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The Wolves are happy, dedicated and evolving into a playoff team. Chris Finch deserves a lot of the credit for that.

The Wolves have become a team of engaged players who genuinely pull for each other — and they are growing in confidence with each passing victory. 

The lion’s share of the credit for the remarkable improvement in team depth belongs to head coach Chris Finch.
The lion’s share of the credit for the remarkable improvement in team depth belongs to head coach Chris Finch.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons are a bad basketball team, winners of just 12 of 51 games and currently ranking dead last among the 30 NBA clubs in net rating, meaning the average margin by which they are outscored per possession over the course of a game or season is larger than any of the other bad teams. To add injury to this insult, the Pistons were missing the top overall choice in last season’s draft, Cade Cunningham, due to hip soreness as they tipped off against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday night. 

More than halfway through the third quarter, however, the Wolves were coasting and had allowed these putrid Pistons to assume a 6-point lead. It was at that point that Jordan McLaughlin, the diminutive backup point guard who ranks 12th on the Wolves in minutes-played, became the game-defining catalyst. 

Pushing the pace after a Pistons basket, J-Mac drew a double team speed-dribbling over the midcourt line, then executed a little underhand flip to Karl-Anthony Towns running in stride, enabling KAT to beat two defenders to the rim for a layup. Less than a minute later, J-Mac again forced the issue, arriving inside the three-point arc with 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock, utilizing a pick-and-roll play with Jarred Vanderbilt to turn the left corner and draw a pair of defenders with him deep into the paint. Then he halted, pivoted, and delivered an underhand dish to a streaking KAT for another layup. A possession later, Anthony Edwards drove through traffic for yet another layup and the Pistons called timeout. 

At that point, Taurean Prince subbed in for Vanderbilt, creating a lineup that included starters Ant and KAT and bench players J-Mac, Prince and Malik Beasley. On the Wolves first possession when play resumed, Beasley made the extra pass to a wide open Prince in the right corner, who buried the three-pointer. Less than two minutes later, Prince made the extra pass to a wide open Beasley in the left corner, and he splashed the trey. 

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On the next possession, Jaylen Nowell, who had subbed in for Ant, was fed by J-Mac on a drive-and-kick for another three-pointer from the left slot. And on the possession after that, KAT delivered some stray voltage as he was aggressively double-teamed in the paint, resulting in an errant pass to Kelly Olynyk of the Pistons. But as Olynyk started his way up the court, J-Mac dashed up from behind and simply took over the dribble before reversing course and tossing a pass back to KAT, who was trailing the play and thus able to waltz in for an uncontested slam dunk. 

With seven seconds left in the third quarter, J-Mac, generously listed as an inch under six feet, found himself squared up against Olynyk, who is at least a foot taller, out on the perimeter. A feint to the right and a crossover dribble left gave him the angle, and Olynyk was forced to foul him after J-Mac avoided the block with a reverse layup. He sank both free throws — his only points of the night — and the Wolves led by nine heading into the final period. 

For good measure, a lineup of all bench players outscored Detroit 10-4 in the first 2:40 of the second quarter, highlighted by a couple of crisp dimes from J-Mac that each ended with three points. The first was a simple no-look pass where he stared at Prince breaking open in the left midrange but dished right to Beasley behind the arc; the second was a drive that drew three defenders with him to the rim before he delivered a two-handed bounce pass to his right to Prince in the corner. 

By the time J-Mac finally returned to the bench — after a lengthy 11-minute, 5-second stint lapping from the third quarter into the fourth — the Wolves had outscored Detroit 38-19 and held a 16-point lead. For the game, the Wolves were +19 in the 15:46 he played, and -8 in the 32:14 he sat. 

A win-win for the roster

Led by McLaughlin, the Wolves bench contingent did exactly what backups on quality teams are supposed to do: provide a boost of energy and competence on nights when the stars and other starters are sluggish, disengaged and otherwise giving an atypically lackluster performance. Better yet, this uplift from a bevy of minor role players is starting to become a reliable component of team success. 

The Wolves are 11-5 since January 2, despite playing a brutal schedule during that stretch that put them home at Target Center just four times, none of the games coming consecutively, essentially creating a month-long road trip. Nevertheless, the team went 9-6, fueled by the NBA’s second-most efficient offense, a remarkable reversal from their 23rd ranking during the first 35 games of the season. 

To hear Finch tell it, the COVID-19 chaos was a blessing in disguise, for even as the Wolves dropped five of the six games in which at least two starters were missing from the lineup, the remaining players on the floor followed the coach’s “first principles” for the offense: ball movement and player movement off the ball. The team’s assist percentage on baskets rose from 59% before the disruption to 64% in that chaotic half-dozen games, and assist-to-turnover ratio climbed from 1.5 to 1.68, meaning that the passing had effective purpose as well as greater frequency. 

Three bench players who got a lot more playing time and “usage” (direct involvement in play outcomes) than previously were Jaylen Nowell, Jaden McDaniels, and Jordan McLaughlin. All three have yet to play 3,000 NBA minutes in their careers (and Nowell and J-Mac are below 2,000). All have at least one extraordinary skill, at least one prominent flaw, and work extremely hard on their game. (The fourth bench player who has blossomed recently is veteran Taurean Prince, who was sidelined with COVID during that 6-game stretch and for some time thereafter.)

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For weeks, Finch had been subtly prodding his “Big 3” of Ant, KAT and D’Angelo Russell to better engage in those first principles rather than taking matters in their own hands in an individualized, baton-passing fashion. The engagement of the subs during the COVID chaos provided the opportunity to hammer home the point more directly without bolder criticism of his trio of stars; instead, he’d over-praise the scrubs. And even though Prince wasn’t a part of that COVID period, the coach made sure to include him among his key bench personnel.

It was a shrewd gambit from the coach that became a win-win for the roster. Each of the Big 3 conceded that their eyes had been opened by the unselfish ball movement and dedicated player movement they witnessed from the sidelines. And Nowell, McDaniels,  J-Mac, and Prince (and to a lesser extent Beasley and Naz Reid) got a boost in confidence. Hyping a phase of the season where the team went 1-5 became a collective goad to adhere to a synergistic style of play. 

Premium blend

On January 6, I wrote a column that detailed how the Wolves’ starting five — three high usage guys (the “Big 3”) and two energy guys (Vanderbilt and Patrick Beverley) — had by far the best net rating of any quintet in the NBA who had played together more than 100 minutes. I noted that the key to future success would be how Finch was able to utilize his “blended” lineups that balanced starters and bench personnel as well as offensive and defensive skill sets. Since then, Finch has been masterful, the players have responded and the Wolves have taken it to another level. 

In the month of January, the starters came back ready to share the ball and the subs were determined to retain the momentum they had gained through greater playing time. McDaniels, Prince, Nowell and J-Mac all had their best months in terms of true shooting percentage and collectively overrode the absences of Beverley (for 8 of the 15 games), DLo (4 games) and KAT (2 games). On offense, the Wolves did not alter their shot selection, they just got better at moving the ball and moving without the ball to enhance the accuracy of those shots. 

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This was especially true on two-point shots, where the Wolves were better able to execute Finch’s philosophy or working offensive sets from the inside out. From three-point range, not much changed: The team was 14.2 for 41.1 per game (34.6%) in January compared to 14.1 for 41.6 (34%) before then. But from two-point territory, they bumped up from 25.1 for 49.8 (50.4%) before January to 29.5 for 50.4 (58.5%) per game in January. They also increased their made free throws from 14.4 to 15.2 per game. 

The good news is that the positive trend is accelerating. With both DLo and PatBev out for games in late January, the Wolves were compelled to insert backcourt subs into the starting lineup and otherwise juggle the rotations. After a tough loss where Finch exhausted Ant, KAT and Vanderbilt trying to stay with an elite Golden State Warriors opponent on the road, the team traveled to play the equally elite Phoenix Suns on the road with an hour’s time zone difference on a back to back. The Wolves lost the game but played Phoenix tough, getting solid performances from Beasley, Prince and (on defense) McDaniels. Bench players scored 53 points. 

In their next three contests against Utah, Denver and Detroit, the bench has been an important catalyst for a trio of triumphs. At home against Utah and Denver, the non-starters got 55 and 68 points, respectively, and in the Pistons game detailed at the top of this column they registered 48. 

Beginning with the Phoenix loss, the numbers from this quartet of games is staggering. Prince has shot 68.2% from distance (15 for 22) and has racked up 70 points in 97 minutes while grabbing nearly seven rebounds and getting 1.5 steals per game. Beasley has belatedly found his stroke, shooting 43.3 from behind the arc. Ditto McDaniels, who is being more aggressive about going to the basket, which accounts for his shooting slash lines of 59.3/40/80 from the field/trey/free throw line. And J-Mac is at a career peak, with 20 assists versus one turnover in 86 minutes along with two steals per game. (Yup: his steals to turnover ratio is 8-to-1.) The Wolves are +37 in those 86 minutes of action, and minus-1 in the 106 minutes he sits. 

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Honing the tools needed to be taken seriously

The lion’s share of the credit for this remarkable improvement in team depth belongs to Chris Finch. The Wolves are quickening into a viable playoff team because they are a happy, dedicated group pretty much from the top to the bottom of the roster. That doesn’t happen without a coach who communicates clearly with all of his players, both in terms of what he wants and how he will respond if he gets it. 

It would have been easy to lose a player like Taurean Prince, a respected veteran with an expiring long-term contract that currently makes him the fifth-highest paid player on the roster (behind KAT, DLo, PatBev and Beasley). In postgame press conferences during his hot streak, he has praised Finch for telling him what he needed to do to get more playing time in the rotation, and then delivering on his word when Prince fulfilled his requirements to become more aggressive. A similar situation has played out with Nowell, who was on the fringe of the rotation for weeks on end at the start of the season but listened to Finch tell him that improved defense was his path to playing time.

Then there is J-Mac. With the acquisition of Beverley, the synergy of PatBev and DLo, and improvement of Nowell as a playmaking combo guard, he too seemed in danger of becoming a season-long afterthought, but Finch remembered his contributions during the COVID chaos and understood some of his struggles came from a lack of minutes and rhythm since then. With DLo out, J-Mac has again put himself in the mix and Finch has stated that he will find time for him. 

Flip Saunders memorably defined team chemistry as having an appropriate pecking order on the court and in the locker room. Finch shied away from that definition when I spoke with him in Las Vegas last summer, preferring to emphasize ball movement as the connective tissue for winning and a team confident of going out and winning every night as his definition of good chemistry. Yet right now, the Wolves are fulfilling both definitions of chemistry: A team of engaged players who genuinely pull for each other, have learned to share the ball by moving without it, and are growing in confidence with each passing victory. 

With the roughest stretch of the schedule behind them, it is hard to suppress the optimism that this is indeed a breakthrough season in the long-term trajectory of a team honing the tools and the attitudes necessary to be taken seriously in the years to come.