Window of opportunity: Wolves gave Finch a shot at being an NBA head coach

Chris Hine, Star Tribune
·11 min read

Chris Finch didn't have spreadsheets that projected points per possession or shot values when he was coaching and making personnel decisions for a team in Bree, Belgium, more than 15 years ago.

He only had Bree's budget, and the numbers told him he couldn't afford to sign any good — or even average — 7-foot centers, especially not when he was competing with bigger-budget clubs in other countries.

"We just didn't have the money to pay them," Finch said.

What Finch did next proved to be the most fortuitous decision of his coaching career: "Why don't we just be different?"

As in, why bother playing with a traditional 7-foot center, especially if he couldn't afford a decent one?

"Why don't we just play with smaller undersized bigs and a lot of shooting, run up and down and see if that works?" Finch said.

It did. And although Finch didn't know it at the time, his style of play predated a similar wave that was coming to America.

That decision led to success in Belgium, and it sent Finch down a path that 17 years later that would bring him to Minnesota as the Timberwolves' coach on Feb. 21. The challenge is steep. He's 8-18 through 26 games as the Wolves have the NBA's second-worst record (15-42).

A basketball lifer who grew up near Reading, Pa., the 51-year-old has changed since he began his coaching career in Europe at 27. But that ability to change has been a constant, helped him earn a reputation as an imaginative offensive mind and led to his first head coaching job in the NBA.

"Someone told me a long time ago that overnight success takes 10 years," Finch said. "And it's been 10 years for me that I've been in the [NBA], and nothing happens quickly. The reality is the work you put in and the journey is really the most rewarding part."

Finch might have been in the NBA for 10 yea rs, but his journey to the Wolves goes back a little more than that.

Defense firstFinch built his reputation as an offensive mind, but to hear high school coach Reggie Weiss and college coach Glenn Robinson tell it, Finch was a stalwart in his playing days on the other end.

"He was our defensive stopper," said Robinson, the longtime coach of Finch's alma mater, Franklin & Marshall in nearby Lancaster, Pa. "Just a tremendous defensive player."

Weiss, who coached Finch at Wilson High in Reading, said Finch preferred to set up his teammates instead of looking to score.

"He was a great passer," Weiss said. "He's one of two people I coached in over 25 years that I had to yell at to shoot the ball."

Robinson said he noticed someone who wasn't afraid to take on the assignment of guarding the opponent's best player.

"He saw the value of [defense]," said the 76-year-old Robinson, who retired two years ago. "Chris is really a sharp young man. You don't have to talk to him for more than two minutes to get that."

At Wilson, one of Finch's teams won 27 in a row. He garnered some Division I interest, but F&M offered a winning pedigree. He was part of three conference championship teams and was a national runner-up in 1991, his senior year, to Wisconsin-Platteville. He's third all-time at the school in assists and steals.

"He was truly like a coach on the floor, not just with the intellectual part, which he had, but with the emotional part and with the intensity," Robinson said.

International man of basketball"I never thought I was going to coach in the NBA," Finch said. "That wasn't the plan. I went and played overseas as a way to just kind of do something in the meantime."

Finch found himself in England, playing for Sheffield in the British Basketball League. His playing career lasted until he was 27, when the organization decided to make him head coach.

The 27-year-old coach Finch was much different from the 51-year-old version. For one, he said he was probably "overly emotional."

"I'm highly competitive so I probably let that get the best of me," Finch said. "Reactionary. Carried losses from one day to the next. Maybe one loss became two because I was still angry."

Sheffield allowed him the latitude to become more seasoned. Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse coached against Finch in Europe and the two battled for league titles.

"I just would admire the work he was doing and respected him," Nurse said. "He's obviously a super-intelligent guy."

After England and a quick stop in Germany came Belgium.

Brian Lynch went to Villanova and played for Finch at Bree, a club that eventually went bankrupt. Because of those financial issues, Finch had to get creative.

"A lot goes on budgets," Lynch said. "So it's not equal or fair play all the time."

It helped that Finch had a personality that made players want to play for him, Lynch said. The coach's cutting sense of humor — he was a big fan of "The Office" — and competitiveness came through, sometimes in tandem.

Lynch recalled Finch trying to explain to a player, Reggie Bassette, how he wanted him to hedge on a ball screen.

"He stops practice one day and says, 'Come on, Reggie. It rhymes with your name — Reggie hedgie!' " Lynch said. "We started dying. 'Reggie hedgie.' If you ask any guy on that team and say Reggie hedgie, they're going to start dying.

"He could be tough as hell at times with us. But it was funny as hell at times, too."

Lynard Stewart, who went to Temple and played for Finch in England and Belgium, had a strong Finch memory as well.

"He was just barking at me. Barking and barking," Stewart said. "Finally, I just turned to him and said, 'Will you shut the hell up?' "

After the game Stewart said he was expecting a tongue lashing. He didn't get one.

"He says, 'That's what I love. That's what I wanted from you,' " Stewart said. "I'm thinking he's going to rip me, but he said, 'That's how I needed you to respond.' I'll never forget that."

Some players turned down better offers to keep playing for Finch.

"I'd be struggling, he'd invite me over for a drink and say, 'Sit down, talk to me. What's going on? I know you're away from home.' Those kind of things he was really good at," Lynch said. "He wasn't afraid to separate being your coach, listening to you, treating you like a human."

Despite its payroll, Bree won a league title.

At 6-8, Stewart was the kind of player Finch utilized to get around his budgetary shortfalls. Stewart would play power forward or center at times when needed.

"It was more because we could afford better players that way. If we're giving up 3 or 4 inches we'll figure out how to compensate for that," Finch said. "That was the genesis of our style of play. It wasn't analytically driven. … I didn't even know what analytics were at the time."

Unbeknown to Finch, one NBA franchise in particular was interested in how he ran his team.

Houston comes callingFinch was at the NBA's summer league in 2009 when Sam Hinkie, the former general manager of the 76ers who was working with the Rockets, reached out. The Rockets were in the process of starting their D-League franchise, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and an executive named Gersson Rosas was going to be overseeing it.

Would Finch meet with Rosas?

Finch didn't know why Houston had contacted him. It wasn't until after he accepted the job that they finally told him: The Rockets were at the tail end of Yao Ming's career and were adapting their franchise to play smaller and quicker because analytically that would provide them an advantage. They already saw Finch was doing this in Europe and he was the ideal candidate to help them experiment.

"He wasn't like, 'Hey, I'm an analytics guy,' " Rosas said. "He said, 'These are the guys I have. This is the level of competition I'm faced with. I need to find a way to be creative and play differently than other people play.' "

Houston showed Finch the data that said he was onto something in Europe.

"It made complete sense," he said. "That's driven my appreciation for analytics because our teams were playing this way and then I was shown the analytics to back it up."

Finch appealed to Rosas for another reason — his personality and track record of success also fit what Houston was looking for out of its D-League coach.

"The thing that stood out the most to me was his canny ability to just make the most out of his players and his situations wherever he went," Rosas said. "You want that from a coach at any level, but especially at the minor league level, because the roster is always changing there."

The Rockets used the D-League [now G-League] as a workshop. Nurse, who coached there after Finch, said the Vipers never took any non-paint twos, even in warmups. They demanded players take a three after every out-of-bounds pass.

"It was lots of laboratory stuff," Nurse said.

The experiments were successful. Finch and Rosas won the championship in 2010 and were runners-up in 2011. It made Finch a popular candidate to become an NBA assistant and the Rockets promoted him to their staff from 2011-16. He had stints in Denver, New Orleans and then Toronto this season to coach with Nurse, along with coaching England in the 2012 Olympics.

Rosas moved from the Rockets front office to become Timberwolves president of basketball operations on May 1, 2019. He considered Finch before retaining interim coach Ryan Saunders, but with the Wolves floundering this season, he fired Saunders in February and hired Finch on the same weekend.

"Chris and I always had a friendship, and it's more about like challenging each other …" Rosas said. "I kept up with him through his career in terms of what he was doing to support and challenge him. He did the same for me as an outside perspective of, how can he be better, how can I be better?

"There's a mutual respect. Any time you work together and have success together and go through all the ups and downs, whether it's with a minor league team or the NBA team, there's a bond."

A new challengeRosas was decisive in making Finch his coach to replace Saunders. It was a process that drew criticism from media and the National Basketball Coaches Association for a seemingly expedited search process that did not include Black or other minority candidates, specifically Wolves associate head coach David Vanterpool.

The speed at which Rosas moved to hire Finch underscored both Finch's demand on the coaching market and the conviction Rosas had that Finch is right for the job, and he didn't want to wait to make the move, even if success may have to wait a bit.

Former Wolves forward Luol Deng, who played for Finch in the 2012 Olympics, said Finch has a good chance of being successful over time.

"He's great, man. He's a good coach, knows his X's and O's" Deng said. "Given a full year with those guys you will see the improvement. He's always pushing. He's a hard worker. He has a great connection with relating to his players."

Finch should find Minnesota to his liking after moving from Tampa, the Raptors' homesite this season.

"He's a water guy, lives on the water," said Nurse, who coached Toronto to the NBA title in 2019. "Boat, fish, loves to fish. He reads a lot of adventure, travel, wilderness, that kind of stuff."

Rosas felt Finch's experience at different levels of coaching has given him an ability to relate to players of all statuses, whether superstar or G-League hanger-on.

"We're not coaching basketball, we're coaching people, and that's really important in today's day and age," Finch said. "Gone are the days where it's about X's and O's. It's about X's, O's and whys. Players are really smart. They want to know the way. You have to consider their input into the why."

The Wolves and Rosas hope the reason they hired Finch becomes apparent in time. This time he has a dominant big man on his roster in Karl-Anthony Towns, and Finch has pledged to run the offense through him. Just because he played small once upon a time doesn't mean he can't play bigger now. If anything, Finch's track record has shown he can adapt to any situation and make it work, no matter how dire it may be.

And few situations have been as traditionally dire in the NBA as the Timberwolves. Why not try something different?