76ers' Doug Collins deserves to be in coach of the year conversation
If Doug Collins were a carpenter, he wouldn't be a refinisher. He'd be the guy down on his knees with the hammer and nails, laying the foundation.
Getting down to the basics is what turns Collins on as a coach.
'I'm a teacher,' says Collins, whose Philadelphia 76ers come to town Saturday night to face the Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. 'I've always liked the jobs where I felt there was a lot of teaching involved.'
Collins reminds me of Larry Brown in that respect. Brown has always said he enjoys practices more than the games. He loves mentoring his 'kids.' Collins is much the same way.
I first got to know Collins about two decades ago, after his first head coaching job with the Chicago Bulls from 1986-89 (he was Michael Jordan's first coach). Collins was in between coaching jobs at the time, in the early stages of a broadcasting career that would see him become the finest NBA analyst on TV.
We wound up staying at the same hotel in Houston. After I introduced myself as we caught a few rays at the hotel pool, we spoke for more than an hour about the NBA game, about coaching philosophies. We talked about his playing days (he was a star guard on the Philadelphia team that lost to Portland in the 1977 NBA finals). We exchanged opinions about players, their personalities, who we liked and who we didn't.
I got the impression Collins enjoyed the conversation almost as much as I did. He loves the game, and he loves talking about it. For sure, the guy has a brilliant basketball mind.
His reigns at Chicago and Detroit (1995-98) were typified by an early climb from respectability to championship contention, then a backstep and finally a firing. There were always whispers that, like Brown, his intensity wore on his players. With Washington (2001-03), he willed teams with lackluster talent to a 37-45 record both seasons.
Collins had a cushy job in the broadcasting booth, making plenty of money and staying close to the game without the pressures of coaching while living in Scottsdale, Ariz., with wife Kathy. It was the best of both worlds. I couldn't imagine him giving it up.
But there are coaching lifers - Rick Adelman is one - who simply can't get the bug out of their system.
Collins resisted the temptation to return to coaching in 2008, turning down offers with Chicago and Milwaukee. Soon, though, the urge grew too strong. After the 76ers - who have had no winning seasons since 2004-05 - went 27-55 last season, General Manager Ed Stefanski came calling. Collins signed a four-year contract, and it was let the reclamation project begin.
'My wife (Kathy) and I talked about it,' he says. 'There were only two places we'd go - Chicago and Philadelphia. We had lived in both those cities for about 10 years. She is very comfortable and happy in both cities. I knew I'd be happy to live there and could be a part of something good.'
The 76ers started the season 3-13, but that wasn't the worst of it for their coach. Collins was dealing with the effects of vertigo, the result of an accident in Phoenix on Memorial Day 2010, after calling the Lakers-Suns Western Conference finals series.
'I was standing in line at Starbucks and fainted,' Collins says. 'I took a nasty fall. Cracked my skull, broke three ribs and was in the hospital for three days.'
Due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome, Collins suffered the dizzying effects of vertigo for four months. He missed two preseason games, then had to leave the bench at halftime of Philadelphia's first regular-season win over Indiana.
Therapy at a rehab clinic corrected the problem, and Collins says he has had no issues since November. Meanwhile, the Sixers righted themselves, playing some of the best basketball in the Eastern Conference since December. They have gone 32-20 since then and were 35-33 and in seventh place in the East, a half-game back of sixth-place New York, going into Friday night's game at Sacramento.
How did the Sixers turn it around after their 3-13 start?
'I felt like we were playing some winning basketball along the way, but making losing plays,' Collins says. 'We got beat in ways I'd never seen happen before - ways you couldn't imagine happening. I felt like we were more a 7-9 team than 3-13.
'The year before, they finished 5-21, so this team has endured an 8-34 stretch. (The turnaround) speaks volumes of these players. They never lost focus, started winning some games and all of a sudden, they took off. They believed.'
The Collins imprint has been huge, and his peers have noticed.
'They've bought into Doug,' Boston coach Doc Rivers told the media after Philly's victory over the Celtics last week. 'It's as clear as anything I've seen all year. The biggest guy is (Andre) Iguodala. He's such a team player. His scoring is down, but the scoring he creates is way up. That's a clear sign of a guy buying into the system, letting go of himself and kind of bringing himself into the team. That's awesome for a coach to see.'
'Doug has had a massive effect,' Dallas coach Rick Carlisle noted. 'They were an undisciplined team all last year. This year, after a difficult start, they're one of the best teams in basketball. I don't think anybody in the East wants to see them in the playoffs.'
Veteran forward Elton Brand, previously known as one of the most overpaid players in the NBA ($16 million this season), is playing his best ball since coming to Philadelphia in 2008, leading the Sixers in scoring (15.1) and rebounding (8.5).
'Elton is a warrior,' Collins says. 'His preparation for games is as good as any player I've been around. He's so anal about his routine. He's like running water. You can set your clock by him. He is playing with a dislocated pinky on right hand and a banged-up left hand, and he wouldn't even think about sitting down.'
Brand and small forward Iguodala have been the team leaders.
'My No. 1 goal was to get those guys on the same page,' Collins says. 'They've been great at playing off each other and helping each other.'
The rest of the rotation is cobbled together and young, with Jrue Holiday (20) and Jodie Meeks (23) starting in the backcourt, Spencer Hawes (22) at center and rookie Evan Turner (22), Lou Williams (24), Thaddeus Young (22) and Marreese Speights (23) coming off the bench. Meeks, a second-round draft pick in 2009, has been the biggest surprise, averaging 11.1 points and shooting .417 from 3-point range since becoming a starter early in the season.
'Jodie wasn't even on my active roster the first six games,' Collins says. 'He has been a breath of fresh air, a dangerous player for us.
'We have a tremendous group of guys, with high character,' Collins adds. 'We have a lot of young guys who have all gotten better. That's been the key to our season. There has been tremendous internal improvement. We have had the highest-scoring bench in the NBA over the last 30 games. I'm having a blast with these guys.'
'Doug has done a remarkable job in molding our players into a unit,' Philadelphia President Rod Thorn says. 'Just because you know the game doesn't mean you can teach the game. He knows the game, but he is also a very good teacher.'
Collins, who turns 60 in July, seems to have mellowed some. Well, maybe not. He was ejected just before halftime of the Sixers' win over the Clippers at Staples Center Wednesday night. And he can still be tough on his players.
'He yells at you, he disciplines you and, at the same time, he loves you,' Holiday tells the media. 'There are times when he is going to get mad at you, but that's only to make you better. He has done that with the whole team.'
After the bout with vertigo, though, Collins became convinced that he needed to rely more on assistant coaches Michael Curry, Quin Snyder, Aaron McKie and Brian James.
'They've taken so much off my plate,' Collins says. 'Before, I probably tried to do too much. They said, 'We want you to coach the games.' They run a lot of the practices and the shootarounds. I'm doing a better job of delegating. I'm sort of like a head football coach - an overseer.'
After Saturday's game - the final stop on a five-game road trip - the Sixers end the regular season with eight of their final 12 at home. They're almost assured of a playoff berth, which is exactly what Collins hoped for in his first season at the Philly helm.
'I want so badly for these guys to taste the playoffs this year,' he says. 'We can learn more about ourselves in a playoff series than we can through 82 games of the regular season.'
It's an accomplishment that should put Collins in the conversation for NBA coach of the year. His mission, it seems, is different than that of a Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich.
'Some coaches play for a championship every year,' Collins says. 'My 'championship' has been to develop teams and help them to grow. That's what I want to do here.'
So far, so good. The foundation is solid. Finishing comes later.