A Coaching Tree Grown From Timberwolves, Bill Musselman
Editor’s Note: The Timberwolves are celebrating their 25th season in the NBA this year, and as part of the commemoration Timbewolves.com is looking back at the early years. In Part III of this three-part series, we focus the four players and two assistant coaches from those two years under Bill Musselman who eventually went on to be NBA head coaches.
Sam Mitchell has a theory.
It’s typically unusual to have so many players and assistants from a two-year span end up becoming NBA head coaches. After all, there are only 30 NBA teams today and many of them have tenured coaches or individuals who have occupied a head coaching gig at multiple stops over the past decade or two.
So the fact that six individuals from the first two seasons of Timberwolves basketball—players Mitchell, Tyrone Corbin, Sidney Lowe and Scott Brooks, and assistants Tom Thibodeau and Eric Musselman—all later became NBA head coaches is quite a feat.
But Mitchell saw a common denominator, and it started with Bill Musselman hand-crafting an expansion franchise in his likeness.
“He picked guys that had to think their way through games,” Mitchell said. “Tyrone Corbin, Sidney Lowe, myself, we weren’t the greatest athletes. We had to think our way through games in order to have a chance to be successful. And to win, we had to be smart players. Bill entrusted us and hand-picked us because we knew we could carry out that offense and defense the way he wanted.”
Those early Timberwolves teams didn’t have high-profile scorers or over the top athletes. There were no Michael Jordans or Dr. J’s on those squads. But they had cerebral players—many of whom, like Mitchell, knew Musselman from his Continental Basketball Association days—who knew how to work hard, dig in and play system basketball. This team wouldn’t win on talent alone. They needed to work together and be tough.
The end result was a 22-win inaugural season—tied for the fifth most by a first-year expansion team in NBA history—and improved to 29 wins in Year 2.
The team did it by striving for perfect execution, and it came with intense practices and off-the-court studying. Musselman was notorious for having a thick playbook—we’re talking 80-plus sets. Some players, like Mitchell, played multiple positions and needed to learn each of those spots on the floor.
It led to these players developing a deep appreciation for the Xs and Os of the game.
Ultimately, these players and assistants used it to either advance their careers or start anew after their playing days were over. They’re part of a wave of players from the 1980s and 1990s that are now coaches, but this two-year stretch of Wolves personnel might be the most from any one organization.
“To see those guys coaching now, it’s amazing,” said Lowe, who was a head coach for the Wolves in 1993-94 and is currently an assistant under Corbin. “I’m sure that all of us have taken something from Coach Musselman, in playing for him or coaching under him.”
How they all got to this point is different.
Scott Brooks—current Thunder head coach
Brooks knew from an early age he wanted to be a coach. He didn’t expect to play in the league for 10 years, so he did his homework and prepared himself for the possibility of taking the next step. In the process, he was a point guard who needed to learn what everyone was doing on the court at all times.
And along with Musselman, Brooks got a chance to learn from coaches like Dick Motta, Rudy Tomjanovich, Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Fratello.
“You have to use everything you’ve been taught from all the way down to my high school coach,” Brooks said. “And then put it all together to use your own way about it. Displaying it or giving it to your team. You have to have your own personality out there.”
Brooks currently coaches the Thunder, where he’s compiled a 283-165 record in six seasons. He’s been to the NBA Finals once and to the playoffs in each of the past four seasons. He was the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year.
Tyrone Corbin—current Jazz head coach
Corbin played 16 years in the NBA through 2001. When he left the game, he realized he missed it and wanted to get back in. Not surprisingly, he realized that when he couldn’t physically perform at the NBA level anymore he knew the next step was to use the lessons he learned along the way.
He knew that was a way to stay involved.
“The mental parts of it, the camaraderie you have with the guys in the locker room and traveling on the road,” Corbin said. “Trying to build chemistry with the team while trying to win a championship.”
Corbin played for the Jazz immediately after the Timberwolves beginning midway through the 1991-92 season. He played there under Jerry Sloan through 1993-94, and in 2004 Sloan brought him back to Salt Lake City as an assistant. He stayed in that role until midway through 2010-11, when he replaced Sloan and became the team’s head coach. He’s been in that position since, leading the Jazz to the playoffs during the 2011-12 season.
Sam Mitchell—former Raptors head coach
Unlike some of his teammates, Sam Mitchell didn’t necessarily see himself being a coach one day. He was always a little more interested in becoming a part of an NBA front office. But he learned along the way that sometimes plans change.
“Flip Saunders told me, ‘Sometimes your professions choose you, you don’t’ choose it,’” Mitchell said. “And I’ve enjoyed coaching as much as I’ve enjoyed playing.”
Mitchell retired from playing in 2001-02 after two stints with the Timberwolves (1989-92 and 1995-2002) and three more seasons with Indiana from 1992-1995.
He became an assistant coach in Milwaukee for two years and was named the lead assistant for the Bobcats before becoming the Raptors’ head coach in 2004. Mitchell spent five seasons in Toronto where he compiled a 156-189 record and made the playoffs twice. He is responsible for two of the five playoff seasons in Toronto’s 18-year history heading into this season.
Mitchell is currently an NBATV analyst.
Sidney Lowe—former Wolves, Grizzlies head coach
Sidney Lowe played for Indiana, Detroit, Charlotte and Minnesota, finishing his NBA career with the Timberwolves during the inaugural 1989-90 season. He became an assistant in Minnesota in 1991 and stayed in that role through 1993 when he was named the successor to Jimmy Rodgers as Timberwolves head coach for the 1993-94 season.
He spent a season and a half as the Wolves’ coach, then spent time as an assistant in Cleveland and Minnesota before becoming a head coach again for the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies in 2000-2002. He was an assistant again in Minnesota and Detroit, both under Flip Saunders between 2003-06, then took over his alma mater North Carolina State program from 2006-11. He’s been a Utah Jazz assistant under former teammate Tyrone Corbin since 2011.
His desire to become a coach began in 10th grade, he said. His high school coach left an impact on him to the point where he took parts of his preparation with him through his playing and coaching career.
“He was very detail-oriented. He actually changed my game, so to speak, because going into that point I would like to score and I scored in junior high school,” Lowe said. “He taught me the importance of being a point guard. He taught me about leadership. He taught me about making plays for other guys. So I started to gain interest as a 10th grader.”
Tom Thibodeau—current Bulls head coach
Tom Thibodeau has been a coach in the NBA since the 1989-90 season, when he became a first-year assistant coach under Bill Musselman in Minnesota. He spent two years here under Musselman before moving on to assistant positions in San Antonio (1992-94), Philadelphia (1994-96), New York (1996-2003), Houston (2003-07) and Boston (2007-10). During that stint with the Celtics, he became associate head coach under Doc Rivers and was part of a staff that guided Boston to the NBA title in 2008.
As Chicago’s coach, he became the third coach in NBA history to win 60 games in his first season. He was the 2010-11 NBA Coach of the Year and has continuously brought a defensive, disciplined style of play to the Bulls organization. His tenure has been the most successful in Chicago since the Phil Jackson era.
Thibodeau played college ball at Salem State from 1977-81, and he immediately got his first coaching gig right after college as a Salem State assistant. After three years in that position, he became his alma mater’s head coach for a year. He was a Harvard assistant for four years before joining the Wolves’ inaugural staff.
Eric Musselman—former Warriors, Kings head coach
Musselman grew up watching his dad coach at the University of Minnesota and around the Continental Basketball Association, and he always received the same encouragement that his dad gave his players on the court. If he put his mind to it, he’d one day be able to achieve an NBA head coaching position.
Turns out, his dad was right. Eric and Bill Musselman became the first father-son duo to each hold NBA head coaching positions. Only Brendan and Michael Malone have done it since. Eric Musselman became the Warriors’ head coach and served in that position from 2002-04. He also served as the Kings’ head coach in 2006-07, taking over for Rick Adelman in Sacramento.
Eric Musselman said learned his dad’s work ethic at a young age, and he learned to always over-prepare for any situation that might arise. When Bill Musselman was here in Minnesota and Eric was an assistant during the 1990-91 season, he said being prepared for matchups as well as the defensive schemes they rolled out were the biggest strengths his dad instilled in his players and assistants. “He was really ahead of his time as far as that goes,” Eric Musselman said.
Musselman is currently the associate head coach at Arizona State.
The Common Links
If you would’ve told Tony Campbell in 1989-90 that so many of his teammates would eventually be NBA head coaches, he might not have believed you. But looking back, he can see the connection.
“You can see why they all are good coaches, because I think they got those experiences here [in Minnesota],” Campbell said. “All we wanted to do was go out and just play hard, and I think any coach with that kind of mentality of hard work is going to address his players from that standpoint.”
There was the hard work and the passion for the game. The Wolves might not have won a lot of games during those early years, but they had a bunch of overachievers who studied the game because they loved it so much.
Those guys still do that to this day.
“You could tell that they were all going to be coaches in the league, because they cared about the game—they loved the sport,” Brooks said. “They were coaches on the floor, and they thought like coaches.”
Then, there was Musselman—to a degree, this is his coaching tree. When you look back at those first two Timberwolves teams, they had guys who though their way through games. Bill Musselman made sure they did it, because he expected perfection in every set of every possession. These are just the guys who became NBA head coaches. There were others who became coaches in other capacities after their playing careers were over--Doug West and Scott Roth being examples.
When you pay that much attention to detail as a player, it helps prepare you for a future in coaching.
“When you’re dealing with 100-plus plays, and you gotta know them all and we went through those plays every single day,” Mitchell said. “People don’t understand that.”