Sometimes the charms land in your breadbasket. Fate becomes a benevolent spirit and your existence warms into a deep tan without a hint of a burn. For those who could shelve their deep seated cynicism and soothe their paranoia over being pranked by a basketball team playing with joy and competence, the Minnesota Timberwolves ambushed the masses with durable enjoyment for the majority of the 2021-22 NBA season.
What follows are the four people most responsible for the Wolves overachievement this season, concluding my coverage of the 2021-22 campaign. Next week, I will turn the page and detail three proactive measures that should be undertaken in order to better weather upcoming seasons, when expectations are elevated and fate is less charitable toward this typically beleaguered franchise out here on the frozen tundra.
In his first full season as head coach of an NBA team, the 52-year old veteran assistant transformed the trajectory of the Timberwolves organization. From start to finish, it was the best coaching performance in franchise history and the competition isn’t close.
It began in the preseason, when Finch, renowned as an offensive guru when he came to the Wolves, spent the vast majority of the time installing a new defensive scheme that unlocked many of the charms that would fuel a 46-36 regular-season record, a play-in win, and a competitive first-round playoff series against an opponent with the second-highest win total in the NBA.
The Wolves previous defensive coordinator David Vanterpool had already departed to join the staff of the Brooklyn Nets. His supposed replacement, Joseph Blair, abruptly left to join the Washington Wizards on the day he was to start as the head coach of Minnesota’s Summer League team in Las Vegas.
In retrospect, Blair was either pushed out or not encouraged to stay with much enthusiasm. I spoke to Finch for 75 minutes in Vegas just hours before Blair’s departure was announced and he seemed unruffled. Asked about the change weeks later during preseason, Finch made it clear that implementing a new defense was always “going to be led by myself and the coaching staff,” and that Blair “had great potential” but “was probably a little more switch-heavy than we are wanting to be.
“It drives accountability if you don’t switch,” Finch continued. “If your job is to do something, then we can decide if you are doing it well enough.” That quote is emblematic of the carrot-and-stick, results-oriented approach that Finch wielded throughout the season.
For the Wolves to become even a mediocre defensive team, they needed buy-in from their two maximum-salary veterans, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, who both had a reputation as gifted offensive performers who lacked the grit and motivation to be of much worth on defense. So Finch designed a defense that enticed their engagement.
A succession of previous coaches had tried to deploy KAT in schemes that featured the classic drop-back, rim-protecting role for a big man. But KAT is neither a great leaper nor an instinctively rapid decision-maker, arguably the two most vital components for a center in “drop” coverage. Although he didn’t acknowledge those weaknesses, for years KAT had insisted that his skills guarding opponents further away from the basket were underrated and sorely underutilized. Nobody believed him.
DLo’s issues stemmed from his tendency to believe that defense was as much of a cerebral pursuit as a physical endeavor. He prioritized scholarship, the study of play-calls and patterns by opposing offenses, as a means to save time and energy by anticipating what was unfolding and already knowing how best to counter it.
The two virtues Finch values most on defense are on-ball pressure and rim protection. DLo’s approach makes him especially ill-suited to the first virtue, and KAT had already proven to be insufficient when relied upon to provide the second. The prevailing defensive scheme Finch devised and began drilling into his team during preseason came damn close to being the perfect solution.
The Wolves roared into the regular season blitzing their opponents with an aggressively energetic defense. Rather than drop back in coverage, KAT went out to contest the pick-and-roll at its leverage point. If someone broke free to the hoop, it was up to the teammate closest to the rim to rotate and contest, and for others to fill gaps in kind. It was a scheme designed to generate chaos by pressuring the ball handler, hunting for turnovers, and racking up points in transition.
After Jaden McDaniels failed to hold on as the starting power forward due to excessive fouling, Jarred Vanderbilt became the inexhaustibly disruptive force that complemented KAT in the frontcourt. And in the backcourt, the tenacious on-ball pressure provided by Patrick Beverley enabled DLo to guard the less prolific scorer, freeing him up to call out schemes and counter-attacks and anticipate the turnover opportunities most likely to present themselves in the ensuing chaos. The fifth member of the defense, Anthony Edwards, was flung into an aggressive read-and-react style that was a much better fit for the astounding athleticism and short attention span of a 20-year old wunderkind.
For the first six weeks and 21 games of the season, the Wolves had a winning record fueled by a top-six defense. After years of being belittled for their porous performance at that end of the court, KAT and DLo were getting plaudits while playing in a scheme that brandished the skills they cherished in themselves. Very soon, KAT was referring to this exploitative defensive style as “Timberwolves basketball” and DLo was sounding a warning to anyone who regarded him as an easy mark on D.
For the first time since Kevin Garnett departed for the Boston Celtics in 2007, defense was a part of the Timberwolves identity. Anyone who has followed this team understands what an enormous, fundamental impact that sea change had on the course of the 2021-22 season.
Inevitably, opponents adjusted to the element of surprise and the Wolves had to rely more on the potent offense that was dormant during those first six weeks but that was always going to be the abiding strength of this roster. That wasn’t the only way the personality of these Wolves evolved over time, however. When variations of COVID began decimating rosters around the NBA in December, the depth and capabilities of the bench personnel morphed from being surprisingly unreliable into a foundational strength and source of confidence through a grueling January schedule and a surge up the standings after the All-Star break.
Again, Finch deserves much of the credit here. While the defensive scheme validated his ability to transform chalkboard x’s and o’s into a previously unearthed, three-dimensional level of performance, his ability to retain the trust and commitment of those with fluctuating roles in the rotation proved his prowess at player relations. He calibrates his candor in a manner that doesn’t shortchange either honesty or compassion. While his criticisms are issued with terse factual certainty, the praise is more personal and allowed to marinate. Not always, but often, he’ll throw in where he feels culpable in an unfortunate outcome for a player and express that he needs to do a better job.
To the extent that Finch speaks BS, it’s of the garden variety — a contention that a player near or at the end of the roster has a promising future in the NBA, for example, or understating the stench of an especially dreadful performance by a starter. He’ll use dry humor as an obvious deflection away from something everyone knows he won’t reveal, like pregame intel on a rotation tweak or a player’s health. Otherwise, there are remarkably few questions or subjects he will duck, a straightforward style that has engendered loyalty from veterans who would otherwise be chafing at their limited roles, such as Malik Beasley or Taurean Prince.
Consequently, there are few secrets and remarkably little intrigue. Everyone knows Jaylen Nowell needs to dramatically improve his defense to garner more playing time — most prominently Nowell himself. Coach clearly has his favorites — most prominently Jaden McDaniels and Jordan McLaughlin — but both have been demoted when their performance has lagged. When relations do seem peculiar, like Finch’s relentlessly tough love on questions about Ant’s injured knee and how much or little it was hindering him, the most obvious conclusion is that the Finch knows his burgeoning star is new to chronic, on-court pain, but doggedly coachable and thus accorded the respect of more rapid development via trial-by-fire.
Finch is also popular with players because he lets them play when they are on the court, especially on offense. To the extent there is structure, it is often built around preferences and tendencies the players already exhibit. That collaborative instinct is also apparent in the way the coach frequently credits his assistants — and made sure every one of them got raises and contract extensions when he himself was rewarded at the end of the season. Most recently, he unequivocally went to bat for interim president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta, forcefully stating his desire for Gupta to become the permanent president of basketball operations (POBO).
Put succinctly, if you had to ascribe the success of this season’s Wolves to just one person, Finch gets the nod.
When it came to his reshaping of the Timberwolves roster, former POBO Gersson Rosas saved the best for last — acquiring Patrick Beverley from Memphis for expendable roster pieces Jarrett Culver and Juancho Hernangomez shortly before he was forced to resign in September. To call it the most favorably lopsided trade in franchise history does not do justice to the juice Beverley injected into the lifeblood of this team.
Ever since KG left the first time 15 years ago, the Wolves have too often been the nice guys who finish last (or close to it). As an organization, the Wolves frequently “mean well” as opposed to “doing well” — they have regarded the words “nice try” as a compliment more than a spur. A lot of that changed this season primarily because of PatBev, the cultural catalyst who taught the Wolves to covet success and respect with enough avarice to actually achieve it.
It was a perfect storm. PatBev is in the twilight of a hardscrabble career in which he has had to earn every minute of playing time and now jealously guards every inch of his perceived value and status on a team. The force of his personality has a high displacement factor that, for good or ill, will create sizable ripples throughout the roster on and off the court.
When a veteran Clippers team — already over the salary cap and into the luxury tax and knowing they would be without their best player for the entire season — decided to trade him to Memphis as he entered the final year of his contract, PatBev took it personally. Both ways. With the Wolves entering the All-Star break a day early, he flew to Los Angeles for the Clippers final home game before the break and cheered them on wearing the jersey of Clippers center Ivica Zubac. He also wanted to beat them so badly during the play-in game that he celebrated extravagantly, burst out crying, and profanely lambasted their ownership after he succeeded.
According to both sides, PatBev was never meant to play for Memphis. He said the intention was always to come play for the Wolves; sources in Memphis say his demands to be a starter and the likelihood that he and Dillon Brooks would constitute one loud personality too many on the team made his continued presence a non-starter in more ways than one.
But Minnesota welcomed the storm. When PatBev broke through to the NBA with Houston nearly a decade ago, after a year apiece playing in Greece and Russia, Finch was a second-year assistant coach for the Rockets after himself toiling in the hinterlands of Europe. Flash forward to the fall of 2021. Finch was coaching a team in dire need of veteran leadership and more than a soupcon of PatBev’s sauce. At 33, Beverley was six years older than anyone on the roster. He and DLo comprised a complementary pair of starting combo guards — PatBev would get the tougher defensive assignment and DLo would handle the bulk of the playmaking. In his final comment at the press conference announcing the acquisition of PatBev (and the re-signing of other players on the roster), Finch praised Rosas for “hitting it out of the park” during the off-season. He knew his job was about to get a lot easier on the court and in the locker room.
By now, most everyone knows of the PatBev effect. Players up and down the roster sang his praises throughout the season. They hailed him for helping them verbally define their roles to the rest of the team and then holding them accountable for fulfilling those roles. They honored him as a teammate who always had their back. And they marveled at his basketball IQ, the less-publicized part of the PatBev experience, the mentoring methods within his madness.
It has become a cliché — a truism — to say that PatBev is the quintessential example of a player you hate as an opponent but love and cherish when he is on your team. By hook or by crook he will do anything he thinks will improve his team’s chances of winning. Finch trusted those instincts, knowing that the net benefit would outweigh any embarrassments. His on-court conversations with PatBev over the course of the season exceeded those of the rest of the roster combined.
The $14.3 million paid to PatBev this season was worth every penny. For proof, consider the impact he had defending the Grizzlies star point guard Ja Morant over the course of four regular season games and six first-round playoff games this season. Compare it to the inability of vaunted Golden State Warriors defense to contain Morant in the second round thus far. And be happy that Gupta and Finch were able to get another year of the PatBev whirlwind for $13 million in 2022-23.
KAT and Ant
To be taken seriously as a playoff contender in the NBA, you need to have two players who can be reliably called upon to deliver star-caliber performances a majority of the time. In very different ways, Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns took significant strides toward reaching that level during the 2021-22 season.
After two years besmirched by injuries, virus and grief, KAT became a significantly more mature ballplayer in his seventh season at age 26. Does that statement sound silly or jarring to you? Well, you have ammunition for your view. Behind a microphone, KAT can often sound like a person straining for maturity, adopting rather than embodying a mature mien. And in his interactions with officials, his “stray voltage” response to double-teams, and his attempts to be a PatBev doppelganger via the second-hand swagger, mature is not the first word that leaps to mind. Oh, and the on-off statistics rebut the notion that he has significantly improved on defense.
No matter. KAT is an undeniably polarizing player in terms of public opinion, but the more you watched the Wolves play, especially this season, the more you understood how important he was to this team’s success.
Begin with the fact that the Wolves possessed the least brawny or rugged frontcourt in the NBA. KAT, who lost 15 pounds to gain quickness and core strength during the off-season, was the de facto “big man” on the roster. Without him taking on the dirty work, the Wolves would have been bereft.
Yes, I am aware that Naz Reid blocked shots at a much greater frequency on a per-minute basis, and that the Wolves surrendered fewer points per possession when Naz was on the court instead of KAT. But I defy anyone to argue with a straight face that if KAT and Naz flipped minutes — give Naz 2,476 primarily against the starters and KAT 1,215 opposing the reserves — that the Wolves would have finished with the 13th-best defensive rating in the NBA.
Not to mention the offense. The book on beating Minnesota was to get physical at both ends of the court. KAT bore the brunt of that purposeful bruising on defense and offense. The toll was different — defense under the new scheme required a lot more rapid cardio stops and starts even while battling through picks, while on offense it was gang-guarding with a lot of disruptive contact — but KAT’s role as a linchpin remained fairly constant.
The maturity stemmed from the selfless teamwork he exhibited. On a team featuring three alpha scorers and a high-volume three-point shooter, he circumscribed his historically accurate ways of scoring to provide more spacing and better looks for his teammates. His usage rate was his lowest since the Jimmy Butler playoff season of 2017-18 but it was rough, physical usage — he drew more shooting fouls, achieved more “and-1”s, committed more offensive fouls and had more of his shots blocked than in any of his six previous NBA seasons, despite playing fewer minutes than in four of those seasons.
For the fourth time in five seasons, KAT shot better than 40% from behind the arc — 41% actually, the third-most accurate long-distance rate of his career — yet the frequency of treys in his shot mix was his lowest in three seasons, while the frequency of free throws was a career high. Even as KAT took on most of the combat, however, his shooting was far and away the most efficient on the team. A lot of his work was done in the paint. He shot 58% on 11.5 two-pointers per game, far better than the next most frequent shooters inside the arc — Ant’s 51.9% on 8.9 attempts and DLo’s 49.2% on 7 attempts. He was even more devastating from distance — 41% on 4.9 treys per game. Compare that to Ant’s 35.7 on 8.9 trey attempts per game, Beasley’s 37.7% on 8.1 shots from distance per game, and DLo’s 34% on 8 three-pointers fired per contest.
In other words, the Wolves without KAT would have finished well below the 7th best offense (points scored per possession) in the NBA in 2021-22.
Although less efficient or consistent, the maturation of Ant was even more exciting. Because excepting the glorious season where Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell supplemented KG and the one season where Jimmy Butler made a partial effort to synchronize with KAT, the Wolves lacked the exponential leverage of two high-powered stars on the court. In 2021-22, it became a burgeoning phenomenon.
Coming into his second NBA season, it was still an open question whether or not Ant could be a dynamic three-level scorer — twos, threes and free throws — with the biggest uncertainty being his long-distance accuracy. Today, incredibly enough, the greater uncertainty is Ant’s knack for drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line. And the emergence of that skill literally feels like only a matter of time.
While he did not make a stunning leap — a case could be made that he was deserving of an All-Star bid, but it was certainly debatable and he was slumping and in pain when the subs were chosen — Ant’s improvement was impressively broad-based. Per basketball-reference.com, he was more accurate from every distance range — from 0-3 feet, out to 3-10 feet, and then 10-16 feet, then 16 feet to the three point arc, and finally shots beyond the arc. The frequency of his assists, steals and blocks were also up, and, at least according to Finch, his on-ball defense may have been his most notable sign of progress.
There are two reasons why even the (slightly) elevated numbers don’t do Ant justice. The first is that he was clearly hampered by tendinopathy in his knees and the fresh, intimate uncertainty of playing through that pain. Consider his true shooting percentages from November through April of the regular season: Nov.: 54.4; Dec.: 59.0; Jan.: 60.2; Feb.:47.8; March: 59.5; and April: 62.7. Guess which month his knees were most painful.
But more fundamentally, Ant is what Finch refers to as a “home run hitter,” a player whose explosive scoring prowess can rapidly flip the outcome of a game, and a performer with the skills and athleticism to manufacture, take and make shots even as opponents are hell-bent to stop him. Not only did Ant flash and flex that talent more often in 2021-22, he welcomed the chance to do it in the spotlight of the postseason.
Even with reigning MVP Nikola Jokic as a notable outlier, it remains exceedingly difficult in the modern NBA to structure your offense around a big man. (And as good as Jokic was this past season, it was apparent how much he missed Jamal Murray as a complementary playmaker.) The question of not if, but when Ant supplants KAT as the dominant offensive presence on the Wolves could easily have become an awkward subtext to this season, and the “elephant in the room” moving forward.
But along with the expert guidance of Finch and clarion competitive fire of PatBev, what made the 2021-22 season such an enjoyable ride was a team-wide camaraderie from top to bottom on the roster, highlighted by a genuine absence of jealousy or any other type of corrosive rivalry between KAT and Ant. Edwards guilelessly professed nothing but love and admiration for KAT on numerous occasions, including milestones such as KAT’s 60-point game versus San Antonio.
For his part, KAT flat-out called Ant the most talented teammate of his career in the midst of a high-profile postseason press conference.
The love seems genuine. It was a charm from this season worth savoring for the future.