Setting new expectations, Timberwolves look to be serious contenders in the West; NBA

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Today’s fourth and final segment of my lengthy interview with Chris Finch, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach. This interview comes just 48 hours before the Wolves hold Media Day and launch their training camp for the 2022-23 NBA Preseason.

I look forward to Zoom sessions with readers and mailbag columns that will keep our interaction going throughout the season.


MinnPost: MinnPost, during our first half-year together, you stated that “DLo (D’Angelo Russell), allowed me to coach [him]” in Vegas a few years ago. Was that enough? Is that still a concern?

Chris Finch No. DLo and me have had a lot of conversation about last season. We didn’t talk much about the playoffs, although I expected us to discuss more about the playoffs. But he has moved on quickly. We talked about our excitement for the upcoming season. He wants me more to trust him. It is a misinterpretation. I trust him tremendously. Last year, Patrick (Beverly), and DLo tried to share many of the same responsibilities. I believe DLo misunderstood that. He didn’t trust me enough to do certain things at times.

It was not that. It wasn’t that. It worked for the most part, but it did impact DLo in some key moments, such as the playoffs.

Moving forward, there’s no PB (Beverly), and it is DLo who runs the show, exclusively. Last year, I believe that PB was a complement to the off-the-ball lineup. As the season progressed, he was more on-the ball and wanted to play more. There were many reasons why he felt it was the right thing. DLo was again the one most affected.

That dynamic was at its peak in the playoffs when we tried to exploit the (Ja] Morant matchup. It didn’t allow DLo settle in the game or into the series. This is one of those things that I regret. The reality is that if a team is determined to take a player out the playoffs, they will be able do it. The next series could have been different. Perhaps if they played the next series against Golden State then they would have put all their effort on Ant (Anthony Edwards), KAT (Karl­Anthony Towns), and maybe somebody else.


MP

CF He was certain to kill Memphis. He was ready for it.


MP: He could have said that Ant is having a great series because of that.

CF It’s like baseball. The MVP of a World Series or championship series is always a second baseman who has hit.210 throughout the season, but has hit.354 during the playoffs. This happens because they have pitched around everyone else. J-Mac (Jordan McLaughlin), however, was able to make it into the series. To DLo’s credit that this has not been a major issue between us all summer. He is thrilled about the roster changes and that he is now in charge of the show. He is obviously excited about entering a contract year and is motivated by it. He is also motivated because he feels that all the pieces fit together well.


MP: You are content to not be involved in any contract stuff.

CF (laughs). I’m referring to the fact that I tell my guys on their first day of training camp that it is all about winning games and getting paid.


MP: It strikes me that you are much more secure than you were a year ago, both financially and in the future. However, you also have less leverage within the company.


How did that happen? Sachin (Gupta) and you were in an interim position (as president Basketball Operations). There was a void after Gersson (Rosas), also ex-president of Basketball Operations, left the organization just before the season began. This void was filled naturally by Sachin and you. It worked. You now find yourself in a situation where you are less in control of many things.

CF I don’t know. I have never thought about it that way. It’s still not something I think about as much. The new front office dynamic, with Tim (Connelly), Matt (Lloyd), senior vice president of basketball operations, and Dell (Demps), front office assistant, and Sach. It was a smooth transition. It was great. We feel a great energy flow. They trust us. They are aware of the work we did as a coaching staff last year. Tim is a great guy. He isn’t a heavy-handed person and he doesn’t meddle. He’s great with the players. It was a huge responsibility to manage all of the player dynamics. Naturally, one of my strengths has always been to be a leader. These jobs are leadership roles and I will fill any voids in leadership because I believe that is what I was meant to do.

It didn’t seem that I felt any different. I feel extremely supported. I don’t feel like I’ve lost leverage. I don’t view it as a leverage play. We all strive to win games, and leverage comes from winning.


MP – To put the nail in the coffin, J-Mac will not be ignored this year.

CF He’s the backup point guard.


MP: It was an instance where you said, “I let him languish and that is a mistake.” He fits in so well with your offensive philosophy but he can be pushed around by defensemen when they come at him and he doesn’t shoot well. He is still worth it, no matter what you do.

CF He is a winning player. Winners find ways to win. We know the system-fit is perfect. He is a great player. It’s amazing how many men came up to me to ask me if I could play more with J-Mac. To the point where I began to wonder if I should start (laughs). He made some great shots, and would take a lot of shots. Although it was streaky, it was still good. He is a good defensive player. We never managed to improve on one thing: he and DLo are a great team, they have great chemistry. It was difficult to get the guys together because of the depth we had with Ant and PB. That is something I believe we can work on. J-Mac is the backup point guard, and he should not be overlooked.

To be fair to his coaching staff, he had a difficult start to the season. Then we moved away from him and Jaylen Nowell began to play well. That was when we were faced with all these switching defenses, and Jaylen was great at countering them. Then we decided that Pablo (Prigioni), the assistant coach, did an amazing job helping him get his mind right in the middle. J-Mac had a weak summer last year due to his contract year. He didn’t want any injuries during workouts so he came in with some residual feeling.


MP: He was (on the short-end) on at least one of his prior contracts.

CF: Yeah, yeah, exactly. He made the most of his second chance. He made us all feel bad for not playing him sooner. (laughs). But it can be true: It’s a long and difficult season. Taurean didn’t play well until right after New Year’s. He then went on a major tear. J-Mac cannot be ignored.

MP: Last word: This season’s pressure is different. The minimum expectation for this season is the same as last year’s positive vibe. This gives you an easy schedule for the early morning – although it’s not always easy once it is done – but it is on paper, a manageable schedule. That’s going to be a big help. However, if there’s adversity, one danger I see is that the pressure becomes overwhelming. Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt) and PatBev, two regulators, are not available to you. Kyle was mentioned as someone who is calm but solid. Where do you see your leaders and stabilizers, whether they are setting the tone or singing? Is there ballast to keep your ship stable and resilient?

CF It’s clear that Kyle (Anderson) sees it. Rudy (Gobert) sees it. Rudy’s approach will be great for us. These are two men who have played in many winning programs and have a level playing field. They are also serious about their work and willing to hold others responsible for what they have done.

Let’s not forget about the men who are still here. It is a great area to grow for Ant, KAT, and DLo. We will miss PB’s personality. His ability to inspire belief in a young group was unmatched. Maybe we aren’t a young team anymore. We now have to take these lessons and apply them ourselves.

The other side is that that’s my job. In those moments, we have to be the best that our players can be. We know there are expectations and we need to accept them. Even though we lost six games in succession and had some early struggles, it didn’t mean we weren’t a great team. It was a process that required us to keep trying until we finally found the right combinations and the right approach. The season started out pretty well, but then we got tripped up.

This season is different, I know that. It is a good thing to have the schedule “easy” early. However, I know that when there are many moving parts, especially in our offensive system, things tend to go a bit slower. It is at this point that you can see it starting to come together. With all the return pieces, we should be able to stay ahead of this curve. We don’t know what we can expect, but we can put in the effort and learn the basics and work hard to improve our skills. It is a long season.

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