MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota Timberwolves front office head Gersson Rosas made it very clear Monday: Something had to change. That something was Ryan Saunders as the team’s head coach.
The Wolves lost at the New York Knicks Sunday night, and Rosas met with Saunders after the game. He was being fired with Minnesota at 7-24, the worst record in the NBA, a 26-69 mark over the last two seasons and a 43-94 mark since becoming Timberwolves’ coach in January of 2019.
Karl-Anthony Towns has battled injuries and COVID-19. D’Angelo Russell has missed time with injuries. The duo that was supposed to lead the Wolves back to the playoffs has played just five games together in nearly a year. The Wolves are 1-7 since Towns’ return, and it was time to make a change.
"Where we’re at right now cannot continue. We can’t continue down the road where we’re at, where our record is, where we’re playing on both ends of the floor. That’s what led us to this decision, what led us to the change," Rosas told reporters Monday on Zoom. "If we’re going to do anything, there has to be purpose behind it."
Little did Saunders know that while the Wolves were playing the Knicks, his time with Minnesota was coming to an end. Rosas said the decision was made once the Toronto Raptors granted him permission to speak with Chris Finch. He was a finalist for the Minnesota job two years ago, before Saunders was named the permanent coach.
Rosas made the call to Finch after getting the go-ahead from owner Glen Taylor to fire Saunders, and the wheels were in motion. By very early Monday morning, Finch had agreed to become the 14th head coach for the Timberwolves. He’s been an assistant this season for the Toronto Raptors under Nick Nurse, and was in Minneapolis as recently as last Friday.
Finch said it’s been a whirlwind 24 hours.
"I got the phone call yesterday and it was kind of shocking, exciting at the same time. I think there’s a lot of pieces here with the way we like to play. We like to play fast, we like to play free. I think we can breathe some confidence back into the roster and these guys can find some joy," Finch said Monday via Zoom. "It’s hard when you’re losing, but we’re not a million miles away.
"In some ways I’m still pinching myself that I’m here. You don’t get to pick your timing in life, you just have to be ready to go when it’s time."
The Timberwolves have struggled to win consistently for nearly two decades. They’ve had one playoff appearance since 2004, led by Tom Thibodeau and Jimmy Butler. Thibodeau was fired in January 2019, with Saunders replacing him. Butler was traded.
Saunders was liked and respected throughout the Timberwolves’ organization, but it didn’t translate to wins on the court. With the team at 7-24, losing eight of nine and facing pressure from fans tired of it, a change had to be made. Between injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic, one could argue Saunders never got the chance to coach the team’s full talent all at once.
"These past 18 months weren’t fair to Ryan. They’re not fair to Glen Taylor, they’re not fair to our fans. But the reality is it was really, really tough for the group over the last two weeks not to maximize our opportunities," Rosas said. "That’s something that became very concerning over the last two weeks. That caused us to get to this point. That starts with me."
Enter Finch, who is 51 years old and comes to Minnesota with 24 years of NBA and G League coaching experience. Finch and Rosas have worked together in the past, with the Houston Rockets.
So what is Finch’s coaching philosophy? Play fast, play free and let the players do what they’re good at.
"What I’ve learned about coaching is kind of create a structure with some rules and then get out of the way and let these guys be who they are," Finch said. "They’re phenomenal players, play free and enjoy it."
Once it became clear he would be the next coach of the Timberwolves into Monday morning, one of the first players he reached out to was Towns. The message? The franchise will go as far as he takes them.
That’s after Towns spoke at length Sunday following the loss, before learning Saunders was dismissed, about his desire to play in Minnesota, win with the Wolves and build a legacy. Towns has dealt with outside voices throughout his career urging him to leave Minnesota and join a franchise closer to a championship.
"We talked about how we can get him back to being the center point of this team. He should be at the center of everything," Finch said.
Success won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time, but Finch is going to get his chance. Rosas had his target and is taking his shot. Time will tell if it works.
Finch is known as one of the top offensive minds in the NBA, having worked with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, James Hardin, Nikola Jokic, Zion Williamson and Kyle Lowry. He’s also coached with the New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets.
How does Finch want to be judged? By how his team performs on the court.
"I would like to be judged by wins and losses. That’s what it’s about, this is about winning. Beyond that, we want to see the growth of our young players and we want to develop an identity."
That journey starts Tuesday night at Milwaukee.