It was an odd mix of two All-Stars, veterans that weren’t good enough to drive winning, and a No. 1 pick with limitless potential whose timeline did not mesh well with the infrastructure around him. The result was a roster ill-fit to play the brand of basketball its domineering President of Basketball Operations mandated, losing, and the firing of a coach who, in retrospect, was always going to be the fall guy.
Flash forward 19 months later. After just one full season as the primary voice on the Wolves bench and throughout the organization, the team’s veterans made one thing abundantly clear during Monday’s Media Day: Finch has completely transformed the culture in Minnesota.
Kyle Anderson agreed to join the Wolves before the team acquired three-time All-Star Rudy Gobert, but it confirmed his reasoning for coming here — to win.
“It just kind of showed the direction the Timberwolves have been going. We want to win, and we want to win now,” Anderson said Monday. “That’s what I was happy to be a part of. I didn’t want to be part of a rebuilding process.”
Since when have you heard a well-respected NBA veteran say he “wants to win now,” and thus chose the Timberwolves — yes, the same Minnesota Timberwolves that have made the playoffs two (2) times since 2004 — and actually mean it?
That legitimately stunning metamorphosis is attributable to Finch, arguably more than anyone else.
When Finch flew to meet the team in Milwaukee for his first game as Head Coach, he walked into the equivalent of a burning mansion. A team with high-end talent at its foundation, but whose role players and interior design needed considerable work if the group wanted to reach its true potential.
So, what did Finch do? He cultivated real, authentic relationships with the team’s three most important players — Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell — based on trust, transparency, and an immediately-felt respect forged by the expert skill they all share: hoops.
From there, he quickly learned where every player was at his most comfortable, both as a person and a player. Once that two-way familiarity developed, he coached his players hard, held them accountable, and made sure he did everything he could to put the team in a position to win.
After a half season of the Wolves playing more inspired ball, Finch and the Wolves entered their first full offseason together, during which he helped get Patrick Beverley to Minnesota to both advance his mission of accountability, intensity, pace and energy, and to light a fire in the young Wolves.
It didn’t take long for Beverley, who has played for countless coaches all over the world, to sing Finch’s praises.
He also worked to fix perhaps Minnesota’s biggest issue when he first arrived: inconsistency from role players.
Backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin is one of the players who last season benefitted most from Finch’s guidance, as the young guard carved out an impactful role for himself. He called Finch ‘a player’s coach.’
After experiencing life working with Finch, well-respected locker room leader Taurean Prince made the decision to re-sign with the Wolves before even testing the free agent waters.
“The guys on the team. Obviously, we got rid of a couple, but still the group as a whole, the culture, and then Coach Finch. I haven’t had that type of coaching or that type of vibe from a head coach for some years now,” the 28-year-old Prince said Monday. “All of that was a part of my decision. I wouldn’t turn back and make any other one if I could.”
Finch’s leadership style and vision for the franchise — and the way it fit seamlessly with the empowering, listening nature of Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Sachin Gupta’s approach to management — made such a positive imprint on the organization that new ownership not only decided to keep him on as Head Coach, but signed to extensions Finch and his entire coaching staff.
Throughout all the losing, chaos, scandals, and everything in between, there was one constant who steadied the ship through some turbulent tides: Chris Finch.
In his first full season, he breathed confidence into his guys, made sure they got the shine they deserved, and fostered a style of play tailored to enabling success for collectively ‘immature’ group, as Finch endearingly referred to them this summer from a basketball perspective.
Those conditions bred a cohesive, hard-nosed on-court product that both revived a sleeping giant fanbase and earned the respect of the league at-large.
Anderson said the Grizzlies’ six-game playoff series with the Wolves opened his eyes to how far the team has come, and reminded him of what Memphis looked like as a member of the San Antonio Spurs before he joined the Grizz.
“Fast forward to two or three years later in a Memphis uniform playing against Minnesota in a tough playoff series, fans were great, atmosphere was great. Those guys in Minnesota really competed, one through 11, 12, those guys all played really hard. You could see the cohesiveness, they played hard for one another.” Anderson explained. “So when it came down to this summer and which team I wanted to sign with, I think this was an easy call, knowing the freedom Coach Finch gives his guys to play with and how they all play with confidence and they all play hard, I can really see myself being a part of this.”
The veteran Swiss Army Knife knew the impact Finch had made on the team simply because of how Minnesota played in big moments — that speaks volumes about what Finch and his staff have been able to accomplish.
Perhaps what most legitimized Finch’s organizational and on-court accomplishments came in May, when the Timberwolves successfully convinced Denver Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly — one of the most well-respected executives in the global basketball landscape — to make the lateral jump to the same position in Minnesota.
“Again, honestly? I think the best chance we have to make this a destination city is we have to be realistic. There are certain players that aren’t going to want to come to certain parts of the country,” Connelly said during his introductory press conference in response to a question about how the Wolves can make the North Loop more like South Beach. “But what you can help develop and help add credence and definition to is your culture and the organization and the wins and losses, and what we saw last year was a team that was trending in the right direction with full organizational buy-in.”
TL;DR — Connelly saw, understood and fully believed in what Finch spent last season building, so much so that he felt compelled to jump from a homegrown ship to Finch’s arc. Now, the two of them together have stamped Minnesota as a destination city — from an organizational standpoint — for prospective NBA vets looking to win.
“I did a lot of homework and background on everyone on this stage, and I hope that as we continue to build a winning foundation and develop, this is a place that you want to come to win,” Connelly continued back in May. “It’s not about the weather. It’s not about having some of these flashier markets. You’re going to come here to win, to be treated fairly and have a lot of fun.”
The pair have certainly spread that message throughout the league through a calculated aggression backed by a people-first culture built upon values, cohesion, and winning. Not only did it net veterans such as Prince and Anderson, but it attracted a Hall-of-Famer-to-be in Rudy Gobert, who wanted to play his entire career for the Utah Jazz.
“We’ve had some great conversations. To be honest, we talked a bit about basketball, but it was more about getting to know each other as human beings first,” Gobert said Monday in a very appreciative tone. “Basketball-wise, he knows what I can bring to the table. He really wants me to keep growing as a player and I’m really excited for that... I really love the way he wants to use me. I’m excited about that.”
enjoy this, it’s the first of many pic.twitter.com/bgsTZOGU0D— Minnesota Timberwolves (@Timberwolves) September 27, 2022
While Finch has done most of the groundwork in building this culture from the ground up, Connelly is one heck of an executive to bring into the fold to expand and solidify it.
“Tim, we’ve talked a lot. We’ve known each other for a while, but didn’t get to know each other like we’ve started to know each other now. He’s really doing his best to try to build a championship organization. That’s why we’re here,” Gobert said. “You can feel that every detail is important, whether it’s nutrition, whether it’s the body work, everything that this organization can do, they are doing it right, now. You can feel that.”
Gobert added that his perception of the organization is ‘great,’ and that his experience has been ‘amazing’ since day one, before praising how nice every employee is. Austin Rivers added that his NBA peers have taken notice, too.
“100 percent. The energy as far as that goes (coming to the frozen tundra to play) is shifting... You want to play with talented players. Anthony Edwards is arguably one of the most talented and exciting young players in the NBA. KAT is one of the most talented centers in the league. Then you start filling in the pieces,” Rivers said in response to a question about if the perception about the Wolves has changed around the league. “This is a sports market. You saw it last year, in the game to go to the playoffs, the excitement in the building. How excited fans were to have team back in that race, in the hunt, again.”
Six-year NBA veteran Bryn Forbes explained that Connelly is as good as it gets as far as NBA executives go.
“Tim is great. He’s one of the best I’ve worked with [at building relationships]. He’s great at communicating, too. That’s sometimes a problem with other teams. But with Tim it was easy,” said Forbes. “Last year when I was with Denver and then the whole transition of getting here was Tim played a huge role. I love Tim, great dude.”
Connelly has been open and honest about his relationships and how he develops them — by not forcing them.
“I don’t think you can force relationships that are going to be defined by trust. I think it has to happen,” he said. “The way you really develop those trustworthy, teammate relationships is going through a season and having the ups and downs and getting to a point where you can have any conversation, good or bad.”
Between Finch and Connelly, there is a wealth of NBA and life experience, and a long track record of players holding them in extremely high regard. The Timberwolves haven’t had that in both their coach and full-time lead executive (outside of Gupta last year) in a long time.
Since getting together, Connelly’s belief in Finch has only grown, as he stated Monday.
“[I’m] very excited to work with Chris Finch. I think he’s one of the best and brightest coaches in the NBA. I think as we have more success, that’ll be more recognized outside of this market, but him and his staff have been A-plus all summer.”
The expectations are certainly high outside of this market, but the players inside of it understand the goal, the talent on the roster, and what those two things can create when combined with great people.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling. When you look at the roster and the talent that we have in this group, it’s pretty incredible. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a group of guys that can really accomplish anything,” Gobert said. “It’s about building the right habits and just keep learning, keep getting better every day. I think the sky’s the limit for this group.”
The historic expectations of the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn’t exist without the work Chris Finch put in to transform this organization. So, it’s only right that the man who brought them back from the brink of disaster is now deservedly armed with a loaded roster of players and the task of leading them into the brightest future in franchise history.