The Minnesota Timberwolves’ surge up the NBA standings has been a warm fire during another frigid winter. For the past decade, this has been an utterly moribund franchise. The time was nearing for Karl-Anthony Towns to begin asking for an escape hatch as his super-max contract approached its expiration date.
However, a six-game winning streak and a comeback victory over the Miami Heat has the Timberwolves nipping at the heels of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference. In their last 33 games, Minnesota is 23-10. Before their win over Miami Saturday, Minnesota was top five in offensive and defensive efficiency over a 15-game span.
Following their comeback win against the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed on Saturday, Towns was effusive of head coach Chris Finch. “Finch got into it. I like it, I like it. Finch is coaching, man. He’s a hell of a coach, man,” Towns added. “In my eyes, one of the best in the NBA right now. Love that man. That man’s done so much for our team, and I just think that the players responded to him, and everyone’s just playing really well.”
As the season winds down and Minnesota heats up, Chris Finch deserves a nod for Coach of the Year for the reconstruction work he’s done in Minnesota. And if we’re using the same metrics for 2021’s Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau, he should win it. No disrespect to Spoelstra and Monty Williams, whose coaching jobs have been stellar, but titles are their focus, not regular-season awards. Finch and the Timberwolves deserve acknowledgment for this remarkable turnaround.
Last season, Thibodeau earned Coach of the Year in New York for turning the 21-45 Knicks into a 41-31 playoff team in the East. Thibodeau was lauded for transforming a middle-of-the-road defense into a top-five unit. Finch is working with essentially the same roster that was 23-49 during the COVID-shortened season, Minnesota had the raw talent, but the chefs weren’t preparing them correctly. At mid-season, he was a controversial hire over popular assistant David Vanterpool. It was the first time a coach was hired away from another team’s bench since Lionel Hollins was scooped from Milwaukee’s staff. Minnesota’s 23 wins to finish the season obscures their 7-24 record when Ryan Saunders was dismissed on Feb. 21.
In a way, Finch is the other side of the Thibodeau coin. Finch has long been one of the NBA’s best offensive tacticians. After being named the G-League Coach of the Year in 2010, Finch navigated from one NBA bench to another, scheming how to get the most out of talented big men on the offensive end. He was the original architect behind the Nuggets’ Jokic-centric offense in 2016. Then, he was hired by New Orleans to spark a dim offense led by Jrue Holiday, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis that ranked 18th in the NBA after the Cousins trade. Until Cousins ruptured his Achilles, Finch’s Pelicans were the seventh-best offensive unit in The Association.
In Minnesota, Finch has designed the dynamic, free-flowing offense that should have been constructed around Towns years ago. Yet at the beginning of 2022, they were 16-20 with the NBA’s 24th-rated offense after a two-week stretch without Karl Anthony Towns. But even before Towns’ two-week absence, the Timberwolves were limping along as the 22nd-ranked offense.
On Jan. 1, the T-Wolves’ offense was in the bottom quarter of the league. Since Towns exited COVID protocols on Jan. 5, Minnesota has led the league in points per 100 possessions.
Since Jan. 1, the T-Wolves have been first in 3-point volume, sixth in 3-point percentage and fifth in assists per game.
Finch has unlocked Jaylen Nowell this month, who is shooting 50 percent from behind the arc and 67 percent on 2-point field goals since the All-Star Break. As his minutes have ticked upwards, his production hasn’t waned either.
Minnesota’s offensive quantum leap in 2022 hasn’t resulted in a drop-off defensively either. From 2012 through last season, the Timberwolves possessed the third-worst defense in the league. Karl Anthony-Towns was drafted to plug up their interior defense and became one of the league’s worst defensive bigs.
Towns will never be the generational defender and disruptor he was during his one season with Kentucky. Still, Minnesota is tenth in the league in defensive rating as a whole this season. The only teams creating more deflections per game than the Timberwolves are the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors.
Most importantly, unlike Thibodeau, Finch hasn’t been wearing out his stars. Finch has wholly altered the T-Wolves trajectory in just over a year in ways that even Thibodeau couldn’t when he held the same job. Coach of the Year isn’t obligated to go to the coach with the best record. It’s partially about whose acumen has been most responsible for their team exceeding expectations. Finch has done that and still has the Timberwolves climbing.