For all of you who read this column regularly, what I’m about to write is no surprise. You no doubt remember last May, when in evaluating Doug Collins, I promised a substantial upgrade for the Philadelphia 76ers under the new coach. While others were wondering whether the team could win 30 games after 2009-10’s 26-56 record, and many believed the franchise was irreparably damaged by some shaky contracts, I called upon a wise NBA source and learned The Truth.
As a result, I forecast a big jump in wins. I’m not sure how you reacted. But now, as the Sixers stand on the cusp of making my forecast a reality, it’s time for some back patting and “check me out!” celebration.
Those of you who can’t remember that far back or who had made the mistake of not reading me back then, let me refresh your memories. In concluding my piece about Collins, I wrote the following:
“Fifteen more wins.
Count on it.”
A scant five games remain on the Sixers’ slate, four of them at home. Included in the quintet are Toronto and Detroit, a pair of real bottom-feeders. With 40 wins right now and the need to keep the foot on the gas in order to preserve their number-six spot in the Eastern Conference hierarchy, it seems highly unlikely the Sixers won’t surpass my prediction of 41 victories. [SIGNUP]
Not bad, eh?
All—and I mean all—the credit for the Sixers’ turnaround belongs to Collins, who specializes in helping moribund franchises improve considerably during his first season on the job. Collins’s initial year with the Bulls (1986-87) featured a 10-game jump. The Pistons won 18 more contests than they had the year before (1994-95) when Collins took over. And the stinky Wizards went from 19 wins to 37 in 2001-02 under Collins’s steady hand. That’s an average of 15.7 victories when the man grabs hold of the wheel and starts to steer. The Sixers have already secured 14 more triumphs than they had last season, with another two or three (at least) on the way.
Now, things didn’t look so good for Philadelphia on November 26th, when a loss to Miami had the Sixers 3-13. Had you mentioned that the team would finish the year above .500 back then, they might have arranged for deluxe accommodations at the Laughing Academy. But Collins didn’t panic. Instead of turning on his team, he taught them how to play better defense and cultivated a bench that became one of the league’s best. He coaxed an excellent all-around season from Andre Iguodala and found a way to make Elton Brand productive again. He helped Jrue Holiday blossom and Lou Williams become a dangerous third guard.
It was one of the better coaching jobs in the NBA this season, and it has put the Sixers in a position few could have anticipated—except me, of course. Granted, the Sixers still reside in the East, which features a full nine teams under .500 and could allow two clubs into the post-season with losing records. But Collins’s team has taken advantage of its situation and done a great job against rotten opposition, particularly at home, where it has been 23-8 since the terrible break from the blocks. Perhaps most importantly for a team striving to become relevant in a city suddenly filled with winning franchises, the Sixers have been fun and exciting to watch. This club runs a great break, passes the ball well and defends the home turf. Attendance, while not booming and still often inflated by deep discounts and flat-out giveaways, has begun to creep up.
While Collins deserves plaudits for his job, he and team president Rod Thorn still have plenty of work to do. Earning the sixth playoff spot in the East is an accomplishment for a team that won just 26 games the year before, but there remains a definite chasm between the conference’s haves and its have-nots, of which the Sixers remain one. Even if Collins can somehow cajole a first-round upset out of his team, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Sixers reaching the conference finals. The team still needs a front-line two guard and a significant upgrade at the five spot.
That said, this has been a breakthrough season for the Sixers, who even if they fall in the first round of the playoffs can be proud of their accomplishment. Yes, there’s a long way to go before serious contention can be considered, but a double-digit improvement is pretty darn good. The Sixers overcame last year’s malaise, this year’s awful beginning and some big-time roster concerns to step forward. They deserve our congratulations.
Most of you never saw this coming.
Unless you were paying attention.
* Beginnings to the season don’t get any better than the Phillies’ first weekend. To recap: three wins, three strong outings from starting pitchers, five players with batting averages above .350 and six RBI from Ryan Howard. Of course, the dog-ass Astros can’t be the opposition all 162 games, but this was some good stuff.
* More injuries (Danny Briere, Blair Betts), another shootout loss and a 3-3-4 record in their last 10 games make the Flyers excellent candidates for a first-round playoff flop. Just about every year in the NHL a top seed takes an early post-season tumble, and the Flyers need to change their ways quickly to avoid that distinction.
* Even though Connecticut didn’t receive any votes for this year’s first top 25 and finished 9-9 in Big East play, the Huskies will be “worthy” national champs if they beat Butler tonight. Ridiculous. The Bulldogs are a tough, talented, experienced team and are anything but the JV. Butler 68, UConn 66.