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Wolves preview: Chris Finch shares candid thoughts on upcoming season that comes with high expectations

Part I of a four part one-on-one interview with Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch.

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch: “Offensively it is pretty much the same every year in terms of how we install it all. Defensively we still want to maintain a fly-around mentality.”
Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch: “Offensively it is pretty much the same every year in terms of how we install it all. Defensively we still want to maintain a fly-around mentality.”
Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

In the summer of 2021 when I was finishing up my tenure with The Athletic, I went out to Las Vegas where the Minnesota Timberwolves were participating in the NBA’s Summer League and did a 75-minute interview with head coach Chris Finch.

Finch was soon to embark on his first training camp and first full season with the Wolves, and was remarkably candid and fearless in his responses to my questions. So I knew it was an experience I wanted to repeat.

Because the Wolves shook up their roster – and the entire NBA – with their blockbuster acquisition of three time All Star and three time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert in July, I wanted to give Finch enough time to think about how he was going to incorporate such a valuable asset on the roster. Gobert is a second big man, added to Karl-Anthony Towns, at a time in the NBA when the trend is to go smaller and quicker.

Once again, Finch was gracious and flexible with his time, and forthcoming with his opinions over our nearly 70-minute conversation, which took place in his Mayo Clinic Square office on Sept. 13. Because the Q&A has been edited only slightly and runs chronologically to provide proper context, it will run in four parts, beginning today and continuing through the opening of training camp next week.

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Part I concentrates on some of the strategies and schemes that will best accommodate both Gobert’s arrival and the loss of Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, two key components sacrificed to acquire Gobert. The surprise here is that, even though Gobert is renowned for his defense, his acquisition may actually enhance the Wolves offense more than the defense, which will be challenged to adapt to a two-bigs starting lineup.

Thus begins our coverage of 2022-23 Minnesota Timberwolves season. Welcome aboard.

MinnPost: So, two weeks out from training camp, how close are you to being set in what you think you are going to do coming into the season?

Chris Finch: Good question. Probably about 75%. I think offensively we have a pretty good idea of how it is going to fit together; we just have to go through the mechanics of it. And that’s going to be important. Rudy not being able to get here early because of playing in EuroBasket has been a bit of a pinch, but I think ultimately we’ll be able to make up ground there.

Defensively? We have the foundation, but the reality is that we are going to have to be a multiple-faceted defensive team, you know? Some coverages we’re going to have to be up, some coverages we’re going to have to be back. Different personnel groups are going to dictate that. But I think that is good for us too. It will be building on what we need to do to be a better team all the way around. Last year we were kind of like a fastball team and we didn’t really have the ability to do other things quite well.

MP: So, what will the emphasis be during the first few days of practice?

CF: Going back to square one on the fundamentals of our offensive and defensive systems. Offensively it is pretty much the same every year in terms of how we install it all. Defensively we still want to maintain a fly-around mentality. So I think we want and need to create that from the beginning. We don’t want to just rely on Rudy to solve all of our problems defensively. We still eventually have to cover for each other and make multiple efforts and be able to fly around. We were good at that last year and so I don’t want to take that away. But we have some new players that are going to play significant roles so it’s important we go step-by-step.

MP: Obviously Rudy is the big news, the big splash among the new personnel. At the press conference announcing him you used words like “perfect fit” and “seamless” in describing him on this team. Which was kind of eyebrow-raising because a lot of people were feeling like this move was against the grain on NBA trends. What do you like so much about the fit?

CF: Well the things where Rudy is elite are things we struggle with – rim protection and rebounding, for sure. And to benefit from that we don’t need to do a ton of different things and move everybody around. KAT (Towns) is obviously going to play more at the 4 (power forward position). But when you look at his skillset, he is easily able to do that offensively. Defensively it might look a little different every night and that is what we still have to figure out; part of that 25% where we probably don’t have a clear answer yet.

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There are probably things that we are going to face on a nightly basis that we don’t know yet how they are coming. So some of that (uncertainty) is from trying not to solve problems before we have problems.

Offensively, I look at it as a seamless fit in the sense that Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt) basically played the five (center position) in our offense a lot last year. So the spacing and the mechanics around that aren’t too different, plus we now have with Rudy the added benefit of the vertical lob threat; a guy with great size, where they can’t just switch and manipulate matchups to mitigate KAT. Again, KAT is going to be the one that has to move and play at different spots on the floor. He was excellent at the high post last year, and at the elbow and the nail (areas around the free throw line). And he’ll be able to play there some. But he’ll also be playing out of the corners, and being out in the open is going to be a little more necessary for him this season.

Can KAT defend in space?

MP: I’m more concerned about KAT in the open on defense. It sounds crazy to say, because with Rudy you have just added a three-time Defensive Player of the Year over the last five seasons. But as you stake out the broad outlines for this season, the biggest challenges and adjustments for the Wolves would seem to be on defense. The way the NBA is going there are so many “5-out” offensive schemes, where teams just swing-swing-swing, pass the ball around the perimeter until somebody is eventually wide open from three-point range. And with KAT playing along with Rudy, are you going to want him being one of the chasers in those situations, in the scramble group?

CF: Well he is going to have to. I think he is going to have to rotate more. There are going to be nuances. We are going to have to get good at inverting the floor (bigs on the perimeter, smalls in the interior) or in sending out another guy in rotation (instead of KAT) if possible. That is the kind of the advance stuff that young teams don’t always take to naturally. But you know KAT has been in the league long enough now, although it will be a different thing for him.

Last season DLo (D’Angelo Russell) was a very good quarterback for our kind of defense, and we tried to let others scramble and let him (use his anticipation) to kind of plug (the gaps). But he is going to have to be at the front of the defense in those scramble situations more himself now. And certainly KAT is going to have to be way more active. As far as him chasing off of actions, as I said, we are going to try and invert the floor and switch when we can. I think we’ll get a pretty good feel for it as things unfold. And then we will have certain personnel groups out there like Kyle Anderson, who is very savvy, and has the ability to communicate before plays start and can guard a bunch of different guys.

KAT will always tell you he likes to be a switch defender. But it is just hard to do it with him, given everything else you are asking him to do all night long. So yeah, those are all things we have to discover and see how it fits. KAT has shed some weight again and he looks pretty trim, so that should help him. And when you look at the 4 position in the league, Britt, it is probably the most varied position. You face stretch-fours, athletic-fours, rugged-fours, small-fours. Before we made the trade, we mapped out what the possible matchups would be for KAT across the league, and we felt pretty comfortable on the bulk of them. We didn’t feel like we were going to be losing a lot of ground there. And then you always have the ability to switch the matchups; put KAT on the 5 and put him up in pick-and-roll and leave Rudy at the rim. As long as they give you a guy (a matchup) to do that.

MP: But if they don’t give you that guy?

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CF: That really puts KAT in a rotation then.

MP: Right.

CF: But hopefully you can cover by then after a couple of passes.

MP: So what you are describing is a kind of a combo scramble-drop.

CF: Yup. 100%. We don’t –  watching the playoffs last year, there were these heavy drop-coverage teams that were really good at it, but they were put in these situations where they had to change it up and start to scramble and they just didn’t have that natural fly-around mentality. And I thought for us that (mentality) was really good. Now of course we had Vando and PB (Patrick Beverly); guys that were really good at it. But we have Jaden (McDaniels), Ant (Anthony Edwards), Taurean (Prince), Kyle, who is really smart. A lot of times, I think with these guys, you keep it really simple: “If the man with the ball is open right in front of me, (Finch claps), I’ve got to go play it.” Unless it is a guy we choose not to guard, but we don’t really do that very often.

But being able to read those situations is going to be absolutely key. When is it that Rudy is in pick-and-roll (coverage) and we want to be able to maintain a shape, and when is it that we want to fly around a little bit more, you know? That’s tough for any team, and I’m not sure we have enough sophistication to have two completely different looks: Hugged up when Rudy is in pick and roll and all the way in when anyone else is in pick-and-roll. That’s a lot to ask for a team. I just don’t think you’ll build good habits either way.

MP: So it will evolve into a choice of patterns. How much do you envision KAT and Rudy playing together, assuming no foul trouble or other contingency?

CF: If you think they are both going to play, let’s say, 32-to-36 minutes a night, you are talking about 20-to-24 minutes together and 10-to-12 apart. The reality is that we should have 48 minutes of All-NBA level (performance) at the 5. Our commitment to the Rudy trade is we are not going to allow teams to play our players off the floor. We have to be smart enough to figure it out. A lot of that is, are you able to punish your opponent at the other end of the floor (when the Wolves are on offense)? And we think we can.

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Integrating Gobert

MP: Does your background coaching basketball overseas help you in your relationship and communication with Rudy? I know you went over to watch him play for France in EuroBasket earlier this month.

CF: I would say that part of our connection as we build a relationship with each other is understanding that it is a different game in Europe, and understanding how much it means for those guys to play for their country. I had forgotten how physical it is. Hand-checking on the ball. Holding rollers (cutting to the basket). It is very physical in a different way than the NBA. And there are long-continuity offenses, not a ton of transition play, not as free-flowing. A lot of set play-calls.

Watching Rudy handle the ball through the elbows (areas of the court) to initiate the offense were things I think we are going to need him to do at the top of the floor with us. He was really good in the short-roll, which is not someplace they ever gave him the ball much in Utah. Now teams in pick-and-roll were up a little bit more at EuroBasket, so it accentuated that opportunity a little bit more. I just think it gives you a window into things that he might be able to do for you. But possessions in those games are mannerly; so it you get down 7 points it feels like 17.

MP: I know he wanted more touches and a little more involvement in the offense in Utah. Was that an early discussion with you guys?

CF: I have told him, “We are going to get you the ball. If you have your man pinned or sealed, DLo is going to give you the ball. KAT will throw you the ball. You’ll see a big-to-big dynamic (between KAT and Rudy).” Our offense is not going to be just simply spread offense around Rudy either. You’ll see a little bit more movement-based things than that. He is going to handle the ball at the top of the floor, make quick decisions that gets us into our offense side-to-side; things that we ask our bigs to do regardless of skill set because of the importance of what we want offensively.

But yeah, it wasn’t really a discussion, it is just things that we do. Dwight Howard did it for us in Houston (where Fitch was an associate head coach). Rudy actually has pretty good touch passing. People drop way down on the floor on him and that cuts off his angles, but when he has opportunities to find people in the interior, he does a good job. I saw him do it in Europe, finding guys and playing in other big-to-big dynamics.

MP: He created more points on screen-assists than anybody in the NBA last year. And Ed Davis aside, you guys really haven’t had a guy who can be that effective on screens for teammates.

CF: Yeah. One of the things we are talking a lot about as a staff is that when you get a great player, it is still about having to maximize that player. So one of the things we put down on the offensive side of the ball is that we have got to be way better at setting up our screens; waiting for him and allowing him to do what he is really good at. And of course that is also going to create opportunities for him at the rim, which, we really haven’t had that.

MP: Who do you think among the starters around Rudy work well in drop coverage? Because in addition to getting the scramble going in your defense, getting the drop working as seamlessly as possible is important. But that’s going to be a process.

CF: Yeah, it is a good question. DLo has obviously played drop coverage in Brooklyn and played it a lot. I think Jaden with his length and his pursuit will be a natural fit in drop coverage. I think Bryn (Forbes) has probably played a lot of drop coverage where he’s been in Milwaukee and other places. Other guys – Anthony will have to get the feel for it; when to break off or keep pursuing. And that’s actually the things that will matter most, the little habits you need. When do you break off?  When do you pursue? You gotta crack back.

How do you maximize Rudy? Well if he is going to be elite at the rim, you better be elite behind him. Protecting him on the glass, protecting him when his man rolls and stuff like that. And those are the things that, to me, take a little bit more feel and more nuance, building up that process.

Coming in Part II: What happens if KAT and the defense falter under the new alignment? Why did DLo’s defensive effectiveness decline in the second half of last season? A deeper dive into the offense; how and why it should hum this coming season.