SAN ANTONIO – USA Basketball passes its national-team coaching duties from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski to the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich starting this summer, and Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau is ready to bridge the transition as an assistant coach, if the program asks.
Thibodeau joined Krzyzewski’s staff in 2013 and helped coach championship teams at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain and the 2016 Brazil Olympics.
Even though he now is both Wolves coach and president of basketball operations, Thibodeau said Friday he’s prepared to devote parts of his summers going forth to Team USA, if Chairman Jerry Colangelo asks him.
“Whatever they want me to do, I’m more than willing to do,” he said.
Thibodeau called five-time NBA champion Popovich the right guy for the job. Popovich will coach the national team at least through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Pop’s the perfect guy for it,” he said. “The foundation set, the philosophy, I think it’s a seamless transition, knowing how Coach K and Jerry did things and knowing how Pop is. I think it’s perfect.”
The two men will face each other on the sidelines Saturday night in San Antonio.
Popovich has assisted on three U.S. national teams, including the bronze medal 2004 Olympic team coached by mentor Larry Brown. That’s the last time a U.S. team didn’t win Olympic gold; the national team currently is on a 63-game winning streak that dates to 2006.
Popovich and the Spurs also have embraced the NBA’s globalization, leading a charge in which they built four title teams around France’s Tony Parker and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili, among many other international players.
“The way his teams have been built, he has a great understanding of the international game,” Thibodeau said.
Thibodeau now both understands and loves the international game as well and he calls it work that benefits his NBA teams come fall.
“I like it a lot, it’s different,” Thibodeau said. “It’s a 40-minute game. There are different rules. The game is officiated differently. It’s fascinating. You get a lot of great ideas from it. You’re around great coaches and great players. There are a lot of things you can take from that and bring back to your team, things that fit your team.
“Your offseason, usually you’re looking for new ideas and that’s a great place to be with them.”
Thibodeau came to know Popovich when he worked alongside him briefly while both coming and going from a Spurs assistant’s job in the early 1990s.
“You could tell he had a lot of great ideas,” Thibodeau said.
Brought back to the team as GM from Golden State in 1994, Popovich took over as Spurs coach in 1996 and 21 years later, he is still coaching them, through 1,633 games, 1,135 victories and a .695 winning percentage as well as those five championships.
He is the longest-tenured coach in pro sports, hired three years before baseball’s Los Angeles Angels hired manager Mike Scioscia and four years before the NFL’s New England Patriots hired Bill Belichick.
“The amazing thing to me is obviously all the things he has achieved, but, really, he’s the same person he was 25 years ago,” Thibodeau said. “He has great humility.
“He’s a great coach and great leader.”
Thibodeau was asked if Popovich is the NBA’s best, and Thibodeau spoke with admiration about how the Spurs and Popovich have transitioned from one star to another — from David Robinson in the late 1980s to Kawhi Leonard today — all the way to a 46-13 record this season, second only to the Warriors.
“He has done it the longest at the highest level,” Thibodeau said. “There are a lot of great coaches, but when you define greatness, it’s maintaining a high level of excellence over a long period of time. He has done that.”