<
>

Problems could arise with Collins coaching in Chicago

5/29/2008


We're all big on labels, and when it comes to coaches, most of us have only two of them.

There are "good" coaches, and there are "bad" coaches, and rarely do the distinctions go further than that. And, of course, our perception of "good" and "bad" can change like the weather -- based mostly on whether the team in question won or lost yesterday.

Maybe a few coaches are so effective or ineffective they would succeed or fail anywhere, but the vast majority fall somewhere in between these extremes.

Coaches aren't "good" or "bad" as much as they are an amalgam of strengths and weaknesses. That means each individual coach might be particularly well-suited or badly suited for a given team at a given time.

For a good example, take Doug Collins. The Chicago Bulls are bringing him back to be their coach, and on several levels, it's hard to argue with the logic.

For instance, Collins' track record of immediate improvement is tough to ignore. In his past three coaching stops, his teams have improved by 10, 18 and 18 games in his first season on the bench. With the talent Chicago has on hand, plus the first overall pick, there's a good chance he'll have a fourth straight double-figure victory improvement.

Collins brings a lot of strengths to the table. He's a master of details, and one of the ways he got his teams to turn around so quickly was by fine-tuning all the little things -- his teams were among the league's best-prepared.

That carried over to the hustle side, too. Collins got his teams to compete and defend, as can be seen by the improvements in defensive efficiency at each stop.

By an odd coincidence, each team Collins took over was the worst defensive team in the NBA the year before he arrived, based on defensive efficiency. Unbelievably, Collins got two of those three teams into the top half of the league in his first year, with Chicago jumping from 23rd (last) to 11th and Detroit motoring from 29th to a shocking seventh. The effect wasn't quite as strong with Washington -- 29th to 21st -- but it was there.

So, obviously the problem isn't that Collins can't coach. He can. The problem is that his strengths and weaknesses are a terrible match for the team he's taking over.

Those strengths would make him a great fit for a lot of teams, especially teams that are struggling to defend. But not the Bulls -- Chicago is already one of the league's best defensive teams (its struggles last season were mostly on offense).

How do we know he's not a natural fit in Chicago? Here are the problem areas in his coaching record:

Problem No. 1: Pace

Collins might be the most extreme slow-pace coach in the past quarter century. I'm amazed nobody has brought this up yet -- the guy makes Jeff Van Gundy look like Paul Westhead.

His Bulls were the league's slowest-paced team in 1986-87 and 1987-88, even with Michael Jordan at the peak of his athleticism. Scottie Pippen became a starter in 1988-89, yet Collins had the Bulls playing at the third-slowest pace in the NBA.

His Pistons, with a young Grant Hill, were the league's second-slowest team in both seasons Collins coached in Detroit. And his Wizards were 26th and 27th out of 29 teams in his two years at the helm in Washington.

So there's problem No. 1. The Bulls, though a defense-minded team in recent seasons, played fast. The past four seasons, Chicago has ranked 11th, sixth, fifth and 11th in pace, even while ranking among the league's top clubs in defensive efficiency.

The Bulls probably ought to play even faster next season. Presuming the Bulls take Derrick Rose with the first overall pick, they'll want to run more than ever. This would be to their advantage -- as a small, fast team without a go-to post player, Chicago should look to run at every opportunity. But it's an open question whether Collins can lighten up enough to coach this way.

Obviously, if the Bulls take Michael Beasley, this is a lesser concern, but even so, the fact remains that Chicago would have a down-tempo coach with a mostly up-tempo roster. Unless John Paxson is planning to nuke the roster this summer, this looms as a major issue.

Problem No. 2: Youth

Collins' history is that he gets an immediate jump from his team -- then things level off in subsequent seasons.

There's a reason for that. Few coaches in recent history have trusted young players less than Collins has. Obviously, there's the infamous Kwame Brown saga, but his obvious discomfort with any young player who isn't an immediate star goes well beyond that.

Collins was particularly over the top in this respect in his most recent tenure, in Washington, and not just with Brown. While 22-year-old Bobby Simmons sat at the end of the bench for two years, 32-year-old Bryon Russell played and was horribly ineffective. While 25-year-old Brian Cardinal sat, 39-year-old Charles Oakley got plenty of time to prove how washed up he was. While 22-year-old Brendan Haywood sat, 32-year-old Popeye Jones played. You get the picture.

Although Detroit and Chicago weren't exactly awash in young talent with Collins as coach, he didn't get much out of the young 'uns there, either. In Detroit, rookies Aaron McKie and Theo Ratliff were two of his most effective players in 1996-97, but they came off the bench behind the veterans; a third productive rookie, Jerome Williams, hardly played at all. In Chicago, he played 23-year-old rookie Will Perdue 190 minutes in 1988-89 … or 99 minutes fewer than he played future towel-waver Jack Haley.

Obviously, if you look at Chicago's current roster, this portends a serious problem. Rose or Beasley will play no matter what, presumably, but what of younger players with less impressive pedigrees? Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas need to get experience and play though their mistakes, but one worries Collins will pull the plug on them after the first miscue and put in whatever decrepit 32-year-old veteran the Bulls sign for the minimum this summer. Ditto for Thabo Sefolosha and Aaron Gray.

In short, for a young team to hire a coach so suspicious of youth is a head-scratcher.

Problem No. 3: Temperament

Problems 1 and 2 are concerns, but this last problem is potentially the biggest hurdle.

For three-and-a-half seasons, the Bulls played for Scott Skiles -- a detail-oriented stickler who rode his players hard every minute. This had impressive short-term effects, but by the start of last season, his players had tuned him out and seemed to be bothered by his demanding approach. The results showed in the team's record.

By hiring Collins, the Bulls are effectively bringing in another Skiles, in terms of temperament.

At each of his previous three stops, Collins' constant harping wore out his players within three years. If he lost them that fast when he replaced players' coaches, how fast will the Bulls' players tune him out when he comes in as Skiles the Sequel? My guess is "with breathtaking speed."

One has to presume Collins will get his one-year jump in the win column, simply because the Bulls are too talented to lose 49 games again. But for him to succeed, he'll need to be a much more laid-back, up-tempo, youth-friendly coach than he ever was in his past three stops.

Again, the problem isn't that Collins is a "bad" coach. It's that his strengths and weaknesses are a bad fit.

And if he doesn't change his stripes, we'll find ourselves contemplating Chicago's next coaching hire before you know it.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.