Minnesota’s new degree of purpose

0
53

There are days when you show up to work and know nothing is going to get done. Some NBA teams have entire seasons like that, and the Minnesota Timberwolves are in the middle of one. It’s not really anyone’s fault, or more accurately, it is everyone’s fault so you can’t pin it on any one person. D’Angelo Russell has been his regular profligate self, when healthy. Anthony Edwards is doing extremely fun yet unproductive rookie stuff. Karl-Anthony Towns has been going through mental-emotional hell since the pandemic hit. Jarrett Culver might not be an NBA player. Josh Okogie’s got no offense. Ricky Rubio’s shooting percentage starts with a three. Outside of KAT’s genuinely troubling situation, this is all as tragic as you want to make it. Whatever, it’s a bad basketball team playing poorly amid a strange, sad season. You could say the frustration in the Twin Cities is compounded by the Wolves’ rather dismal franchise history, but this particular squad doesn’t have much to do with what happened in other eras, beyond the fact that the coach is Flip Saunders’s kid. 

Or the coach was Ryan Saunders, until this past Sunday night. That hiring always scanned as sentimental in the first place, owing more to the mom and pop way Glen Taylor runs his massive corporation than a thorough candidate search that revealed Saunders as the best haircut for the job. Now, two-plus seasons later, Minnesota has fired Saunders The Younger. Like his father, he seemed a decent man but built on Flip’s tendency to seem a bit in over his head by working the sideline ensconced in a miasma of puzzlement and fear. You ever creep up on a cat that’s enamored with a bird or squirrel outside the window, scratch it between the ears and every hair on its body stiffens like a party horn? Those are the vibes Ryan Saunders was throwing off 24/7. Even the steadiest hand, if put in charge of this Wolves team, would look kind of bored and ineffectual, but the outgoing skipper was downright skittish.

Chris Finch as the new boss? Sure, that’s a name I’ve heard. He’s come up a couple times in Kevin Arnovitz’s annual piece about league’s the hottest coaching candidates, and it was rumored back when the Wolves hired Saunders that GM Gersson Rosas actually wanted Finch instead. NBA teams typically gather a lot of intel on the guys—it’s still, for the time being, exclusively guys—they bring aboard, and we can assume that the Wolves know much more about Finch than we do, but if you’re a fan, all you’re aiming for is someone you’re not already sure will fail. You don’t want Mark Jackson, you don’t want Jason Kidd. Anyone else, you hope for the best, because that’s all a coaching change can give you. Every well-traveled white man whose playing career ended in a mid-tier European league gets compared to Nick Nurse these days, but hey, maybe the Wolves have landed the next Nick Nurse. It would be profoundly weird if, like Prince or Orson Welles, that dude turned out to be one of a kind.

If Finch can fully salvage this season for the Wolves, they might want to lock him in for the next decade. These last 40-odd games are likely going to be a getting-to-know-you period more than anything else, Finch gathering information on what his players can and can’t do, if any of their possible lineup combinations work, and perhaps the players will have their sprits buoyed, if not their win total seriously boosted, by someone a little more competent than Saunders. At least there’s room and freedom to grow. The Wolves don’t have their pick next season, provided it lands somewhere outside the top four, and with lottery position is harder to manipulate than it used to be, they might as well just play ball as well as they possibly can. If they’re meant to draft Cade Cunningham, the ping pong balls will gift them Cade Cunningham. 

What booting Ryan Saunders and bringing in Chris Finch grants the Wolves is a degree of purpose. This is a season heavy on existential dread. Probably everybody should go home, but especially listless write-offs like Minnesota, who seem like they could use a warm bath and a month-long nap. There is simply no point to what Minny has been doing. They have the saddest star in the league, not in basketball terms, but in human ones: Karl-Anthony Towns is still grieving the loss of his mother and several other family members he’s lost during the pandemic. D’Lo’s going to be out for at least another month with a knee injury. They have the worst record in the entire league. Not that they can’t improve, or have fun, but yikes

Now at least they’ll spend some time acclimating to Finch’s managerial style, get organized around his ideas. Whether they drag themselves out of the Western Conference basement or merely lay a foundation for next year, they’ll have something approaching meaningful work to do. That’s not quite a good reason to soldier on, not in this cursed climate, with all the risk involved, but everybody involved in the enterprise has a job and whatever motivation they can find to accomplish it is valuable. Surely, Chris Finch is excited about the opportunity. He’d do well to transmit that to his players, who have been looking pretty well beaten down, with another few months of basketball left to endure.