"He won 19 games with this team and they fired him?" Wilkins said. "He should be coach of the year."
That sentiment comes to mind again this season as the Sixers drag toward next week's finish line with a 31-47 record and the increasing certainty that coach Doug Collins won't be back for a fourth season. The move would be by his own hand, but sources say the organization will not fight to change his mind, and has no intention of offering him a contract extension as it did after last season.
Regardless of how that plays out, the job Collins did this season - dealing with the Andrew Bynum disaster, losing an important piece in shooting guard Jason Richardson, and then trying to win with the under-talented mishmash he had left - was remarkable. Winning 30-some games with this roster won't make Collins the coach of the year, but the list of other coaches who could have done as well isn't very long.
"This could have very easily come apart, and [Doug] held it together so it didn't," one team source said. "It could have been just awful."
As it was, the season was bad enough. But Collins was able to maintain a professionalism about the long march and the players fell in line, willingly or not. The organization will likely repay him for that favor with a settlement on the remaining year of his contract, and then the hard part will really start.
The Sixers will not re-sign Bynum (unless he has no other takers and is dirt cheap, which is very unlikely) and they will regain some space under the salary cap. Luring good free agents to choose this situation over another will require the Sixers to overpay for what they bring in, however. Just getting back to the level the team reached at the end of the 2011-2012 season will take a long time.
"You can say you get the money back, but how do you replace what you lost?" the team source said, referring to the value of Andre Iguodala, Nik Vucevic, Mo Harkless, and a future first-round pick. That's the equivalent of four first-rounders.
The toughest job, and the first one the organization will need to tackle, is replacing Collins. There could be as many as nine or 10 coaching vacancies in the NBA this offseason, so the Sixers are going to be hard-pressed to represent the best opportunity for the top candidates on the market.
"They're very unattractive," said an NBA source. "[The Bynum trade] was a risk worth taking, but it basically destroyed the franchise with the guys they gave up."
The Sixers would like to hire a coach who can help sell tickets, which will be a chore next season, but landing a Stan Van Gundy or someone of that caliber would be almost impossible. The most likely scenario is hiring from within. Associate head coach Michael Curry has been a head coach in the league before, but there wouldn't be much buzz attached to his hiring. Assistant coach Aaron McKie, who is also popular in the locker room, would bring a local connection.
Beyond that, pick a name. There are the usual retreads available, and there are college coaches who would be willing to take a shot. The hottest name among that group this offseason will be Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, who played 10 years in the NBA and worked in the Timberwolves front office before turning the Cyclones into winners. Thinking more locally, would the Sixers consider a run at Villanova coach Jay Wright? They'd be foolish not to.
Whomever they hire, getting the team to a competitive level again will be an arduous road. The ownership group bought the Sixers from Comcast-Spectacor for $280 million before the league won its labor battle, and now it sees a business landscape in which the Sacramento Kings are about to sell for $525 million. Hedge-fund guys love a quick turnaround, so there's no guarantee the Josh Harris group will stick it out for the long haul, either.
Maybe 20 years from now, this season, like the one 20 years ago, will be regarded as an obvious watershed moment in the team's long history - and not a positive one. Unlike that season, the Sixers didn't come completely apart this time. They didn't quit playing and the coach never stopped coaching. Collins won't be coach of the year, but this season's winner of that honor won't deserve it any more than he does.
76ers at Wizards
Friday at 7 p.m.
(CSN; WPEN-FM 97.5)
Contact Bob Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at www.philly.com/postpatterns. Follow on Twitter @bobfordsports.