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What happened to David Vanterpool becoming an NBA head coach?

Months after players and coaches ripped the Minnesota Timberwolves repeatedly for not elevating David Vanterpool to head coach after firing Ryan Saunders, Vanterpool is headed for another NBA assistant gig.

For one of the most popular coaches in the NBA, it raises the question of why Vanterpool wasn’t hired as a head coach for one of the seven coaching vacancies?

Criticism for Chris Finch hire was rush to judgment

Vanterpool was viewed as the favorite after Minnesota fired Saunders. But when the Timberwolves named Finch as head coach just 24 hours later, an outside hire, it received instant criticism.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Minnesota Timberwolves, check out #Timberwolves rumors, rankings, and news here

Immediately, general manager Gersson Rosas received heat from those outside the organization. Players and coaches called out the Timberwolves’ hiring process for not handing the job to Vanterpool, who was the highest-ranked coach on staff.

Portland Trail Blazers star guard Damian Lillard was the most vocal, given their time together from 2012-2019. One of the NBA’s biggest stars saw what Vanterpool offers as a coach and his ability to connect with players. Of course, that makes it even more strange that the Blazers hired a coach with a questionable past and less coaching experience. 

After receiving so much praise, one would think Vanterpool would finally land a coveted gig during this coaching cycle. Yet, that’s not what happened. There’s no word of Vanterpool even getting an interview. Instead, candidates with much less experience such as Chauncey Billups were hired in Vanterpool’s old stomping grounds. Talk about a slap in the face.

David Vanterpool’s influence on defense

David Vanterpool
Jan 22, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Vanterpool is viewed as a defensive specialist, it’s why the Brooklyn Nets hired him to join Steve Nash. Yet looking back at the marquee players he coached in Portland, the evidence doesn’t exactly back up his reputation.

  • Damian Lillard career Defensive Player Rating: 112
  • C.J. McCollum career Defensive Player Rating: 113

When the TImberwolves brought him onto the staff, it wanted him to help its young team defensively. Since he was hired in 2019, Minnesota’s defense took a step back. To be fair, the Wolves haven’t exactly filled the roster with defensive specialists either, but is that an excuse? Coaches are supposed to draw up schemes that fit the skill sets of the players they have on hand.

  • 2018-’19 Minnesota Timberwolves stats (Tom Thibodeau): 114.0 opponents PPG – 23rd in NBA
  • 2019-’20 Timberwolves (Vanterpool joins staff): 117.5 – 28th in NBA
  • 2020-’21 Timberwolves: 117.7 – 29th in NBA

As I said, the Wolves aren’t seen as a team that plays defense. Many will point to its players not being good defenders, but even their core is statistically stronger on that end than the Blazers’ stars.

  • Karl-Anthony Towns career Defensive Player Rating: 109
  • D’Angelo Russell career Defensive Player Rating: 113

The Timberwolves haven’t been great at preventing teams from scoring during the Karl-Anthony Towns era, that’s not on Vanterpool. I don’t blame NBA decision-makers for being skeptical of Vanterpool’s ability to help turn around a franchise. But I also don’t put the Wolves’ defensive woes entirely on Towns either. It’s a team game.

Minnesota Timberwolves made right hire with Chris Finch

David Vanterpool, Chris Finch
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately, the Timberwolves made the right call. David Vanterpool could be an outstanding coach in the future, but Chris Finch is already proving to be a smart hire for this team.

Young players such as Josh Okogie and Anthony Edwards went from developing slowly to suddenly looking like promising pieces of Minnesota’s core. Edwards specifically went on a tear, nearly winning Rookie of the Year after LaMelo Ball was an early runaway candidate.

In that time, the Timberpups started winning a lot more basketball games. 

  • Timberwolves record with Ryan Saunders as head coach: 43-94 .314
  • Timberwolves record with Chris Finch as head coach: 16-25 .390

The numbers don’t tell the whole story. Finch was hired mid-season so he had to learn on the job. There were plenty of ups and downs, but it wasn’t hard to see progress. In short, the Wolves started looking more like a functional basketball squad again.

With Malik Beasley suspended and then missing games due to injury, the team never could get all the pieces together at once, the closest fans saw was 20 games of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards on the floor together. With Finch, that trio went 11-9. Such a small sample size isn’t enough to go off, but that’s a considerably better winning percentage than anything seen from the Ryan Saunders era.

A bright future for Vanterpool

Jan 22, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool motions in the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Once the Boston Celtics hired Ime Udoka, Brooklyn needed a defensive specialist. Vanterpool is widely respected across the NBA for his defensive schemes, making him a natural fit for the Nets.

For whatever reason, Vanterpool has been unable to land a head coaching job in the NBA so far. As far as references, Lillard, McCollum, and countless others have credited him with playing a huge role in their success.

Vanterpool has paid his dues. It shouldn’t take long for an NBA team to recognize he has earned the opportunity to be a head coach.

Though things didn’t work out in Minnesota, Vanterpool landed on his feet with a franchise poised to do big things. The Nets are a much stronger bet to achieve postseason success, Vanterpool can use this role as a springboard to become a head coach in the 2022 hiring cycle.

Once that happens, the sky is the limit for Vanterpool. He has the on-court experience that helps him connect to players, and he’s a brilliant mind with familiarity coaching and playing across the globe. Vanterpool’s time learning how to help coach such a variety of personalities should serve him well once he does finally receive the opportunity he’s been waiting on for so long.