“They are always moving the goalposts.”
Those words are regularly spoken by aspiring and qualified Black coaches and general managers whose vast experience has never been enough to land their coveted NBA dream job. Those words came up again when the Minnesota Timberwolves opted to go outside the franchise to fill their head coach opening Sunday after Ryan Saunders was relieved of his duties following a 103-99 loss to the New York Knicks that dropped the Wolves’ record to a league-worst 7-24.
Rather than promote associate head coach David Vanterpool, who is Black, the organization hired Toronto Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch, who is white. To be fair, Finch is qualified for the job, but it’s atypical for a franchise to rush to hire a new coach from another team in the middle of the season.
“What are we supposed to do? Coach in college? What more are we supposed to do? What is the blueprint?” said one longtime Black NBA assistant coach to The Undefeated. “Somebody help us, because clearly what we know right now is not helping us.”
Vanterpool, 47, certainly has the resume worthy of a head-coaching opportunity. A former player whose career spanned 12 years with stints in the NBA, the Continental Basketball Association and overseas, Vanterpool was an assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers from 2012 to 2019. He played a vital role in helping both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum become stars. (Both Lillard and McCollum spoke out on social media after Vanterpool was passed over on Sunday.)
Vanterpool departed from Portland in 2019 by taking a job as the associate head coach with rebuilding Minnesota. This past season, he also interviewed for head-coaching openings with the New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls.
With 41 games remaining in the Wolves’ season, the immediate expectation was that the team would promote Vanterpool on an interim basis to see if he was worthy of the job full time. Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and Rockets head coach Stephen Silas, who are both Black, were previously interim head coaches. Giving Vanterpool a chance to be interim head coach could have been a pathway to a full-time head-coaching gig in Minnesota or elsewhere with a job well done. But Vanterpool was passed over for Finch, who is an old colleague of Wolves president Gersson Rosas. Vanterpool, who declined comment for this story, accepted the opportunity to stay on the staff.
There are currently seven Black NBA head coaches among 30 teams in a league where about 75% of the players are African American. The news of Vanterpool not becoming the eighth rocked the Black coaching fraternity.
“It’s typical of the Black coaching experience in the NBA,” one Black NBA head coach told The Undefeated. “They use your skill set during the difficult times, but when it’s time to reward you with an opportunity, they always seem to find a reason to not, and then expect you to continue to be the good soldier.”
Another Black NBA head coach told The Undefeated: “Fire Ryan. Hire Finch on the same day. Pass over David Vanterpool. Crazy. Shaking my head.”
Sources say that Rosas had decided before Saunders’ firing that Vanterpool was not a good fit as a possible replacement. But Vanterpool has a strong relationship with several of the Wolves players, including most notably stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. According to a source, Towns was not consulted during the hiring process.
Towns said during a press conference on Tuesday that he was happy for Finch and he was going to support him, but also took the time to recognize Vanterpool as an amazing coach.
“I want to take the time to recognize the amazing work these assistant coaches have done, especially David Vanterpool,” Towns said. “Men of color deserve to have a chance to get their opportunity to be a head coach in this league and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work he’s done and what he’s meant to this organization since he stepped here.
“So very excited to be able to be coached by Coach Finch and to play for him, but I also want to recognize the men of color that we have on this coaching staff, especially one that is soon to be a head coach in this league and I’m going to be very excited for that moment for him.”
For now, Vanterpool will have to wait.
The Wolves will be led by Finch, who is a former Great Britain national team coach and has more than 24 years of experience coaching in the NBA and G League. Before coaching in Toronto, the 51-year-old Finch was an associate head coach with the Pelicans from 2017 to 2020, a Denver Nuggets assistant coach during the 2016-17 season and an assistant coach with the Rockets from 2011 to 2016.
In Houston, Finch worked under Rosas as head coach of the G League Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Finch led the Vipers to a 67-33 record in two seasons. In 2010, he won a title and the Dennis Johnson Trophy (G League Coach of the Year award).
By accepting the Minnesota job, Finch became the first assistant coach to leave a team during an NBA season to become a head coach for another team since the Memphis Grizzlies hired Lionel Hollins from the Milwaukee Bucks in 2009 after the firing of Marc Iavaroni.
While Rosas got the head coach he wanted, he is now being questioned about the importance of adding value in diversity after snubbing Vanterpool. To his credit, the Wolves have hired the likes of Sachin Gupta, who is Indian, as executive vice president of basketball operations, a Black assistant general manager, Joe Branch, and a woman, Bri Bauer, as vice president of communications and engagement, during his tenure.
The Wolves told The Undefeated on Tuesday that they hired Vanterpool as their associate NBA head coach with the hope that the responsibilities and experiences would prepare him to be a head coach. Minnesota also said it has held mock head coaching interviews for Vanterpool and other assistant coaches with the executive staff and former GMs.
“As a minority leader, I take pride in assembling a diverse front office, coaching and basketball operations staff. It’s one of the first priorities when I took on the role of president of basketball operations of the Minnesota Timberwolves,” Rosas said in a statement to The Undefeated. “Many people don’t look beyond what they see on the surface, but in reality we have invested in and supported David Vanterpool, our minority staff and all basketball operations personnel in a multitude of ways so they can advance when ready. I know there are more hurdles for minorities. I had to leap over those personally, and it’s why I put internal programs in place to help all of our staff be prepared for the next step. I know David’s day will come, and we will continue to do what we can to develop him.”
Shortly before becoming the NBA’s first Latino team president of basketball operations in 2019, Rosas also talked to The Undefeated about his dreams for Latinos in the league.
“The beauty of our league is the diversity of it,” Rosas said. “And not just in terms of background or culture, but it’s the mentality, the approaches. It’s not just done one way. The different perspective that you have in an organization, it’s the value of having the team on the court and team off the court. Building that together is something I’m very passionate about.”
Rosas said during an introductory news conference for Finch on Monday that he considered Vanterpool and Wolves assistant Pablo Prigioni, an Argentine Italian, to replace Saunders. But he thought the best course was to look outside of the organization.
“We run very thorough and diligent processes here,” Rosas said. “If you talk to any of our staff, especially any of our coaches, we invest a lot in them and I want those guys to be successful. I don’t think at any time does anybody think that I’m going to pass on a candidate that I think can help us at the highest level. The reality is, as we work through this process, our focus, our goal, our target is where we’re at right now cannot continue. We can’t continue down the road where we’re at.
“Where our record is, where we’re playing on both ends of the floor. That’s what led us to this decision. That’s what led us to the change. And, for me, if we’re going to do anything, there has to be purpose behind it and we wanted to be bold and direct with this once the opportunity with Toronto became available. We were very aggressive because with Chris, we have a guy here who we share a vision, we share a philosophy and feel very confident about his ability to impact this team. And unfortunately, with our struggles here over the last year and a half, the ability to change that narrative was going to be hard from an internal perspective.”
Ultimately, Rosas hired Finch to a multiyear deal, and he did so, according to sources, without having a diverse group of qualified coaching candidates go through the interview process. So even if Vanterpool wasn’t the guy, there certainly were numerous other coaches worthy of being interviewed. One longtime Black NBA scout told The Undefeated that he was surprised Rosas didn’t consider a diverse group of candidates.
Towns says he understands the reaction to a coach of color not being considered strongly for the Wolves’ head coach opening.
“For what my job is, there’s a lot of amazing men of color out there that deserve the opportunity to lead a team and to run an organization and have a chance to make their mark in this league not with a jersey on, but with a suit on. And, I say that with meaning,” Towns said.
“But, like I said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing work David Vanterpool has put in and as a man who looks like me, I can’t wait to see him get a job where he can flourish and be a head coach and run a team. We’re so honored and blessed to have him here on this coaching staff and get to continue learning from him and soak up all the wisdom and experience he has from playing professional and also from being a coach.”
Sure, overcoming the NBA’s worst record would have been a mammoth undertaking for Vanterpool. But the long list of qualified African American assistant coaches in the NBA would have celebrated and supported such an opportunity for him. Instead, Vanterpool being passed over and a lack of a diverse group of coaching candidates being considered is just the latest example of the goalposts being moved for Black NBA coaches.
Said one longtime Black NBA assistant about young Black coaches who have hopes of becoming a head coach: