Setting new expectations, Timberwolves looks like a serious competitor in the West; NBA

Today is the fourth and final part of my extensive interview with Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch. It comes less than 48 hours before Wolves are due to hold Media Day and open their training camp for the start of the 2022-23 NBA pre-season.

I look forward to the various Zoom sessions with our readers and mailbag columns to keep us engaged throughout the season.

MinnPost: When we spoke in Vegas a year ago, you said, “DLo (D’Angelo Russell) let me train him,” during your first half year on the job. Did it happen enough last season and is that a concern now?

Chris Finch: No, DLo and I talked a little bit about last season. Not so much about the playoffs really – I thought we’d talk more about the playoffs – but he got over that quickly. So we talked more about our enthusiasm for this upcoming season. He wants me to trust him more. I think it’s a misunderstanding: I trust him a lot. You know, in the last year with Patrick (Beverly) and with DLo, they’ve been trying to share the same responsibilities more often. And I think DLo misinterpreted that, I just didn’t trust him enough to do things sometimes.

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Not so. I actually give these guys a lot of freedom and I want them to find out. For the most part, it worked well but sometimes in the crucial moments, perhaps in the playoffs, it affected DLo – unnecessarily.

From now on, there is no PB (Beverly) now, and DLo runs exclusively. And I think what happened last year as well, is that when we put PB in the starting lineup, it was a lot like a supplement off the ball. And as the season went on, he became more present on the ball; He wanted to be on the ball a little bit more. For a number of reasons, some days it was the right thing, some days not so much. But then again, DLo was the man that most influenced him.

And in the playoffs, when we were trying to exploit the (Ja) Morant match, that was the height of that dynamic. DLo was never allowed to settle in the game, in the series. And that’s just one of those things looking back, I should have done a better job activating the DLo. But the truth is that when a team is committed to taking a player out of the playoffs most of the time, they will be able to do so. And the next series may be different. Maybe if we played the next series against Golden State, they would have put all their efforts on Ant (Anthony Edwards) or KAT (Karl Anthony Towns), or someone else.

MP: And of course DLo really burned down Memphis in the regular season and so they put Dillion Brooks on him; Arguably the strongest and most rugged defender of their surroundings.

CF: He definitely killed Memphis. So he prepared himself for it.

MP: And he could have taken the position that, that’s why Ant has such a great series.

CF: It’s like baseball. Certainly the best player in a championship series or world championship is the second baseman who made 0.210 all season but hit 0.354 in the playoffs because they were vying about everyone else. But all said, J-Mac (Jordan McLaughlin) grew up in that series. But to DLo’s credit, this hasn’t been a big deal between us all this summer. He’s excited to change our list; Excited as he runs the show front and center. He’s clearly heading into a contract year, so he’s driven by that. But it’s also driven by the fact that the pieces around it really fit.

MP: And you’re glad you didn’t participate at all in any of the terms of the contract.

CF: (laughs) I mean, he told our guys on the first day of bootcamp, “This is about two things: winning games and getting money.” And I want them to do both.

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MP: On that note, it seems to me that compared to last year, you are more secure financially and in your future, but you have less leverage in the organization.

How are you? I mean you and Sachin (Gupta), who was on a temporary basis (as head of basketball operations), and there was a void when Gerson (Rosas, also former chief of basketball operations) left the organization just before the season started, and it was naturally filled by you and through Your relationship with Sachin – and it worked. Now you have a situation where there are a lot of things that are less in your control.

CF: I don’t know… I never thought of it that way. I still don’t think about it that much. The new front office dynamic with Tim (Connelly), Matt (Lloyd, Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations), Dale (Demps, Front Office Assistant), Sach, and all these guys, like, I know them all. It was a smooth transition. It was wonderful. I feel a good flow of energy between them and us. Trust us. They recognized the job we did last year as a coaching staff. I’ve worked with Tim before and he’s not a heavy guy and doesn’t get in the way. He’s really good with the players. What hit me a lot is dealing with all the player dynamics all the time. But of course, I think one of my skills has always been more in the lead role. I see these jobs as leadership positions and if there is a void to be filled in leadership, I will fill it because that is what was required of me.

I didn’t feel all that different. I feel incredibly supported. I don’t feel like I’ve lost leverage; I don’t see it as a game of influence. The leverage comes from winning games and that’s what we all try to do.

MP: To set the nail, the J-Mac will not be ignored this year.

CF: No, no, he’s the backup point guard.

MP: That was a situation where you said last year, “I’ve let this guy wilt and I shouldn’t have done that.” It matches well with your attacking philosophy, but at the same time can be pushed to defend when they attack, and he doesn’t shoot well at times. But in the end, it’s all worth it for what you want to do, right?

CF: He is a winning player. Winning players find ways to help you win. The fit of the system is perfect, we know that. Players love to play with him. I can’t tell you how many players have come to me and said, “Can I play more with a J-Mac?” So much so that I started wondering, who’s going to start us next (laughs)? And he made the shots at really opportune times, and he was also making the shots. It was off but it was fine. Defensively picks up the ball, competes and gets in the ball. One of the things we’ve never been able to develop, in terms of maximizing parts of your list, is that he and DLo have a great mix, great chemistry there. But because of the depth we got with PB and Ant, it was hard to get these guys to play together. So I think that’s something we can definitely do a little bit more about. But yes, the J-Mac has its place in there as a backup point guard and it shouldn’t be overlooked.

But to be fair to our coaching staff, it was a tough start to the season and we kind of got away with it, and then Jaylen Nowell started playing really well – it was at the point where we were having all these shifting defenses and Jaylen was really good at that. Then we just decided, that Pablo (Brigione, assistant coach) did an incredible job with him mid-season, just getting his sanity right. J-Mac didn’t have a strong summer last season because he was on a contract year and didn’t want to get hurt during rehearsals and came up with a bit of residual feeling.

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MP: He’s been (at the short end) in at least one and maybe two of his previous decades.

CF: Yes, yes, exactly. But all that said, he got his second chance and made the most of it. And it made us all look bad because we hadn’t played it before. (laughs) But that could be the case: It’s a long, long season. Taurean didn’t play well until just after New Year’s Eve. Then he went into a tear that was too big. But yes, the J-Mac should not be overlooked.

MP: One last thing: The pressure is different this season. Last year’s feeling of happiness is the minimum expectation for this year. So you have an easy early schedule – although I know it’s never easy until it ends – but a forgiving schedule on paper. This will help. But if there is distress, one of the risks that I see, in general, is that the stress becomes enormous. You don’t have PatBev or Vando (Jared Vanderbilt), two men from the organizers. You mentioned Cale as a calm but firm person. But where do you see your stabilizers and leaders, whether that’s by setting the tone or speaking out loud? Where is the ballast to keep the ship upright and flexible?

CF: I definitely see it from Kyle (Anderson). I see it from Rudy (Joebert). I think Rudy’s approach would be really good for us. These are two people who have been on a lot of winning shows who have a balanced gameplay and are serious about what they do, ready to hold others accountable to the best of their ability.

And let’s talk about the guys who were here. I think it’s a growth area for Ant, KAT, and DLo. We will definitely miss PB’s personality and his ability to lead faith in a young team was the best I’ve ever experienced. But maybe we’re not a young team anymore. Now we have to learn these lessons for ourselves.

And the flip side of that, that’s what my job is about. We always have to be what our players can’t be in those moments. We definitely know that we have expectations, and we have to learn to embrace them. But last year when we lost six goals in a row and struggled early, I never felt like we weren’t a good team. We had to keep playing it until we found the right turns and the right approach. We started the season well and then faltered.

I understand that this season is a different animal. The timeline being quoted, without quoting, “easy” early on is something you want to take advantage of, but I also know that when you have a lot of moving parts, especially in our system offensively, it tends to come together a little slower. Twenty games, 25 games is the point where you think it starts to take shape. Hopefully with all of the bounce pieces we’re a little ahead of that curve. Well, who knows what exactly to expect to get out of the gate, but as long as the effort is there and the fundamentals are there and we’re trying to get to the right things, I think we’ll be confident. Because it is a long season.

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