Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What a Difference a Year (and a New Coach) Makes

Last season, I could count the number of times Sixers coach Eddie Jordan smiled on one hand. Maybe he was afraid to flash the world his braces, or maybe he just wasn't all that excited about his job.

To be fair, Jordan and Sixers had very little to smile about last year. They finished the season a dismal 27-55, the franchise's worst record since the 1996-97 season (22-60), Allen Iverson's rookie year.

Yet with virtually the exact same roster as Jordan left behind (Evan Turner and the Dalembert trade notwithstanding), Doug Collins has infused an energy and excitement around this team that's putting smiles on everyone's faces. And the main reason is his passion for job.

It was evident last season that Eddie Jordan didn't give a damn about the Sixers or his job — he was just happy to collect a paycheck. He never looked excited, never looked angry, upset, happy. Stories never surfaced of him reaming out the team or offering encouragement. He never showed any emotion whatsoever. Frankly, it looked like he honestly didn't give a shit. As a result, the players were miserable and performed that way.

Doug Collins has been the polar opposite. Taking over a job few wanted and even fewer thought could become a winning position, Collins threw himself into the team he used to play for. He sounded genuinely excited to be here in Philadelphia, genuinely excited about his team and genuinely excited to take on the challenge. From the get-go, he passed that enthusiasm off to the players, and even after they stumbled out of the gates, something just felt different. These Sixers cared. These Sixers played hard. And these Sixers showed they desperately wanted to avoid another embarrassing season.

Now look at where this team is and how the atmosphere has changed. The Sixers are two games over .500, sitting at 6th in the East and chasing Atlanta for the 5 seed. And more importantly, they take the floor every night expecting to win. It really hit home for me last week when the Sixers came storming from behind to beat the Atlanta Hawks in front of a raucous Philadelphia crowd. After the game, Doug Collins was beaming, smiling from ear to ear. He was pumping his fist, greeting all his players, walking off the court with his arm around one of his guys and basking in the win. There were thousands of fans roaring in excitement, but none of them were more excited than Collins.

The same thing happened last night. Following a lethargic loss to the Sacramento Kings Sunday, Doug Collins tore into his players after that game, chastising them for going to a Lil Wayne concert the night before and losing their focus. I find it hard to believe Eddie Jordan would have addressed the situation the same way last season. Thankfully, Doug Collins is no Eddie Jordan. Doug Collins cares, and he wasn't about to let his players off the hook for a subpar performance against an inferior team.

So he laid into them, and the next night, the Sixers jumped out to a 27-13 lead in the first quarter against the Eastern Conference leading Bulls in Chicago and took a 16-point lead into halftime. They came to play, because the coach demanded that they come out to play. Thaddeus Young was an absolute monster in leading the charge — the same Thaddeus Young who struggled so much last year under Eddie Jordan. This year, Thad is having perhaps his best season yet, just like Elton Brand is having his best year as a Sixer. Just like Lou Williams is thriving once again as a bench scorer. Just as Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes are playing the best basketball of their lives.

But even more impressive than coming out and taking it to the Bulls in those first two quarters was the way the rest of the game played out. Chicago came in as the hottest team in the East but played about as bad as they're capable of playing. Derrick Rose was ineffective and turning the ball over, the Bulls were playing no defense whatsoever, and the Sixers were taking advantage. But this is the best team in the conference for a reason, a team with the leading MVP candidate. So you knew Chicago was going to come out as a different team in the second half, and that's exactly what the Bulls did.

Rose flipped the switch from awful game to showing why he's the league's MVP. He just completely took over the game in the third quarter, getting to the rim at will and finishing with authority. The Sixers have no big men who can defend the paint, and the Bulls took advantage. Led by Rose's furious charge, Chicago cut a lead that was once more than 20 points down to four. It was the type of spot where you expect a team hovering around .500 like the Sixers to fold. The best team in the conference was asserting its will behind its MVP, and there was nothing the Sixers could do about it.

Except this team doesn't believe it's supposed to lose to the elite teams. It believes it can win every night, and it will kill itself trying. And that's because of Doug Collins. So the Sixers took Derrick Rose's best shot and countered with some huge shots by Spencer Hawes and clutch plays from everyone, holding off the Bulls 97-85.

And there was Doug Collins, smiling, fist-pumping, exuding joy just as he had the week before against the Hawks. He came out and greeted every player on the floor, grinning from ear to ear, exchanging high fives and hugs. Then, he embraced Elton Brand and walked off the court with him —  team and coach earning the victory together.

It's incredibly striking as a Sixers fan. This time last year, Eddie Jordan didn't give a shit about what happened. Not one iota. And the players looked miserable. I honestly can't remember seeing either the players or Jordan smile at all. Now, just one year later, the coach is the leading cheerleader, smiling from ear to ear after each big win, showing just how distraught he is with each loss. And the players are following suit, embracing their coach and flashing grins as big as can be with victories, while conveying a deeply disturbed look of despair with each loss.

It's often said that basketball is the hardest draw in Philadelphia, that the team has to put a winner on the floor to make people show up and give a crap, which is certainly true. Honestly, it may go even further. What Sixers fans really want is a coach, a team that cares. If the players give a crap, if the coach gives a crap, if the franchise gives a crap, the fans will too. That's really all they ask. Sure, winning doesn't hurt, but putting a passionate product on the court is just as important.

Thanks to Doug Collins, the Sixers are doing that. Just one year after the most miserable and disinterested team in recent memory drove away more fans than you can imagine, Doug Collins and the upstart Philadelphia 76ers are bringing them back. It's fun to be a Sixers fan again, even if this team has not real shot at winning a title anytime soon. That doesn't matter right now. What matters is that Doug Collins has brought the passion back to 76ers basketball, a passion we haven't really seen since Allen Iverson unceremoniously left town (the first time).

What difference a year and a new coach can make.

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