When I was wrapping up my tenure at The Athletic in the summer of 2021, I traveled to Las Vegas to interview Chris Finch, the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. We did a 75 minute interview.
Finch was about to begin his first training camp, as well as his first full season with Wolves. He was very honest and confident in answering my questions. It was an experience that I would never forget.
The Wolves have shaken up their roster and the entire NBA with the acquisition of Rudy Gobert, a three-time All Star and three-time Defensive Player-of-the-Year, in July. I wanted to give Finch sufficient time to consider how he would incorporate such an important asset to the roster. Gobert, a second large man, is being added to Karl-Anthony Towns at a time when the NBA is moving smaller and faster.
Finch was again gracious, flexible, and open to sharing his thoughts during our almost 70-minute conversation. It took place at his Mayo Clinic Square location on Sept. 13. The Q&A was edited slightly to be more chronological and will be presented in four parts. It will start today and continue through next week’s opening of training camp.
Part I focuses on the strategies and plans that will be most effective to accommodate Gobert’s arrival as well as the loss of Jarred Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley, who were two of the key components of Gobert’s acquisition. Surprise! Gobert’s defense is well-known, but his acquisition may actually improve the Wolves offense. The defense will have to adjust to a two bigs starting lineup.
This concludes our coverage of the 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves season. Welcoming aboard.
MinnPost – Two weeks away from training camp, are you confident that you will be able to execute the plan you have for the season?
Chris Finch: Good question. About 75%. Offensively, I believe we have a fairly good idea of how it will fit together. We just need to work through the details. That’s what will be crucial. Rudy’s inability to arrive early due to EuroBasket was a little frustrating, but I believe we will be able eventually to make up the difference there.
Defensively? The foundation is there, but we will need to be multi-faceted defensive teams. We’ll need to cover some areas, and others we will have to go back. This will be determined by different personnel groups. However, I believe that this is good for us all. It will help us to improve our team. We were a fastball team last year and didn’t have the ability to do other things well.
MP – What will be the focus during the first few days?
CF Back to basics for our offensive and defense systems. It is almost the same every year when it comes to how we put it all together offensively. We want to keep a “fly-around” mentality, but defensively. This is why I believe we need and want to do it from the start. Rudy cannot solve all our problems for us. It is still necessary to support each other, make multiple efforts, and fly around. That was something we did well last year, so I don’t want to lose that. We have new players who will play important roles, so we need to take it step by step.
MP: Rudy is clearly the big news and the biggest splash among the new staff. You used words such as “perfect fit” or “seamless” to describe him in the team’s press conference. This was a bit of a surprise, as many people felt that this move was not in line with NBA trends. What do you love about this fit?
CF The things Rudy excels at are rebounding and rim protection. To reap the benefits of that, we don’t have to do too many things or move everyone around. KAT (Towns), will play more at the power forward position 4. His skillset shows that he can do this offensively. It might be different defensively every night, and that is part of the 25% that we don’t know yet.
We don’t know how we will face certain things every night. Some of that uncertainty comes from trying to not solve problems before they happen.
Offensively, it is a seamless fit because Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt), basically played the five position (center) in our offense last year. The spacing and mechanics are similar. Rudy has the additional benefit of Rudy’s vertical lob threat. Rudy is a man with great size that can’t switch between matchups to minimize KAT. KAT will be the one who has to move around and play at various spots on the floor. He excelled at the high post and at the elbow (areas near the free throw line). He’ll still be able play there. He’ll still be playing in the corners. Being out in the open will be more important for him this season.
Can KAT defend space?
MP: KAT is more important to me than the open defense. This sounds absurd, as Rudy has just been named the Defensive Player-of-the Year three times in the past five seasons. The biggest challenge and adjustments for the Wolves this season would be in defense, but you can see the broad outline. There are many offensive “5-out” schemes in the NBA, where teams simply swing-swing and swing, then pass the ball around the perimeter until someone is finally open from three-point range. Rudy is playing with KAT, so are you going to allow Rudy to be one of the chasers?
CF He will have to. He will have to rotate more, I believe. There will be nuances. If possible, we will need to be able to invert the floor (bigs at the perimeter, smalls at the interior), or send another player in rotation (instead KAT). This is the advanced stuff that young teams struggle to master. KAT is a veteran of the league, so it won’t be surprising that it will be different for him.
Last season, DLo (D’Angelo Russell), was a great quarterback for our defense. We tried to let others play and let him (use his anticipation to fill in the gaps). He will have to be more active in scramble situations. KAT will have to be more active. We will try to invert the floor and make a switch whenever we can, and he won’t be chasing after his actions. As things progress, I believe we will get a good idea of it. We will then have certain personnel groups like Kyle Anderson who is extremely savvy and can communicate before plays begin and can guard a lot of guys.
KAT will tell you that he loves to be a switch-defender. It is difficult to do this with him when you have so many other things to do. We have to find out how that fits. KAT has lost some weight and looks trim again, which should be good for him. Britt is the fourth position in the league. It’s the most diverse. There are stretch-fours and small-fours. We mapped out the matchups for KAT in the league before we made the trade. We felt comfortable with the majority of them. We didn’t feel we would be losing much ground. You always have the option to change the matchups. Put KAT on the 5, and then put Rudy up in pick-and roll. So long as you give them a guy (a matchup), to do this.
CF This really places KAT in a rotating position.
CF However, you should be able to cover it by the end of a few passes.
MP : This is a combination scramble-drop.
CF: Yup. 100%. We don’t. Last year’s playoffs showed that there were some teams that were very good at dropping coverage. But they were forced to adapt and scramble. They didn’t have the natural ability to fly around. That (mentality) was a great thing for us. We had Vando (Patrick Beverly) and PB(Patrick Beverly), guys who were very good at it. We also have Jaden McDaniels, Ant (Anthony Edwards), Taurean Prince, and Kyle who are all really smart. I think that with these guys, it’s very simple. “If the man holding the ball is open in front of me (Finch claps), then I have to play it.” We don’t guard the balls of men we don’t choose to, but that’s rare.
However, it is essential to understand these situations. We need to know when Rudy is in pick and roll (coverage). When do we want Rudy to stay in a certain shape? This is a difficult task for any team and I don’t think we are sophisticated enough to have two totally different looks. Rudy will be hunched up while he is in pick and rolling, and Rudy will be all the way in when he is in pick-and roll. This is a lot of work for a team. It doesn’t seem like you can build good habits in either direction.
MP: It will eventually evolve into a variety of patterns. What do you think KAT and Rudy could do together?
CF If they think they will play for 32-to-36 hours a night, then you should be talking about 20-to-24 and 10-to-12 minutes respectively. We should be able to have 48 minutes of All NBA level performance at the 5. We are going to not allow our players to play on the floor. This is our commitment to the Rudy Trade. It is up to us to solve it. The key question is: Are you able punish your opponent on the other side of the floor (when Wolves are on offense?)? We think so.
MP: How does your experience coaching basketball abroad help you communicate with Rudy? I’m sure you watched him play in EuroBasket for France earlier this month.
CF We have a special connection because we understand that Europe is a different league and how important it is for them to represent their country. It is very physical. Hand-checking the ball. Holding rollers (cutting to basket). It’s very physical and different from the NBA. There are also long-continuity offenses. However, there is not as much transition play and it is not as free-flowing. There are many set play-calls.
Rudy’s ability to pass the ball through his elbows to initiate the offense was something I enjoyed. He was very good at the short-roll. This is something they never gave him much of in Utah. EuroBasket saw pick-and-roll teams rise a bit, which accentuated the opportunity. It gives you an insight into what he may be able do for you. However, possessions in those games can feel like 17.
MP: He wanted more touches and more involvement in Utah’s offense. Did that happen in an earlier discussion with you guys
CF I told him that we are going to get the ball for you. If your man is pinned or sealed, DLo will give you the ball. KAT will give you the ball. KAT will throw the ball. Rudy will also be there. There will be a bit more movement than that. Because of the importance of what offensively we desire, he will handle the ball on the top floor and make quick decisions.
It wasn’t a discussion. We just do things. Dwight Howard did it in Houston, where Fitch was associate head coach. Rudy has a very good sense of touch when passing. Rudy is able to pass well when people drop on him. He was a master at finding men and playing in big-to-big dynamics. I witnessed him doing it in Europe.
MP: He scored more screen-assist points than any other player in the NBA last season. Ed Davis aside, there hasn’t been a player who is as effective at screens for his teammates.
CF: Yeah. As a staff, we talk a lot about the fact that even if you have a great player it’s still about maximising that player. We have to be better at setting up screens, waiting for him and letting him do the things he’s good at. That will also create opportunities for him at he rim, which we haven’t had.
MP: Which starters do you think Rudy has that is good at dropping coverage? It is crucial to get the drop running smoothly. It’s going be a long process.
CF It is a great question. DLo is a Brooklyn native who has played drop coverage a lot. Jaden’s length and pursuit make him a good fit for drop coverage. Bryn Forbes (for Forbes) is likely to have played a lot in drop coverage, especially where he was in Milwaukee and other areas. Anthony and other guys will need to learn how to do it, when to stop or continue pursuing. These are the habits that matter the most. What is the best time to let go? What are you going to do? You gotta crack back.
How can you maximize Rudy’s potential? If Rudy is going to be an elite player at the rim, then you need to be an elite supporter. He needs to be protected on the glass and when his man rolls. These are the things I feel require a bit more feeling and nuance.
Part II: What happens to KAT and the defense if they falter under the new alignment Why did DLo’s defensive efficiency decline in the second half last season? This deeper dive reveals the offense’s weaknesses and explains why it should continue to hum in the coming season.