MILWAUKEE – Timberwolves President Gersson Rosas said he made the decision to fire Ryan Saunders on Sunday.
By Sunday night, Rosas had concluded what was seemingly one of the fastest coaching searches in recent NBA history when word leaked he was tabbing Raptors assistant Chris Finch as Saunders' permanent replacement.
But to hear Rosas tell it, while seated next to Finch at his introductory news conference on Monday, Finch's position as Rosas' top target to replace Saunders was sealed two years ago when Finch, who was most recently a Raptors assistant, interviewed for the job that eventually went to Saunders.
“[Sunday] was a very crazy day for everybody involved. Any time you dismiss anybody at any level, it's tough. It's never an easy time. It's never the right time, especially when you're talking about a person like Ryan Saunders. He's a great guy. He gave us everything he had.”
Why not conduct a more rigorous and thorough search? Rosas said that had to do with timing and the logistics of trying to conduct one during a pandemic.
"Because of the platform we're at, a lot of what this process and this search was about was going back to our original search when we hired Ryan," Rosas said. "Chris was a finalist there. … When we got that opportunity we were very aggressive with it because he's a candidate that we have experience with through our last process and the guy we identified as a target for us."
So while the process might have seemed furious, Finch's hiring was also something that was years in the making. If you go back further, it extends over a decade when Rosas and Finch worked together in the Rockets organization both the G-League and NBA levels when Rosas was the general manager of Rio Grande Valley and Finch was the head coach.
"Everything happens for a reason," Finch said. "This is a place I really want to be. This is place I wanted to be in 2019. Not every situation is for every candidate, and that's just part of the process. ... I worked with a lot of players, a lot of high-level players. In many ways I'm probably more prepared than had I been offered the job earlier in the process."
Rosas received criticism on multiple fronts for how that process played out and addressed those Monday. First came the seemingly merciless way in which he fired Saunders after Sunday's loss and then hired Finch officially only a few hours later.
"It's very difficult," Rosas said. "But we live in an era of social media where everything that's reported is not accurate. [Sunday] was a very crazy day for everybody involved. Any time you dismiss anybody at any level, it's tough. It's never an easy time. It's never the right time, especially when you're talking about a person like Ryan Saunders. He's a great guy. He gave us everything he had."
The Wolves had just embarked on a four-game road trip, and Rosas said he didn't pull the trigger on the move before the trip because he hadn't made the decision to fire Saunders until before the game Sunday. In the afternoon, Rosas said the Wolves got permission from the Raptors to speak to Finch about the opening.
"We didn't know what was going to be available to us as we went through that process until Toronto gave permission. …" Rosas said. "Chris was a big target for us once we knew we were making the change with Ryan and Chris wanted to be here. Both sides were able to execute that in a quick fashion."
That quick fashion seemed to exclude a typical coaching search, which meant that Black or minority candidates didn't have a chance to interview for a head coaching vacancy in a league in which the majority of players are Black.
There are seven Black head coaches in the NBA while Charlotte's James Borrego is Hispanic and Miami's Eric Spoelstra is Filipino.
Rosas is the first Latino President of an NBA team and has assembled a diverse front office and staff. He again pointed to the difficulties of casting a wide net in the pandemic as a reason he used the search two years ago to guide him in picking Finch.
"Anybody that knows me knows how important diversity is to me and it's a big part of who I am and what I'm about," Rosas said. "Our staff and the diversity we have speaks for itself ... There were other candidates, minority candidates we considered at this time. Unfortunately when you're in the middle of a season, you're really at the mercy of teams in terms of who can become available and who's not available. That was a challenge for us as we went through the process."
But one Black candidate in the 2019 search is already on the Wolves' bench in associate head coach David Vanterpool. Rosas said he considered his assistants as potential replacements but felt Finch was the best pick. He added there were no staff changes he was considering.
Rosas said he decided to move on from Saunders in part because the Wolves could not close out several games this season after leading in the fourth quarter.
"Our inability to be able to execute on that caused us to get to this point," Rosas said. "But the reality of it is we've got to improve habits and approaches before we can start winning at the level that we need to win at, and that's on both ends with more focus and more development."
Late game issues
This trend, Rosas said, became "very concerning" to him, and was one factor that caused him to make the change, even after Saunders dealt with several factors out of his control. Among them: Rosas revamped the roster multiple times over the last two years, D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns have only played five games together because of injury or illness and the coronavirus caused the Wolves to go over nine months between playing regular-season games.
"We didn't feel like we were developing the things that we needed to do, especially in late game situations that are important for these young guys and our top guys to develop moving forward," Rosas said.
That isn't Saunders' problem anymore. Finch is set to take over for Tuesday's game against the Bucks before the Wolves play again Wednesday in Chicago. It doesn't give him much transition time.
"You don't get to pick your timing in life," Finch said.
The timing and circumstances around Saunders' firing and Finch's hiring may not have made for great aesthetics, but Rosas was determined to get his guy, even if the process didn't seem perfect from the outside.
"We did the best that we could under the environment of time that we were in," Rosas said.