of the Wolves' issues in the 2022 playoffs simply boil down to a lack of experience in that kind of environment. The outcome was also personnel-driven, too, and the Grizzlies are a tough and talented team with a deep bench for Taylor Jenkins to work with; Jaren Jackson Jr. was effectively taken out of the series and he’s an outstanding shot-blocking stretch big. Both buildings were rocking and this was the best series of the first round, but Memphis was more experienced and a whole lot more composed when crunch time came around.
Finch was asked many questions by the local media about the Wolves’ youth, the lack of composure in those maddening fourth quarters, how much this playoff experience can help, and what’s going to come moving forward. Time to share some of his quotes with the questions paraphrased, and presented without commentary.
You be the judge:
A 21-and 20-year-old in Jaden [McDaniel’s] and Anthony [Edwards] played well ... is there a lot of hope for what’s coming?
“No doubt. I mean, we’re excited about our team. We’re excited about our young core and for those guys to be in their second season in the playoffs and be able to experience this and whet their appetite for what these games mean and how you have to play in them and how you need to prepare for them. I think that’s invaluable for us.”
Would you prefer fewer minutes at the 4? Can that be natural for him?
“Offensively, for sure. It all comes down to you knowing who you’re able to guard in this league. He’s probably better at guarding 1-3 and some fours. But having said that, he did a great job on Julius Randle this season, who’s one of the most physical offensive players in our league. He had him kind of boxed up at times. What we love about him is his competitiveness. So he might run out of “sinew” at times but he’s got that kind of anger and determination that we love. Yeah, I go back and forth whether he’s a 3 or whether he’s a 4. In the modern game, I don’t know what is Jaylen Brown? What are these guys? Their ability to guard multiple positions is really the key to their success.
Playoff experience now makes the 4th quarter problem obvious?
“The great thing about all of this is that it’s all about exposure. Everybody gets exposed at the highest level for their weaknesses, their flaws, the things where they have to learn and grow, myself included. What we need to do, how we need to construct our team. The best path for us still is our internal growth, which is the exciting part with Jaden and Ant and the performance that they can leave the season on tonight.”
Does composure come with experience or need to be added?
“I think you would hope it comes with time and experience and being in these situations again and again. That’s where we absolutely have to get better. But that’s also within the individual himself. They’ve got to find it within themselves. That’s maturity. We have a lot of young guys and if you look through the roster, they probably haven’t played in a lot of meaningful basketball games even in their college careers. This is the most fun they’ve probably had playing basketball. It ends not the way we want it to, but I’m very, very proud of them.”
It was a historic playoff run for [Anthony Edwards] given his age and production. KAT said he did a lot of that without thinking and just playing. How can Ant improve with thinking/reading the game in the half-court, and what about that excites you most?
“I think it’s almost exactly the conversation we just had with Ant, about how huge this summer was, being able to learn from what he just went through and how he can process those different looks. Learning how to be a closer. It’s not always about trying to make the big play, it’s way more about making the right play at the right time. What I’m excited about Ant’s summer is trying to help him round out his game. He’s really really good at a few things right now and just needs a plan, a little bit better plan of how to get there. He’s a great rim attacker, his finishing needs to be a little better. But even understanding how to attack the rim, when and where, and how he’s leaving money on the table, be it in transition or turning corners or changing speeds, or using different types of finishing. Those are all things that I think will help him grow leaps and bounds and be better at what he’s already good at.
I don’t think it’s a thing with Ant where we want him to go away and add a bunch of stuff to his game right now. I think we need him to round out some of the things he’s good at. The shooting coming into this season, we were unsure of how real it was. It’s real. He’s going to be a good shooter in this league. His catch-and-shoot numbers are very high. His dribble jumper numbers are actually surprisingly higher than what you might think. He still takes hard ones. It’s a luxury to be able to create your own shot and get a pretty good look, as part of being a closer or being a guy like him, it’s a benefit for us. But understanding when to use that and when to kind of put the defensive position where they gotta put two on you. So, all things that he is excited to learn and process, too.”
On channeling frustration in a positive way this summer:
“I think there are a lot of positives. I hope we are a bit angry and a bit disappointed. I hope that fuels us. That alone should be a positive thing. That’s what being a competitor is all about. We can go into the summer and we know what does Ant need to do to close games? What does that look like? What does KAT need to do to close games? We talked about defensive versatility, and how we develop those things. You heard me say this before: the last 40 games I was able to spend with this team last year were actually the genesis of this season because we were able to take what we learned and put it into play after a summer of strategizing and thinking and coming up with what our philosophy was going to look like. It’s no different right now. What is it that we need to do better? If you want to repeat in the Western Conference, which is going to be tougher, you’ve got to play at a more consistently high level than we did at times this year. We learned that through these types of environments.”
Exit meetings with the players, what’s the vibe?
“We talked about how this has to be just a foundation. We can’t expect that when we get back together in September that we’re just going to pick up where we left off because that’s not how it works at all. Most importantly, we know what we’ve learned about ourselves and what we need to do to be better. And how those habits have to be ingrained early and carried out every single night so they stand up when you need them most. I think that’s something that now resonates with the players when you’re harping on it on a daily basis, but they haven’t yet really paid the price for it. Those are just lessons that you learn. Do not touch that, it’s hot-type stuff. And guys were in a good mood. I think there was a lot of, you know what I really found interesting is nobody had any plans. Nobody had given much thought about what they were going to do now, which means they were still completely locked in and thought they were going to win, though we would be moving on to a Game 7 and beyond. So, give them a couple of weeks to decompress from all that and we’ll circle back around for what it takes for them to be better individually to help us better collectively.”
How does the vibe/expectation change going into next season?
“It goes back to the point about preparing in the right way. That starts in the summer when we do start to go back to work individually. I think guys now have a feeling that having played in the playoffs, the excitement, the fans. The competition. All that stuff has whet their appetite to the point where they want more of it. But to your point, it’s not going to just happen. We’re going to have expectations. But we always expected to be in the playoffs all season long. We talked about it a lot in film and in practice and what it would take to be there. Those were internal expectations. The external ones are ones that can oftentimes be more of an anchor. But then again you have to define yourself by what you expect from yourself rather than what others do. But the Western Conference will be tougher. The Clippers will be healthy. Who knows what the Lakers are going to do. Denver should be healthier. So there are definitely teams that’ll be rising up. There are also those teams that end up kind of puking on themselves and we just can’t be one of them.”
Three Question Marks
There’s no better place to start than the future of D’Angelo Russell in Minnesota. He’ll be in the final season of his contract in 2022-23, making $31 million at age 26, and looking for an extension. Rumors of the Wolves' potential desire to shop him have quickly swirled in the aftermath of their first-round loss. Do they have a D’Lo conundrum on their hands this summer? The biggest offseason question doesn’t have an easy answer, as the Star Tribune’s Digital Sports Senior Writer Michael Rand recently wrote.
Finch was asked during his season-ending presser about getting the right combinations with the big three of Towns, Edwards, and Russell. He gave an expansive answer:
“We probably never ultimately maximized those three guys,” said Finch. “I thought last year at the end of the season we did a better job of it. This year for whatever reasons, added another starter, Patrick as a starter, Vando, the starting lineup was a little bit different too. Patrick’s play through the season kind of changed a little bit in different ways. Early on, he was very good off the ball, and he kind of moved toward having the ball and did a really good job there too I thought when he had the opportunity. So, I think all those little dynamics add up, and it really was a puzzle to try to find the right lineup combinations and with our roster sometimes, you’ve got to be mindful of defensive matchups. We have some guys that lean more toward being one-way players than two-way players, and that creates a construct of how we’re going to be able to negotiate this. I thought we did see some emerging chemistry between KAT and Ant in particular. I think, to be fair, we probably could’ve seen a little bit more chemistry between D-Lo and KAT at times. But we also made a conscious decision to play D-Lo more with the second unit, where we could increase his usage so that meant he would play. I think he played the most minutes without KAT and Ant. Without those three guys, he played the most by himself. That was one of our goals, too. When you’re separating them like that, you’re not obviously going to be able to maximize all three together.”
The NBA playoffs are where every team’s weaknesses are exposed. Did this playoff series expose D’Angelo Russell—45.5 TS% and they couldn’t hide him off-ball defensively; see Desmond Bane’s performances—or did he merely have a bad a series and recency bias is taking over? He was a major part of a 46-win revival, after all, and upgrading him seems a lot easier said than done. But it’s fair to wonder whether D’Lo is truly a strong long-term fit if the Wolves are going to make another leap forward?
Let’s reflect on what Finch had to say about all of this.
“Well, we still think the fit is great,” he said.
“His skill set, his playmaking, all that stuff hasn’t changed. We’ve got to figure out maybe some different sets or structures that kind of accentuate those things, too. One thing I felt I could’ve done a better job of [doing] is trying to get him into the series a little bit more with some plays for him maybe off the ball. On the ball, he was drawing a pretty good amount of attention the way they were guarding him. Stuff like that made it hard. Looking back, I think that’s one thing I could’ve done a better job at for him.”
What about the backup point guard who outplayed Russell? Yeah, Jordan McLaughlin.
J-Mac has been a Finch favorite, fitting his style as an uptempo point guard who can get the offensive into their actions quickly. He can break defenses down as a playmaker, not turn the ball over, make smart reads, and be a low-usage floor general that maximizes everyone else’s scoring abilities (11.8 Usage % as compared to Russell’s 25.1%). But he’s also a backup point guard. What did Finch have to say about that?
“Yeah, we definitely need high-impact, low-usage guys. We have enough high usage guys and sometimes they cannibalize each other’s opportunities as a result,” says Finch. “We saw that a bit in our fourth quarter issues. J-Mac is the prototype of that. He gets us up and into stuff quickly and then where he can really do damage is as a secondary playmaker when the ball comes back around to him and he makes one more play and one more drive and kick and one more drive and finish. You know I’m a huge J-Mac fan. He’s proven to us that he is a bonafide high-impact backup PG for a really good team.”
What he also proved is the player type that might shine as the future point guard if the Wolves and Russell decide it’s time to move on.
President of Basketball Operations Job
Another decision the Wolves need to make pretty quickly is whether or not to extend the contract of their Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, Sachin Gupta. (Opinion: They definitely should.) Is Gupta going to be Finch’s permanent boss? Pivoting to someone else would complicate the entire offseason and also potentially compromise Finch’s trust in the organization if their relationship is as strong as it seems on the surface.
“Yeah, they know my feelings about Sach,” Finch said directly. “They know that I think he’s outstanding and he’s been a huge reason that we have stability in this organization right now.”
“He’s very smart. We have complete alignment. The players love him. He’s appropriate in his presence around the team. He’s not heavy-handed with the coaching staff. He does his job. I’m a huge fan, and I’ve advocated for him to have his opportunity to be the guy to run this team. Nothing would make me happier than that. No better time, after this season, to be able to continue to build.”
Here is a snippet of my conversation yesterday with @sachinngupta, Wolves VP of Operations. This is on the rock-solid relationship he has with coach Chris Finch, and his desire to remain here long-term. Will post full Q&A in coming days. #Timberwolves #RaisedByWolves pic.twitter.com/ruhkmutGPV— Darren Wolfson (@DWolfsonKSTP) May 6, 2022
Karl-Anthony Towns’ Post Offense
Aside from the front office moves that will happen, the spotlight is going to be directly on Towns once again. Arguably the easiest path to improvement is KAT, Finch, and the Wolves figuring out how to hammer teams—and most of them do this—that load up on him and do everything they can to scheme Karl out of the game with double teams, physicality, and constant pressure. They still aren’t good at handling it, so what kind of counter moves can they develop this offseason?
Does KAT have to perfect passing out of the double to unlock post scoring as a major source of offense?
“I think he wants to make the next play before he makes the first play in the post. He knows where the ball is going to end up and he tries to shortcut it oftentimes. At times we gave him mixed messages, too. Like, ‘Go quick’ because we wanted him to be aggressive, but then teams started doubling so fast that he couldn’t go quick, he would take himself kind of off-kilter. He’s gotta do a better job and we’ve gotta do a better job of being structured more around him a little bit more consistently. More things with our offense are just so fluid that different guys may be in different spots at different times when the ball gets to him. There’s just a lag time on some of the cuts and reads that we have to make, so we have to do a way better job of helping him that way. Some teams, you’re seeing it more and more that are just not going to let him beat them in the post. They’re just not. To open up the post more for him, things we need to do are I think obviously put as much shooting as you possibly can around him, or we gotta find him in transition. We gotta get out and run for some early post-up opportunities before they can help. Maybe some misdirection stuff. Teams now know, they don’t see a ton of posting up. And guys that do post up can score at a pretty high level, so teams are really committed to taking that away right now, especially if you’re giving them non-shooting on the floor.”
Finch clapped to the fans as he walked off the Target Center floor for the last time this season, thinking back to his days coaching in Europe.
“I always thought one of the neatest things about Europe is the players always clapped to the fans after every game. Fans are a part of the fabric of the team, just as much as any of the players. I think the thing that’s been most meaningful for me about this season is not just being proud of our guys and how they played but how everybody in the community has come up and been very complimentary of them. That’s a team they like to watch play. It’s a team they believe plays the right way and is exciting.”
In his words, what Finch brought to the Wolves is not just a relevant basketball team, but one that’s unique and interesting in a variety of ways. As he said a handful of times this year, “even our mistakes and our failures are interesting,” and now, in the words so many Wolves fans are trusting to be true, it’s all of their responsibility to make this “the first step of what we hope to be a long run,” per Finch, and not a flash in the pan.
In Chris Finch’s words, we trust.