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How a history with Nick Nurse makes Chris Finch an intriguing name to fill the New Orleans Pelicans head coaching vacancy

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A search has begun to fill what David Griffin coins “the most attractive job in the NBA.” Here is part ten of our spotlight series in trying to unearth the best coaching candidate.

Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

On Saturday, August 15th, the New Orleans Pelicans announced the end of head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure and executive vice president David Griffin made clear that the organization will be in no rush to hire a successor, preaching patience in their process.

“We will not be quick with this at all. This is not a rush,” Griffin said in response to a question regarding the timetable. “We have a job that we believe is going to be the most attractive in the NBA, quite frankly. With all of the candidates still in the (Orlando) bubble – and there are some that may not be – candidates you may want to talk to are still with teams, in many circumstances.

So, let’s take a closer look at potential candidates who may be the right long-term fit to lead Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the roster to the next level.

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The New Orleans Pelicans may not have to search beyond the front doors of their Airline Drive facility to find a worthy head coaching candidate capable of achieving the ‘sustainable success’ David Griffin desires.

It’s become relatively common for an incumbent assistant to graduate to head coach, especially on the heels of Nick Nurse’s recent championship run in Toronto.

“What’s going to help me is the success that a guy like (Toronto Raptors head coach) Nick Nurse has had,” Finch said last March in an interview with the Reading Eagle. “Nick was on my staff in Great Britain. We have a very similar profile. He, Quin Snyder (head coach of the Utah Jazz) and I all coached in the D-League at the same time. I’m hoping that profile pays dividends.”

“He (Nurse) ran the defense for us in the Olympic program and did a really good job.”

“He’s a really good offensive coach, so he had to give me something to do,” Nurse joked of Finch in a 2017 article from The Athletic.

The two were on one and the same career paths back in 2017. Each had spent time on the sidelines in Europe, had head coaching gigs in the G-League and then became highly regarded offensive-minded assistants in the NBA.

Finch’s decorated career includes international coaching stops in Britain, Germany, Belgium which includes leading Great Britain’s Olympic team in 2012. In his first and only year of coaching the G-League’s Rio Grande Valley, he led the Vipers to their first postseason appearance and championship, earning coach of the year honors along the way.

The ensuing season, Finch was promoted to the Houston Rockets bench where he served as assistant coach for four seasons before being promoted to associate head coach in 2015.

One year later, Finch moved to Denver and became their new associate head coach. There, he’d finally go on to earn significant attention around the league for building the NBA’s best offense around a little known second round pick at the time, Nikola Jokic.

In 2015-16, the Nuggets managed just 33 wins and a 17th ranking in offense, with Jusurf Nurkic and Jokic both trying to find their footing in rookie seasons. Jamal Murray was added the next season. Yet with so many fresh faces, Finch was able to guide the Nuggets to an improbable fourth-place finish in offensive net rating.

How they got there is the most interesting part.

The Nuggets were 19th in offensive rating through the first 18 games while struggling to find their identity. Led by Wilson Chandler in scoring and Emmanuel Mudiay in facilitating, the Nuggets employed a traditional pick-and-roll, point guard influenced offense.

Only the Nuggets started moving away from the ball more than any other team in the NBA aside from Golden State. They cut on 10.3 percent of their possessions, second in the NBA with an eye-popping 69 effective field goal percentage on those possessions (96.6 percentile).

This type of movement was perfect for a facilitator operating from the post like Jokic and Finch knew it.

“It’s amazing what happens when nobody cares who gets the credit,” Mike Malone said after the Nuggets routed Cleveland. “You pass, you cut and everybody is sharing it. It’s a fun way to play and it’s contagious.”

The Nuggets placed first in offensive rating over the last 60 games and finished fourth overall.

This took some imagination on Finch’s part. No big has ever facilitated like Jokic. However, Finch embraced his talents and engineered an offense around it.

In 2013, Nurse followed in Finch’s footsteps, earning his first NBA gig in Toronto as an assistant where he would go on to ultimately replace Dwayne Casey at the top in 2018.

But based on their current trajectories in 2017, it appeared Finch was far ahead in notoriety and performance.

Just one season after building the NBA’s best offense in Denver, Finch was hired in New Orleans to make the offense swim around DeMarcus Cousins. Fate intervened though, with an Achilles rupture removing Boogie from lineups.

Despite that crippling loss, Finch handed the keys to Rajon Rondo, moved Jrue Holiday off-ball and redistributed the wealth seamlessly. Anthony Davis went on to finish with his best offensive season, with Jrue close behind. The two finished the next 33 games on 30.2/11.9/2.2 and 19.4/7.2/4.7 splits while shooting 51 and 49 percent from the field respectively.

Finch’s adjustments didn’t just lead to a late surge to get into the playoffs. His ability to transition Nikola Mirotic from small forward to power forward to center against Jusurf Nurkic and the Portland Trail Blazers assisted in the Pelicans 4-0 opening round sweep.

The departures of Rondo and Cousins coupled with the injuries of Elfrid Payton and Mirotic out of the gates in 2018-19 quickly led to a dissatisfied Davis, who gave up on his team some say before the season had even begun.

Despite that precipitous fall, general managers around the NBA voted Chris Finch as one of the league’s top assistants prior to this season. He even interviewed for the vacant head coaching position in Minnesota before interim head coach Ryan Saunders was granted the spot permanently.

Now, following the disastrous bubble display put on by the Pelicans, Finch is caught in a difficult position. The head coach associated with his tenure is now gone and he is looking around the league for one of the highly coveted open positions. He’s been rumored as one of the favorites in Houston, his old stomping grounds.

Very few possess the offensive acumen and imagination of Finch.

“When I was in Europe (from 1997-2009, as a player and coach), the games were mixing at a high level,” Finch told Reading Eagle this March. “I was able to bring some of the things that we were doing there to the Rockets organization. The Rockets were looking for a new style of play. They were a heavily analytically driven environment and ahead of the curve at the time.”

Finch juggled lineups on a night-to-night basis thanks to injuries, family tragedy and inconsistent play during the 2019-20 campaign which quickly drew the eye of David Griffin.

“What Alvin and (assistant coach) Chris Finch had to do to just juggle the lineup was profound.”

Despite that shaky 6-22 start, Finch quickly brought out the best in his healthy squad, earning career years from Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. In addition, Zion Williamson became the only rookie in NBA history to score 22.5 points with 6.3 rebounds while shooting 58 percent from the field.

Adjusting on the fly has never been too great of a challenge for Finch thanks to his extensive experience both in the US and abroad.

“In a half hour, he made so many adjustments to our offensive sets,” Tony Casamassa said of Finch. “Our spacing was horrible, and he changed that. He showed us about getting the ball to the short corner against a zone. He called it the ‘dead spot.’ It was years before I heard that (term) mentioned in the college game.”

Finch is highly regarded and has plenty of experience to merit earning the role. He’s always demonstrated an innate ability to change philosophies at a moment’s notice, utilizing the best players’ talents available to him to help the team’s performance. His time in Europe and the G-League offered him plenty of different looks before earning his first gig in Houston.

“I drove over there and watched his (Finch) team play a lot and I gained a respect for the way he did his job,” Nurse told Eric Koreen of their time abroad. “That was it. It came from a respect from how good of a coach he was.”

His style allowed a center-based offense to succeed and become one of the NBA’s best in Denver. His style then shifted to a more now traditional pace-and-space style offense soon thereafter with New Orleans.

“I know I’m ready,” he said, “(but) there are very few jobs that come open. Every situation is unique, depending on the type of candidate they’re looking for.”

The Pelicans have promised to be patient in their coaching search, and everyone should be on board with that news. Their hunt for a new executive vice president and multiple other positions was exhaustive but earned them one of the NBA’s most promising front offices in Griffin, Trajan Langdon, Aaron Nelson and Swin Cash, among others.

“We feel very strongly about the quality of staff we have,” Griffin said following Gentry’s departure. “Some of those individuals potentially will be head coaching candidates elsewhere, Chris Finch certainly among them. He’ll be part of our conversation moving forward and it’s our intention that many of our staffers will continue to be with the next regime at some point.”

Regardless of whom they ultimately select, it’s clear based on his track record and accomplishments, that Finch warrants a look.

“He got the most out of his talent,” Nurse said of Finch to The Athletic. “His teams played super hard. He played team basketball. And he won. He won.”

If he doesn’t get one in New Orleans, you can almost bet the Raptors’ championship head coach will come calling with a consolation prize.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.

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