Collins hire would put bull's-eye squarely on Paxson

5/29/2008 - NBA Chicago Bulls

It was a throwaway line, nothing more. A way for the Chicago Tribune's Mike Downey to get from the 13th paragraph to the 14th paragraph of his Thursday column on the Bulls' seemingly endless coaching search.

Downey had already listed the 17 -- 17! -- reported candidates for the job, but then decided to have some fun and list some long-shot possibilities, including Dennis Rodman, Mike Ditka, Charles Barkley, Hillary Clinton and …

    If the Lakers can bring back Phil Jackson back a second time, I don't see why Chicago can't do the same for me: Doug Collins.

Who knew Bulls general manager John Paxson, in apparently one of the great stealth hires in recent years, had already decided to do exactly that, and offer the job to a guy who has a history of twos.

Two times coaching Michael Jordan (young MJ with the Bulls, old MJ with the Washington Wizards).

Now two times as Chicago's head coach (hideous perm hairdo in late '80s, conventional haircut in 2008).

I love the sheer audacity of the hire, but wasn't it only a few weeks ago that Collins said he had "no interest" in coaching again? Didn't he tell ESPN.com's Marc Stein that he was totally content with his life as a father, a grandfather and TV basketball commentator?

"I consider it a compliment when people mention me, but I just love my life now," he told Stein. "The work that has to be done and the headaches you have to put up with today, I'm not willing to pay that price. It's just too tough."

Sometime between then and now, Collins apparently found a very large bottle of aspirin and decided that, yes, he was willing to pay the price of coaching again. That's how it is with hoops lifers such as Collins. They say they've kicked the habit, but deep down they're addicts -- especially when it's Paxson on the phone asking if he'd like to end his NBA head-coaching career where he started it 22 years ago.

Grandchildren, peacefulness, sitting courtside with the TNT crew is nice, but Collins has always had the coaching jones. Talk to him five minutes about hoops and you find yourself wanting to run layup drills and gassers. He wants to run layup drills and gassers with you.

The late David Halberstam once wrote of Collins: "He was passionate, extremely driven, and very bright. No one understood the flow of a game better than Collins. Sometimes it seemed to his players that he was almost too smart."

Former Collins and Bulls assistant Johnny Bach told Halberstam, "If you could call 30 timeouts a game, he'd win every game."

So the Bulls are getting passion, intelligence and basketball brilliance. They're also getting a 56-year-old coach who has never won a conference final or an NBA championship, never lasted more than three seasons with a team and, until recently, vowed he'd never coach in this league again.

Last week, the Bulls hit it big at the NBA draft lottery, turning their 1.7 percent chance into the No. 1 pick, and with it, the choice between Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley. Now Paxson is putting huge money on the hard ways and rolling the basketball dice on Collins.

I have no idea how this is going to turn out with Collins. History suggests short-term success and then a flameout. His first Bulls team improved by 10 wins from the previous season (hello, MJ). His first Detroit Pistons team improved by 18 games. His first Wizards team improved by 18.

And two years after that, he was gone.

Whatever happens, this will go down as a Paxson decision, with a possible assist from Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Just like it was a Paxson decision to hire and then wave goodbye to Scott Skiles. Just like it was a Paxson decision to draft the (so far) disappointing Tyrus Thomas and the cognac-drinking goof Joakim Noah (who, to his credit, at least plays the game hard). Just like it was a Paxson decision to sign Ben Wallace and later trade him away for a chunk of the Cleveland Cavaliers roster. Just like it will be a Paxson decision to pick between Rose or Beasley, or even trade the pick away. (Take Rose!)

Reinsdorf owns the Bulls, but right now Paxson is the Bulls. Whatever form this franchise takes in the coming months and years will be a direct result and reflection of Paxson. Yesterday it was Skiles, Thomas, Noah and Wallace. Today it was Collins. Tomorrow it will be Rose or Beasley, and even more roster moves after that.

Paxson is a smart guy. He knows his job and his legacy depend on how this shakes out.

Thing is, I don't think he cares about his job or his legacy. I think he cares about winning and, as corny as it sounds, winning the right way. He had said during this entire coaching search that he wanted to find someone whose basketball soul mirrored his own. So he looked into the mirror and saw Collins.

Would Mark Jackson, Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, Tom Thibodeau, Dwane Casey, Jeff Bzdelik, Tyrone Corbin, Mike D'Antoni, Jeff Hornacek, Rick Carlisle, etc., have been a better choice than Collins? Maybe. Maybe not. That will be the fun of it, to see whether Paxson is going to last longer than Collins.

If it doesn't work out, Paxson will only have himself to blame. Which, knowing Paxson, is exactly the way he wants it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.