When Chris Finch first joined the Toronto Raptors this past offseason, he said he wanted to get to work improving the team’s offence.
Toronto was coming off an incredible 53-19 regular season and was expected to be in contention for another NBA Finals appearance. The problem, however, was a lackluster half-court offence. While the 2019-20 Raptors had no trouble scoring in transition, generating points in the half-court was never very easy. They ranked just 16th in the league in half-court offence, according to Cleaning the Glass, and when the playoffs rolled around and defences tightened up, Toronto had some issues.
Enter assistant coach Finch.
“I think we can improve our cutting,” Finch said in his introductory press conference on December 4. “I think we can improve as it pertains to our cutting and our movement on the floor. I think we can tweak some of our spacing rules…”
And on and on he went detailing all the things he hoped to do in his Toronto tenure. It was all fancy coach speak, the kinds of things coaches say when they’re hired and few can actually accomplish. The proof, as they say, would have to be in the pudding.
Well, 31 games into the season, the 2020-21 Raptors lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka and have somehow improved on offence. They rank ninth in the NBA in Offensive Rating and even their previously lethargic half-court offence has found life, ranked 10th in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass.
It’s not hard to see why the Minnesota Timberwolves were so eager to hire Finch. Just hours after relieving Ryan Saunders of his head coaching duties on Sunday night the team was already in the process of finalizing a deal to name Finch the new head coach.
“It did all happen really quick,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We had a pretty good idea that that that would be Chris’ last game and he’d be on the move today.”
When Nurse hired Finch, he hoped his former British Basketball League rival could bring a pair of fresh eyes to Toronto’s offence. It wasn’t long ago that Nurse was the Raptors’ offensive coordinator trying to help Dwane Casey improve the team’s offence. But when Nurse moved over a chair and took over head coaching duties in 2018, he began pairing back Toronto’s offence. In Finch, he saw one of the league’s top offensive mastermind who could help push him to expand the Raptors arsenal.
“I kind of have my vision of how I see the offense operating and he has his and we don’t agree on all of it,” Nurse said Monday. “So it was good to see some of the old stuff we used to do and then some of the new stuff that he had dealing with the teams that he had and players he had.”
The most notable thing Finch said during his lone Raptors press conference was his desire to make Pascal Siakam more of a playmaker. He had seen how teams defended the Raptors star and he wanted to use that attention to create looks for everyone else on the team.
Well, this season Siakam’s assists per game have jumped from 3.5 to 4.7, the most of his career, and Raptors across the board are playing some of the best basketball of their careers.
“I think it was a process and for us just trying to get better as a team also,” Siakam said. “I think some of the concepts that he brought definitely helped. It was definitely new for us some of the things that we had to do. … I just think he’s good and the Raptors have always been a good organization, it’s always been a group thing, all the coaches together making it work. But yeah, I definitely think he had a big impact on it.”
With Finch’s departure, Nurse said he will have to juggle two hats for the next little while. He’ll pick up the offensive coaching duties while the organization figures out how it wants to move forward and when.
Nurse said he certainly learned a lot from working alongside Finch. It didn’t just remind him of some of those schemes he used to run, but it was helpful working alongside someone as dedicated to his craft as Finch was.
“He was meticulous in his preparation going into each and every game from that side of the ball, you know just really no stone unturned about how this guy played that guy played and this was the coverage when he was in and this what and things that would counter some of that stuff,” Nurse said. “So, I think that was a super high level we learned from him there.”
It’s never easy to dole out credit within an organization as big and as complicated as an NBA team. How much Finch actually contributed to the Raptors’ offensive success this season can’t really be known. But when he showed up, he said he wanted to improve things on offence and things certainly did improve.