The following is the second-part in an indeterminate-part series that takes a closer look at each of the key components of the Sixers as they approach a season that may mark a turning point for the franchise, but will probably just be a disappointment. Today we look at Doug Collins.
By TOM SUNNERGREN
Staff Writer — firstname.lastname@example.org
F. Scott Fitzgerald, while a dexterous and pellucid writer, was wrong about many things. He was much like George Will in this sense. One of the things he was most famously wrong about* was his assertion that “There are no second acts in American life.” Doug Collins has had like six.
*In addition to his serious underestimation of the effects of alcoholism
After an impressive amateur career highlit by an appearance on the 1972 US Olympic team, Collins was drafted number one overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. He went on average a hair shy of 18 ppg for his career and make four All-Star teams.
After hanging up the high tops, Collins took a job as an assistant coach at Penn, moved up the ranks quickly, and faster than you can say “Willie Green is arguably the worst player in the NBA” was named the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. He coached the Bulls for three years, then the Detroit Pistons for three.
Collins, after being fired in Detroit, worked for NBC and a host of other networks as a studio analyst and color man.
4. Coach (Part 2)
Collins was lured out of retirement by his buddy Michael Jordan to coach the Wizards. This didn’t work out for anyone involved.
5. Analyst (Part 2)
Collins returned to calling games.
6. Coach (Part 3)
Collins is hired as head coach of the 76ers.
So that’s a ton of acts. But how will this one end? Does the itinerant Collins have what it takes to lead the Sixers back to prominence?
A group of people who’s writing is neither dexterous or pellucid but are nevertheless right about most things are economists. And they have some bad news for those hoping the answer to my rhetorical question is yes: He probably doesn’t. The good news is that this has nothing to do with him.
Coaches in the NBA just can’t do that much to sway outcomes. Outside of Phil Jackson and a few other savants*, they are pretty much interchangeable. Player performance in the NBA is remarkably static, much more so than in any of our other major sports. Guys, to a large extent, are what they are, regardless of the plays that are drawn up for them.
*Phil Jackson is worth, incredibly, about 17 wins a season. Let me rephrase that. Phil Jackson is worth, predictably, about 17 wins a season. Flip Saunders is worth, incredibly, about 10.
Most coaches are well-paid but ultimately impotent figure-heads, like the Queen of England. The best they can do is recognize who can play, who can’t, and allocate minutes accordingly.
Most coaches that is.
What we like about Doug Collins
I had a joke planned that would go, “It’s been said that Doug Collins knows how to win. Doug Collins may know how to win, but he evidently doesn’t test very well.” I had to scrap it though because the facts, as they have a tendency to do, got in the way.
There is some pretty convincing evidence that Doug “don’t call me Phil” Collins* may be one of the few coaches who is actually capable of making a difference. The Chicago team he took over in 1986 improved 10 games his inaugural season, won 50 the season after that, and advanced to the conference finals his third season. When he was hired to coach the Pistons in 1995, he took a team that had won 20 and 28 games the previous two seasons to a 46-36 record his first season then to 54 wins his second. During brief his stint as coach of the Wizards, regarded as his least successful as a pro coach, he led the team to an 18 game improvement in his first season. This is a trend that encourages me.**
*Seriously, don’t. He hates Genesis
**Trends that discourage me are teen pregnancy and silly bands.
I also see some similarities between Evan Turner and Grant Hill, the latter of whom Collins shepherded into superstardom, albeit a brief one.
What make us nervous about Doug Collins
While, granted, Collins has a knack for taking putrid teams and making them pretty good he also has a knack for getting fired and replaced with people who win championships with his players. He’s a starter coach who had Michael Jordan for five seasons and couldn’t a title with him.* He also had Grant Hill at the peak of his powers and couldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs.
*I’m really stretching here. Jordan didn’t have the necessary supporting cast to win a title (as Lebron so clumsily reminded us this past week, titles aren’t won by superstars alone). When Collins had him they were sans Rodman, Pippen (OK, he did have two years of Scottie, but they were his first two in the league and he was super raw. He averaged 7 and 14 ppg), Kerr, Horace Grant (see Pippen, Scottie), and pretty much every non-Jordan key piece of the 3-3 dynasty. He just never got the chance to hang around with the team as it developed. Imagine if the ’91 Cowboys got impatient, fired Jimmy Johnson and replaced him with Barry Switzer. Would they still have won three titles? Probably. Would Johnson still be regarded as a great coach/borderline HOFer? Of course not (Oh wait, this basically happened). The more I think about it, the more I like the Doug Collins era. That Detroit team he had sucked too. It was Grant Hill and a bunch of has-beens, never-weres, and not-quite-yets. Though I’m a staunch believer in numbers (and the numbers say that 99% of coaches are, if not worthless, worth very little) I think Doug Collins might be as good as a franchise can reasonably expect to do. Especially this franchise.
Furthermore, I’m of the mind that media scrutiny, more often than not, exerts a positive force on decision making in sports. Every time a coach/GM/player is about to do something stupid, they have to consider that if it doesn’t work the media will crucify them for it*. This discourages stupid moves that potential move-makers are anything less than certain will work out. And a lot of the time all you have to do to be good is not be bad. In the words of deceased uber-investor Joseph Gruss, “watch the downside and the upside will take care of itself.” I’m a little concerned that the media is so enamored of Collins (on account of his no-nonsense approach, ties to the franchise, and general likeability) that they won’t bust his balls sufficiently to keep him watching the downside.
*I think this, in part explains the Cliff Lee trade. The Phillies have gotten so much great press the last few years (not unjustifiably) that I think they thought they could act with immunity. If the media was on them to the extent that I think it is their responsibility to be, there is no way they would have traded an ace (not just an ace, a battle-tested, super-ace) for three bad prospects.
I’m also a little leery of anybody who has spent lots of time around Marv Albert.
What will become of Doug Collins
The Sixers will do better this season than they would have done without him and he will get slightly more credit for this than he deserves.