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Timberwolves mailbag

This time around, a lot of you wanted to talk about the performance of Coach Chris Finch, and the re-acclimation of KAT if and when he is finally health enough to rejoin the rotation.

Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch reacting during the February 13 game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center.
Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch reacting during the February 13 game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first Timberwolves mailbag of 2023.

Plenty has happened since I last took your questions in print back in mid-November, when the Wolves had dropped eight of their first 14 games despite an easy schedule the first month of the season. Less than two weeks later, Karl-Anthony Towns went down with a severe calf sprain, which has kept him on the sidelines for the past 40 games, and counting. And of course just two weeks ago, the Wolves swung a big trade that essentially swapped out D’Angelo Russell for Mike Conley at the point guard position, with the team also adding a young wing and three second-round draft picks.

As usual, I received a number of great questions, both in the MinnPost comment section and at my twitter feed, @brittrobson. This time around, a lot of you wanted to talk about the performance of Coach Chris Finch, and the re-acclimation of KAT if and when he is finally health enough to rejoin the rotation. I’ll take those bunches in that order, and then add some pertinent miscellaneous things that were on your mind. As always, thanks for the feedback. (And for those who are audio-inclined, we’ll do another zoom on March 13.)

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How long does Finch remain as head coach? Ant is 21. The chances he’s coaching during Ant’s prime seem slim. Why not make a change now? This summer? My guess is that they give him half of next season. Jon Person @jperson74

To prevent (Rudy) Gobert from being an offensive liability, he needs a steady diet of pick and roll, now with Conley. Does Finch alter his offense to accommodate this even though it will diminish his preferred “flow” offense? If not, I suspect Finch’s time here might come to an early end. Tom Peppermint @TomPeppermint

I put these two at the top because both explicitly mentioned Finch being fired, which currently seems ridiculous for a number of reasons. First off, he and his entire coaching staff were given four-year contract extensions last summer. Second, while Finch is the most likely scapegoat if the massive Gobert trade is proven to be a mistake, KAT’s injury has delayed meaningful judgment on that until next season, and even then it would require a garish level of underachievement to put him on the hot seat.

Meanwhile, Finch has the Wolves above .500 three-quarters of the way through the season without the benefit of having KAT on the court for nearly three months’ time. The two third-year starters, Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels, continue to flaunt significant growth under his tutelage. The relationship that matters most, between Ant and Finch, has been a mutual admiration, with Ant appreciating both being “coached hard” and being given the freedom to wheel and deal on offense.

There is an apparent dissonance between Finch’s offensive philosophy and Gobert’s specific virtues at that end of the court, however. Finch can be blamed for overestimating the ease of Gobert’s integration on both offense and defense (a faith he shares with president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, which perhaps is another reason his job is safe).

During his last four seasons in Utah, Gobert ranked in the top five in his frequency as a pick-and-roll “roll man,” averaging between 3.4 and 3.9 possessions per game. Thus far this season he is 19th, at 2.2 possessions per game. His points per play as a roller is in the 75th percentile at 1.29, but that is still lower than three of his previous four seasons. His free throw rate and turnover rate on those diminished opportunities is also lower, further evidence of less engagement, although his field goal percentage as a roller is his third-best in the past five years.

The acquisition of Conley will help because Conley played with Gobert in Utah the previous three seasons and knows his finicky requirements for premium output. Conley is also a low usage point guard content to simply facilitate the scoring of not only Gobert but Ant (and KAT, when he returns) by either passing or getting out of the way. And his defense is superior to D’Lo’s.

How much of the under-performing against lower-level teams can be placed on the coaching staff? I like Finch but the repeated failures against these teams would seem to be addressed by now. It seems like they are waiting for the team to mature. What’s the coaching grade? BlueHenTerp @terphen

Finch talks a lot about accountability. Does he need to be quicker to sit players that aren’t giving effort on (defense) or are making foolish turnovers, or is it good to give players a chance to heat up? How do these decisions affect player/coach relationships and team chemistry? Scotty Mac @MadMc45

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I think Finch is great but I have to wonder about his willingness to let the Wolves play themselves into a hole. Is it just me or does he need to tighten things up, get more directly involved at the end of games? Or is this more about lack of execution? Be Pa

How much of the undisciplined nature of the Wolves’ play is to be blamed on the players versus the coaching staff? Bradley Daniel @BradDanPaul

I’d love to hear your take on Chris Finch as coach. It seems to me that he has been really good at times (on both in-game strategy and rotations) and also really bad at times. What’s with the disparity? Is he just trying things out? Still learning with his team? Jim Beilby @jimbilbs

What do you think about the idea of Ime Udoka? And how a coach like that would … hypothetically … mesh with a team like the Wolves? Miguel Torres

The most common theme of this mailbag was vexation over Finch’s tendency to let his players figure it out for themselves, a fascinating hallmark of his coaching style.

Finch does have basic principles: Pressure and contain the ball-handler when you are on defense, and both move the ball and move without the ball on offense. But I was always struck by an interview he did with WCCO shortly after taking the Wolves job. To paraphrase, he said the players will teach him how to proceed – he provides them with the freedom to improvise and then subsequently devises many of his schemes out of the positive habits and interactions they display in combinations of two-to-five players. He also told me that specific play-calls can make players robotic because they stick to the script rather than read-and-react.

The downside of this philosophy is players will become too undisciplined and less attuned to the fundamentals. A lot of what is wrong with the team this season falls into that bin of vices: They commit silly or lazy turnovers, don’t box out on rebounds, don’t sustain their defensive coverage, occasionally engage in poor shot selection, and have trouble executing efficiently in transition on both offense and defense. Mental discipline has also been an issue. Too often the Wolves have frittered away winnable circumstances by taking poor teams and large leads for granted. For a long stretch of the season, they weren’t prepared to play coming out of the locker room after halftime.

Last season’s roster was a perfect fit for what Finch does best. Patrick Beverley provided the voice and the brains and Jarred Vanderbilt delivered the hamstrings and sweat equity for a self-regulating, fly-around identity that shed decades of shoddy reputation for this franchise. This year’s roster is more talented but less attuned to the “Finch Method,” forcing adjustments on both sides.

That said, Finch is exactly the right coach for Kyle Anderson, KAT, and the two young starters, Ant and McDaniels. Slo Mo (Anderson) is by name deliberate, but also extremely creative as a read-and-react playmaker. Despite his high turnover rate, Finch trusts him implicitly. KAT loves Finch because the coach listened when KAT said he could play high-wall instead of drop coverage on defense; plus Finch encouraged him losing weight and taking his man off the dribble on offense. We’ve mentioned the Ant/Finch bond. Under Finch, McDaniels has blossomed from a mediocre catch-and-shoot outlet in the corner into as a well-rounded offensive cog who needs to be accounted for by opponents. And despite the fouls, his defense is aces.

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It will be interesting to see how Finch integrates the Conley/Gobert interactivity into the overall offense, especially when KAT returns. You get the impression that both of those veterans might better respond to more of a disciplinary presence like Udoka, who showed signs of being a great coach in his brief tenure with the Celtics. On the other hand, the drive-and-kick offense Udoka minted with the Celts doesn’t fit Gobert any better than what Finch runs.

Even if Udoka hadn’t gotten suspended, and eventually dropped, by Boston due to a dalliance with a coworker, I prefer Finch because of the continuity and rapport he has established with the future cornerstones of this team. Udoka might do as well, or even better, but I’ll take the proven track record. In my opinion, nobody coached a Timbewolves team better than Finch did during the 2021-22 season.


Do you think KAT has it in him to come back and not expect to be the epicenter of the offense going forward, or is his pride going to get in the way? All Things MN @allthingsmn

How does Karl (-Anthony) handle becoming second fiddle in the locker room once he’s back? The team became Ant’s during his recovery? Mole Boy @oliverjohndesi1

When KAT comes back does it make more sense to have him come off the bench? He’ll be on a minutes restriction, (and it would) also allow him to be the focus offensively on the second unit. Nate @moozeekfan

What do you think the transition defense will be like when KAT comes back? They struggled before with the two bigs. Have you seen anything in the KAT-less times that makes you think this has improved? Idiots guide to the galaxy @Pjlecy

In addition to Rudy making adjustments to the high-wall (defensive scheme), any chance KAT’s drop coverage could improve when he’s playing center? Assuming the non-center players get to the point of playing very good drop coverage, could KAT finally be a reliable drop (coverage) center? Dan Becker

The number of KAT-related questions rivaled the bundle asking about Finch. They are smart and nuanced and difficult to answer. KAT is a unique, unpredictable personality – kind, insecure, prone to exaggeration. He found his niche last season aligning himself with the leadership of a less talented player (PatBev) who respected him. He was extremely gracious regarding the rise of Ant, and found a solid space in his perceived role as a mentoring big brother.

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The best-case scenario for the Wolves was always Ant being able to seize the reins of this team, on the court and in the locker room, and KAT isn’t so obtuse that he wouldn’t recognize it coming. But yeah, he has got to find his place in the pecking order, which will vary according to context and circumstance.

The easy part is the locker room. Few athletes have ever made the word “childlike” become as much of a compliment as Ant. He has retained not only the absence of guile, but the open generosity of spirit and goodwill that is usually sacrificed to maturity. Much of the source of Ant’s charisma is his genuine, gleeful knack for taking personal accountability and giving other people credit.

But on the court, Ant has developed an alpha mentality that can and occasionally should be tweaked, but not denied – on the contrary, it needs to be fostered and channeled. And here’s the rub: KAT is a sensitive soul, a historically great shooter on a super-max contract who is going to be asked to take a more subsidiary role at both ends of the court.

It would be lunacy to ignore him, and a mistake not to recognize when matchups should make him the focal point of the offense. But between Ant’s all-around playmaking and Conley getting Gobert enough attention by opponents to create more spacing in the half-court, KAT will often have to be patient, and make quicker decisions once he does eventually get the ball. And on defense, as he attends to his healing calf and the rust on his game-rhythm, he faces a challenge whether he is the second big on the floor with Gobert, or playing center in either the high-wall or drop scheme.

I am on record (during a podcast with Dane Moore) as believing it best for KAT to come off the bench at first. That’s what D’Lo did after an injury two years ago and his ability to stimulate a second unit made for a successful transition back for team and player alike.

But, more to the point, my skepticism about the Gobert trade was always most pronounced in terms of it forcing KAT to be a fly-around defender on the perimeter. For the trade to be successful, the team will have to figure out a way to synergize Gobert and KAT together at that end of the court. In my opinion, how the Wolves management and coaching staff reintegrate a rusty KAT over the final 15-18 games of the season will reveal a lot about their priorities and timeframe.

Bringing him off the bench allows them to get KAT up to speed under less pressurized circumstances while maintaining the momentum they have developed with the existing players around Gobert. It probably gives them a better chance of finishing higher in the standings in the crowded Western Conference.

On the other hand, you are already in flux with Conley replacing D’Lo. You theoretically are allowed a mulligan on the final outcome of this season due to KAT’s extended absence. At the time of the Gobert trade, it was always understood that synergizing KAT and Gobert would be the dominant factor in whether the gambit ultimately succeeded or failed. Why waste the final month or so of the season by ignoring the opportunity to continuing probing for the best ways they fit together?

The final two KAT-related questions above speak to that probe. One wonders if I’ve seen encouraging signs of team growth that would better protect KAT out in space with Gobert down low. The other wonders if improved drop coverage by his teammates would enable KAT to be more effective in that scheme. My answer to both is that KAT is returning to a marginally better environment for both of those things, but it probably isn’t enough. I believe KAT is best as the center in a high-wall. Can he and Rudy play high-wall together? Again, probably better than they could have before, but not well enough.

A question I didn’t include asked if KAT should be traded this summer. That requires a column unto itself and is a moot point until the process of probing for a synergistic fit between the bigs is exhausted.

Two quick hits

Did the Wolves make the best deal they could for D’Lo? Was it wise just to preserve the salary slot for next year to be able to operate over the cap? StreetHistory Videos @streethistory

Yes. Punting all the resources required to obtain Gobert made it crucial that the Wolves retain the flexibility of managing a roster in luxury tax territory. Yes it is expensive, but that is the life you signed up for when the Gobert deal went down.

Anything on the buyout market interest you? Do you see KAT taking more 3’s with Russell gone? Michael Zontelli @zonwins

I think there has been enough churn. Surprised and pleased there were no PatBev questions – he would automatically demand/expect as much influence on the team as he had last season (that’s who he is) and this very different roster can’t afford the turbulence. And in response to a couple of questions not printed here, I wouldn’t mind seeing Nickeil Alexander-Walker (NAW), the wing acquired in the D’Lo deal, get a little burn at the expense of Austin Rivers in the rotation. Rivers has been a great locker room guy and an occasional sparkplug, but as valuable journeyman he knows this brutal business side of the game.

Flame on Jaylen Nowell

The fanbase (myself included) furiously overvalues the departed: Bev, (Michael) Beasley, D’Lo and especially Vando. But is there a player we actually undervalue? B. Davis. esq. @yodavis12

Is it poor asset management not to trade Nowell at the deadline and have him leave for nothing, especially (after) getting Walker in the D’Lo trade? Graham Power @GrahamPower3

How do the Wolves score points in crunch time w/their lack of a secondary shot creator & floor spacing? Benny @benjamincuttin

One of the great mysteries of this Timberwolves season has been the inscrutable value of Nowell being on the court. As a team thus far this season, the Wolves have a net rating of plus 0.2, meaning they have scored two-tenths of a point more than they have allowed per 100 possessions. But when Nowell is on the court, the team’s net rating is plus 0.7.

That is a very minor improvement, but given the eye test of Nowell’s performance, plus his individual statistics, it is remarkable that the net rating isn’t instead a huge chasm. On the court, he portrays as a gunner without a conscience and a matador defender. Among the regular-rotation players, only D’Lo and Ant jacked up as many three-pointers per minute than Nowell. But where D’Lo sank 39.1% of those shots, and Ant is converting treys at a 36.4% rate, Nowell’s long-range shooting percentage is 29.4% – a neon-bright level of inaccuracy. Nor is he compensating with great two-point shooting. Among the ten players who have logged at least 700 minutes this season, Nowell’s effective field-goal percentage (combining twos and treys) is the lowest on the team.

But Nowell personifies the good things that can happen when the Wolves play at a rapid, fly-around pace without turning the ball over very often. Only two players in the Wolves 10-player rotation play at a higher pace – Jordan McLaughlin and Taurean Prince – but their combined minutes (367 and 787 minutes, respectively) don’t match the 1,201 minutes Nowell has logged thus far this season. He has been the primary accelerant.

The results are illuminating. Nowell has been paired with Ant for 636 minutes, more than any other teammate. Overall, Ant plays at a pace of 102.02 possessions per game and has a net rating of plus 1.5. But with Nowell beside him, the pace skyrockets to 106.91 and the net rating climbs to plus 7.7. Ditto McDaniels, who is a plus 2.7 at a pace of 101.43 overall, but a plus 8.5 at a pace of 105.33 in his 473 minutes alongside Nowell. KAT’s net rating jumps from minus 0.9 overall to plus-9.3 playing with Nowell, albeit in only 160 minutes together.

When Nowell is paired with any teammate on the roster, that player’s pace goes up. That doesn’t necessarily help some players – Gobert’s net rating drops to minus 2.9 with Nowell compared to plus 0.1 overall, and Slo Mo is a nifty plus 3.0 with Nowell but an even better plus 3.4 overall. Ditto J-Mac, the king of high-pace: He’s plus 8.2 in a team-fastest 110.06 possessions for a two-player pairing alongside Nowell, but an even better plus 9.8 in a team-fastest 108.35 overall individual pace.

So, in answer to the above questions, I believe the fly-around catalyst the Nowell provides is undervalued because we judge him on performance alone rather than acceleration – and his performance should continue to improve with J-Mac and Prince now both healthy and back in the rotation. I also believe it was not a missed opportunity to deal him at the deadline – if the Wolves can re-sign him relatively inexpensively, they should.

As for how the Wolves replace the crunch time playmaking and point-scoring that D’Lo brought to the table, Nowell is one option, especially if Ant is magnetizing defenders. Even the eye test shows that Ant and Nowell thrive on each other’s movement without the ball, as each loves confidently dishing dimes to the other.

The easier answer to who replaces D’Lo’s offensive role in crunch time, however, is KAT.