Chris Finch (Raptors to Timberwolves) rare coach to switch teams during season
Yesterday, Chris Finch was an assistant coach trying to help the Raptors overcome their three-point halftime deficit to the 76ers in Tampa. “We’ve got to play a little stronger,” Finch said on TSN. “When we’re driving the ball, there’s a lot of contact as we’re going there. We’re over-penetrating a little bit, and that’s where the turnovers are happening. So, we’ve got to find the earlier pass.” Toronto cleaned up its issues and won 110-103.
Today, the Minnesota Timberwolves named Finch their head coach.
Finch joins a short list of coaches who’ve changed teams during a season. Usually, teams that make an in-season coaching change promote an assistant. Sometimes, an executive becomes interim coach. Occasionally, someone outside the NBA gets hired.
But Minnesota, which fired Ryan Saunders, poached Finch right off the Raptors’ bench. Timberwolves president Gerson Rosas and Finch worked together on the Rockets’ minor-league team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Rosas as general manager, Finch as head coach). Minnesota also considered Finch in 2019 before retaining Saunders, a favorite of Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor.
There are legitimate questions about how Minnesota landed on Finch, questions that would still apply in the offseason. But some of the fuss probably stems from the timing. It’s startling to see a team hire another team’s assistant during a season.
But it’s not unprecedented.
Here are the other people who got hired as a head coach during a season while working for another NBA team (since NBA-ABA merger):
Lionel Hollins (Memphis Grizzlies from Milwaukee Bucks in 2008-09)
Lionel Hollins was an assistant coach for the Grizzlies in 10 of their first 12 seasons. (He was a minor-league head coach the other two years.) He even twice became Grizzlies interim head coach, in 1999-00 and 2004-05.
In 2008-09, Hollins finally left Memphis to work for another NBA team. He joined Scott Skiles’s staff with the Bucks.
But when the Grizzlies fired Marc Iavaroni, Hollins returned to Memphis to replace interim coach Johnny Davis.
Hollins became the most successful coach in Grizzlies history, guiding Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen through the Grit & Grind era.
Bernie Bickerstaff (Washington Bullets from Denver Nuggets in 1996-97)
Bickerstaff actually began the season as the Denver’s president-head coach. But he got stripped of coaching duties after a 4-9 start, as assistant Dick Motta got promoted. Though Bickerstaff remained the Nuggets’ president, he appeared to be on shaky ground.
So, Bickerstaff took a life raft to Washington, where he previously worked.
Bickerstaff was an assistant on the 1978 NBA-champion Bullets (who were coached by Motta). A key player on that team – Wes Unseld – became Washington’s general manager. After firing Jim Lynam, who oversaw a 22-24 start, Unseld turned to Bickerstaff.
Bickerstaff rallied the Bullets to a 22-13 finish and into the playoffs, where they got swept by the Bulls in the first round. He got fired two years later after going 42-40 (missing the playoffs) and 13-19.
Dick Versace (Indiana Pacers from Detroit Pistons in 1988-89)
Jack Ramsay resigned after an 0-7 start, saying he lost joy for coaching in his 21st season as an NBA head coach. Assistant Mel Daniels took over, but after losing two games and 14 pounds due to stress, he decided head-coaching wasn’t for him. George Irvine came down from the front office and coached 20 games.
Finally, Indiana hired Versace.
Versace won big at Bradley University, but left the school in 1986 as the NCAA pursued recruiting violations. He then joined the Pistons as assistant coach/advanced scout. That grueling schedule and Versace’s personality impressed the Pacers.
Indiana finished 22-31 with Versace in 1988-89. The next season, he led the Pacers to a 42-40 mark – their best record in nearly a decade. But he got fired following a 9-16 start the following season.
Willis Reed (New Jersey Nets from Sacramento Kings in 1987-88)
Willis Reed was basketball royalty in the New York area playing on the Knicks’ 1970 and 1973 championship teams. That helped him get job coaching the Knicks in 1977. But he got fired with middling records (43-39 and 6-8).
Still, he wanted to be an NBA head coach. So, Reed became a volunteer assistant at St. John’s then head coach at Creighton. To get closer to his goal, he took a pay cut to join Mike Fratello’s Hawks staff. Reed then got a more prominent role assisting Kings coach Bill Russell.
Finally, Reed jumped at a chance to coach stumbling New Jersey, which surely wanted to borrow from the Knicks shine.
“I didn’t take the job because it was easy,” Reed said.
Reed – who followed Dave Wohl and Bob MacKinnon as the Nets’ coach that season – finished the year 7-21. He went just 26-56 the following year. Reed resigned as coach to become the Nets’ vice president of basketball and business development. He eventually became New Jersey’s general manager and had more success in the front office.
Phil Johnson (Kansas City Kings from Utah Jazz in 1984-85)
Jack McKinney resigned after a 1-8 start. So, the Kings turned to a coach they knew well. Johnson was previously the Kings’ head coach (1973-78).
Johnson’s second stint with the franchise went similarly to the first. The Kings had a winning record only once in his first five years. In his three-season second term, the Kings had a losing record each year, though made the postseason once.
Chuck Daly (Cleveland Cavaliers from Philadelphia 76ers in 1981-82)
Ted Stepien produced far more than his fair share of blunders while owning the Cavaliers. But the Chuck Daly era holds a special place.
Stepien fired Don Delaney early in the season, used Bob Kloppenburg as an interim coach then struck gold with an assistant from Philadelphia. Daly had Hall of Fame coaching ability. He would win two NBA championships and coached the Dream Team. The Cavs gave him a three-year contract.
But he lasted just 41 games in Cleveland.
Rather than look in the mirror or even at the roster, Stepien blamed Daly for the Cavs’ 9-32 record while Daly coached. So, Stepien fired Daly and installed vice president and director of player personnel Bill Musselman as the team’s fourth head coach of the season. Musselman, who began the previous season as the Cavaliers’ head coach before getting replaced by Delaney in-season, was not retained for the following season.
Daly went on to have his biggest success with the Pistons.