This past weekend, the worst team in the NBA fired its head coach. Ryan Saunders was pretty clearly not long for his job with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and not just because his team has been doo-doo throughout his 137 games coached over three seasons. Wolves owner Glen Taylor hired Gersson Rosas to run basketball ops the summer after Saunders took over for the mega-fired Tom Thibodeau in Jan. 2019. As a rule, GMs tend not to hold onto inherited coaching staffs, especially so when they muster a .314 winning percentage.
Jon Hollinger’s column on the matter made it seem like an open secret that Saunders would go sooner rather than later, which any fan could have gleaned from watching one quarter of Timberwolves basketball. Hollinger also intimated that the team’s choice to replace Saunders on a permanent basis was well-known within league circles, even though it came as a surprise to the public. Hours after axing Saunders, the Wolves announced the hire of Toronto Raptors assistant Chris Finch on a multi-year deal.
Finch’s cross-team, midseason promotion without an interim coach is not unprecedented; in 2009, Lionel Hollins left the Milwaukee Bucks to take over for Marc Iavaroni in Memphis. Even then, Hollins did not immediately slide into a long-term contract. Finch is reportedly held in high regard throughout the league, and he coached the Rockets’ D-League team while Rosas was in Houston. But if this was such a foregone conclusion, why didn’t Wolves make the move before the season started, considering they’d be making another No. 1 pick and adding a few veterans?
Even if Finch and the Wolves were an inevitable pairing, it’s still strange to skip over lead assistant David Vanterpool for the rest of a lost season. Vanterpool spent seven years with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he helped Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum develop into one of the best backcourts in the league. Lillard credited Vanterpool with teaching him how to lead a team. Seems like the guy who did that is good at player development.
Vanterpool interviewed for several head coaching jobs while he was an assistant with the Trail Blazers, and he joined the Wolves’ staff as an associate head coach shortly after Rosas was hired. It seemed reasonable to think that he’d be given the keys to a team, and he had a beloved superstar publicly lobbying for him every step of the way. The promotion from Rosas and the extremely clear history of nurturing improvement make his passing over even more curious. Lillard and McCollum were baffled that he’d been shunted aside for an assistant from outside the organization:
Lillard’s point was not that Finch is incompetent, but that Vanterpool is clearly worthy of the opportunity to be a head coach yet didn’t get the shot.
What this means is that Vanterpool’s first head coaching gig is almost mathematically certain to come with a more competent organization than the Minnesota Timberwolves. If he’s ever offered one, that is.