“But as I leave you, I want you to know…just think how much you’re going to be missing. You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Somewhere inside Doug Collins–beneath the vanity, the arrogance, the elephantine self-regard–is a great basketball coach. I sincerely believe this.
The 2010-11 76ers should have won 20 games. Collins took over a team that was coming off a 27-55 season, the stink of which was compounded by a summer that saw their second-best player (Samuel Dalembert) get shipped out of town for Spencer Hawes, and the most valuable asset the franchise had stumbled into in years, the No. 2 overall draft pick, turn into future-bust Evan Turner. Before the season, sports economist Dave Berri surmised that the Sixers might have one of the worst frontcourts in NBA history. It should have been a superlatively bad basketball team. An all-time, proto-Bobcat, disaster.1
Yet they won 41 and stole a playoff game because Doug Collins, by my memory, simply willed them to it. He took Elton Brand, fading/overpaid/washed-up Elton Brand, and cast him as a rock-ribbed veteran leader. Like an alchemist, he transmogrified Thaddeus Young from a confused chucker on the fast track to unemployment to a Tasmanian devil of controlled, disruptive, focused effort. Under his watch, Andre Iguodala stopped trying to score 20 points a night and just let himself be Andre Iguodala, which was plenty. Collins did all this overnight. Like: immediately. The team was 23rd in Hollinger’s defensive efficiency rating in the 2009-10 season. Collins took them to eighth right away, leapfrogging half the league.
And then the beginning of the strike-shortened 2011-12 season–whatever it was, whatever it meant–happened. For reasons the large-brained basketball scientists of tomorrow will surely ferret out, but are, as of this typing, still well beyond the reach of human understanding, for a full third of that truncated season the Sixers played basketball at as high a level as any team in NBA history. The very group that 15 months earlier looked headed for a 20 win season, posted a scoring differential of 11.6 ppg through 22 games. In the preceding decade, only four teams had started as hot, and they each won 60 games.
Doug Collins was responsible for a lot of this. He seemed responsible for it at least. The Sixers were, outside of–maybe including–San Antonio, the most coach-centric organization in the NBA. He was foregrounded in the way that head basketball coaches only are in college programs. It was his show. His face on the billboards, his visage in the TV spots, his powerful basketball brain the prime mover behind the team’s surprising success. Doug F***ing Collins. This was 14 months ago.
It’s easy to forget all that now, while Collins is orchestrating the most atavistic, defiantly inefficient offense in basketball; or when he’s gleefully thumbing his nose at the new science of the game, telling reporters he’d rather “kill himself” than use analytics; or when he’s elbowing his way to near-total control of the organization’s personnel, then using that control to make aggressively stupid signings. It’s especially easy to forget when the city is celebrating news that his next two games as head coach of the 76ers will be his last.
The facts of the present always retroactively rewrite the past; whatever is, in the record book of human memory, always was. But this stuff happened. It all, really did, happen.
1.) John Hollinger forecasted the 2010-11 76ers to finish with a 43-39 record. To my knowledge, he’s the only pundit who predicted Philadelphia would break .500.