After firing coach Ryan Saunders, Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas bypassed promoting associate head coach David Vanterpool in favor of hiring Raptors assistant Chris Finch for Minnesota’s head coaching vacancy, which drew a backlash from Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and several media members.
It was the first time since Lionel Hollins left the Bucks to coach the Grizzlies in 2009 that an assistant coach left a team during the season to become the head coach of another team.
During a Zoom call with reporters, Rosas admitted he saw the media backlash from some reporters and Vanterpool’s former players noting their opinions were fair.
“Anybody that knows me knows how important diversity is to me, and it’s a big part of who I am and what I’m about,” Rosas said. “Our staff and the diversity we have speaks for itself.”
Rosas has added diversity to his staff, which includes Sachin Gupta, Gianluca Pascucci, Joe Branch, Emmanuel Rohan, Dr. Robby Sikka, Aaron Blackshear, Saagar Sarin, etc. as part of basketball operations and Kevin Burleson and Joseph Blair on the coaching staff.
Following the coaching change, HoopsHype spoke to four NBA executives and three assistant coaches to get their thoughts on whether Minnesota should’ve promoted Vanterpool or hired Finch. Some questioned why Vanterpool wasn’t given a chance to coach the Timberwolves on an interim basis after coming from a winning program in Portland. Others viewed it as Rosas going with someone he has a longstanding relationship dating back to their time with the Rockets, which included a G League title, and the best fit for his team.
Why Vanterpool deserved a chance
There are currently seven Black head coaches in the NBA. Vanterpool, who interviewed this offseason for head-coaching openings with the Pelicans, Rockets and Bulls, appeared to be knocking on the door to become the eighth Black head coach in the league.
“It’s wrong in many facets,” one executive told HoopsHype. “It’s wrong with what’s going on in the world with social justice. To me, it just comes down to a relationship thing. Gersson is the man in charge and he knows who he wants. I think it needed to be handled differently. I think even if you hire Finch, you have to do your due diligence and you make David your guy for at least until the end of the season. What’s the point of keeping them on if they were part of the problem?”
According to Rosas, the hiring process was complicated by the pandemic’s strict restrictions on teams during the season, which led him to pivot towards Minnesota’s previous coaching search and subsequent background intel when they hired Saunders.
For some around the league, that also made it a stronger case to hire Vanterpool on an interim basis since he interviewed for the job and is already a part of the organization. Some saw it as a two-for-one scenario where Rosas could’ve evaluated Vanterpool and conducted due diligence on other potential candidates around the league over time.
One assistant coach who spoke to HoopsHype was disappointed that Vanterpool was passed over for the job again. The assistant questioned whether one day he’d also be able to get a head-coaching job partly because of his skin color.
“It’s a slap in the face,” the assistant coach told HoopsHype. “We don’t even get a chance to fail. Just give us the opportunity. We’ve got to be a proven commodity. How many times have you seen a young dynamo that’s a Black coach get an opportunity? Some of these white guys they hire are middle age or early 30s. Some of these GMs are too. Vanterpool’s been successful, he’s been in a quality program for several years and had success there. I just don’t get it. I think David is going to be okay, but it’s going to a weird situation with him being at work every day.”
Vanterpool, 47, played briefly in the NBA and had a long overseas in China, Italy and CSKA Moscow, where he won the Euroleague title. He then joined the Thunder as director of player personnel before spending six seasons with the Trail Blazers where he made the playoffs every season while on staff as an assistant coach. During that time, he helped develop Lillard and McCollum.
“I’m sure Vanterpool feels cheated,” a second assistant coach told HoopsHype. “He went there to take the next step as an associate head coach, leaving a great job in Portland to be the clear cut No. 2 guy. It would’ve been a great opportunity for both sides to see what he’s capable of. They could always turn to Finch after the season if there’s no momentum. Who was scooping Finch ahead of them?”
“I was surprised they’d hire an assistant from another team mid-season,” a second executive told HoopsHype. “Gersson does have a previous relationship with Finch from Houston and knows him well. The Vanterpool piece is surprising because I believe Gersson was a big part of going after Vanterpool. I think he deserved his shot at the job. Him being in charge of the defense that was really bad probably prevented it from happening. I don’t necessarily agree with that though. Feels like Gersson was sending a message that his job is secure with the Finch hire.”
According to Rosas, the final decision to relieve Saunders of his duties was made on Sunday. He also addressed the timeline for the hiring of Finch, which included both men going to bed sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 Monday morning as noted during their joint press conference.
“We live in an era of social media where everything that’s reported is not accurate,” Rosas said. “The reality is over this past weekend, the decision was being made that we were going to make a change. We went through the process of trying to evaluate who were going to be the candidates that were available mid-season. For us, the execution of it, we didn’t know what was going to be available to us as we went through that process until Toronto gave permission. That happened late in the afternoon (Sunday). At that point, the decision to make a change had already been made. Coach Saunders was dismissed after the game. We made contact with Chris as a clear target of ours and a guy the Raptors had given permission to speak to after we dismissed Ryan. While there was strong mutual interest on both sides, our deal was far from finished last night. The deal was finalized this morning (Monday).”
Why Finch got the job
During a Zoom call with reporters introducing Finch as Minnesota’s new coach, Rosas addressed his reasoning for passing on Vanterpool and hiring a head coach outside the organization.
“In terms of not only David Vanterpool, but Pablo Prigioni, and other assistants who are on our staff, we looked at those as internal options,” Rosas said. “At the end of the day where we’re at, we have to be realistic with ourselves. We’ve got the worst record in the NBA and we’re struggling on both sides of the ball. We really lacked the confidence as a result of that, that we could get the real change that we needed by making the decision we made here. We needed to be bold and direct with this opportunity. We’re very thankful to the Toronto Raptors for giving us the opportunity to talk to Chris. When we got that opportunity, we were very aggressive with it because he’s a candidate that we have experience with through our last process and the guy that we had identified as a target for us.”
Finch has over 24 years of NBA and G League experience and is considered one of the league’s top offensive coaches. He’s coached James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Lowry.
The “bold” move to hire the first-time NBA head coach reminded one executive of another coaching hire before the season.
“It’s like Sean Marks when he took a hit media-wise by some people for Steve Nash,” the third executive told HoopsHype. “But if you’re in Sean’s shoes, you had to hire the guy that you think is going to be the best head coach for your team. He was the one whose neck is on the line.”
After Jacque Vaughn coached Brooklyn to a 7-3 record in the bubble before being swept by the 76ers in the playoffs, he remained on Nash’s staff as the lead assistant despite being passed over for the head job. Entering games on Feb. 24, the Nets are half a game behind the 76ers for the top seed in the East. In Minnesota, Vanterpool will similarly remain on Finch’s staff.
In both instances, the executive disagreed with the backlash Marks and Rosas each received for hiring a white coach instead of a Black one.
“If somebody’s going to say something like that, then go ask Masai Ujiri why he hired Nick Nurse instead of a Black coach,” the executive told HoopsHype. “Go ask Arturas Karnisovas why he hired Billy Donovan instead of a Black coach.”
After Dwane Casey won Coach of the Year for the Raptors and the team was swept in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Ujiri pivoted to Nurse who won a championship in his first season as a head coach. Among the candidates for the Bulls job was Wes Unseld Jr., one of Karnisovas’ former colleagues with the Nuggets.
“I’d say they spent enough time around Vanterpool to feel that he wasn’t the guy leading the show that they wanted, and they clearly felt Finch was,” a fourth executive told HoopsHype.
“There are 90 front of the bench assistants in the NBA, and most of them will not be head coaches,” the third assistant coach told HoopsHype. “Obviously, it’s frustrating and seems like this would be David’s chance, but they interviewed him before Ryan got the job and then brought him on as an assistant. Once they had him in-house, maybe they didn’t see the leadership qualities. Who knows. Seems odd. Plus, it seems they wanted to get Finch as soon as possible. Maybe they didn’t want somebody else to hire him at the end of the year. Thought they’d wait until All-Star break, but I guess they had their target and they went and got him.”
Finch, 51, now gets to live his dream as a head coach, but in an unenviable situation. He’s tasked with turning around the league’s youngest team with the worst record without a training camp and his star point guard, D’Angelo Russell, just had an arthroscopic procedure to remove loose bodies in his left knee.
“In some ways I’m still pinching myself that I’m here,” Finch said. “You don’t get to pick your timing in life, you just have to be ready to go when it’s time.”
Finch’s time is now with no honeymoon phase in the middle of the season while Vanterpool must wait until the offseason for another crack at a head coaching opening.
You can follow Michael Scotto on Twitter: @MikeAScotto