That Ryan Saunders was fired over the weekend didn’t surprise many. The Timberwolves have the worst record in the NBA, and the head coach usually takes the fall when that’s the case.
The process and end result of replacing him, however, caused a double take for those across the league. Chris Finch has the resume of an NBA head coach. He has been interviewed for similar opportunities — including this one, back in 2019 — and is known as one of the game’s better offensive minds. Plus, he has a wealth of past experience with Gersson Rosas.
But that Rosas hired Finch without giving anyone else — including any minority candidates — even a look rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
It had long been presumed by many that should Saunders be fired mid-season, associate head coach David Vanterpool would be elevated to the head coaching job on an interim basis. As soon as that didn’t happen, Blazers superstar guard Damian Lillard — who worked closely with Vanterpool in Portland — took to social media.
“How the hell do you not hire David Vanterpool and he’s right there on the bench… and has been in front office SUCCESSFULLY and on the front of a bench of a winning team SUCCESSFULLY (7 years) … and also has played a major role in the development of a dominant backcourt smdh!” Lillard tweeted.
Fellow Portland guard CJ McCollum backed up the sentiment. Vanterpool has served as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator, and also worked closely this season with rookie wing Anthony Edwards. On Wednesday morning, Karl-Anthony Towns said he’d be “remiss” to not mention the “amazing work” Vanterpool has put in during his season and a half in Minnesota. The Wolves’ defense has improved of late. It’s a top-12 unit over Minnesota’s past 22 games.
“As a man who looks like me, I can’t wait to see him get a job where he can flourish and be a head coach and run a team, and we’re so honored and blessed to have him here on this coaching staff, to get to continue to learn from him and soak up all the wisdom and experience he has from playing professionally and also being a coach,” Towns said. “With all that experience and with all that wisdom, just knowledge, it makes us that much better as a team, it makes us that much better as a coaching staff, our new head coach, it just gives him so many weapons from an IQ standpoint, from a different view standpoint, to see the game.”
But, to be fair to Rosas, he has had an up-close-and-personal view of Vanterpool over the past 18 months.
“In terms of not only David Vanterpool but Pablo Progioni and other assistants on our staff, we looked at those as internal options as well,” Rosas said. “But 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. We’re struggling on both sides of the ball, and we really lacked the confidence as a result of that, and we can get the real change we needed by making the decision we made here (to hire Finch).”
Rosas said this job search, which he noted was heavily impacted by the circumstances of this mid-pandemic season, essentially was an extension of the team’s 2019 search. Finch almost got the job back then.
And Rosas, who is under pressure as the President of Basketball Operations of a struggling franchise, knows Finch well. Familiarity often is king in the hiring process. That, as was pointed out on ESPN’s The Jump this week, can be part of the problem.
“In these kinds of situations, front office execs often go with hiring someone they already know. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s not a problem,” said Rachel Nichols, the show’s host. “Hiring someone you go ‘way back’ with, without giving anyone else a chance to interview, is exactly the kind of old boys club networking that keeps the coaching ranks of so many sports leagues overwhelmingly white, even though their players are overwhelmingly not.”
Nichols went on to say the NBA needs to be a league where minority candidates get more consideration, “and I’m talking about candidates way beyond Vanterpool here.”
That’s a key distinction. Rosas knows Vanterpool well enough that an interview might not have been necessary. But what about other minority candidates, such as Wes Unseld Jr. in Denver or Jamahl Mosley in Dallas?
“It doesn’t look good,” Nichols said, “which has been a problem in Minnesota for a very long time.”
Rosas is one of the last decision-makers you would suspect of being negligent in such matters. He is the first Latino to run an NBA team. His front office staff is as diverse as any you’ll find.
“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. Our staff and the diversity we have speaks for itself,” Rosas said. “We’re in very unique times being in a pandemic, being in a situation we’re at, you got to understand the situation we’re in in terms of we’re not guaranteed anything right now. We weren’t part of the bubble last season. We were hopeful to finish the season this year. We’re working through what might be next year and the offseason, but being in a pandemic, being in the situation, it really changes things.
“Because of the platform we’re at, a lot of what this process and this search was about was going back to our original search when we hired Ryan. Chris was a finalist there. There were other candidates, minority candidates we considered at this time. Unfortunately, when you’re in the middle of a season, you’re really at the mercy of teams in terms of who can become available and who’s not available. That was a challenge for us as we went through the process.”
Towns noted he is happy for Finch to get the job and excited to play for his new coach. But he also understands the reactions of players around the league at the aesthetic of the Wolves’ hiring process.
“As a man of color myself, you would love to see more coaches that resemble what (I) look like on the sidelines, but you’ve got to support the organization in everything that you do. And I understand, like I said, how everything is. But at the end of the day, the organization, they made a choice that they felt was best for this organization, and you’ve got to be a professional in all of this,” Towns said. “There’s a lot of men of color out there, and we’re fortunate to have … three men of color on the (NBA head coaching) sidelines, but also the ones that are sitting at home without a job, there’s a lot of them that deserve jobs and opportunities.
“It’s like everyone else, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t come on here and mention the amazing work that men of color are doing in this world, not only in every other sport in social justice and every other part of this world and organization, whatever the case may be, but for basketball, what my job is. There’s a lot of amazing men of color out there that deserve the opportunity to lead a team and to run an organization and have a chance to make their mark in this league, not with a jersey on but with a suit on, and I say that with meaning.”