This is Part I in a four-part series. Part II – Maximizing Ant and parsing out frontcourt player rotations will be posted Friday. You can catch Britt Robson at the MinnPost Festival at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23.
After less than three seasons and a mere 205 games as head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Chris Finch is already second in franchise history to Flip Saunders for total victories, playoff appearances and winning percentage.
Yes, that is largely because the Wolves have been historically inept over its 35-year existence. But the arrival of Finch has coincided with the end of the doom loop of failed rebuilds since the team traded its iconic superstar Kevin Garnett in 2007. The team’s standing has progressed to the point where last season’s 42-40 record was regarded as something of a disappointment, only partially mitigated by the nearly four-month absence of Karl-Anthony Towns due to injury.
Expectations were certainly heightened after the Wolves traded four first-round draft picks and three rotation players to acquire center Rudy Gobert in the summer of 2022. Many were dubious that Gobert and KAT (also a center forced over to power forward to accommodate Gobert) could fruitfully coexist in the modern NBA game that features a faster pace and greater spacing due to the primacy of three-pointers and baskets scored down at the rim. KAT’s injury postponed a definitive judgment, but the initial returns were mixed at best.
In a sprawling interview that lasted more than an hour, Finch addresses the Gobert-KAT dynamic, the blossoming of Anthony Edwards into a charismatic All Star and how all the pieces might fit together during the 2023-24 Timberwolves season. Each player expected to play regular rotation minutes is explored in some depth.
This is my third extensive Q&A with Finch just before the opening of preseason and once again I am impressed and grateful for the generosity of his engagement and willingness to respond to anything I throw at him. There is inevitably some basketball lingo and assumed contexts that might be alien to casual fans (for example, the power forward position is called a 4; the center a 5) but I am confident that there is worthwhile information about the team here regardless of your level of knowledge.
As usual, the conversation stimulated me as primer on the upcoming season. Hopefully it will do the same for you as MinnPost runs it in multiple parts. Today’s section gets into the details of last season’s KAT-Gobert pairing and the ways Finch wants it to evolve in the 2023-24 campaign. Thanks for reading.
MinnPost: If you asked Wolves fans what the team’s priority should be for the upcoming season, most would answer that it is the ability synergize KAT and Rudy as two big men sharing the court without impeding the ascendance of Ant as a ball-dominant playmaker. Would that line up with what you are thinking?
Chris Finch: I think for sure that is part of the mission. Obviously we have to do that in the context of winning. But yeah, that’s the mission. From last year we feel we learned enough about what did and didn’t work. (But) we never felt that we were able to get it right. We just didn’t have a runway to make it happen.
Coming into the season, we thought it that it would take 40 to 50 games (to adjust). Ant’s ascendancy probably came quicker than we would have predicted at the beginning of the season. A lot of that was due to Anthony and the work that he has done. And it was also due to the fact that KAT was out 50 games, and a whole new platform was created.
Then it became about Ant and Rudy trying to develop chemistry. There was also some synapse delay in the chemistry that had always existed between KAT and Ant. When KAT came back (in game 74, in late March), we said, “Just get in, we’ll figure it out.” I knew we were never going to really figure it out but we were just trying to get him back in some sort of basketball shape.
MP: Besides that, what didn’t work as well as you expected going into the season? Was it simply that you never had enough time or continuity, or did you learn things you know not to do now?
Finch: Well to me it starts with a very important question: What does a big team look like in the modern game? Just because we are big, we are not going to high-low, post-up Rudy in the massive amounts of volume (that would have been typical a decade or more ago). That’s not playing to our strengths. How do you fully employ all of KAT’s skills? I can’t ask him to just go stand in the corner when he has way more game than that. But that doesn’t mean he is playing like a (classic) big either.
We’ve got to figure out the balance of spacing. What does the spacing look like when KAT is in the post? Or what does the spacing look like when KAT is by the free throw line with the ball? What does the spacing look like with Rudy setting (a screen) in pick-and-roll?
MP: And where is he setting it?
Finch: Yeah, and who is he setting it on and who is he setting it with? There is a lot of nuance to all that. And it starts with me, because I have always been way more free-form than structure. So it starts with more structure. More hard rules on things. And then maybe from that, allow more freedom, rather than the other way around.
KAT has always had the hardest adjustment to make. Most 5’s play their game and everyone else plays around them. They don’t often account for spacing for others. And (when he plays beside Gobert as a power forward) we are asking KAT to do that. And we didn’t have a preseason with him last year (due to illness), so coaching those little pieces were really hard. In fact he was trying so hard to make it work with Rudy that I thought he lost some of his aggressiveness. He wanted to throw the ball to Rudy probably too much. But early in the season he was also probably the only one who was connecting with him with any kind of chemistry at all.
So it was just a lot of things. But we figured there would be growing pains; and as I said, we figured it would take half a season to figure it out. But honestly, I thought it would come together a little bit easier than it did.
MP: Do you think Rudy was surprised by how hard it was, given the fact that Utah (his former team) basically structured its defense and a lot of its offense around him, and for nine years that was all he had ever known in the NBA? Was he surprised at the adjustments he had to make?
Finch: I think so. It is always hard when you are traded within the league and the first time you have ever been traded is after nine or 10 years and it was the only thing he had ever known. As you mentioned – and we said last year – that entire team in Utah was built around him and his strengths.
We talked with Rudy all season, and it is a big point of emphasis coming into this season. We said, “We learned a lot from you and you were able to help us let you be the player you were in Utah. But we also need for you to be more flexible, because, A) we have slightly different philosophies; and, B) we have got to be ready for the end of the season, in the playoffs, when it is all about being able to adjust to different things. And finally, like, we have good defenders. You don’t have to do it all defensively. We have good defensive players at a multitude of positions that should take some pressure off you.”
Offensively, again, (in Utah, the team ran) just all spread pick-and-roll. But here, there are going to be times when you’ve got to get out of KAT’s way, get out of Anthony’s way. So, what does that look like? Rudy is an excellent screener and he takes pride in screening. But maybe instead of always trying to screen, it is just waiting.
MP: And if you want the best spacing where will Rudy be most often? Will he still be in the low block or by the elbow more?
Finch: He’s going to have to continue to really value being in the dunker’s spot (along the baseline, ready to cut toward the hoop).
MP: Yeah, that makes sense.
Finch: When he’s in the pick-and-roll obviously he’s rolling hard, and when he’s outside of the pick-and-roll, he’s got to be really great in the dunker spot. A lot of bigs have a tendency to try and flash up, work up the floor. But learning to stay patient down there is going to be important. You see, he was so hard-wired to – he was the catalyst of all the next action (plays when the original play was stopped or broke down) in Utah. As soon as the ball went somewhere else, (Finch makes a motion of Rudy chasing the action to set a screen). And I think a lot of times, the way the league guards now, switching (assignments) late in the (shot) clock, it’s better to have less pick-and-roll and more penetration. And the gravity that he has, defenders don’t want to leave his body anyway. So when he goes down to the dunker spot, he should create more space by being there.
MP: When I looked at the “play type” data on Synergy (the stat system used on the NBA website), Rudy did do a lot of cutting, but the efficiency wasn’t that great. His points per play was not as strong as you might think. And from the eye test a lot of that was he just didn’t finish at the rim.
Finch: Yeah, I think some of that is we don’t have a lot of naturally good lob throwers, especially those who can throw that pass late (in the shot clock). Anthony is still kind of learning the feel. Those guys have worked and worked and that remains a big point of emphasis. KAT can see it and is willing to throw it. Kyle (Anderson) could. Jaden (McDaniels), a few times. After that we didn’t have very many. But you saw (an improvement) when Mike (Conley, a point guard who had played with Rudy), came over (in a February trade). So it is certainly a point of emphasis. But Rudy staying patient until his man does commit (away from him and toward the lobber) is also a big part of that.
MP: I remember after you made the trade to get Rudy, you saying that the offense will be better because we are replacing Vando (former power forward and dunker-spot inhabitant Jarred Vanderbilt) with Rudy. But Rudy didn’t really play Vando’s position on offense that much.
Finch: In that regard, exactly.
MP: When you say more structure, I think about, again, via Synergy stats, that Mike Conley had the highest points-per-play total as the pick-and-roll ball-handler of anyone in the league who used it on at least three possessions, after he came to Minnesota. So all of a sudden you seem to have a great pick-and-roll initiator.
MP: I know you are not a pick-and-roll guy as a coach, but does that help you lean into it?
Finch: I don’t dislike pick-and-roll. I just think that in the league today pick-and-roll is the safety blanket of too many people. They call up the big (to set a pick on the perimeter) and (otherwise) don’t know what else to do. Everybody uses pick-and-roll for different reasons – they use it to create for others or use it to create for themselves. Some struggle to do either.
But we certainly want to use pick and roll for sure.
When I am talking about structure, I’m probably talking about narrowing down the actions we use when both bigs are on the floor. It is not like we are all of a sudden going to be a robotic, heavily patterned team. It is just that we have learned what early actions suit that (two bigs) lineup the best. Because it is the spacing that happens after that, that is the most important. And that is more predetermined through certain actions rather than others.
MP: You want to get KAT off from various places. And this is a way to utilize KAT not only in catch-and-shoot but off-the-dribble the way he was two years ago.
Finch: Exactly. He was one of the best, if not the best, 5 in the league in terms of taking people off the dribble. We saw in Game 5 (of the last playoff series) in Denver; how he was able to play off the catch and got a couple of and-1’s. To do that, I need Rudy to rim-run. I need KAT to rebound, so Rudy can get out. We need our smalls to rebound so our bigs can be released down the floor. You know KAT has traditionally played as the trailing big because of his rebounding, his pull-ups, his overall skill set. We want him to have the ball super-early anyway. And he is not a guy who is going to rim-run and beat people down the floor all night long anyway. Generally, your top rebounders are your trail guys.
But Rudy has always played as a trail big too, because they just flowed into spread pick-and-roll all the time. So getting those two guys to play – we always use the words, definitive bigs spacing, like we have to have more definitive bigs spacing, one up and one down (in the half-court), or one in the action and one on the opposite side. So that is a huge, huge thing for us right now.
MP: Will you let the flow in transition determine who is up and who is down or will you want to prefer one or the other. I would imagine you’d want to prefer Rudy down most of the time.
Finch: We’ll let the flow determine it. But in that, there will be times where we’ll just say, hey Rudy get down, or KAT get down or up. But they have to do a better job of reading that flow. And reading each other in that flow.
But now, KAT is being guarded by 4’s so he is facing a lot more switching (from defenders) and those types of things. So you have to be mindful when you are in the action as the trail big and they switch, does that gum us up or not? If that is the case, if he is the trail big, maybe he just dives to the post (down low) so he can post-up early, and now Rudy has to react to that again. So it is this continual two-man game without the ball.
Traditionally I have always looked at it as, “OK, if you two guys can work out your spacing—with our help, obviously—then I’ll help sort out everybody else.” The challenge and the difference is Anthony.
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