Friday, September 24, 2010

Sixers hit a home run with Collins

By John McMullen

Philadelphia, PA  - "We haven´t hit any home runs [this offseason], but I feel like we´ve quietly improved our team." - New 76ers coach Doug Collins at the team´s annual media luncheon.

I´ve been a student of the game of basketball for about 30 years now and feel that I have developed a pretty good understanding of what goes on.

Don´t get me wrong, the ego isn´t big enough to think I could mentor an NBA team, but I´m more than comfortable talking X´s and O´s with just about anyone around the league. Doug Collins, however, intimidates me.

Philadelphia´s new coach is as engaging as it gets but his basketball knowledge is without peer, almost encyclopedic. That´s why it´s so hard to disagree with him. But, here goes -- the Sixers did hit a home run in the offseason, a tape measure blast that would have made Mickey Mantle green with envy -- they hired Collins.

If you weren´t subjected to it last season, understand that Sixers basketball was virtually unwatchable. A notorious "system guy," Eddie Jordan brought his "Princeton offense" to Philly, with no intention of tweaking anything for anybody.

The results were disastrous but Jordan kept hammering the square peg into the round hole until he´d lost his locker room by Christmas. The Sixers´ young nucleus was especially hit hard and all took a huge step back under Jordan´s hard-headed rule.

To me, great coaches in any sport have always added talent that fits into what they want to accomplish (the system), while maximizing the strengths of their current players and masking as many of the deficiencies as possible.

Coaches like Collins, a disciplinarian who is a stickler for execution in the half-court set.

"This is my fourth different spot and I haven´t used the same offense yet," Collins said. "I said the other day, we could be a team that our leading scorer is averaging 15 or 16 a game and we could have seven guys averaging double figures. That´s the kind of team we could be."

Defensively, Collins is all about accountability.

"Last year I think they were sort of random on what they wanted to do," Collins said. "We´re not going to do that. We´re going to have a defensive system in. It´s not complicated, but if you´re not in the right spot when I stop the tape all I have to say is, ´Are you in the right spot?´"

While younger fans may only know Collins as the brilliant analyst from TNT, the 59-year-old coach has compiled a regular season record of 332-287 in eight seasons as a coach with Chicago, Detroit and Washington, highlighted by Michael Jordan´s first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1989.

It was Collins, not Phil Jackson, that build the foundation of the Bulls´ dynasty. He took Chicago to the playoffs in his first season and guided the club to 50 wins in 1987-88, marking the franchise´s first 50-win season since 1973-74. In his third and final season in the Windy City, the Bulls advanced to the East finals.

In his first season as head coach of the Pistons in 1995-96, Collins inherited a Detroit team that had won 28 games the previous season and engineered an 18- game improvement along with a playoff appearance. The Pistons won 54 games the following season (1996-97).

Collins´ last coaching stint came with Washington during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons, where he was reunited with Jordan. In 2001-02, Collins once again improved his team´s win total by 18 games from the previous season and the season after he left, the Wizards won just 25 games.

You can expect a similar improvement for the Sixers this season.

Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday should both turn into dogged on-ball defenders on a consistent basis under Collins, who considers himself "blessed" to have a quarterback with a big upside.

"He is the total package," Collins said of Holiday. "He is such a good kid and such a hard worker and he is pure. I honestly believe that next year you will talk about him being one of the top five point guards in the league. I think you will speak about him with Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose."

As for Iguodala, the Sixers´ best player, Collins feels a summer toiling with Team USA will have a profound effect.

"I think that Andre is going to come back a totally different guy," Collins said. "He needs to be a slasher and defender and not depend so much on jump shots. He can get to the foul line and do those things so he doesn´t have to live and die with the jump shot. If we can get in the open court and run, that´s where he´ll be at his best. That has to be our identity. And I want him to be more of a leader. It´s a great time for him to come back after that experience."

Meanwhile, the coach knows he has a few reclamation projects like Thaddeus Young.

"I told him he cannot be a mistake player," Collins said when speaking about his third-year forward. "I told him when I was in college I had the ball a lot in my hands, and then I figured it out when I was playing with Maurice Cheeks that I would throw the ball to him and let him do all the work, and then I would get the shots at the other end, and it was easy. So why don´t you do that with Jrue?"

Collins is also inheriting a new, very talented toy since the Sixers made the unlikely leap from six to No. 2 during NBA Draft Lottery, a break that enabled them to draft the National Player of the Year, Ohio State star Evan Turner.

Turner is still a work in progress, however, and struggled during Summer League play in Orlando, a fact that Collins actually thinks might help his young star.

"Evan got knocked back this summer, and I think it is the thing that happened to him," Collins explained. "I think it gave him an idea of how hard it is and how tough it is in this game and how nightly he is going to have a bull´s-eye, and that guys are going to go at him. He is learning that you have to earn your stripes in this league."

At the end of the day, however, it´s all about changing the culture in Philly, something Collins is intent on doing.

"It doesn´t change overnight," Collins said. "I always tell guys, there´s no sympathy in the NBA. When you´re bad, people want to play you. You have to be ready to take on that challenge. I want to be the kind of team that, if we lose, it´s because people outplayed us."

As Collins wrapped up his media luncheon on Thursday, I couldn´t help thinking the only thing missing was the pipes of Philadelphia broadcasting legend Harry Kalas calling one more home run -- the Sixers hiring of Doug Collins...

"Swing ... and a long drive, this one is... outta here!"
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