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Chris Finch was hired to coach the Timberwolves in the middle of a pandemic season. The person who hired him, President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas, was fired shortly before training camp started in September, and executive vice president Sachin Gupta took charge of the front office.
The Wolves start the 2021-22 season Wednesday night against Houston at Target Center. As he continued to sort through change, the 51-year-old Finch sat down last week in New York to talk about his vision for improving a team that has made the playoffs only once since 2004.
This has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Sachin said you're the ideal partner. What was your relationship like dating to your time in Houston [when Finch was an assistant and Gupta was a front-office adviser]?
Finch: Houston was a very unique environment for me because I went into the Houston organization, which was just full of guys like Sachin and just really smart people who love the sport of basketball. No egos, just easy to work with, just generating ideas out of thin air about how to look at the game differently, improve it.
I remember the first project that Sach and I ever did together. We were studying corner threes and I was looking for places on the floor where the passes came to generate the best corner threes. Some of it made sense just looking at the game, but he mapped it out. He gridified the half court and had all different color zones about the best way to create open corner threes from where you were passing on the floor.
Q: Do you still bounce ideas off each other like that now?
Finch: For sure. Probably not as experimental. It's more just, hey, I've been thinking about this. Could've been lineup combinations or it could be the way we prepare. Right now we're kind of rethinking about internal reporting. How we view our guys in performance. We call them accountability reports.
What I love about Sachin is he looks at the coaching staff as this incredible resource of intel that's inside the building. A lot of front offices will not value coaching staffs in that regard because they feel they're too close to the players. But he's just the opposite. He thinks that's where we have the most to learn because we have this innate and unshared knowledge of these guys and our opponents.
Q: How do you incorporate analytics more than just taking corner threes and getting shots at the rim?
Finch: We do it at all levels. We do it from our performance side, strength and conditioning. We have three different types of practices. For lack of a better term, they're red, yellow, green, which would be high intensity, medium intensity, and low intensity. So we periodize our training. That's dictated to us by the analytics of the performance side.
In general when it comes to basketball analytics, my approach and I think Sachin's, too, is it's a guide, not a god. We're not blindly following what these things are saying to us. The most important thing when you're looking at analytics is to figure out the distortion. Where is the noise coming from? What's not really true, or what might be true but doesn't help winning? That's where the application of the data is so important now, because we've been able to, over the last 10 years, just gather so much data. Now what are we doing with it all? They're really smart in their applied methodologies.
Q: For instance, you said Jarred Vanderbilt drove winning in certain metrics, and you were afraid other teams might catch on and sign him. What sort of stuff did you see?
Finch: Multiple possessions guy (with offensive rebounding). So anyone who gets you multiple possessions is worth it. If you think about the average possession in the NBA, it's worth like 1.1 points or whatever, let's say. If you get three more possessions than your opponent, that's about 3.5 points more. So it's just basketball mathematics in that way. That's one. Two is his defense, versatility on defense. So when he's on the floor with multitude of defensive lineups, they are generally plus defensive ratings. Then, his rebounding too. He's not only getting you extra rebounds offensively, but he's helping a place where you're already weak defensively. With that, it's probably not as strong as the other two for sure. And a lot of the defensive stuff is his ability to be successful in pick and roll as a switch defender.
Q: Related to the defense, you said last spring, over the summer you had to figure out Karl-Anthony Towns' role in the pick and roll. What did you learn?
Finch: Well, we found that he was pretty good there at the level and when he had played there previously we found he was pretty good in switch situations, but we didn't want to expose him to that as a base defense. It was just about trying to alleviate that pressure of people coming downhill all night on him, put him in unnecessary foul trouble at times. He's actually had pretty decent rim protection numbers …
I've said this before, but I don't think the Minnesota Timberwolves' defensive issues were Karl's alone. I still don't believe that. We just wanted to try and do a couple things to protect him.
Q: How much of your defensive success this year is on Karl in that sense and what he's able to do at the top, and how much is designed to give him help?
Finch: Our defensive success is going to be related to Karl staying on the floor and being a plus defender or neutral defender. But most of it is our team defense. We have to be better with our low man help, covering the rim with our rotations. We have to be better with our scramble around, shot contests and all the little things. … If we can make small gains, as we told our team preseason, our pathway to a better defense is marginal gains across the most significant areas.
Q: What are those areas?
Finch: Transition, eliminate our fouling or reduce it and rebounding. If you look at those three play types, from an offensive point of view, they're the three most efficient play type starts. Teams that score in transition score at a higher rate. Free throws are big and then offensive rebounds. So even if we got back and we're not a great half-court defense, but we make them play in the half court more, we're going to win that small battle, even if they're making shots against us. They're not going to make shots at the rate they do in transition.
Q: Offensively, I feel like we in the media are taking it for granted that it'll be fine. What could we see that's maybe different?
Finch: Offensively we're maybe a little bit behind where we thought we'd be right now probably because we just put a lot of effort on the defense and we felt we had a pretty good foundation offensively. But maybe a couple steps behind. I'd like to just figure out, like the two bigs is good, but that's not kind of clicking like it should. We need to find a way to take advantage of the matchups and mismatches a little better in the game flow with that. I think probably develop a little bit more of a complete package for Anthony [Edwards]. So he's kind of not like going through the game looking for opportunities. Maybe direct the ball more to him. Opportunities to post D'Angelo [Russell] for his playmaking down there. Then continue to experiment with KAT. Just move him around and continue to play him more like a guard as well as a big. When you have a guy like that, it's a lot of fun. Last year, I didn't get a chance to push the envelope there.
One thing we'll probably be is a little bit more prepared in special situations. End of games, end of quarter. All the little strategic pieces where you can ring out those advantages. We brought [assistant] Micah Nori in. He's outstanding in that field. Other than being the lead assistant, his primary focus at the team level is winning all these small battles.
Q: You see Rosas get fired and it seems like it's turbulent, a chaotic organization, this and that. How did you navigate that with this team?
Finch: It helped in the fact that we had a high purpose right around the corner. We didn't insulate them from it. We acknowledged it and we moved on. As chaotic as that week was, the week probably set me back in terms of planning, because we had a lot of crisis management things going on. Just meetings. Sachin and I trying to get caught up with each other and that kind of stuff.
But in terms of our players, we acknowledged it. We talked about it coming up at media day, how to approach that. First day of practice everything we felt would be normal. Our goals haven't changed at all. We wanted our guys to understand, and I believe this 100%, there's not like this rampant dysfunction. It's not a toxic environment or it wasn't an unhealthy place to be. I honestly don't feel they felt that either. There's tensions within every club and they don't always make it down to the team level anyway. I think guys handled it remarkably well. KAT has been through a lot here as he stated on media day. His leadership and ability to roll with it and be ready to go was huge.
The younger players, they've been through a lot in two years. So they've looked at it as this is life in the NBA rather than this is life in Minnesota. For me, personally, my whole career has been rapid change. Either from good or bad or unforeseen or uncontrolled circumstances. The most important thing for me is whatever it takes to keep the team as settled as possible. The more trappings you put around everything you do, the more chance you have to unsettle yourself when those things aren't perfect. We just try to roll with the punches and keep things as minimalist as possible, and we have a great staff and they were amazing in picking up the slack and starting our practices.
Q: Looking at the arc of your career ... Some places you're there for a year or two or less, like last year with Toronto before coming here. How much would you like to stick around for a while?
Finch: More than you know. I'm hungry to build a winner. I really love where we are right now with our on-court talent. Organizationally, it feels like we have great energy in the building. Synergy with Sachin. New ownership giving us a shot in the arm. Glen [Taylor] seems like, in my short time with him, he seems to have a pep in his step, which is really fun to see, and he's been great.
Listen, we still understand it's going to take a few steps, but hopefully we can put out something everyone is really excited for about the future. I love the market and the city and I'd love to spend my summers on the lake.