If the apples really don’t fall far from the tree, you could say the two men who will coach Monday at Target Center are something of a pair.
Products of the Bill Musselman coaching branch, the Timberwolves’ Tom Thibodeau and Washington’s Scott Brooks have come to a meeting of two rising young teams the long way around.
Brooks played for Musselman’s CBA teams in the late 1980s before he made it to the NBA as a nomadic point guard who played for six NBA teams (including the Wolves) in 10 seasons. He then moved to a coaching career in which he raised Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into superstars in Oklahoma City.
Thibodeau studied Musselman’s CBA practices when he was a mere Harvard assistant, then followed the former Gophers coach back to Minnesota, where he started a nearly 30-year NBA coaching career as an assistant on the first Wolves first expansion teams.
Thibodeau coached Brooks with the Wolves and with New York as well, and all these years later, each man is leading his own franchise in his first year there back to respectability.
“I’ve known Scott for a long time,” Thibodeau said. “The thing I admired about him is he carved out a great career for himself and he did it the hard way, going undrafted, through the CBA. He did a great job for us in New York. Every time he played, he always played well. I always think about how hard he practiced. He helped make the team better.
“He got the most out of his ability, and he had a lot of ability. Some say he was a journeyman. He was a lot more than that. He was a tough player, a good player.”
Thibodeau was the basketball lifer who never played the game beyond the small-college level and waited more than 20 years in the NBA for his first head-coaching chance.
“When we were in New York, he was always on me,” Brooks said. “I was his guy. He was always complaining I wasn’t in the right positions defensively. Thibs is a great coach. He cares about winning. He’s focused every day.”
Like he did with Durant and Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Brooks has taken a pair of young stars — guards John Wall and Bradley Beal — and is grooming them for success. After a 2-8 season start, Brooks has coached the Wizards into third place in the East, winning 11 of 12 games at one point.
“I’m very happy for him,” Thibodeau said. “I thought he did an unbelievable job in OKC. Knowing him like I do, he’s a terrific coach who’s an even better person.”
Thibodeau, too, has his team on the upswing, still in the playoff hunt now that it apparently is understanding and buying his vaunted defensive concepts. The Wolves have won eight of their past 12 games and are first or second in five different defensive categories. They’ve allowed 97.9 points a game in seven games since the All-Star break.
The two men occasionally consulted with each other when each took a year off from coaching a season ago, after Chicago fired Thibodeau and the Thunder fired Brooks.
Thibodeau used the time to visit and study 13 different NBA franchises, spent holidays with family and vacationed in Napa and the Virgin Islands. Brooks spent 10 days in Spain with its national-team coach and attended with his son a USC-Notre Dame football game, a bucket-list item.
“My wife was tired of me and couldn’t wait for me to get a job,” Brooks said.
Neither could have imagined himself here when they first started out with the Wolves long ago.
“In 1990, we were both hanging on by a thread,” Thibodeau said with a laugh.
• Season’s end is fast approaching and the race of league MVP might be getting more cloudy rather than clearer. You can make a case for a whole handful of candidates — Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Houston’s James Harden, Cleveland’s LeBron James, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas — and that doesn’t include either Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry from the league’s best team, Golden State.
It sounds like TNT analyst Charles Barkley has his top two. On Leonard, he says, “He’s the second-best basketball player in the world [after James]. We should appreciate him.”
• Ever wonder what happened to former Wolves president of basketball ops David Kahn? Well, the guy who has dabbled in writing about the business of sports as well as taught the art of the deal at New York University since the Wolves fired him in 2013 resurfaced over the weekend.
He’s a speaker at the mammoth South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, that brings together the worlds of politics, music, finance, journalism and food, to name just some. Kahn was scheduled to do mentoring sessions on pro-sports team operations, sports facilities, sports-investment strategies, sports law and media and broadcasting.
• Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki became the sixth player in NBA history to reach 30,000 points when he did so last week. He now trails only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
So skilled for such a big man and European, Nowitzki showed the way to the NBA for guys such as Wolves forward Nemanja Bjelica, didn’t he?
“You know, I just wanted to be like Nowitzki,” Bjelica said. “I play against him many times, like FIBA, Eurobasket, World Championships and it’s a great honor to play against him and to compete. … It’s a great accomplishment. He’s the best European ever to play in this league.”
Wolves week ahead
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Washington
Wednesday: 6:30 p.m. at Boston
Friday: 7 p.m. at Miami
All games on FSN
Player to watch: Isaiah Thomas, Celtics
Of all the great players in franchise history, only one has scored at a higher rate than the single season Isaiah Thomas is having — and that’s a guy named Larry Bird. He averaged 29.9 points a game in the 1987-88 season; Thomas is averaging 29.5 a game.
“At least we got some extra rest.”
Wolves forward Nemanja Bjelica on last week’s postponement of a game against Portland because of condensation on the Target Center court. It will be played April 3 at 6 p.m., the night of the NCAA Final Four title game.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves