The son of an accomplished NBA head coach, J.B. Bickerstaff long aspired to someday have the same job. He just never envisioned it’d come quite like this.
Bickerstaff was promoted from assistant coach to Houston’s head coach in November when the Rockets, after just 11 games, fired Kevin McHale, Bickerstaff’s friend for more than a decade and his boss for a good part of that time.
The Rockets were 4-7 and losers of four consecutive games on that November day. That was just six months after McHale had coached Houston to a remarkable comeback from 3-1 down in a second-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers to a Western Conference finals meeting with Golden State.
That record and the state of the Rockets was drastic enough that the team agreed to pay McHale the remaining $12 million on a three-year contract he signed in December 2014 for essentially coaching just 11 games under that deal.
Bickerstaff was asked if being a head coach — just like his father, Bernie, was for 14 NBA seasons — is everything he dreamed it’d be, given the circumstances.
“It didn’t start out that way,” he said.
A former Gophers player and operations director, Bickerstaff worked as a Wolves radio analyst in 2003-04. He joined his dad in Charlotte the next season, becoming at age 25 the league’s youngest assistant coach.
He returned to the Wolves in 2007, hired by McHale as an assistant coach, and remained there until he followed McHale to Houston in 2011.
“Obviously, my relationship to Kevin was so important to me,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s not the way you want to get a job, to see someone you admire and look up to and learned so much from get fired. It was difficult to start with, but you’re given a job you have to do.”
His job was to provide a fresh voice and unify a Rockets team built around stars James Harden and Dwight Howard that quickly lost its way since last spring’s playoff run.
Rockets forward Corey Brewer credits two men — Bickerstaff’s tutoring as a Wolves assistant and McHale’s mentoring — for helping him build a career now in its ninth year.
“J.B. worked with me a lot when I first got in the league and Mac brought me into the league, drafted me,” Brewer said. “It was tough to see him go. But if he had to go, at least they gave J.B. a chance. Even when I first came into the league, you could see he was going to be a good head coach in this league someday.”
Losers of four consecutive games and then winners of five consecutive recently, the Rockets are 17-13 under Bickerstaff.
“It’s not about me,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s about what’s best for those guys in that locker room. You have to put personal issues aside and go get a job done. It’s about being a teammate, sacrificing for others and doing things you might not normally do. Figuring out the job, leading a group of guys who have high expectations for themselves and getting the most out of them, that’s most important.”
Two months into his new job, he is finding his way.
“I’m starting to find a rhythm to it,” he said. “Every day, I feel there’s more and more I’m learning. Every day, there are more situations I’m seeing. Every day, it feels more comfortable.”
NBA short takes
Happy in Big D
The Wolves head to Dallas on Wednesday for their second game against the Mavericks in 10 days. That’s where former Wolves guard J.J. Barea is playing a prominent bench role after he negotiated a contract buyout before last season and signed with a Mavs team with which he won an NBA title in 2011.
“Any time you’re in a place for five years and you win a championship and make so many friends, it was an easy transition,” said Barea, who remains in touch with former teammate Ricky Rubio and head athletic trainer Gregg Farnam. “I’m just happy everything worked out the way I wanted it to.”
Wednesday’s game in Houston was the first time former Rockets forward Corey Brewer faced his former Wolves team without its coach and basketball boss Flip Saunders, who died in October at age 60.
Saunders signed Brewer as a free agent in July 2014. Five months later, he traded Brewer to playoff-bound Houston, which later re-signed Brewer to a three-year, $24 million contract.
“I really liked Flip, he was the reason I came back to Minnesota the second time,” Brewer said. “It happened so quickly. I was sad for his family. I was sad for the Wolves organization because Flip was such a big part of Minnesota, period. He did right by me for sure.”
Golden State executive Jerry West before Kobe Bryant played his final game for the Lakers in Oakland on Thursday: “This has been a remarkable player, a player for the decades, simply one of the greatest players that ever played the game. And I’m talking about a handful of guys who ever played the game.”
Wolves’ Week Ahead
Sunday: 2:30 p.m. vs. Phoenix
Tuesday: 7 p.m. at New Orleans
Wednesday: 7:30 p.m. at Dallas
Saturday: 7 p.m. vs. Memphis
All games on FSN (Tue. also on NBA TV)
Player to watch: Anthony Davis, Pelicans
The Pelicans have been a bust just one season removed from making the playoffs, but the game’s next great player has not. This is fellow Kentucky Wildcat Karl-Anthony Towns’ first NBA taste of him.
“I was there when we started rebuilding the first year KG left … and they’re still rebuilding.”
— Former Wolves lottery pick Corey Brewer on the franchise that drafted him seventh overall in 2007.