The Philadelphia 76ers head into the summer faced with questions about their identity. As the Sixers made their unlikely run to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals, the team's major deficiencies were apparent to much of the fan base. With the season coming to an end on Saturday, now the team must turn toward the future. Among the plethora of offseason decisions the team is faced with, their coach's fingerprints seemingly will be on every one of them. The problem is it's not entirely clear if that is a good thing.
Matt Moore put it well when he wrote, "The Sixers have to be wary of confusing a good run with fortunate circumstance with actual success." These words ring true. Yes, the Sixers were a toss-up away from taking on the Heat in Conference Finals, but the path to get there was much easier than expected heading into the playoffs. Instead of viewing at this season strictly as results oriented, the organization must look at the process and evaluate how the team got to where they ultimately finished. The truth of the matter is the Sixers didn't make it very far, even with the fortunate breaks they received. The exit interview quotes sounded as if the front office and Collins were aware of their situation, but it's only talk.
When the Bulls lost not only Derrick Rose but also Joakim Noah to injury, it would have been a sizable disappointment if the Sixers weren't able to win that series. In fact, not being able to finish off a hobbled and aging Boston team also qualifies as discouraging, although on a smaller scale. If the front office honestly assesses their team, the Sixers were an 8th seed this season that barely got into the playoffs. The team got out to a hot start in which they played over their heads and had a late season slump where they underachieved. The truth leaves the team somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, right around where they finished. But everybody knows it's no fun being in the middle.
Turning my attention toward Doug Collins, there are some mixed feelings. Overall, I feel it's fair to say Collins did a solid job with the team this year. Some might disagree and point to some of his in game tactics, but looking at the whole body of work I see more positives. When, as Brian pointed out, the team's only real strength is perimeter defense, by no means does that alone get you very close to a contender. In the interest of assessing Collins, I would add that the frontcourt rotation also had two specialists in Elton Brand (post defense) and Thaddeus Young (rotational defense) who excelled in their particular area of expertise while struggling at the other parts. Still, what Collins did to compensate for the lack of any sort of inside presence on the defensive end this season was nothing short of masterful. He rode the defensive strengths of Andre Iguodala, Jrue Holiday, Brand and Young to the 3rd best defense in the league. Spencer Hawes played 25 minutes a game on a Top-3 defense in the league! Seeing how defensive evaluation is more results oriented and less about the journey, Collins gets an A on that end of the floor. That's a big deal too. It is half of the game, after all.
Unfortunately, offense is a different story. While the narrative of Collins "squeezing out every win out of the team" is a compliment defensively, it can be meant more dismissive offensively. The translation of the idea is that the Sixers utilized a safe and low risk offense, which ended up at 20th in the league, but was far worse for a majority of it. The further and more honest translation is they ran a unasthetically pleasing, uncreative, downright crappy offense. Collins' thinking was "If we can limit our turnovers and take enough long jumpers at the basket, even our team of bad shooters will make enough to give the defense a chance to win the game." If Collins was playing blackjack, he made sure to stop on 17 every time in hopes the dealer would go bust. The philosophy is a sound one in minimizing risk with regards to the team's relative weakness, but it also doesn't leave much room for improvement. Theoretically (again, THEORETICALLY!) if last year's team was brought back, they would be right back to where they started, with nothing to build upon.
Highlighting the offensive system is important because this philosophy from Collins needs to change, starting now. He can point to the lack of talent on his team and wouldn't be wrong, but running a system predicated on long two point jumpers and safe passes around the perimeter would make even the best offensive teams in the NBA average. Heck, even a team equipped to shoot the long two like Boston struggles (25th in offense this year. They make more of these shots than the Sixers but also turn it over way more) when that shot is what they rely on. Again though, these shots were the "strengths" of many of the Sixers big men. Collins played the hand he was dealt the best he saw fit. It wasn't fun, but the safe offense arguably helped the team reach its potential.
This is where Collins the de facto GM comes in. We know the ownership group is committed to keeping him in Philadelphia. Additionally, it has become pretty clear that Collins is one of the loudest, if not the loudest, voices in the room when it comes to personnel decisions. As long as he is here, a complete rebuild seems out of the question. At this stage of his life and with his competitive streak, Collins is not here to coach a young team trying to build from the ground up. The thought of the team being able to compete without embracing a rebuild is troubling. The history of teams successfully building towards a title through the middle of the draft and free agency without a Top 10-15 player already in tow is not on their side. The situation is most likely our reality though. I really don't expect Andre Iguodala to leave if Collins is still the coach.
Collins seems to believe he can improve the roster to where it can make incremental progress, all the while building a team that is attractive for free agents to play for. The pressure on him is twofold: The first is to be a part of the front office in putting together a team that is and can get better through the draft (The team can get a contributor at #15), trades and free agency. I liked what he said in exit interviews about the team needing additional size, athleticism and strength (I'd go with toughness as well) on the frontline. He also talked about bigger wings off the bench (I'd add the ability to make threes with those guys too). Easier said than done.
After the offseason, Collins has to coach with a more proactive offensive philosophy, preferably one that emphasizes more three point shooting (which in turn provides spacing), more drives to the basket, and more Jrue Holiday. The best chance the Sixers have towards taking a step-up is for Jrue to get better. At this point in his career, Jrue hasn't had much of an opportunity due to coaching philosophy and personnel. Establishing an identity, one that involves getting to the free throw line more than once in a blue moon, is a must. It's the only way the team will improve.
In Collins' first two years in Philly, his performance has raised questions if he can stick to a set plan. There was the week and a half when Evan Turner was an NBA All-Star and Collins gave him free reign to do whatever he pleased. There were stretches when he relied heavily on the two rookie big men, Lavoy Allen and Nikola Vucevic, and times when they were stuck on the bench for weeks. Oh, and Lou Williams Hero Ball to close. Well, that was pretty consistent.
Then there is Collins' not-so-recent history. It's not fair to say the same thing will happen here, but the last two times he made it to year three with a particular franchise, the results have not been good. After improving Chicago and Detroit in his first two years, just as he has done here, Collins' teams have taken a step back. Many attribute this phenomenon to Collins' hands-on coaching methods which tend to wear on his players (Michael Jordan once privately told other players, "You think your coach is bad. Mine cries after every game"). The pattern is something that has to be taken into account.
It seems as if Collins' interests will drive the Sixers this offseason. At the very least, I hope these interests have a plan, one that Collins will stick to when coaching the team. If the Sixers treat improving simply next season as the chief concern, they will fall flat at some point.
Many fans that want the rebuild will probably not be getting it. Again, easier said than done, but the organization at least needs a focused direction that they will stick to. Doug Collins is a good coach. I just wonder if his coaching philosophy will allow for any sort of long-term goal to be a part of the plan.