Doug Collins has always been known as a nice guy. He’s affable and kind, which made him a good announcer in between coaching position. He’s had a solid coaching career, but nothing special. He led a young Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to the Eastern Conference Finals, but was eventually was replaced by Phil Jackson, and the rest is history. Collins then went to Detroit where he improved their record by 18 games, but eventually was fired and replaced by Alvin Gentry. After Detroit, Collins headed to Washington, where he reunited with Jordan and once again improved the team’s record by 18 games. Yet again it wasn’t enough, and Collins was fired from his third head coaching position. At this point, he had established himself as a quick fixer-upper who would improve your team immediately but not take them to a championship. Everybody liked him, but there was a strange pity that followed him around. He went before Phil, worked with MJ twice, and still couldn’t win a ring. He wasn’t a bad guy or a bad coach; he just wasn’t built to win.
Now, the 76ers have advanced to the second round of the playoffs, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in Philadelphia since 2003, and he did it with a questionable roster. He’s forced to squeeze out points from Louis Williams and Spencer Hawes while relying on stellar defense. Collins has turned Philly into a top three defensive team in the league. They gave up just around 89 points per game in the regular season, which is the third best in the league, but more than lineup challenges or X’s and O’s, Collins has changed the culture in Philadelphia. They care, with every fiber of their beings, about winning games, other teams just look lackadaisical against them. Opponents seem to be bothered by the constant effort of the 76ers. It’s like that defender in the pickup game that presses full-court and goes harder than every other player. Except instead of annoying a college student balling in his spare time, the 6ers are annoying professional basketball teams. And they’re winning games because of it. The 76ers love going on the court and giving all they have for Collins. He motivates them. Collins has coached with his signature defensive style and ability to produce playoff appearances with a limited roster, but his stint in Philadelphia feels different. It feels like a much-needed landing spot for a good coach and even better guy. It feels like Doug Collins’ team
Now that the basketball season is coming to a close, possibly the largest postseason question left unanswered is the Atlantic Division. The Celtics and Sixers are tied for first, while the Knicks are 2.5 games behind. The Sixers started strongly and have trailed off, but truthfully they deserve credit for staying relevant with a team that only sent one player to the All-Star game. Doug Collins has worked his team into a defensive juggernaut that ranks first in opponents’ points per game. The Celtics are third in those rankings, but average a meager 91 points per game. New York, whose recent defense has put them in the 12th spot for opponents points per game, is averaging a higher point differential than the Celtics.
What does all of these defense statistics mean? It means that Philly has put together the best combination of offense and defense of all the Atlantic teams, yet the Celtics and Knicks have found ways to stay competitive in a division that looked lost a couple months ago.
What’s at stake? Home court advantage and the blessed fortune of not having to face the Heat or Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Essentially, it means your playoff life. If the season ended today, the Knicks would play the Bulls, the Celtics would play the Heat, and the Sixers would play the Pacers. Ratings gold for TNT and ESPN.
Both New York and Boston are the quintessential “dangerous” postseason teams. The Knicks have a starting lineup with a star at every position except shooting guard, and even more threatening is their depth. The Celtics are the wily veterans who know what it’s like to win a championship and know how to beat good teams. The truth is though, that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whoever wins the division deserves the home court and will probably win their opening series, and the other two teams might make entertaining storylines. A hesitant finish to the regular season would show the same true colors that will be brightly displayed verse the powerhouses Heat and Bulls.
Games feel odd in a condensed NBA season. 66 is a number that shortens the year just enough that the bizarre, methodical tone which permeates every season of the NBA still applies. Yet, what teams realize but fans don’t is that every game matters that much more. Those of us Celtics fan that still have hope should be weary. Good teams that surge late might not have enough time for their usual shenanigans. It also works the other way. Teams that start the season with a bang are going to feel that same success the whole year, cue the 76ers.
Philly is second in the East. They’re 10-3. They average 100 points per game. They are undefeated at home. More importantly then all of that, they play smart and competitive defense. They allow 85 points a game, second in the league to the Eastern conference leading Chicago Bulls. They have far and away the best point differential in the NBA . Even scarier, they’re young. Even weirder, their leading scorer is Lou Williams. Their leading rebounder is Spencer Hawes. Lou and Spencer? Sounds like Boca Raton to me. Fantasy sleepers galore. If you pick any players with the name Spencer early during the fantasy basketball season, you deserve recognition. Yet against all odds, all mediocre expectations we’ve had for them, they continue to succeed. A big part of the reason is their coach Doug Collins. He took over the team last year, leading them to a fourteen-win increase and a playoff spot. He’s a defensive coach in an offensive league. His previous tenor with the Bulls solidified him as an all-time nice guy and analyst favorite, but nothing more. Collins, too, has something to prove. A championship for the coach that could never get a ring, even with perennial dominating franchises. Philadelphia might trail off a little at the end of the season, maybe even fall to a 4 or 5 seed in the East, but they are certainly not a fluke and are a team that will pose a serious threat to any squad not used to real defense.