If you were around for his stints in Chicago, Detroit and Washington, you know the storyline by now. Doug Collins is a brilliant basketball coach who tends to wear on his players after a while. In Chicago, it took three years before he was able to exhale his way to a TBS/TNT gig. He stayed two and a half years in Detroit before things went sour, and Collins went to NBC. In Washington, it took two full seasons. And now, just 138 games into his tenure with the Philadelphia 76ers, could Collins be losing his grip on the team he appeared to be expertly piloting earlier in this season?
Perhaps that's what a lockout, and a ramped-up schedule, does to the timeline. On Friday, former 76ers beat writer Kate Fagan wrote that "at times" the Sixers have "reached the point of tuning [Collins] out," and later that afternoon Collins lambasted Fagan as "someone who has not been around our team all season long" before calling her piece "totally untrue." Fair or foul, the 76ers went on to lose Saturday to a reeling Orlando Magic squad, and were blown out by 24 points on Sunday by a Boston Celtics team that it is in desperate competition with for the Atlantic Division lead. And, by extension of a division win, a chance to face a Miami Heat team in the first round that both squads match up well against. Even before that loss, Collins could only lament the relative sensitivity of his players. As quoted by SB Nation's Gethin Coolbaugh:
"The one thing about players today is that they're very sensitive, and very fragile," Collins said before his team's game against the Boston Celtics on Easter Sunday. "They didn't grow up with tough coaches. You know, I had my ass kicked since I was six. It's a different time, and so I treat this team very much with kid gloves. I really do, and I'm still looked at as an ogre."
The sound you're hearing is every single one of the coaches who helped guide every player on the 76ers' roster -- through grade school, AAU, high school and college -- gritting their teeth. To blame a group of coaches that likely numbers in the dozens for the sensitivity and "fragile" nature of the 76ers' feelings following a Collins huddle is a needless, and probably inaccurate, swipe.
Thankfully, Coolbaugh was around to quote more:
"It's terrible, I mean, it's hard. It really is hard." he said. "I honestly find myself during the games looking at the [assistant coaches and asking], 'Was I alright with those guys during that timeout? Did I hurt anybody's feelings? Was I OK?'... 'Coach, you're fine, you're fine'... I said 'OK, OK, I just wanted to make sure I didn't hurt anybody's feelings.' That's the sensitivity, and the younger the guys, it seems like the more sensitive. And that's what you're wrestling with."
Here's where I wonder about things.
Are the Sixers some unfortunate result of a litany of coaches looking to make nice with their stars (because every player dotting an NBA roster was a star at one point on some level) in order to enhance their own relevance? And were the Sixers brought up soft as a result?
Perhaps the 76ers, by luck and co-incidence, are randomly made up of some of the softer psyches in the industry? Where one team might have half the guys who can take it and half the guys who cannot; the Sixers might be tilting the averages, here. After all, someone has to make up for the Chicago Bulls' tilt in the other direction.
Or, perhaps, Collins is an "ogre." His word, not mine.
Whatever the impetus, Collins' team has lost 20 of its last 31 games. It's true that the squad fritters away contests from time to time because they don't have a typical, hero-ball star to take that and make that final shot, but this is where the man the Bulls once derisively termed "Play-a-Day Collins" should come in handy. The man is a brilliant encyclopedia or hoop -- professional hoop, mind you -- knowledge that should have an answer for every late game situation.
If his players aren't executing, it's the fault of the players. And if the players aren't executing, perhaps it isn't the players' fault. Does that make sense? Probably not. Nobody said the NBA had to make sense.
His players aren't as good as they were in January. Spencer Hawes, once a runaway candidate for Most Improved Player, has either been on the shelf with an Achilles strain, or a shadow of what he once was. Collins, and it doesn't come off as him making excuses, points out as much in Coolbaugh's feature. And, as Fagan points out, it's hard to act as "Play-a-Day" when you don't have the practice time in a season gone almost entirely without proper practices to implement those plays. On top of that, the Sixers had an easy early schedule, teams are ready for them as a result of their early run, and the team's talent on paper probably isn't Division-title caliber. Even if the older Celtics can barely string two consecutive buckets together.
As a result, all sides should step back a little. The problem is that Collins isn't much of a step-back guy, despite showing some sensitivity himself (and, at the same time, "little sensitivity") in the moments before that loss to the Celtics. A team can finish second in the Atlantic without it being some art crime, or a function of Doug Collins losing his team, or a betrayal of talent, or a sign of weakness. It could just be that the Philadelphia 76ers are the second-best team in the Atlantic Division.
The signs -- the ones we saw in Chicago, Detroit and Washington -- are there, though. And it's more than fair for all on the outside, those of us who haven't been at a 76ers game, practice or huddle, to wonder what's going on. Until Doug Collins -- again, the brilliant Doug Collins -- can keep a team going without wearing on them for more than two or three years, then we're allowed to be dubious.