PHILADELPHIA - The Philadelphia 76ers began the season with high hopes. They ended it with a 34-48 record, a spot in the NBA draft lottery and uncertainty surrounding their coach and would-be center.
The team announced Thursday that coach Doug Collins was stepping down after three years on the job, and would serve as an advisor to managing owner Josh Harris. Harris and Collins both emphasized that contrary to some recent reports, Collins was not forced out.
The decision was his own, and he said he made it for family reasons: His son Chris, formerly an assistant at Duke, was recently hired as the head coach at Northwestern, and the elder Collins wants to support him. Doug Collins also has five grandchildren.
The 61-year-old Collins decided he was going to step down "about Christmas," and informed general manager Tony DiLeo and president of basketball operations Rod Thorn of his intentions some two months ago. He said it was not in response to the team's disappointing season, which was largely the result of center Andrew Bynum's absence with bone bruises and degenerating cartilage in both knees. Bynum, acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in a four-team trade last summer, did not play a single minute.
But Collins insisted he did not base his decision on wins and losses.
"About two months ago I just said to Tony and Rod, this is going to be my last year," he said. "I just want to make sure I leave this organization with dignity, because that's how I've tried to do my job. ... I said let's start talking about how we can do this."
All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday, who paced the Sixers with career-high averages of 17.7 points and eight assists this season, called Collins "my man" and added, "It is sad to see him go. I've grown so much as he's been the coach."
"Me personally, Coach hasn't done anything but help me," added forward Thaddeus Young, second on the team in scoring (14.8) and tops in rebounding (7.5). "He's been a great role model, a great father figure, a great coach. I think this is the best coach I've had so far in my career."
Collins lobbied Thursday for associate head coach Michael Curry as his successor, and will no doubt continue to do so. But Harris said he and DiLeo will ultimately decide who inherits Collins' job.
Just as critical is the front office's decision regarding Bynum, who will become a free agent July 1. Harris did not rule out bringing Bynum back, but said it is all dependent upon the health of the 25-year-old.
"Certainly a healthy Bynum, playing, is a needle-mover," he said.
Harris reiterated that four "well-known doctors" examined Bynum before the trade and signed off on it.
"His knees definitely deteriorated," Harris said, "and more than might be expected of a player his age. "If I had to make that decision again (to pull off a trade), I'd make it again. Things don't always work out."
Collins said the Sixers "swung for the fences, and it didn't work. ... You took a chance, and it didn't work out, so now what are you going to do? You've got to move forward."
Now the team finds itself facing "a tricky situation," Holiday said.
"I think Andrew might be the best big (man) in the league, if he's healthy," he said. "That's tough to pass up. The tricky part is if he's healthy, and nobody knows, I guess, but him. ... If Andrew came back and he was healthy, I'd be excited about it, for sure."
The expectation is that another team might make a run at Bynum, however.
"We're very open and interested in Andrew coming back," Harris said, "if we can do something that makes sense for all concerned."
Bynum made nearly $17 million this season. Four other veterans - Nick Young, Dorell Wright, Royal Ivey and Damien Wilkins - will also become free agents July 1, and backup center Kwame Brown has a player option for 2013-14. Because of extensions signed by Holiday and Thaddeus Young, the estimate is that the Sixers will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 million to spend in free agency, if they do not retain Bynum.
And unless things break right for them, they will be picking in the latter stages of the lottery as they attempt to replenish a threadbare roster.
"We need to get back to the playoffs," Thaddeus Young said. "This is a team that could have been great, but it was built around the big guy in the middle. He didn't play this season. Now we have to figure out a new way to go out there and try to get back to the playoffs, and build a playoff-winning team."
It is also possible that the Sixers will explore a trade. Guard/forward Evan Turner, who averaged 13.3 points this year (third on the team) but has had his ups and downs, is entering the final year of his contract. He might have value on the open market as a result, though he said Thursday that he expects to be back.
Harris expects the same of the team as a whole.
"I think you guys are painting this as a dire situation," Harris told reporters. "It's really not."