The New Orleans Pelicans are on the precipice of opening training camp in preparation for the 2018-19 season. So, The Advocate took the opportunity to sit down with two members of the Pelicans’ coaching staff for an unfiltered, two-part, question-and-answer session exploring a variety of topics before officially opening the NBA season.
The second segment features Chris Finch, who enters his second season as Alvin Gentry’s assistant coach, primarily in charge of the offense. The Pelicans boasted the NBA’s ninth-best offensive efficiency while tallying the league’s fastest pace, helping them jumpstart a 20-8 finish to the regular season and earn the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2015.
The New Orleans Pelicans are on the precipice of opening training camp in preparation for the 2018-19 season. So, The Advocate took the opport…
Now, in a wide-ranging interview, Finch discusses the Pelicans’ core principles, adjusting on the fly to life without DeMarcus Cousins and how to unfurl a similar offensive attack while incorporating free agent acquisitions Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton into the rotation.
Part One ran earlier this week, displaying a conversation with fellow Pelicans’ assistant Darren Erman, who is in tasked with implementing the team’s defense.
The Advocate: After DeMarcus Cousins went down last year, when did you feel the offense actually started to click again? Was there any particular adjustment you felt put it over the edge?
Chris Finch: I didn’t feel like a massive recalibration was needed, because our principles were the same. We still wanted to play fast. By the time DeMarcus went down we were like sixth in the league in pace and we were maximizing our personnel. When he went down we knew we had to pick up the pace a little bit, but there wasn’t much more we could do.
We ended up being No. 1 in the end. But, our spacing principles were similar, but obviously we played a bit more spread lineups with Niko(la Mirotic). So, we had to adjust our spacing and our cutting a little bit, but nothing high-level changed. The shots we were working for were the same.
One thing, when he first went down, was we really missed his playmaking and his passing. We ran so much of the offense through him. So, we just kind of turned to (Rajon) Rondo, who was kind of sacrificing because we did so much through Cuz and a little less through Rondo. So, that was an adjustment to put the ball in his hands more and let him run the show.
One thing I got wrong, was I thought we would need AD to be more of a facilitator in the middle of the floor, and he did a good job with that his first few games. So he was looking to score and pass, but I think I messed him up. I was like, after a few games, “just go back and score and be ultra-aggressive and your teammates will get involved in other ways.” So, that was just kind of wrong, but once we figured it out and told AD to go Russell Westbrook on everybody, that really kick-started the run.
So, to AD’s credit, he was doing what we asked him to do, but I was just worried that our shooters were getting such great looks around DeMarcus and I thought AD could fill in some of that as well as score. But it made him a little more passive. So, we then told him to go be himself at a high level and then he did it.
Obviously, Jrue (Holiday) stepped up to a really high level too. We closed a lot of games with those two guys. It was different than how we closed previously. Basically, it was AD-Jrue two-man game on the pick-and-roll.
The lasting image of the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans is a blur.
TA: Is there a guiding principal, other than simply pace, that drives this offense, or does it kind of flow through the personnel and game situation?
CF: Principles are always the same. We still want to play fast. We still want to get to the most efficient shot on the floor. How we do that may be a little bit different. That’s something we’ll have to mold and shape through training camp since we have a bit of different personnel. So, for spacing purposes, we need to learn everyone’s strengths, where they’re best as a shooter or cutter, etc... All of those things stay the same on a high level, we just have to shape it as things go along.
What happens in our offense is our flow and our actions and all we do is a bit of randomness. Not really random, but more read and react to situations. And what happens in those actions is teams gravitate to what they do best. Last year’s team, the combination between Rondo and another guard action for example was effective, we might not have that this year. Instead, we might have something else with better big-to-big movement in the paint or the pocket. Like, Julius may be a better pocket playmaker than what we had last year.
So, we just have to look at it and let them develop and cultivate from there. We can see what’s coming to the surface. We can learn that we’re good at certain things and then we accentuate them. I try not to go into the season with too many specific and preconceived ideas. I know what we are trying to do in general, but I’m going to let it see how it develops and then will hone it from there.
TA: You led the NBA in total scoring over the last 45 games, but finished No. 28 in 3-point rate during that span? How do you improve that number and what would improving it open up for the rest of your offense?
CF: The reality is open 3s are still great shots, just when you look at effective field goal percentage. People say “live by the 3, die by the 3” and that’s an old mentality. You can say that about anything, I mean “live by the dunk, die by the dunk”. So, the bottom line is we want open 3s. We have good shooters, but we were a streaky shooting team. And streaky teams can still shoot really well if you’re picking the right shots. The strength of our offense is about the shots you pick. We have a mixture.
Getting to the rim, we were really good at that. Getting open 3-point shots, we were pretty good at that. But we are generating a lot of open shots. You don’t have to be great at them, you just have to make enough of them.
That’s the dirty little secret of offense. If you take the right shots, you can be pretty potent. And when you add the pace to it, and get to the free throw line then you have a nice little medley of shot selection.
TA: In retrospect were you pleased, overall, by the production of your offense?
CF: I was pleased. For Year 1, I think with some of the read-react fluidity and the free-flowing nature we play by, I’m hopeful that we will be better in Year 2. Guys typically understand the concepts better and their decision making will be better and those things will be more natural for them.
We don’t run a patterned offense, per say. We don’t run A-to-B-to-C passing structure. So, sometimes there’s a lag time because they’re not sure what they’re supposed to do. But after playing in the system for a year, and having pretty good continuity on the roster, they’ll know what each other is trying to do. Hopefully, we can take another step forward with cutting and movement and some of those things.
I was pretty pleased overall. I thought after DeMarcus went down it was hard to generate some of the same quality of looks because his playmaking was so elite. But we did a good job of compensating for that by the way we used pace and the offensive glass.
I would give us an A- by the end of last year if I was grading our offensive efficiency and production. In the playoffs, our finishing in the Golden State series let us down. We got to the rim, we just didn’t convert well. We were a good finishing team all year but at that level of the playoffs you have to finish those shots. That was one of my few disappointments.
But hey, it’s the second round of the playoffs, going against the eventual champions. We played pretty well, and we probably deserved at least another win in that series. We just didn’t get it.
So, Anthony Davis is hiring a new agent.
TA: How much control did Rondo have over the offense last year and how do you transition that responsibility to Elfrid Payton, considering he hasn’t had the same level of experience and success? Do you have a plan for incorporating Randle and Payton into your current system, since most people see them as replacements for the guys you lost, or do you think tweaks will be necessary to capitalize on their games?
CF: The first thing is we don’t want these guys to be anybody else but themselves. We don’t want Elfrid to try to be Rajon. We don’t want Julius to be Cousins. They have very specific, high-level skill sets that make them the great players that they are. We feel with those guys, we are going to get some things we didn’t get from the other guys.
That’s all part of this process, like I said before. We want to see what bubbles to the top and then we’ll have a better idea. We’ll ask Elfrid to do some things we had asked Rajon to, like push the pace, get us into our stuff as quick as possible, initiate the early action and get to the right spots to be aggressive.
The same thing with Julius. He has an unbelievable ability to rebound and push the ball. That’s going to make us faster in a lot of ways. He could end up being one of the best playmakers on our team. He gives us an offensive physicality we didn’t have last year after DeMarcus went down. He makes it a problem for defenses who switch and that’s becoming more prevalent in the league. And I’ve seen him be productive against big shot blockers with his physicality.
So, there’s a lot of really exciting dynamics with those guys. We are really eager to see it play out. It’s going to be up to us to get the most out of it and get the right lineup combinations at the right parts of the game to help us win. But, I think going into it, we want them to be themselves, because they’re naturally good system fits for us and then it’s just about tailoring the suit. They’re already really good-looking players and we just have to trim them up here and there so they fit in with the rest of the group and make everybody there around them better.
TA: Do you think Mirotic, Davis and Randle can share the floor together offensively and is there any way to maximize your scoring firepower without them on the floor at the same time?
CF: I think there will be opportunities for them to share the floor offensively. Whether it’s ideal or not, I don’t know yet. On paper, and in principle, their games should accentuate each other. They have the ability to do it. What I’m mostly excited about is we probably have the best collection of skilled bigs in the league and they can play in almost any combination with each other. Certainly when you’re talking about 4 or 5. When you’re talking about the 3 that changes things a bit and takes on a different dynamic.
But there will be times we try to throw Niko out there at the 3, there’s no doubt about it. Those are things we’ve talked about and we have to experiment through camp.
One thing I was really pleased with last year was that DeMarcus was having a historically great season and AD had an MVP caliber season. Jrue had one of his best seasons ever, if not his best ever, statistically as far as getting to the rim, scoring efficiently, and those things. So, we had a lot of guys play at a really high level. It’s a credit to them and our job is just to create an atmosphere and an environment for them to do what they do best. So, I think that was a feather in our cap from an offensive standpoint last year that so many guys could have career years at the same time.
TA: How long did it take you to fully appreciate what Anthony Davis is capable of and do you enter this season with a better understanding of how to mold an offense around him? You mentioned shackling him a bit by trying to make him more of a passer and learning a lesson from it.
CF: Working with great players can continually amaze you on how they impact the game in so many ways. AD is very, very intelligent. He has added so much skill to his game with his handle and transferring it to passing. You mention the word “shackle” and that wasn’t so much what we were trying to do, although it is what ended up happening. We were trying to get him to do even more. And he was good at it. But, we realized sometimes it’s better to just let him focus on doing what he does best, which is score, run, create, roll and wreak havoc. He can be dominant in all of those areas.
But even when we asked him to do other stuff, he did a great job of finding people and being a playmaker for us. He’s done that in the summer too, when you just see him in these scrimmages and stuff. We just want him to be super, super aggressive to score the ball because he’s so unstoppable, but it’s not to say he can’t do the other stuff.
It’s so personally fulfilling to watch them go through these transformations and improvements by finding a problem and seeing them solve it. Sometimes it’s a new defense that takes a bit, but he figures it out. Or a particular player matchup is tough, but he figures it out. He can figure it out because he’s a great player. And it’s great to be a part of it but it’s really on him because of who he is.
TA: Do you anticipate Jrue spending more time on the ball or will Elfrid handle the majority share of it?
CF: There are definitely going to be times we have Jrue on the ball. We have some question marks at the backup point guard right now. Hopefully Frank (Jackson) steps up. He’s looked really good and has a lot of the intangibles we love. But, he’s a young player so we have to see how things unfold.
Closing games with Jrue at the 1 was successful for us last year, so I could see us doing that a lot. But, we also realize one of the reasons Jrue had such a great year was we played him primarily at the 2. However, playing Jrue at the 1 allows us to get some of our best players on the floor and allow them more minutes, too. That’s important.
We are a little bit deeper and a little more interchangeable this year, with Solomon (Hill) coming back and Ian (Clark) finished really strong and he was solid, if not spectacular, for us. Darius (Miller), we expect to have an even better year, if you talk about getting opportunities. And a lot of that comes from Jrue being at the 1, since it allows those guys to get on the floor. Also, his defensive capability at the 1 is proven to be elite.
TA: What kind of wrinkle does Frank Jackson add to your guard rotation and what do you need to see from him in preseason to become a mainstay in the rotation?
CF: He has the physical tools. He has the confidence and swagger, too. I like that. He plays fast and aggressive so he has the right mentality. As with all young players how do they adjust to scheme, game-planning and the finer points of the game when you’re playing five-on-five?
There are going to be setbacks and failures and how do you handle those tough moments, because there will be matchups that challenge you. If you play well one out of three games and medium in one out of three and not well in one out of three, that’s probably a good way to start the season for any rookie. Then you see if that’s growing to playing well in two out of three, and so on.
We love Frank. We are pretty excited about him. We are trying to temper our expectations because he’s a young guy and we don’t want to load too much on him. But, if he can shine through, really he could fill a hole for us.
TA: What’s been the advantage in having the leeway to operate the offense and have the freedom from Alvin Gentry to design and implement what you feel is best?
CF: Alvin is the best. To work for a guy like that, you just couldn’t ask for more. He really trusts you and lets you do your thing, he backs you up and he believes in it. I think one of the things that helped Alvin and I, is philosophically, we are on the same page. We both like to play up tempo and we value the same shots.
There are some finer points, like what does the roster look like and how are you going to get there. That’s where we use our creativity. He’s been great to work with. He does a great job of letting us do our thing and he kind of runs the game and manages the players. (Darren) Erm(an) and I work well together. We understand how each side of the ball affects the other and we are considerate of those things. I think we understand the value of the other side of the ball.
It’s not a territorial thing, offense versus defense, because even though we have responsibility split as such, basketball is different. It’s all interrelated. And we believe in what we’re doing. We think this is the most effective and efficient way to play and doing what suits our players’ strengths. You know, it’s fun because it’s a very inclusive environment. We make decisions all of the time and we are planning together as a group. Honestly, there’s a lot of respect for everybody in the room and just because I coach offense doesn’t mean I don’t have a defensive opinion and Erm is open to it and he’s the same way.
At the end of the day, the defense is his baby. And he does an outstanding job with it. It comes down to communication and trust and I think we have it. And Alvin deserves a lot of credit for the whole thing.