Ryan Saunders never really had a chance to succeed. The Wolves fired Saunders on Sunday after losing to the coach that he replaced two seasons ago (Tom Thibodeau) and falling to 7-24, the worst record in the NBA. But Minnesota would have struggled over the past two years no matter who was in charge. The team is built around a duo, Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, that has played just five games together since the latter arrived in a trade more than a year ago. Towns missed time this season after spraining his wrist and then contracting COVID-19, and Russell will be sidelined for the next four to six weeks following knee surgery. They have been two ships passing in the night since being paired together.
The unusual part of this move is that we already know who the Wolves’ next head coach will be. Chris Finch, a longtime NBA assistant who was the lead assistant in Toronto this season, is set to replace Saunders immediately. Normally, one of the team’s current assistants would take over on an interim basis before a search in the offseason. That’s what happened when Saunders replaced Thibodeau in 2019. But Wolves GM Gersson Rosas, who was hired the following offseason, clearly had his mind made up already. It takes longer than 15 minutes to agree to a multiyear contract.
Finch, a widely respected offensive mind, spent time in Houston, Denver, and New Orleans before coming to Toronto to replace Nate Bjorkgren as Nick Nurse’s lead assistant. His relationship with Rosas goes back to their days in the Rockets organization in the early 2010s, when Finch coached their G League squad and Rosas was the GM. That team took 3s at a rate that seemed mind-boggling at the time but is commonplace a decade later. The two now have the chance to implement their vision in the NBA on a team with one of the best-shooting 7-footers (Towns) of all time.
But turning Minnesota around will not be easy. Rosas has spent his first two seasons spinning his wheels, first waiting to acquire Russell and now waiting for the chance to see him play with Towns. There’s not a lot of other veteran talent on the roster. Malik Beasley is having a breakout season, averaging 20.2 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting, while Ricky Rubio has disappointed in his return to the Wolves. Every other key player is on a rookie contract.
Nor is there a lot of help on the way. The Wolves gave up their 2021 first-round pick, which is top-three protected, in the Russell trade. There’s no reason to tank because, even if they maintain their current league-worst pace, they would still have only a 42 percent of keeping their pick. Finch will have to find answers among the players they already have. He has to stabilize the team, which has lost eight of its last nine, until Russell returns, and then build around him, Towns, and Anthony Edwards, the no. 1 pick in last year’s draft.
Towns’s future hangs over everything. The star big man has said all the right things about sticking around, including this a few minutes before the Saunders news broke on Sunday: “If you want to build a legacy, we gotta win. I want to build my legacy here. I want to win with the Wolves and I’m gonna do everything I possibly can to step-by-step, brick-by-brick build something.” Towns has always supported Saunders, and it’s hard not to read into that quote given the timing. Rosas likely consulted his franchise player at some point in the process to get him on board.
The most important thing that Finch can do to improve the Wolves is get the best out of Towns, who is averaging 22.0 points on 51.5 percent shooting, 11.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.0 blocks per game this season. It’s been a traumatic year for Towns, whose family has been devastated by the pandemic. Towns has lost his mother and six other family members due to COVID-19 and missed a month of the season battling the disease himself. The good news is that he appears healthy and has returned to the court.
The two numbers to watch with Towns are his 3-point attempts (4.7 per game) and assists (3.5), both of which are down from last season. Defenses have been overloading to stop him, and the Wolves have not been able to put the right lineups around him to make them pay. The only way they will get out of the basement is if Towns makes a leap similar to Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, two players who were once considered his peers but are now leaders in the MVP race.
For Towns, a huge part of that leap has to come on defense. He has shown signs of growth this season, including averaging a career high in blocks. He will never be an Embiid-level defender, but there’s no reason that he can’t get to the level of Jokic, who uses his size and basketball IQ to play well within a defensive scheme that protects him. This is where the relationship between Towns and Finch will be critical. His new coach will have to walk a fine line between developing trust and holding his star player accountable.
The Wolves don’t just need Towns to improve individually. They also need him to elevate Russell. That was the whole point of putting them together in the first place. Russell has struggled without his costar this season, averaging 19.3 points on 42.6 percent shooting and 5.1 assists per game. He isn’t dynamic enough to be a primary option on offense, and the less said about his defense the better. The Wolves hope that playing alongside Towns will create more open shots and driving lanes to the rim for him.
While the burden will mostly fall on Towns and Russell, there are other avenues for improvement on the roster. Edwards is the most important. He’s averaging 14.3 points on 37.5 percent shooting and 2.5 assists per game. All the tools are there. He’s an elite athlete with a massive frame (6-foot-4 and 225 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) and potential as a shooter and playmaker. The challenge for Edwards, going back to his time in college, has been improving his shot selection. He would likely have benefitted from playing in a smaller role behind Towns and Russell, but he’s been learning on the fly and occasionally doing stuff like this instead:
The hidden gem on the roster is Jaden McDaniels, the no. 28 pick in last year’s draft. He already looks like a massive steal. McDaniels is an athletic, 6-foot-9 wing who can defend all four perimeter positions, protect the rim (block rate of 4.6 percent), and space the floor (38 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game). He has the highest block rate of any non-center in the NBA. His ability to fly around the court to erase shots is frightening:
One of the biggest knocks on Saunders is that he hasn’t played McDaniels enough. The Wolves have a net rating of plus-3.8 in 483 minutes with him and minus-11.1 in 1,015 minutes without him, an eye-popping differential for a 20-year-old who played in a zone at Washington. McDaniels isn’t just the team’s power forward of the future. He’s one of its best players right now.
Finch will have to figure out which of their other youngsters to feature. Besides Edwards and McDaniels, four other players under 23 have been getting minutes. The most promising is Naz Reid, a skilled big man with the ability to score from all over the floor. But it’s hard to develop that many young players at the same time. Saunders didn’t seem to have a great feel for it. He often threw out lineups as if they were picked out of a hat. Finch will need a more consistent rotation with roles that put his players in position to succeed.
The hardest part of his job will be aligning the timetables of everyone involved. Towns is five years older than McDaniels and six years older than Edwards. The prospects need to develop quickly enough to complement KAT while he’s still in his prime. He has three years left on his deal after this season, but the likelihood of star players asking out of bad situations increases by the year. Maybe Towns will be the next Giannis Antetokounmpo; but Giannis has had much more success in Milwaukee, so it’s difficult to compare their situations.
Time is running out in Minnesota. The franchise is currently for sale and looking for a buyer who will commit to staying. The accelerated timetable in which it fired Saunders and hired Finch is evidence that they are feeling the pressure to win now. The Wolves need Rosas to be right in his second head-coaching hire. If Finch can become the next Nick Nurse, then the Towns era in Minnesota might be salvageable. If not, a domino that could swing the balance of power in the NBA could fall soon.