Part I of my lengthy interview with Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch ran yesterday (Sept. 21). In part II, we get into the adjustments Karl-Anthony Towns will have to make playing power forward on defense, and what the options are for the team if he can’t. Also, remedying last season’s awful transition defense and a look at what should be a potent offense during the 2022-23 season.
MinnPost: KAT has always been better on defense when he has had really strong communicators next to him. Is Rudy (Gobert) that?
Chris Finch: Yeah, I believe so.
MP: I ask because there is a quickness issue for KAT on the scramble when playing the 4 (power forward). But is there also going to be a need to catch up mentally?
CF: There might be initially, yeah. Just because you always try to keep your 5 (center) out of rotation. But KAT is a pretty quick learner when you put him through a drill; he gets a really good feel for it. … That’s not something I’m overly concerned about. He is either going to be able to do it or not do it.
MP: And if he doesn’t do it?
CF: A lot of zone and a lot of switching. (laughs)
MP: Yeah, zone and switching are two things that are not your cup of tea.
CF: (laughing) I drink all types of tea.
MP: But you don’t like switching.
CF: I’m not a huge start-the-game-by-switching guy. I don’t mind growing into switching. It is just when you into the game with a switch mindset, A, where do you go from there? And B, you preach all the time to be aggressive and into the ball and all these things.
MP: You have said before that switching sheds accountability and sets up a lot of gamesmanship trying to get the right matchup.
CF: Yeah. But again, these are things that are harder to do with second-year players. But it is also fun to watch these guys grow and learn. Like even during the playoffs last year, just figuring it out. They have the solution a lot of the times before you feel the need to give it to them.
With all this stuff, it is all a matter of what the team is able to execute. You might say, “Hey, we should be doing this.” But if we are not able to do that, we’ve got to do something else. And although it might have less effectiveness, it might overall be better for the team. We’ve got to figure those things out.
I think we will be way more of a switch team. And we might work in a lot more “going unders” in pick-and-roll and take our chances that way too. It is just stuff that helps us if KAT, or anyone else for that matter, has a problem in rotations, there are solutions to be able to cover for it.
MP: And fortunately that wouldn’t be news to Rudy, who has chronically had teammates who struggle on rotations.
CF: One thing Rudy is excited about is the presence of Jaden (McDaniels), and the presence of Ant (Anthony Edwards) on the ball, the size of KAT next to him. These are things that he didn’t necessarily have before. And we are going to lean on Rudy too. Like, “Hey, you want to guard these guys a certain way, depending on personnel, when do you want to break off, when do you want to switch, what are we doing in this situation – how do you want to guard these guys? You have been guarding them for years. So just tell us.”
MP: That reminds me of one of your coaching methods. You see what your team does well on offense and then tailor your sets to accentuate it. You want to see what you do well on defense and that will help determine your sets.
CF: I think so. We’ll still have our foundation, what the shell is going to look like. One thing we absolutely have to get better at is transition. There is no point in having an elite rim protector if you are getting beat up in transition every night.
But yeah, I’ve always maintained that with bigs, in pick and roll in particular, they all have a skill set at what they are best at in pick and roll, and sometimes we jam them into a concept that makes them less effective. And like any skill set, let’s try to trend them to what they do best and figure out the rest behind them, if we decide that that is the main thing.
The ‘D’ in DLo, challenging Ant to get back
MP: Why did DLo (D’Angelo Russell) fall off so much on defense in the second half of the season? And is that something that can be rectified?
CF: Um, I think it can. I don’t see it as this precipitous fall.
MP: Statistically it was.
CF: Yeah. I think that group defensively was playing way above its norm early in the season. So there was some normalization to the stats there. As I said, DLo was really good as that quarterback/defender, communicator, help guy. As the season went along, I think teams started to recognize that and exploit it a little bit too. His at-the-rim habits probably could have been a little bit better, with verticality, taking charges, stuff like that. But rather than this massive fall, I saw it more like “the greatest starting lineup ever,” or whatever they called themselves for a little bit, with their net differential, we all probably knew that was not going to hold. Plus a lot of the defense was driven by PB (Patrick Beverly) and Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt) and the steals and that kind of stuff.
MP: They were the brains and the engine of your defensive operation and now they are gone. Now Ant and DLo are going to be really important to that inversion of the floor you were talking about.
CF: Ant told me yesterday that he wants (to guard) the best player with the ball. Now, I don’t know, but anytime we can give him that matchup, we are going to do it, but Jaden is pretty good in that space too.
MP: It will probably depend on whether that guy is a 3 (small forward) or a 2 (shooting guard).
CF: A 3, a 2 or a 1 (point guard), yeah. It just depends. There are certain matchups that Jaden struggles with and certain ones he is really good – most of them he is really good at.
MP: Foul trouble is occasionally the issue.
CF: Yeah, foul trouble. But it is great that Ant requesting these things.
MP: You did mention troubles with transition defense last season. Is some of that because you hit the offensive glass so hard last season?
CF: When you look at the numbers, the best amount to send analytically to help both sides of the ball is three going to the glass. So then you have to figure out, who’s good at it? Like PB, he had kind of fallen off at this point in his career, but he was an elite offensive rebounder. Vando, an elite offensive rebounder. So you always want those guys to go. We didn’t care if they paid too much attention to floor balance. But guys like Ant or DLo, who don’t live in that space, need to be better at getting back. KAT crashing from the top of the floor was probably reckless a lot of the time.
But Rudy is great. We want him to go to the glass no matter where he is on the floor because he is so good at it, so quick. And he keeps the ball alive if nothing else. The other thing is that if Rudy goes to the glass, they are putting two bodies on him. Which means if other people are going to the glass they have to put bodies on them and with four bodies they are devoting to the glass (to guarantee the defensive rebound), they aren’t going to be able to run on you as much.
MP: So what I am hearing is that Jaden is likely to be one of those hitters on the glass. And given his size and quickness, that makes sense.
CF: Yeah. I don’t think it does us a lot of good to send Ant to the glass; he is just not a natural offensive rebounder.
MP: And if he is going to work as hard as he claims on defense, you want him back anyway.
CF: Well he better work his ass getting back, that’s for sure. (laughs)
An ascendant offense behind KAT and Ant
MP: So let’s shift the focus over to offense, where I think you guys are loaded. Start with KAT. The amount of three-pointers in his shot mix has fallen from 44% to 36% to 30% over the past two seasons. That’s a 50% drop from the 2019-20 season. I know you like him on the low block and you like paint scoring in general, but with Rudy around do you think he will be bumping up his share of threes a lot more?
CF: I would hope – I mean, I would think so. I try not to go into it thinking, “You’ve got to take X number of threes.” The reality is that KAT takes the shots we value. Last year he led the league in drives to the rim by bigs. And those are great because they lead to free throws and rim attacks and all of that. And I can still some of that (when he is) in the trail spot.
MP: To your point, he set a career-high for drawing fouls last season.
CF: I mean, posting up KAT last year was hard because we knew they weren’t going to guard Vando honestly and they would just come double. It led to a lot of threes for us, but we never really could punish anybody, for one reason or another. Some of our fundamentals were not where they needed to be. But this year I think with the matchups, they have to choose how they are going to guard. They might still double KAT, but now with Rudy at the rim it is a whole different thing. If they leave him one-on-one against the 4 or the 5, KAT is really good there. So that is a benefit I think we can get. That might affect the number of threes he is taking, but it is still giving us something that we hadn’t had that much last year. I do believe he will get more spot threes because when we are in spread pick-and-roll, especially with DLo on the handle.
MP: That’s going to be your bread-and-butter to a certain extent, with Ant in the opposite slot for drives and Jaden in the corner and KAT up top on the DLo pick and roll action with Rudy. That’s like the Clippers of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and that crew – pick your poison. Also, KAT improved a lot in the low block when he stopped having his back to the basket and couldn’t be aware the double-teams were coming, didn’t he? And he is going to be almost naturally facing up this season?
CF: Right. For sure. I think he made life in the post a lot harder than it had to be sometimes. We didn’t help him with our spacing sometimes, and our cutting was a little choppy. But we kind of went away from it a lot too.
MP: It seemed like he fell in love with early decision-making that became late decision-making because his early decision wasn’t a good one.
CF: Right (chuckles). He knows where the open guy is. He just has to trust that the pass-pass will get the ball there rather than a direct pass.
MP: Moving on from KAT, another salient factor for the offense this season will be developing Ant as a playmaker, I imagine. But the current situation favors DLo too. Is that going to be solved with rotations? How are DLo and Ant going to work that out?
CF: I think DLo is obviously going to be our primary ball-handler and playmaker, but – I don’t really worry about it too much. I think there are enough opportunities in our offense. If DLo does initiate the offense (Ant) will get the ball quickly, just because of the way we play, changing the sides of the floor as quickly as we can.
But even before that, what I want Ant to do – especially with the league eliminating the “take” foul – I want him to be way more destructive in transition. Throw ahead to him and early attacks. In the half court, we’ve never really had –he’s had KAT as a pop guy (as a distracting option for the defense), which has allowed him to get downhill. But now his decision-making is going to be key with Rudy as a roller. We haven’t had this threat. So yeah, I think that is certainly a growth area for him. He has to develop a little more touch in his passing.
MP: Watching the Celtics and the Warriors, it seems like if Ant can develop more of a drive-and-kick game.
CF: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, he has a drive-and-kick game when he attacks from the baseline, but less-so when he is coming down the middle of the defense.
MP: You are such a high-pace guy, wanting ball movement and movement without the ball, and both Ant and DLo love to dribble out there on the perimeter. Doesn’t that drive you nuts?
CF: (Laughs) At times it does. At times we want to discourage dribbling and going nowhere. I think DLo is trying slow the game down to where he knows exactly what he wants. Ant is still in that phase where he is trying to figure out what the floor looks like (in terms of his options). That’s going to come for any young player, but we are always encouraging Ant just to go, go, go, because that’s where he is elite.
MP: He has the advantage if he goes. He doesn’t need to survey the floor because the floor will change in his favor when he goes.
CF: That is the same thing we said to James (Harden) in Houston. Trust your talent. When you get by the first line of defense quickly, there will be no second line of defense – the floor will open up quickly for you. But if you wait and survey and everybody starts to anticipate and sink and sag, now, not only does your initial attack become harder, you don’t have any benefit at the rim for yourself and everyone on the defense is leaning into their rotations already.
Ant will begin to understand the little things like this. Like, if they are going to commit two people to you defensively, with the early help or early low-man, then the earlier you go, the better it is, because now the defense has to be put in rotation, and we have time. That’s what I always preach. You really see it become a huge problem at the end of games – go earlier because we’ll have time at the end of the clock to find something else. That’s true at all times, but because games slow down and players tend to slow them down at the end of games – that’s why you often see a drive and a pass and a tough shot near the end of the clock out of it. Go earlier.
Part III will of the four part series runs tomorrow, Sept. 23.