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24 Seconds With Pelicans assistant coach Chris Finch

by Jim Eichenhofer

A native of Reading, Pa., Chris Finch has been all over the world during his basketball career, playing collegiately in his home state at Division III Franklin & Marshall, before becoming a successful professional player and coach in Great Britain and Germany. One of the biggest highlights of his career came in the summer of 2012, when he served as head coach for England, the host of the 2012 London Olympics.

Finch, who was officially hired by New Orleans as an assistant coach June 6, is spending a couple days this week experiencing the Western portion of the United States, making the 20-hour-plus drive from Denver to New Orleans. We caught up with him during his lengthy excursion from the Mile High City to the Crescent City, to discuss his new role with the Pelicans and why he’s looking forward to the 2017-18 season. Finch has previously been an NBA assistant coach with Houston and Denver, both clubs that developed high-powered attacks. What was it about this opportunity that made you want to come to New Orleans and take this job?

Finch: First of all, my experience through the process with the organization was first-class. Everybody I met and dealt with along the way was extremely gracious, welcoming and excited for me to join the staff. It was a great start in that regard. I didn’t really have a previous relationship with anyone at the Pelicans, so that made it even better.

From a basketball point of view, it’s an opportunity to work with two top-10 players in the league. You don’t often find that. They have unique skill sets, making this a chance to integrate them in a system, where they can not only accentuate each other, but also make their teammates better. I thought it was a good time to join this organization, because with a training camp under your belt for those guys, and a new system to take root, there is no basketball reason why we shouldn’t be able to figure it out. You noted that you haven’t worked with any of the coaches here previously. Did you basically know Alvin Gentry just as an opposing coach?

Finch: Yes, we had said hello, but that’s about it. But philosophically, we are very much in tune. He likes to play up-tempo and give his players a lot of freedom. He is not a huge play-call guy. Those are all things I believe in wholeheartedly. I feel that it’s not only the most fun way for players to play, but it’s also highly effective. When the system takes root, hopefully players will gravitate to the things they do best. Sometimes they need nudging in that direction, or massaging and shaping early on, but over time the system becomes unpredictable (for opponents) and allows players to play to their strengths. When you were in Denver last season, the Nuggets were one of the best offensive teams in the NBA, particularly from around Dec. 1 through the end of the regular season. What were some of the keys to why that offense was so effective?

Finch: There were several factors. Most importantly, it was about getting the right players on the floor, getting guys who complement each other. I’m a big believer in lineup combinations – I think it’s one of the most important things in offensive philosophy in the NBA. We also had very unselfish players, in the sense that some of our best players were also our most unselfish. That certainly sets the tone, when you have Nikola Jokic as an elite-level passer, just like I believe DeMarcus Cousins is. The opportunity to run the offense through (Jokic) at the top of the floor – once we got over the learning phase after 20 games, which often happens as guys try to figure out their roles – things really took off. People gained confidence, they found their groove in the offense and we were able to keep tweaking things to get better and better. It was a 100 percent buy-in to play fast, have a lot of freedom, but also to have the responsibility to do what the system dictates. How exciting is it as a coach to see the frontcourt pairing of Cousins and Anthony Davis, to work on figuring out how to best design an attack around such a unique duo? It seems like a combination that hasn’t been seen in the NBA in a long time.

Finch: It’s very exciting. As we head into the season – and I’ve said this to a bunch of people – if you said, OK, what are the top five questions that need to be answered league-wide? One of them would be, how are these two guys going to play together? Can they maximize their talent and their teammates? I think that is a big challenge and a great opportunity to be part of something like that. To be with them from Day 1 (of training camp), having 20 games (from last season) to study and also including them in the process of how they are going to shape their roles and how they are utilized, all of that I look forward to and am excited about. I look at it like a blank slate, to try a lot of different things that will make us hard to guard. Are there some principles that worked in Denver that might carry over to this New Orleans team?

Finch: One thing I learned in coaching is that every player is different, even though they may have similar games. If you lose a player from a roster who is a big-time scorer and you just try to replace him, for example, a lot of times it doesn’t work. You have to shift focus to the other strengths of the roster, while at the same time replacing talent. That was a lesson we learned in the D-League all the time.

But to your question, I can see DeMarcus at the top of the key with the ball in his hands creating offense, just like we did with Jokic. Jokic also was one of the most efficient post-up players in the league, and DeMarcus is a beast in the low block. How we get him to the low block is important. We don’t want to just prop him down there, where gets beat on, doubled and wrestled. We have to do it in the flow of the offense.

Anthony is an elite scorer who can score from all ranges. I can see those two guys playing a lot of pick-and-rolls, making plays for each other. AD is the most dynamic roller in the game; I know that from having to prepare against the guy. That was literally the No. 1, 2 and 3 things you had to deal with, was pick-and-rolls. So I’d like to see him get to rolling a little bit more and also mixing in popping, so defenses can’t just settle in on one way to guard him.

Both guys can handle the ball and pass and are big targets. There are a lot of high-level concepts we can use. We just have to pick the ones our guys are the most comfortable with and most effective. Your college coach at Franklin & Marshall, Glenn Robinson, who has led that program for 40-plus years, called you the best defensive player in school history. How does your background impact your philosophy and approach to that end of the floor?

Finch: As a player, I always guarded the (opponent’s) best player, and I was a playmaking guard on offense. So I always had a coach-on-the-floor mentality and valued defense. I was highly competitive as a player and that drove my defense.

I was always a head coach before I got to the NBA, so I obviously had to focus on both sides of the ball, but in the NBA you sometimes tend to specialize. For me the style of play we used in Europe – with smaller guys and not many big players – was something that when I got to Houston, they wanted me to keep doing that. I took it to the D-League and pushed it to the extreme, and we used it as a laboratory to experiment with whatever we wanted to do (in the Rockets organization). That’s the evolution of my offensive philosophy, but I’m really a defense-first guy as a coach. I never believed you have to sacrifice one for the other.

New Orleans has a great defensive system and they made a huge leap, going from 20-something (in ranking) to eighth last season. (Assistant Darren Erman) and Coach Gentry have done a great job there. Hopefully we can make similar strides with the offense.