Getting To Know: Chris Finch
Rockets assistant coach reflects upon his unique basketball journey and hoops philosophy
HOUSTON - The Rockets introduced a brand new coaching staff this summer, bringing in Head Coach Kevin McHale along with assistants Kelvin Sampson, J.B. Bickerstaff, Chris Finch and Greg Buckner, while promoting former player development director Brett Gunning to the role of assistant as well. To help fans get a better feel for these men both on and off the court, Rockets.com will sit down with each over the coming weeks to discuss their unique backgrounds, philosophies and experiences within the game.
Today, we put Chris Finch in the spotlight; a man whose rather circuitous path has helped him hone his coaching credentials while gaining an appreciation for open-mindedness, new ideas and the comforts of home.
JCF: You’ve officially been with the Rockets for about four months now. How has the transition been for you?
CF: Of course I’m thrilled to be up here and playing my part and continuing to work within the organization. Working with Kevin McHale, I feel like I’ve gotten really lucky in the fact that he’s really open and inclusive and you can tell he lets his coaches speak and coach and take ownership of the things they do, so that’s excellent and a great opportunity. And also, learning from the other assistants has been fantastic.
JCF: I feel like your journey to get to this point has been pretty unique and I’m sure it has had a profound impact on who you are as both a person and coach. So let’s start at the very beginning: What is your earliest basketball memory?
CF: There were three elements that really got me interested in sports. I played all the sports growing up and I liked them all equally. But my brother played basketball and he’s five years older than me and I would go to all his games and follow him into the sport. And when I got into basketball I had a group of friends and we all played and all ended up being pretty good from the junior high ages all the way through high school. It was just one of those groups where everyone was pretty good for where we were, so we won a lot and it made it fun. Then, finally, I was lucky enough to have a lot of good coaches along the way.
So I just had a really enjoyable basketball playing experience. I know a lot of people who didn’t have coaches they really liked or never found the game fun and exciting enough to really learn it. So I don’t know if there was really one moment that really crystallized my passion for the game, but all of those experiences are what really made basketball, for me, the lead sport if you will. I played football and I played baseball, but basketball just ended up taking up more and more of my time, so it was hard to really dedicate to the other sports because I felt that going forward I had the best chance of getting a college scholarship by playing basketball.
JCF: Growing up, did you ever envision yourself as a coach?
CF: I first started thinking about coaching while I was in college. One of my assistant coaches at the time, he basically asked me if I had thought about coaching and I had actually started thinking about it right before he asked me that.
So when I came out of college, I sent out a bunch of letters looking for coaching opportunities. I had gotten an opportunity to be an assistant coach at a school in Florida, but at the same time I got an opportunity to play overseas. So I then just decided that I was going to go play for a couple years and see what happens there – I thought I could take a different route into coaching and add some more experience to my resume, but I never thought it would play out the way it did.
JCF: How did your first coaching opportunity present itself?
CF: I think I had finished my fourth year playing overseas or something like that. The team I was playing for, they knew I wanted to get into coaching. I’d been there four years and they were an expansion franchise. The guy I was playing for at the time, he left to take another job during the summer, so they asked me if I’d be interested. I was 27 at the time so ideally I probably would have liked to play a few more years, but my career wasn’t going anywhere fast so I jumped at the chance and I’m glad I did obviously. It was interesting, and a little awkward at times coaching guys I’d been playing with a couple months before, but it all worked out.
JCF: Did you have any qualms at all at the time about staying in Europe and coaching?
CF: No, not at all. With my network overseas and the opportunity I had there, it just made sense to follow my nose and attempt to maximize that experience. I ended up staying at that club for six years and during that time I had a few interviews for opportunities back in the States – everything from a really big high school in Pennsylvania to a Division III school to an assistant position at a D-1 program – but for one reason or another, I chose to stay where I was. From a Division I standpoint, I didn’t have the recruiting ties they were looking for and things just didn’t work out when I had other opportunities or I just decided not to pursue them.
I was lucky to be overseas at the time because the game was really taking off internationally and developing everywhere. So I just thought I would see what Europe had to offer rather than go back to the United States at that time. I went out to Germany and started coaching in some bigger and better leagues, and just took it from there.
JCF: How much did your experience playing in Europe shape your coaching philosophy?
CF: I actually think my core coaching beliefs were largely cemented before I played in Europe. That said, I definitely started to think differently the more I coached. I wanted to incorporate and blend two styles of play. Being an American and having an affinity and familiarity with that style and having a good number of American players playing for me, plus a lot of British players who played for me had played college ball in America, it was important to be able to work within that framework while also paying attention to the European game and the things developing there. So I’d say the biggest thing for me early on was just trying to combine those two styles into a winning formula.
JCF: I’ve heard you labeled as a bit of an unconventional thinker. Do you agree and, if so, how does that apply to the game of basketball?
CF: It’s funny, because I’ve always thought of myself, in the purest sense of the game, as more of a traditionalist in terms of the principles of the game – winning with defense, etc. But I’ve also opened up my thinking to various approaches – certain things we use here with the Rockets – which also kind of dovetail with my own philosophies: I believe in a lot of player freedom on offense and basically no level of freedom on defense; high levels of accountability there.
Going back to what I was sort of saying before, I’m really looking more to just tweak things. I don’t think we’re really inventing anything new in coaching; a lot of times it’s just combining things that we see. I’m just trying to always stay open, particularly on the offensive side of the ball where I think we can be far more creative just by combining various things that are working for teams and players all over the world.
So, again, I try to approach things just from a basketball point of view from the standpoint of, “What can we do that’s different?” Not necessarily new, but different compared to what’s being done now that can make the teams preparing for you prepare for something different. It’s not something that we’ve invented but perhaps something we’ve taken from a different style of play or maybe even from a different era.
JCF: Why do you believe in player freedom on offense and not on defense? Is it because inherently on offense you’re initiating the action whereas on defense you have to be far more reactive?
CF: Well on the defensive side of the ball I believe in a high, high level of accountability. The less gray area there is, the more people know exactly what their job is, how they’re going to do it and who’s responsible when it’s not done because defense is like anything else that involves a lot of hard work: people tend to want to take shortcuts there. So I think as a coach we have to be very specific defining that and keeping it simple and keeping it tight. We’ll give our players a little bit of choice in certain circumstances but I think we as coaches will decide what is best tactically to do defensively.
On the offensive end, I first of all believe that it is the most fun way to play if you have freedom. Players are going to tend to want to do what they do best, so why shoehorn them into something that they’re not that comfortable with? They’re going to look bad, you’re going to look bad, and everyone is going to be frustrated. It doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all, and it doesn’t mean it’s anything goes. Shots will still be defined as good and bad, we still have a structure, we still have a system, we still have rules, but those rules aren’t handcuffing necessarily.
I believe offense is attack-minded and it’s not something where people can over-think. They start over-thinking and then they become slow, doubt creeps in and all that type of stuff. And I also believe that if you want to play up-tempo, then you have to give players the freedom to do that. You can’t be asking them to run and then wanting them to play as robots at the end of that because that’s going to impact their ability to run and be aggressive early.
JCF: You’ve obviously had a lot of time now to meet with your fellow coaches and front office staff here and kick around all sorts of ideas. What sort of things have you guys discussed?
CF: I think whenever you come into a new position it’s very important to let it be known that you’re not criticizing anything that’s gone on before; there are a million ways to play the game. So what we want to do here is obviously impose our own culture and, in that, a lot of the things we want to do involve the defensive end of the floor: we want our guys to play more physically than they have in the past; have a defense-first mentality; try to create opportunities out of our defense that translate to the offensive end; and rebounding of course is a huge thing.
Coach McHale believes in all the ways of physically impacting the game, be it physical play, rebounding, defense – all that kind of stuff. We want to compete in every element of the game and every element of practice and in every element of everything we do. Those are the things we want to focus on first. How we get there is still a work in progress and we pretty much have it mapped out how we like it, but until we start working with the players we won’t really know what’s going to work best.
JCF: Can you think of an example in which being around these guys who have so many different backgrounds and philosophies has caused you to re-think or re-consider where you stand on certain issues and strategies?
CF: Absolutely. I think one of the strengths of our staff is that we have a lot of varied perspective but I think we also hit the high-level points very similarly in how we believe that the game should be played. From Kelvin’s college background to NBA transition, to Kevin’s history of the game, JB’s growing up in the game, Greg Buckner who brings the perspective of a recently-retired player, and then Brett who can bring perspective of what has gone on here before. So I think we’ve got a great blend and there are a lot of inherent advantages in that.
JCF: I’m sure you’ve discussed end-of-game scenarios and other topics like that …
CF: Oh yeah, we’ve talked through all those types of things. We know one of the things that’s going to be important for us is getting to the point where we’re in close games and then winning those games. We don’t feel we have a huge margin for error but we do feel we have a really good chance in every game that we’re going to be playing. We want to keep building on what they’ve done before here and hopefully improve on the defense and the rebounding, but finding a way to close games it also a really big thing for us.
JCF: What do you feel are the keys to doing that? From a historical perspective, close games tend to be little more than a 50-50 proposition. On the other hand, certain teams – and there is no shortage of theories as to why – have consistently won more than 50 percent of their close games over the last few years. Do you believe there are things that can be done to make close games less of a coin flip?
CF: I haven’t dug deeply into the numbers on that subject, but I suspect having a more experienced team will always help you in those moments and of course having elite players you can really close games with makes a big difference, too. I think the real key is finding a couple people you feel can make plays down the stretch – and that doesn’t necessarily mean “make shots.”
Another key is being able to rebound well at both ends of the floor. I’ve been in a lot of games where everything goes great and a shot is missed but the other team gets a tip-in or put-back and you’re sunk. So I think if you want to win close games you better be able to rebounding and have the sort of mentality that comes with a defense-first mindset. It’s hard to get big stops if you’re not getting regular stops. So if you can get your guys to focus on getting regular stops all the time then you can feel more comfortable about your players being able to dig deep and get those big, meaningful stops at the right time.
JCF: When you look back at your experience over the years – playing and coaching in Europe; team-building in Great Britain; coaching in the D-League – how have those things prepared you for this step and this transition to NBA basketball?
CF: I started coaching early and I’ve done a lot through trial and error. I have beliefs that I’ve followed through on and tried different things along the way, so I’m not afraid to try new things and the older I’ve gotten, especially over the past five years, I’ve really been open to new ideas. Thinking unconventionally at times can be very liberating. As coaches we tend to be very conservative, so we tend to do what we’ve always done and sometimes it doesn’t work as much as we think it does – it just feels good along the way. So I think just being able to think differently and experimenting with new ideas has really helped me along the way.
I’ve had teams where we’ve had not only a variety of personnel but a disparity of personnel as well. That’s one thing I’ve learned coaching the national team; we have NBA guys playing alongside players who play in smaller leagues around Europe or even guys who are college freshmen. So trying to blend that talent is a challenge and it’s the same way in the D-League; it’s a constant process of blending talent and blending systems and tweaking systems. You have to change and be reactive on the fly and if something’s not working you have to move off of it. You still have to have your principles and your system and the way you want the game to be played and be detail-oriented about what you’re doing at that moment, but you have to be flexible and quick to react and respond, too.
In the D-League if you have a big guy and you’re running everything through him and then he gets called up, if you don’t change then you’re just going to be hitting your head against the wall. So I think the same thing applies whether you’re talking about closing games or trying to win close games, if somebody is not getting it done even though they might have been getting it done for 44 minutes the rest of the night, there’s no shame in moving off that and finding somebody else who can.
So I think staying flexible and being able to adjust and adapt and combine personnel and strategy is one thing that’s been kind of fun for me and that I’ve had some success with.
JCF: Can you provide an example of how unconventional thinking has helped shape your basketball philosophy over the years?
CF: There are a lot of things in this game that people have been doing for more than 50 years that are just accepted as being the “right way.” It’s just getting over those hurdles sometimes that is the toughest thing. You have to figure out what can actually help you and start tweaking around the systems there.
So that fits my philosophy normally, but that was certainly enhanced by having these guys like Sam, Gersson and Daryl say, “OK, we’re going to use this as a bit of a laboratory; let’s play on the edges.”
JCF: So are you happier, then, to be up with the big club now and out of the guinea pig laboratory?
CF: (laughs) Of course I am. But I wouldn’t change my entire path and certainly my last two years in the D-League for anything. I firmly believe that it made me a far better coach. Everybody who wants to coach in professional basketball, they would be well-served to coach in the D-League for a couple of years because the things you have to react to and the amount of change – if you get stuck in your ways too much, you’re probably going to put yourself in a tight spot because if you’re any good as a team you’re going to lose players. You’re going to have to change and you’re going to be in a lot of different circumstances. It’s easy to adjust when you’re bad because you have nothing to lose. But adjusting when you’re good is a little different.
JCF: So you adapt or die basically.
CF: Yeah. But even then, I always tell people you can’t lose your high-level beliefs. You just have to change how you get there. That’s the key.
JCF: Well I can’t let you leave without asking what’s the thing you miss most about living in Europe? And what’s the thing you love most about being back in the States and specifically here in Houston?
CF: I loved the intimacy of Europe. From walking to go get a sandwich, to living in nice small neighborhoods that were accessible to lots of different things by just walking around. I also loved being able to drive two hours and be in Paris, take a train three hours and be in London, I could fly 90 minutes and be in Venice – that’s an unbelievable experience. And also, just through basketball, having traveled and gone to places that you would never go for anything else and being able to see so many different parts of the world – those experiences I definitely miss.
What I like most about being back in the States in general is that it’s home. The more that you’re away you just never can replace being at home. Sliding back into the American culture and lifestyle is just so easy – it’s like you’ve never been away at all.
I love in Houston being back in a big city and all it has to offer. I love the weather – it’s like the anti-European weather curve (laughs). And my wife and I love to go out to eat and in Houston you just have such a great culinary scene that’s really nice. I like Texas, too. It’s got a great vibe and plus I’ve got family here.
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