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Did Rudy Gobert get too much of the blame for last year’s Timberwolves season?

Head Coach Chris Finch offers a spirited pushback on whether or not the Rudy Gobert trade was the best thing.

Rudy Gobert
Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch: “If we don’t have Rudy Gobert [above, center] we don’t come close to winning…”
Photo by Shaina Benhiyoun/SPP/Sipa USA

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In this final installment of the MinnPost interview with Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch, we talk about the completion for the final rotation spots on the roster. Then I challenge the coach – and get spirited pushback – on whether or not the Rudy Gobert trade was the best thing to do, and whether there was enough accountability for the immature traits that hurt the team last season.

Throughout our conversation Finch was candid, informative and classy.

MinnPost: Let’s talk about the guys we haven’t hit on: Josh Minott and Wendell Moore Jr. among the returning guys and Troy Brown as a free agent signing. We talked a little about Shake Milton, but these are the four guys competing near the end of the roster who all weren’t really factors for you last season. Is there space for them, and if so, how and where?

Chris Finch: Let’s start with Wendell and Minott. I think their opportunity to fit in will be situationally.

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MP: They both had tough runs in Vegas (during Summer League), I thought.

Finch: (Mutters) Yeah, I thought so too. But Wendell has the skill set to be a great complimentary piece in the backcourt – another low-usage, high-impact guy. Be a cutter, fill the gap, handle the guard, that kind of stuff. I think that is actually how he is wired to play. Those guys tend to play better when they play with better players.

We’ve been putting him in a lot of situations with the ball in his hands to see if he can be a de facto point guard for us. And I think he has learned a lot through that but it might not be his best position. So what does it look like when Mike Conley is not playing?

MP: Yeah that is a very good question that is on my list – the depth chart at point guard. You mentioned your excitement about Shake Milton and I know NAW (Nickeil Alexander-Walker) did a decent job at it.

Finch: And Kyle (Anderson). But he’ll need somebody functionally to bring the ball up get into something simple quickly. So for lack of a better term, that job is open. He has every opportunity there.

Minott is a complete x factor, you throw him in …

MP: And good things happen.

Finch: Yeah he just finds a way to get a rim run or a put-back or a blocked shot. I think that will always be there on those nights when you need that type of production.

What we think about Troy is he is a little Kyle-like, in that we think his playmaking is an undervalued part of his game. He played in a lot of systems where he stood off the ball and had to make shots. But if you look at his history going back to college he has been more of a playmaker type with the ball in his hands.

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MP: Can he handle well enough to be at the point?

Finch: Ah, I don’t know if he is there or if that is the best application of him. I think it is more like, let’s get the ball to him early in secondary playmaking. That is like super-intriguing for me. And his length and defensive versatility is also something we like.

But here is another way to answer the question you asked: You know me, I am going to come into training camp saying we are going to play 11 guys. But one thing I have realized is that when you have a roster like ours and it is constructed the way it is, you are going to play nine guys. With the occasional 10th. Because how else are you going to get the minutes you need for KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns), Kyle, Naz (Reid). It makes it tough to squeeze into that nine.

MP: That brings up both Shake and Nickeil and how the nine gets crowded pretty quickly. Nickeil had a great World Cup for Canada and was probably your best defender in the playoffs last year.

Finch: Heck yeah. He’s locked in. We’ve seen Nickeil play 1 through 3 (point guard to small forward). We love what we have got from him. He is a guy that, to your point, has continued to play better. And he has never gone back to the same team with the same coach in a situation where he can be developed into a role. Knowing Nickeil as I do as a person, he needs that confidence and consistency to really reach down and be the best he can be, which we all do. So we are really excited about what he can become for us this year, on a night-to-night basis.

MP: So it is more than likely that he is in that top nine?

Finch: Yeah. He has always been a reluctant three-point shooter but yet it has always been something he has done really well. And from an offensive point of view, just let that set up everything else. He can play-make in pick-and-roll, he can drive and pass, but sometimes he tries to do too much in those spaces and will turn down good shots to do it because he likes to play with the ball in his hands, which is traditionally how he has played. So learning to play off the ball a little bit more, we are interested to see what that looks like, trusting his shot. I thought he did a great job of that as the season wound down, and in the World Cup.

MP: How important is it to get it right this time? There is pressure on the Gobert deal and if it doesn’t pan out well, you are already halfway through his contract.

Finch: We’re confident it will work. I mean it worked last year, Britt. If we don’t have Rudy Gobert we don’t come close to winning – we probably win 30 games if KAT goes down the way he did.

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MP: But to play devil’s advocate for a second, if KAT doesn’t go down and you have (Walker) Kessler, and those Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt) and (Malik) Beasley pieces (all traded for Gobert) to use however you want, in trade or whatever, and then you make your deal of D’Lo (D’Angelo Russell) for NAW and (Mike) Conley. Think of that roster. Plus the draft picks you didn’t spend.

Finch: (Firmly) I have not thought one minute about that roster. We did the Rudy deal and we are glad we did the Rudy deal. We have some things to figure out. We know that. It did surprise me last year, when KAT went down around Game 20, that we weren’t able to get a little further down the trail.

MP: What made me pessimistic was that it did not matter who was on the floor you were a .500 team. Through all the ups and downs you would think there would be definitive signs of what works and what doesn’t. But instead it was .500 pretty much without cease. Which made me think ‘they are what they are’ to a certain extent.

Finch: A couple things feed into that. One is maybe if Rudy is not on the floor we are not anywhere near a .500 team. That is one way to look at it. Two is – and I think you are going to see it again this year – when everybody is kind of going for it in the West, you are going to have a lot of teams around .500. Teams are going to beat each other.

Now we were poor against the poor and we have got to be better against that. And of course there are lots of areas where we didn’t take advantage of opportunities. But honestly, I don’t think about what this team could be without doing that deal. My parting shot about the Rudy thing is that people have to understand the value of what Rudy brings. We talked about his defense. It is there. It is not obvious to everybody. It is not sexy. His mistakes look clumsy and they don’t feel great. But to the people who know the game and the impact he can make, what he is able to do to winning, it is really significant. On offense, it takes time. You can ask Mike Conley and he says it took him a year to figure it out (how to play best with Rudy). And he spent his early career (in Memphis) throwing the ball to Marc (Gasol), throwing the ball to Zach (Randolph).

I very much enjoy Rudy, coaching Rudy. It is a work in progress and we never thought it was going to be a home run right away. We still have to be a better defensive rebounding team, and that is somewhat on Rudy, and a lot on the other guys too. It didn’t solve all of our problems, it wasn’t a magic elixir and in many ways it may have created some other problems that we didn’t anticipate.

But people should be more excited and more welcoming and more appreciative of what Rudy does. And I am very protective of it because he got a lot of unnecessary and unfair blame about what happened in Utah. And Utah had an unbelievable run with him. Most teams would love to have had a run like Utah had. The coach and the front office had a heck of a run and sometimes it just doesn’t work in the end, for whatever reasons. But it wasn’t Rudy fault, just like our failures here are not Rudy’s fault.

MP: Last thing. You talked about a need for more structure and it is not in your nature to do that. It is also not in your nature to ride hard on people or discipline people. Do you worry about some of the things that happened last year – not doing well against poor teams, a habit of clustering turnovers and a lack recognition – it is a legitimate excuse about the difficulty or getting back in transition when you have two bigs, but the recognition on matchups in transition was awful regardless of who got back. Some of these are fundamental, discipline-oriented things. Do you have to commit harder on those things to get better this year?

Finch: Well, yeah for sure. Transition defense has got to get better. And it starts with a higher care factor from some of our guys. Like Anthony has got to get back better. KAT has got to get back better. Just has to.

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The discipline surrounding that; trust me, we have had a gazillion transition-defensive clip in the film room. And when I talked to the team about it, this is what I likened it to: We all should lose ten pounds, right? And when we really give a shit enough to do it, we are going to do it. But until we give a shit enough, we are not going to lose ten pounds. And that’s what transition defense is.

So our give-a-shit factor needs to go up. It could be just a momentary lapse of effort, bitching to the refs, falling down unnecessarily, which we are tops in the league at that. Those are things we have got to get better at and to me that is the undisciplined part you are talking about. We have to have a new sheriff in town when it comes to that.

I would also say that I don’t know outwardly what people think about me in my discipline style or my ability to ride people hard, but I coach these guys hard and there is a high level of accountability at practice and in that film room. You can ask any one of the guys who gets it, and who gets it the most and that is the top players. But I also believe in keeping it internally. And at the end of the day, it is my job to hand the game back over to them.

Our team is at the point now, just going through a lot of our preseason stuff, messaging themes for the year, and discipline and maturity are high. We led the league in technical fouls last year.

MP: And a lot of personal fouls and unforced turnovers also happened.

Finch: Sloppiness. And we’ve got to get better. And sometimes that is a byproduct of a lot of freedom on offense and guys end up in situations where they are trying to do too much and are more uncomfortable. I value that a lot because it also brings out a lot of good play, too. But like everything else, it is a balance. Certainly at the end of the day, I want us to be better in all those categories. But I do want to say that whatever goes on in the course of the season, it is not because guys aren’t held accountable in this building.

MP: That’s it. Thanks once again for doing this and being so generous with your time.

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