Phil Sheridan: Somehow, Collins has kept the Sixers on track

Posted: February 09, 2012

"The Little Engine That Can't," as Doug Collins dubbed his team Wednesday, has had plenty of reasons to veer off its track.

Injuries. Inexperience. A compressed and unforgiving schedule that brings three of the best teams in the West to the Wells Fargo Center in five nights this week.

Elton Brand, the team's highest-paid player and only all-star, has missed three games. Spencer Hawes, the team's tallest player and only real center, has missed 12 games. Nik Vucevic, the rookie first-round pick and next big man in line, has missed five games because of injury.

"I would have been really, really nervous had I known that Spencer was going to miss 10 of those [early homestand] games and that Nik would miss games in that stretch," Collins said. "I'm just thrilled that we've been able to find a way through our injuries to win games at home."

So how did the engine keep chugging along? A lot of the credit has to go to the engineer. Somehow, Collins has mixed and matched his frontcourt players, getting the most out of whomever happens to be dressed on a given night.

With Brand out Monday against the Lakers' Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, Collins used Hawes, Vucevic, and rookie Lavoy Allen. They hardly shut the Lakers' big men down. But they kept the Sixers in the game, allowing Andre Iguodala's defense and Lou Williams' late offense to fuel a comeback win.

One key basket in the Sixers' run: With Williams trapped in the corner, he desperately passed out to Hawes just inside the three-point arc. Hawes immediately delivered a perfect pass to Vucevic for an easy basket before Bynum could react.

With Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in town Wednesday, Collins had to work with different ingredients. Hawes' Achilles tendon flared up, making him unavailable. During the shootaround, Brand's sprained thumb felt good enough for him to try to play. So it would be Brand, Vucevic, and Allen trying to cope with Duncan.

Somehow, it worked. The Spurs won the game - their sixth in a row - but the Sixers were never out of it. And it was veteran guard Tony Parker, not Duncan, who hurt them the most.

It screams louder than the Revolutionaries that these Sixers were disappointed to lose to a veteran team with championships on its resumé - on a night when the Spurs seemed to get every call from the officials.

"We kept fighting," Collins said, "giving ourselves a chance. This is a team, when you make a mistake, they will make you pay dearly for it."

As the March 15 NBA trade deadline approaches, there will be a lot of chatter about what the Sixers should do to fortify themselves. It is an interesting situation, to say the least.

Obviously, the new ownership group would love to show that it has the will and the smarts to make a bold move. When you think about it, this year's on-court improvements have been made entirely by coaches and players already in place before Josh Harris and Company bought the team. The timing of the sale and the NBA lockout limited the new regime to firing mascots and confetti cannons.

But what could be done in-season to improve this team significantly - not just for this year but for the more important long term?

Dwight Howard. That's it. If the Sixers could somehow find a way to win the bidding for Orlando's big man, that would be an incredible move. Imagine this group of young guards and forwards developing with Howard in the middle for the next eight years. That's a formula for championships.

It's also really unlikely. Magic owner Richard Devos said Wednesday that he didn't want to trade his free-agent-to-be. The bigger obstacle, though, is that other teams can offer more to both the Magic and to Howard than the Sixers.

None of the other names you hear discussed in trade rumors would justify breaking up this young core. So unless there is some amazing opportunity out there beneath the radar, the Sixers would be better off standing pat. Let this group continue to grow. See how far the Little Engine chugs on its own power.

That's probably not what Harris had in mind when he bought into the league. Splashy moves are a lot more fun and make the owner look more committed to winning. But sometimes it takes more guts and greater commitment to be patient. Not Jeff Lurie patient but wait-until-after-the-season patient.

The Sixers can afford that this year. They have generated good will and excitement with their early success. What could have been a throwaway year because of the lockout has become an unexpected opportunity. These Sixers could win their division and a playoff round or two. The Little Engine That Can't? It can.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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