Yesterday, September 21st, was Part I of my long interview with Chris Finch, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach. Part II focuses on Karl-Anthony Towns’ adjustments to play power forward on defense and the options for the team if that is not possible. We also discuss how to fix last season’s terrible transition defense, and what the future looks like for a strong offense in 2022-23.
MinnPost: KAT is always more effective in defense when he has strong communicators around him. Rudy (Gobert?) is that?
Chris Finch : Yes, I believe so.
MP: This is because KAT’s quickness when playing the scramble (power forward) is an issue. Is there also going to need to catch up mental?
CF It might initially be, but it is possible. It doesn’t matter if your 5 (center) is out of rotation. KAT can learn quickly when you put him through drills. He gets a great feel for the drill. I don’t worry about that. It’s up to him to decide if he can do it.
MP : What if he doesn’t?
CF There’s a lot to do and lots of switching. (laughs)
MP: Yes, switching and zone are not for you.
CF (laughing). I enjoy all kinds of tea.
MP: But switching is not something you like.
CF: I’m not a huge start-the-game-by-switching guy. I’m open to switching. It’s just that you get into the game with a switch mindset. A, you encourage aggressiveness and getting into the ball.
MP: As you have stated before, switching reduces accountability and creates a lot more gamesmanship in trying to find the right matchup.
CF: Yeah. These are tasks that second-year players have to learn, but again, they are more difficult. It is fun to see these guys learn and grow. It was fun, even in the playoffs last season, to just figure it out. They will always have the answer, even if you don’t feel like it.
It all comes down to the ability of the team to execute all of this. It might sound obvious to say “Hey, this is what we should do.” But, if that’s not possible, then we have to find another way. It might be less effective, but it may still be more beneficial for the team. These things are up to us.
We will become a more switch-oriented team, I believe. We might also work in more pick-and-roll, and increase our chances of winning. These are just things that help us to make sure that if KAT or any other person has a problem with rotations, we have solutions.
MP: Rudy has had a history of teammates who have struggled with rotations.
CF Rudy is excited by Jaden (McDaniels) and Ant (Anthony Edwards), who are both on the ball. Ant is also larger than KAT. These are all things he doesn’t have now. We are going to lean heavily on Rudy. You might say, “Hey, you want these guys to be protected in a certain manner, depending on personnel. When do you want them to stop, when do they want to switch? What are we doing here – how do these guys want to be protected?” They have been your guard for many years. Tell us.
MP: This reminds me of one your coaching methods. It is important to see the strengths of your team’s offense, and then you can tailor your sets to highlight them. Your sets will be determined by what you do well in defense.
CF I believe so. While we’ll have our foundation, the shell will be different. We must improve our ability to transition. If you’re getting beat up on transition every night, elite rim protectors are not worth it.
However, I have always believed that bigs in pick-and-roll in particular have their own skill sets. Sometimes we try to combine them in a way that makes them less efficient. Let’s look at their skill sets and try to find the best ones.
Ant must challenge Ant to get back
MP: Why did DLo Russell (D’Angelo Russell), fall so far on defense in the second-half of the season. Is that something we can fix?
CF It can, I believe. It’s not like this sudden fall to me.
MP : It was statistically.
CF: Yeah. That group was probably playing at a higher level defensively than usual early in the season. There was some normalization in the stats. As I said, DLo was really good as that quarterback/defender, communicator, help guy. I believe that teams began to see this and started to exploit it as the season progressed. His at-the-rim behavior could have been better with verticality and taking charges. Instead of this huge fall, I saw it more as “the greatest starting lineup ever” or whatever they called themselves, with their net differential. We all knew that wasn’t going to happen. Plus, a lot was driven by Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt), PB (Patrick Beverly), and other steals and such stuff.
MP: They were your brains and engine for your defensive operation, and they’re gone. Ant and DLo will be crucial to the inversion of floor you were referring to.
CF – Ant said yesterday that he wanted (to guard) the greatest player with the ball. Although I don’t know if it is possible, we will give Ant that matchup. Jaden, however, is very good in that area.
MP: This will depend on whether the guy is a 3 or 2 (small forward) and if he is a 2 (2 (shooting guard).
CF A 3, 2, or 1 (point guard), yes. It all depends. Jaden has his struggles with certain matchups, while he excels at others.
MP: Sometimes, foul trouble can be a problem.
CF: Yeah, foul trouble. It is wonderful that Ant requests these things.
MP: Last season, you mentioned problems with transition defense. MP: Is that because you hit so hard the offensive glass last season?
CF If you take a look at the numbers, it is clear that three goes to the glass is the most effective amount to send analytically to both sides. The next step is to determine who is the best at it. He was an elite offensive rebounder, just like PB. Vando was an elite offensive rebounder. You always want these guys to go. We didn’t mind if they were too concerned about floor balance. Ant and DLo, however, don’t live in this space so they need to learn how to get back. KAT’s recklessness in crashing to the ground was likely a common occurrence.
Rudy is a great guy. Because he’s so fast and efficient at it, we want him to get to the glass regardless of where he’s on the ground. He keeps the ball alive, if anything else. Rudy is also being put on two bodies if he goes to the glass. This means that if Rudy is going to the glasses, they will have to put bodies on him. With four bodies dedicated to the glass (to ensure the defensive rebound), they won’t be able run on you as much.
MP: I believe Jaden will be one of the top hitters on the table. Given his size and quickness it makes sense.
CF: Yeah. It doesn’t do us much good to send Ant to glass. He is not an offensive rebounder.
CF He’d better get his sex back. (laughs)
An ascendant offense after Ant and KAT
MP: Let’s move the emphasis to offense. I believe you guys are loaded. KAT is the first. Over the past two seasons, his shot mix’s three-pointers has dropped from 44% to 36% and 30% to 30%. This is a 50% decrease from the 2019-20 season. You like Rudy on the low block, and you enjoy paint scoring. But do you think Rudy will increase his threes?
CF I would like to hope so. It’s not my intention to think, “You have to take X amount of threes.” But the truth is that KAT makes the shots we love. He was the league’s leader in drives to the rim made by bigs last year. These are fantastic because they allow for free throws, rim attacks, and all that. Some of those are still possible (when he’s) at the trail spot.
MP: You are correct. Last season, he set a record for drawing fouls.
CF We knew that Vando would not be protected honestly, so we had to post up KAT last year. They would come back double. We had a lot of threes, but we couldn’t punish anyone for any reason. Some of our foundations weren’t where they needed to. They have to decide how they will guard this year, I believe, because of the matchups. While they might double KAT, it’s a different story with Rudy at he rim. KAT can be really strong if they let him play one-on-one with the 4, or 5. That is something I believe we can obtain. This might impact the number of threes that he takes, but it still gives us something we didn’t have last year. He will likely get more spot threes if he is in spread pick-and roll, especially with DLo on his handle.
MP: This is your bread-and butter to a degree. Ant will be in the opposite slot for drives, Jaden in the corner, and KAT at the top of the DLo pick-and-roll action with Rudy. It’s like the Clippers with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and that crew – choose your poison. KAT also improved in the low block after he stopped looking at the basket with his back and was able to see the double-teams coming. He will be facing up almost naturally this season.
CF: Right. For sure. He made my life difficult in the post. He was not very helpful with his spacing and the way we cut our flowers was quite choppy. We kind of got away with it.
CF Right (chuckles). He knows exactly where the open man is. He needs to believe that the pass-pass will get him the ball, not a direct pass.
MP: I think Ant will become a playmaker this season, which is a key factor in the offense’s success. However, the current situation favors DLo. Rotations are the solution. How will Ant and DLo solve that problem?
CF I believe DLo will be our primary playmaker and ball-handler, but I don’t worry too much about it. There are plenty of opportunities in our offense. Ant will be the one to get the ball if DLo initiates the offense. This is because we play the game fast, switching the sides as often as possible.
Ant should be more destructive in transition, even before this league eliminates the “take” foul. He should be thrown ahead of him and his early attacks. We’ve never had him in the half court – he has had KAT as a pop guy (a distraction option for the defense), which has allowed his play to go downhill. Rudy is a roller, so his decision-making will be crucial. This threat has never been a threat to us. This is definitely an area of growth for him. He needs to show more emotion in his passing.
MP – Watching the Warriors and the Celtics, it looks like Ant could develop a more drive-and-kick style.
CF Yes, that’s right. He has a drive and kick game when he attacks the baseline but less when he comes down the middle of defense.
MP: You’re a fast-paced guy who wants ball movement. Ant and DLo both love to dribble around the perimeter. Isn’t this what drives you crazy?
CF (Laughs). Sometimes we want to discourage dribbling or going nowhere. I believe DLo is trying to slow down the game so that he can know exactly what he wants. Ant is still trying to figure out the floor (in terms of his options). This is a normal phase for all young players, but Ant should never stop trying to figure out what the floor looks like.
MP: If he goes, he has an advantage. He doesn’t have to look at the floor as the floor will shift in his favor if he goes.
CF This is what we told James (Harden), in Houston. Your talent is yours. You will find the floor quickly if you can get past the first line of defense quickly. If you wait to survey, and everyone starts to anticipate and sink, then your initial attack becomes harder.
Ant will soon be able to see the small things. For example, if they want to commit two people to you defensively with the early help, or the early low-man, then it’s better to go earlier than later because the defense must be rotated and we have the time. This is what I believe. It’s a problem that becomes a major issue at the end. We have plenty of time at the end to find another game. This is true at all times. However, games slow down and players tend slow them down at end games. That’s why you’ll often see a drive, pass, and tough shot. Get up earlier.
Part III of the four-part series will run tomorrow, September 23rd.