The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders and practically simultaneously hired Raptors assistant Chris Finch.
Left in the cold? Minnesota associate head coach David Vanterpool, who would’ve been the natural fit to be elevated to interim head coach.
It has not been lost on people that Finch is white and Vanterpool is Black.
Timberwolves president Gerson Rosas:
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.
There were other candidates, minority candidates, that 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. So, that was a challenge for us as we went through the process. But in terms of not only David Vanterpool, but Pablo Prigioni and other other assistants who are on our staff, we looked at those as internal options, as well.
Being in a pandemic, being in the situation, it really changes things. Because of the platform that 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. And Chris was a finalist there.
We run very thorough and diligent processes here. If you talk to any of our staff, especially any of our coaches, our front coaches, we invest a lot in them. And I want those guys to be successful. And I don’t think at any time is anybody going to think I’m going to pass on a candidate that I think can help us at the highest level.
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, and we’re struggling on both sides of the ball.
With Chris, we have a guy here who we share vision, share philosophy and feel very confident about his ability to impact this team. And unfortunately, over our struggles here over the last year and a half, the ability to change that narrative was going to be hard from an internal perspective.
One of the biggest things that stand out with Chris is his diverse experience. The things that he’s done coaching all around the world at different levels, those experiences, I think are very relevant to our current game. We play a very international game in the NBA, and the experience that Chris has, the perspective that he has, the time that he has been a head coach outside of the NBA and an assistant in the NBA as well, I think those perspectives, those expertise are really important for our organization on both sides of the floor.
I don’t know whether Finch will be a good NBA head coach. I don’t know whether Vanterpool will be a good NBA head coach. Elevating assistants always carries risk. Ultimately, the Timberwolves will be judged on whether they made the right hire.
But there are legitimate questions about their process and whether they gave themselves the best chance to pick the coach most likely to succeed.
Every coaching search is unique. This one came with the rare complication of finding a new coach during the season. Minnesota couldn’t just interview far and wide.
So why did the Timberwolves hire a new coach now? Beyond a limited head-coaching candidate pool during the season, Finch can’t even build the staff he wants. Minnesota is in last place. How much will be gained by hiring now? The alternative, giving Vanterpool an opportunity as an interim then launching a full coaching search in the offseason, certainly held merit.
Perhaps, the Timberwolves properly considered all the drawbacks and deemed Finch worth the trouble. They just went through a coaching search a couple years ago (one far more problematic with the well-connected favorite of owner Glen Taylor getting the job). So, they did have some information on candidates without having to do more interviews.
Some have used Vanterpool not getting an interview now to prove he didn’t considered. But Vanterpool is showing his ability to the Timberwolves every day. They didn’t need to sit down for another formal interview to evaluate and consider him.
Only Rosas knows how strongly he considered Vanterpool or anyone else.
I’m convinced Rosas believes “I don’t think at any time is anybody going to think I’m going to pass on a candidate that I think can help us at the highest level.” I’m also convinced nearly every, if not every, NBA executive believes that. The most common issue isn’t explicit discrimination. It’s subconscious bias in hiring – something exacerbated by a narrow search.
Rosas and Finch worked together with the Rockets’ minor-league affiliate, Rosas as general manager and Finch as coach. They’re comfortable together.
But when people place outsized emphasis on hiring someone they’re comfortable with, that tends to favor the type of candidates who are already entrenched. It’s antithetical to diversity.
Maybe Rosas didn’t lean too hard on his comfort with Finch. Finch has a distinctive background. He was a head coach in Europe and the D-League then an assistant for the Rockets, Nuggets and Pelicans. His views on basketball, particularly offensive strategy, don’t necessarily match the orthodoxy. It’d be wrong to be wrong to reduce him to “white man” – just as it’d be wrong to reduce Vanterpool to “Black.”
Diversity shouldn’t be about just checking boxes of race. Diversity should emphasize different experiences and perspectives. Race affects someone’s experience and perspective. But it is merely one aspect of who someone is, and obviously people within the same race can be remarkably different.
Many NBA teams want to copy Toronto’s success with Nick Nurse. Like Finch, Nurse coached in the British Basketball League and D-League. But it’s not as if everyone who coaches in those lower-level leagues is therefore prepared for the NBA. Nurse is flourishing because he’s a good coach. Yes, his experience in England and the D-League helped him grow. But coaches can also develop with CSKA Moscow and the Portland Trail Blazers (where Vanterpool worked before coming to Minnesota).
It’s easy to see how a team seeking its Nurse could focus on the wrong factors of what makes Nurse special. A team could even, perhaps subconsciously, have an easier time visualizing a white coach as the next Nurse. The only way to avoid that bias is recognizing the potential for it to exist, assessing it then proceeding accordingly.
Again, maybe the Timberwolves did that. We know only whom they hired, not all the intricate details of their hiring process.
Racism can be practically impossible to prove in instances like this. It’s possible the Timberwolves properly considered a wide range of candidates then just concluded Finch was the right choice. There’d be nothing wrong with that.
But in aggregate, the demographics of NBA coaches indicate a problem. Black coaches don’t get the same opportunities as white coaches.
We needn’t condemn Minnesota based on incomplete information to understand the larger trend.
Likewise, we needn’t absolve the Timberwolves based on incomplete information. The scrutiny on their hiring process is warranted even as, frustratingly, it’s impossible to levy a fair judgment on it.