Setting new expectations, Timberwolves look to be serious

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 the Wolves conduct Media Day and open their training camp to launch the 2022-23 NBA preseason.

I look forward to various Zoom sessions with our readers and mailbag columns to maintain our interaction throughout the course of the season.

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

Chris Finch: No. DLo and I have talked quite a bit about last season. Not so much about the playoffs really – I thought we would talk more about the playoffs – but he’s moved past that quickly. And so we talked more about our excitement for this coming season. He wants me to trust him more. I think it is a misunderstanding: I do trust him a ton. You know, last year with Patrick (Beverly) and with DLo, they were trying to share the same responsibilities a lot of times. And I think DLo misinterpreted that, that I didn’t put enough trust in him to do things at times.

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It wasn’t that. I actually give those guys a ton of freedom and want them to figure it out. For the most part it worked well but sometimes in key moments, maybe in the playoffs, it impacted DLo – unnecessarily so.

Moving forward there is no PB (Beverly) now, and it is DLo’s show to run, exclusively. And I think what happened last year too, is that when we put PB into the starting lineup he very much was like an off-the-ball complement. And as the season went on, he became more of an on-the-ball presence; he wanted to be on the ball a little bit more. For a variety of reasons, some days it was the right thing to do and some days not so much. But again, DLo was the guy who was probably most affected by it.

And in the playoffs, when we were trying to exploit the (Ja) Morant matchup, that was the pinnacle of that dynamic. It never allowed DLo to settle into the game, into the series. And that is just one of those things looking back, I should have done a better job of getting DLo more activated. But the reality is that when a team is committed to taking a player out of the playoffs for the most part, they are going to be able to do it. And the next series might have been different. Maybe if we played the next series against Golden State, they would have placed all their efforts on Ant (Anthony Edwards) or KAT (Karl-Anthony Towns), or somebody else.

MP: And of course DLo really burned Memphis in the regular season and so they put Dillion Brooks on him; arguably their toughest, most rugged perimeter defender.

CF: He killed Memphis, for sure. So he set himself up for that.

MP: And he could have taken the attitude that, hey, that’s why Ant is having such a great series.

CF: It is like in baseball. Inevitably the MVP of a championship series or a World Series is a second baseman who had hit .210 all season but hit .354 in the playoffs because they have pitched around everybody else. But all that being said, J-Mac (Jordan McLaughlin) grew into that series. But to DLo’s credit, that has not been a big issue between us at all this summer. He is excited about our roster changes; excited that he is front and center running the show. Obviously he is heading into a contract year, so he is motivated by that. But he is also motivated by the fact that the pieces around him really fit well.

MP: And you are happy not to be involved at all in any of the contract stuff.

CF: (laughs) I mean, I tell our guys on the first day of training camp, “This is about two things: Winning games and getting paid.” And I want them to do both.

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

How is that going? I mean you and Sachin (Gupta), who was in an interim situation (as president of Basketball Operations), and there was a void when Gersson (Rosas, also former president of Basketball Operations) was gone from the organization right before the season started, and it was naturally filled by you and 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 really thought about it like that. I still don’t think about it too much like that. The new front office dynamic with Tim (Connelly), and Matt (Lloyd, senior vice president of basketball operations), and Dell (Demps, front office assistant), and Sach, and all those guys, like, I know them all. It has been a seamless transition. It has been great. I feel a good energy flow between them and us. They trust us. They recognize the job that we did last year as a coaching staff. I have worked with Tim before and he is not a heavy-handed guy, he is not meddling. He is really good with the players. What fell on me a lot was to handle all of the dynamics of the players all the time. But naturally, I think one of my skills has always been more in a leadership role. I see these jobs as leadership jobs and if there is a vacuum to be filled in leadership, I am going to fill it because that’s what was demanded 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 look at it as a leverage play. Leverage comes from winning games and that is what we are all trying to do.

MP: To set the nail, J-Mac is not going to get ignored this year.

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

MP: That was a situation where you said last year, “I let this guy languish and I shouldn’t have.” He matches up so well with your offensive philosophy, but at the same time he can get pushed around on defense when they go at him, and he doesn’t shoot well sometimes. But in the end, he is worth it to what you want to do, right?

CF: He’s a winning player. Winning players find ways to help you win. The system-fit is perfect, we know that. Players love playing with him. I can’t tell you how many guys came to me and said, “Can I play more minutes with J-Mac?” To the point that I started wondering, who’s going to start for us then (laughs)? And he made shots at really opportune times, and he would make runs of shots too. It was streaky but it was good. Defensively he picks up, he competes, he gets into the ball. One thing we never able to evolve, in terms of maximizing pieces of your roster, is that he and DLo have a great combination, a great chemistry out there. But because of the depth that we had with PB and Ant, it was hard to get those guys playing together. So I think that is something we can do a little bit for sure. But yeah, J-Mac is slotted right in there as the backup point guard and he is not to be ignored.

But to be fair to our coaching staff, he had a rough start to the season, and then we kind of moved away from him, and then Jaylen Nowell started to play well – that was at the point where we were facing all these switching defenses and Jaylen was good at countering that. And then we just decided, Pablo (Prigioni, the assistant coach) did an unbelievable job working with him in the middle of the season, just getting his mind back right. J-Mac didn’t have a strong summer last season because he was in a contract year and didn’t want to be hurt during workouts and came in with a little bit of a residual feeling.

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MP: He’d been (on the short end) on at least one and maybe two of his previous contracts.

CF: Yeah, yeah, exactly. But all that being said, he got his second chance and he made the most of it. And he made us all look bad for not playing him earlier. (laughs) But that can be the case: It is a long, long season. Taurean didn’t play well until right after New Year’s. Then he went on a tear that was pretty substantial. But yeah, J-Mac is not to be ignored.

MP: Last thing: The pressure is different this season. Last year’s feel-good vibe is this year’s minimum expectation. So you have an easy early schedule –although I know it is never easy until it is over – but on paper a forgiving schedule. And that’s going to help. But if there is adversity, one of the dangers I see, broadly speaking, that the pressure becomes overwhelming. You don’t have PatBev or Vando (Jarred Vanderbilt), two guys who are regulators. You mentioned Kyle as somebody who is quiet but solid. But where do you see your stabilizers and leaders, whether it is setting a tone or being vocal? Where is the ballast to keep the ship upright and resilient?

CF: I see it certainly from Kyle (Anderson). I see it from Rudy (Gobert). I think Rudy’s approach is going to be really good for us. Those are two guys who have been in a lot of winning programs that have an even-keel way of playing and are serious about what they do, and are willing to hold others accountable to the best that they can.

And let’s talk about the guys who have been here. I think it is a growth area for Ant, and KAT, and DLo. We are definitely going to miss PB’s personality and his ability to drive belief 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 those lessons for ourselves.

And the other side of that is, that’s what my job is about. We always have to be what our players are unable to be in those moments. We definitely know we have expectations out there, and we have to learn to embrace those. But last year when we lost six in a row and struggled early, I never felt that we weren’t a good team. We had to keep toying with it until we found the right rotations and the right approach. We started the season pretty good and then tripped up.

I understand this season is a different animal. The schedule being quote, unquote, “easy” early is something you want to take advantage of, but I also know when you have a lot of moving parts, particularly 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 the returning pieces we can be a little ahead of that curve. So yeah, who knows what to exactly expect coming out of the gate, but as long as the effort is there and the basics are there and we are trying to get to the right things, I think we’ll be confident. Because it is a long season.