Doug Collins' old-school ways are not really the issue with Sixers

Doug Collins is perceived as a coach whose passion eventually wears on a team.In each of his NBA coaching jobs, he's never lasted 250 regular-season games.
Doug Collins is perceived as a coach whose passion eventually wears on a team.In each of his NBA coaching jobs, he's never lasted 250 regular-season games. (Getty)
Posted: March 04, 2013

Larry Brown, a coach who made many stops and hung around long enough to span several generations of NBA players, said the problem with today's group is that it doesn't understand the difference between coaching and criticism.

That's a reasonable observation for old age to make about youth, but if you spin around the mirror, it's likely the players would say the same thing about coaches.

The danger is deciding, as Brown and others have done, that any of this is really something new. As far back as Arthur and Lancelot, different generations working for the same team have disagreed about the coaching and execution of the plan. (From Arthur's point of view, this particularly regarded some aspects of Lancelot's post play, which are better left unmentioned here.)

It was popular last week to conclude that Doug Collins might be the wrong long-term coach for the 76ers because he is so adamantly old-school and the team's roster is young and loose, and even has some guy named Swaggy, for heaven's sake.

Collins was blunt after Tuesday's eye-searing loss to Orlando: The players didn't play hard, the players are blaming others for their situation, the players need to be more accountable - and it would be nice if they warmed up before the start of the game.

Maybe 30 years ago, no one would have taken much notice if a coach expressed similar frustrations after a bad loss. But that was before every news conference was televised live and before social media constantly pawed around the back of the fridge looking for one more 140-character snack to fill a hungry, impatient void.

The Sixers players noticed they had finally earned a spot on the ESPN highlights, not for their basketball, but for their coach's observation that they talk a much better game than they play.

"Any other time, it's about Andrew [Bynum] or his hair," Evan Turner said, succinctly analyzing the national media's interest in the team.

"I went back and I didn't think I was hard," Collins said of his comments. "I thought I was talking about what I expected and, as a coach, that's what you do."

Coaching or criticism. Flip a coin.

The events of last week, and the extension of the losing streak that reached seven games entering Saturday night's game against Golden State, stirred up all the old questions about Collins and whether he is ever a long-term coaching option for a franchise.

Collins would disagree, but he is perceived as a coach whose unrelenting passion eventually wears on his team and whose messages are delivered at a frequency so highly pitched that the players either tune it out or are simply unable to hear it any longer.

In his three previous NBA coaching jobs, Collins has never lasted 250 regular-season games. Going into Saturday night, he was at 204 with the Sixers. All four situations have been different, of course, and the great irony of Collins' coaching career is that in his first stop, three seasons with the Chicago Bulls, he had perhaps the only player of any generation whose drive to win and hatred of losing equaled his own.

A coach who enjoyed having Michael Jordan in his true prime (and that is exactly one coach, Phil Jackson) never had to worry about motivating his team to practice hard or play hard, because he had the baddest cop and the best player in the world occupying the same uniform.

Collins and Jordan would have been perfect together once Chicago's complementary roster was assembled. But Collins never got the chance, having rubbed the wrong way against general manager Jerry Krause, a guy anxious for his own genius to be recognized.

Different factors worked against Collins during his two-plus seasons in Detroit and two seasons in Washington with an aging Jordan, but they worked against him nonetheless, and those opportunities ended as well. With the Sixers, Collins appeared to finally be the beneficiary of good timing. There was new ownership that allowed him nearly total control of the roster, and then there was the trade for Bynum, who would solve so many problems by himself.

For once, Collins was going to have a triumphant third season, but now it lies in ruins and he is left with a soft team that is understandably deficient at the most important place on a basketball court - under the basket - and not talented enough to win consistently even when it tries hard.

If there is increasing emotional distance between the coach and the players, it isn't because this is 2013 and not 1953. There are plenty of current NBA players who are fine with a demanding coach. And there would have been days, had they played for Doug Collins, when Harry "The Horse" Gallatin and Slater Martin would have dreaded coming to work.

The problem is not really generational at all, and it is not that the Sixers have quit on Collins. Professional players don't do that. What happens is they lose the ability to summon up the focus and edge necessary to compete at this level every night. Forget about being a half-step slow. If you are one-tenth of a step slow in the NBA, the opposition will eat your lunch. That's the level of play we're talking about.

When a team loses and sees little prospect of doing better, regaining the necessary edge and focus is almost impossible, and Collins knows that. It isn't that the Sixers don't want to do better. They just can't, and that could drive even a low-key coach a little nuts.

The coach's frustration bubbled over briefly last week, and everyone made a little more of it than was there. As for the debate as to whether he was coaching or criticizing, that hardly matters. This group is incapable of responding to either.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.

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