Marcus Hayes: Collins knew what to expect from new-look Sixers

Posted: October 26, 2012

GEORGE SMILEY has nothing on NBA spymaster Doug Collins; Collins has spies all over the country. It is a treacherous craft, and Collins brazenly uses all of the information to mold a team in his image.

Shameless, is Collins; he even uses family.

His son Chris, a former player at Duke and now an assistant there, in August was invited to a golf tournament hosted by Duke teammate J.J. Redick. There, Chris Collins listened as Redick raved about former Magic teammate Jason Richardson, whom the Sixers acquired in the trade that also landed Andrew Bynum. Redick whispered that Richardson would bring a steady voice as well as that silky shooting stroke.

Chris Collins, industrious like a Dukie should be, dug further. He sidled up to Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who told him that Dorell Wright is not just some hovering gunner; he is a complete player and a low-maintenance employee.

Doug Collins spoke with others planted around the league and discovered that shootist Nick Young actually is a coachable sort, not averse to passing or to defense; he just needs a firmer hand.

So, when the Sixers convened for training camp, Doug Collins expected his new group to fall in quickly: "I knew what we had coming in."

The Sixers went 6-1 in the preseason. The one game they lost went to overtime, against Brooklyn, in that retooled team's preseason opener.

Preseason, yes; but teams tried to beat them.

Preseason, and Collins never used all of his healthy players.

And Bynum, struggling with his persistent knee issues, did not play one second of the preseason.

Still, Collins expected no less than 6-1.

Tony DiLeo, the team's general manager, did not. He hoped that, sooner or later, the team might play well together.

"Later, really. But not this early. It's really been incredible. Everyone has new roles - even the players from last year," said DiLeo, a Sixers soldier since 1990. "That's why we're so excited, when we do get Andrew back, about what can happen with the team."

The Sixers subtracted their best player and defender, Andre Iguodala, to trade for Bynum and Richardson. They lost leading scorer Lou Williams and starting guard Jodie Meeks to free agency. They paid wise warrior Elton Brand to go away.

They rebuilt the franchise with players whose apparent chemistry borders on alchemy. Twice this preaseason, the team had at least 16 assists by halftime. They averaged just over 18 per game last season.

"This is a tremendous group of guys," Collins said.

Often, at practice, Collins sits on an exercise ball, which strengthens his 61-year-old back and abdominal muscles while he holds court at courtside. When Collins is happy, he actually bounces up and down on the ball.

Wednesday afternoon, he was bouncing like a 6-year-old.

"There's a method, when you try to put a team together," Collins said. "Obviously, you have to have talent. But when you have a chance for guys to play together, it makes it fun coaching the team."

Last season, Collins coached the Sixers to within a win of the Eastern Conference finals. He did so with morose Iguodala biding his time, in a town that did not appreciate him; with Williams freelancing, often out of necessity; with Brand running less on legs than on heart; and with Meeks, a one-trick pony, shooting poorly.

Last season, Collins almost never bounced around on that exercise ball. This season, he might fall off it.

"Jason Richardson has been tremendous,'' Collins said. "Wright is a much better all-around player than people gave him credit for, me included; the last couple of years in Golden State he's been a spot-up three-point shooter. We're going to make the game easier for Nick Young. The teams he's played on, it's sort of been, 'Your turn, my turn, your turn.' We want it to be 'Our turn.' And his defense has been good. And, of course, Maalik Wayns has been a huge surprise."

Wayns, a Roman Catholic product who went undrafted out of Villanova this summer, has provided a spark behind returning point guard Jrue Holiday, who, like Bynum, is a franchise pillar.

Thaddeus Young is bulked up and ready to start alongside second-year strongman Lavoy Allen. Seven-footer Spencer Hawes, denied the chance to take three-pointers the past two seasons, again is firing from behind the arc.

The biggest development among the incumbents is that, with Williams and Iguodala gone, Holiday is eager to finally have sole possession of the keys to the team.

Last season, those keys fit a Chevy. This season, it's a Cadillac.

They can power past the aged Celtics, glide around the clunky Nets, terrorize the Raptors and Knicks.

They can win the Atlantic Division, even without 82 games from Bynum.

The Sixers players understand that, after enduring knee problems for his seven professional seasons, Bynum cannot be expected to play the full schedule. He hasn't even begun running after his latest procedure and setback; certainly, he will miss at least the first few games.

Better to have Bynum healthy from Christmas and beyond than have a 75 percent franchise player from Halloween to St. Patrick's Day. Besides, Bynum's absence thus far has sped the cohesion.

"I think that's a big part of it," Collins said. "We're not waiting for Andrew to come back to decide who we are. We have to decide who we are."

"It could be a blessing in disguise, in the long run," DiLeo said. "These players will get out there and play and learn each other, and get to a certain level. And then, hopefully, Andrew can take us to another level."

Actually, at first, Bynum's plodding post presence might slow these run-and-gun, 6-1 Sixers, but his affable personality will mesh without incident.

Collins, that clever alchemist, said he constantly receives compliments from charter flight crews agog at the Sixers' team-wide pleasantness.

"It's what the front office put together," said Holiday, who is as smooth as a summer evening. "They got a lot of high-character guys who are really polite and considerate. It just makes the team a lot easier to gel with."

Holiday spoke with a note of surprise.

Not Collins.

He has his sources.

He knew it all along.


Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.com.

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