Doug Collins and the Sixers Run into a Familiar Wall
The Philadelphia 76ers have been one of this season's most curious stories. They've ebbed and they've flowed, and at various stages, they have looked the part of both a legitimate contender and a bloated phony, doomed for a harsh regression to the mean.
They've come to symbolize both the heights that superstar-less teams can climb and the inevitable limitations that teams lacking in shot creation will consistently encounter. These Sixers are everything they're purported to be—flawed, lacking in elite talent, inconsistent at the end of games—and the fact that they've thrived in spite of those limitations is either harrowingly impressive or impressively harrowing.
By now, most have likely seen this excellent explanatory piece by Kate Fagan—formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer and currently of ESPN.com—detailing what ails the Sixers in rather explicit detail. For those trailing behind on the latest NBA must-reads, refer to the following selection before going through the piece in its entirety:
Look, we all knew at the beginning of last year, when Collins took over this young team, that he had a history of turning around young squads. And we also knew that he had (sometimes as early as the second season) a history of over-coaching, at which point his players tend to become frustrated and tune him out. The Sixers have been struggling with this for at least a month, if not longer. This has led to heated interactions, sometimes even in the middle of games. On more than one occasion, players have let Collins know—during a game—that they’re sick of the relentless nitpicking. This incessant nagging (or even the perception of it) leads to fractured relationships. The Sixers have reached the point where, at least some of them, have addressed this issue with Collins. Has it reached the point of tuning him out? At times. Collins has made an effort to try to step back, but he’s only occasionally successful. It’s been day to day. One day, Collins will release control and give his guys the reins; the next day, he’s all over every play, every cut, every missed screen. Frustration exists on both sides. Collins wants to figure out an answer, fix every problem. Many of the guys wish he would stop being so anxious and nervous—because it’s not helping.
There's a lot to take away from this excerpt alone, much less Fagan's entire piece, but what sticks out to me is a point made that's less relevant to the Sixers themselves, and linked more closely to the Sixers' team—and Doug Collins—as a case study.
Collins has a deserved reputation for pushing young teams to and beyond a point of significant improvement, but rather than end with some storybook climb to the summit, the NBA's young professionals have largely drifted toward indifference in response to their quibbling coach. There's a reason why Fagan's piece was largely met with knowing nods; we've seen this happen with Collins before, and even as he continues to grow as a coach and person, it's likely we'll see it again.
The man simply seems to have little filter when it comes to coach-player communications. He's a wonderful strategist, a potentially powerful motivator and works hard to put his players in a position to succeed. But on top of all of that, Collins just can't help himself. He's all over every mistake for the same reasons that he engineered such an intricate and successful defensive system—the two sides of his coaching personality are really one in the same—parts in parcel of the one and an overbearing whole.
Collins serves as a reminder that no matter how much good a coach does, their catalyst of greater triumph often comes in the form of what they elect not to do. There's a natural compulsion among the game's technicians to control every aspect of their team's operation possible, but that level of micro-managing can often be counterproductive to a team's overall performance. Collins may well have had all the answers to what plagues the Sixers, but he wore out his welcome by failing to pick his battles; when every single detail of player performance becomes a teaching point from a single voice on a daily basis, the eye rolls become inevitable.
Scaling the sermons back is essential. The consolidation of information is paramount. Hell, even the diffusion of a message—through assistant coaches, team leaders, trainers, etc.—is crucial.
One would think Collins would have picked up that particular drawback to his style by now, but his endless enthusiasm for the game seems to make him particularly and repeatedly vulnerable to a classic rookie coaching blunder. Some call it "overcoaching," but it can be more accurately dubbed as a more general lack of restraint. Collins will always have an advantage as a learned coach with an impressive track record, but he only does a disservice to himself and his team by repeating a predictable process over and over again.
Control may be a coaching currency, but players empowered by the freedom to make and correct their own mistakes can often become willing agents of the system. That self-propelled drive is what Collins' program lacks; he can push players an impressive distance, but at some point professional ballplayers have to start pushing themselves. That evolution never comes if the players aren't ever trusted to make decisions for themselves, and although structure may be helpful in allowing players to grow in proper form, but it should never be mistaken for the fertilizer that fuels their growth in the first place.
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