Sixers' Collins coaches by gut instinct - not analytics

Sixers coach Doug Collins does not rely a great deal on analytics for information. He judges players in real time. Computers just confirm what he's already seeing.
Sixers coach Doug Collins does not rely a great deal on analytics for information. He judges players in real time. Computers just confirm what he's already seeing. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 30, 2012

Analytics, all the rage all over the NBA, use data on player movement, even player speed on the court, plus efficiencies based on all sorts of variables, such as shooting percentages off dribbles, from certain spots on the floor, from passes by specific players.

76ers coach Doug Collins was asked the other day if he was an analytics guy.

"No. If I did that, I'd blow my brains out," Collins said after a practice last week. "There's 20-page printouts after every game - I would kill myself."

"My analytics are here . . ." Collins quickly pointed to his head. ". . . and here." He pointed just above the white waistband of his Sixers sweat suit - to his gut.

At a glance, this seems surprising, this arm's distance, since Collins seems the type to want to know everything about everything. Now 61 years old, a grandfather of five, finishing his fourth decade in the NBA as a player, coach or broadcaster, Collins does not lack basketball sophistication.

If you spent more than a minute listening to Collins analyzing basketball at the Olympics this summer for NBC, or ever take in any of his postgame news conferences, you might conclude that analytics simply are a way of divining and breaking down what the Sixers coach believes he can already see.

His players probably are glad that Collins isn't throwing any more data at them.

"Offensively, Coach Collins, he puts in a lot of plays," said Sixers second-year big man Lavoy Allen. "You've got to learn on the fly. Especially my rookie year, we had that shortened season. I had to learn real fast. I'm finally getting used to it."

Obviously, Andrew Bynum's health is the major plotline so far for the Sixers. Bynum's absence at the start of the season offers another window into how Collins will manage this team.

The day after the Sixers announced that Bynum would be out for an indefinite period with lingering knee soreness, Collins said, "Today was one of the best practices that I've ever been associated with."

The statement didn't seem calculated, even from a man who coached Michael Jordan early in his career with the Bulls and at the end of his career with the Wizards, who is in his fourth NBA head coaching spot, including a stint with the Pistons. This man's enthusiasm always seems genuine. The message was clear, however.

"My message from moment one - we're not waiting for Andrew to come back to decide who we are," Collins had said the day before.

The subject of analytics came up because Collins had mentioned he wants to see the Sixers combine for 40 points from the three-point line and the foul line, up about 10 points from what they produced in 2011-12.

"Last year, we averaged about 93 a game," Collins said. "I looked at all the top teams in the NBA. The majority of them had a combination of three-point shooting and the free-throw line that got them up to that 100-point mark.

"I just felt it was a way for us, especially the way our team is constructed now - I think we made five and a half threes last year, we made 13 free throws. About 30 points a night. You start looking at the Spurs, and Oklahoma City and these teams, the Heat and these teams, how they space you out, they shoot the three, LeBron's at the line, [Dwyane] Wade's at the line."

Collins just wanted to find 10 more points.

"I think we're going to defend well enough to win a lot of games," he said.

These Sixers are closer than ever to being a Doug Collins team. Big changes to the Sixers roster mean subtle changes to Collins' X's and O's approach to the season. Expectations are higher than they've been before in Collins' tenure, starting its third season. His owners love him, he's popular with fans. Those expectations do come with different pressures.

How does Collins deal with it? Here's a little window, just a crack. The possibility of a mega-trade involving Bynum came up while Collins was working at the Olympics. Sixers general manager Tony DiLeo remembers there was one conference call that included Rod Thorn, principal owner Joshua Harris and Collins that had to wait until Collins finished an NBC telecast of an Olympics game.

Was it difficult for Collins to stay focused on the game he was analyzing?

"Usually, I don't let things distract me," Collins said. "Not when I'm on task. If you let me get free time, I worry."

Was this a test of that?

"Aw, no. [Mild profanity] no. No, man," Collins said. "Forty years, what I've been through. I've been fired. Kicked around. No."

Collins on task generally is considered a force of nature.

"Doug is a big texter," DiLeo said. "We do text at all times of the day and night. Sometimes I get it in the morning and it's like 2 o'clock in the morning when he texted."

What are on the texts?

"Just his thoughts, whatever," DiLeo said. "Asking a question. The good thing about it, we're on the same page, and that's so important in an organization, to have management and coaches on the same page. We're completely on the same page. We talk about a lot of things. We don't always agree on everything, but we always talk about it. Doug has an incredible basketball mind; he is an incredible coach."

DiLeo, who actually has talked about bringing in an analytics expert to join the personnel team, talked about how Collins is really strong at delegating. Letting associate head coach Michael Curry run the Sixers defense is always the best example.

"That takes a lot of the burden off him, where he can concentrate more on the team and he doesn't feel he has to do everything," said DiLeo, who had his own turn as Sixers head coach "I think that really helps him."

Minutes under Collins always are earned based on current performance. That may be one reason analytics aren't worth as much to him in his role as a coach. He's judging players in real time. If the computers confirm what he is already seeing, that's fantastic. If they offer a differing viewpoint, Collins will be ready for a debate. Does anybody in basketball enjoy talking the sport more?

His job right now is to win Wednesday's season opener against the Nuggets. Give Collins an analytic that will accomplish that, you might get an audience. There is no analytic yet devised that measures what Collins believes is his principal task right now.

"As a coach, the most important thing you do is the message you send to your team - we're good and we can win," Collins said.


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com or @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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