According to multiple league sources, the 76ers organization privately hopes that coach Doug Collins decides not to return for the 2013-14 season and, regardless of his decision, it does not intend to extend his contract - which has one year remaining.
It will be an interesting game of cat-and-mouse when this season ends. Collins is unlikely to quit and leave $4.5 million on the table, but he is just as unlikely to agree to coach the lame-duck year of his contract.
"I'm entirely focused on trying to win the games we have left," Collins said Wednesday night before the Sixers played Atlanta at the Wells Fargo Center. "I'm not thinking at all about next season. I haven't gone there."
Previously, Collins has said he simply doesn't know yet what he will do. This has been an excruciatingly difficult season for the entire organization, and particularly for Collins, who pours so much passion and energy into coaching that he is always exhausted at the end of a season. This time around, dealing with the crushing disappointment of not having the Andrew Bynum deal work out, and then dealing with a team that is incapable of winning without him, the toll has been even greater.
"I think he's gone at the end of the year. He'll be moving on," said one NBA source with intimate knowledge of the situation. "He'll decide to leave, and they won't be upset about it. They would like to see it work out that he decides to move on."
Collins, who will be 62 this summer, will be the one making the decision. Management is not eager to get into a public-relations war with a popular former player and charismatic local hero. The two sides would have to come to an agreement to settle the contract, but if that is the price of a peaceful parting, the organization might consider it a bargain.
"Whatever happens, there isn't going to be a contract extension," a second NBA source said. "They're looking to turn the page."
The passion and energy that come with Collins also come at a cost. He wants to win so badly that he is demanding with those above him, and with those on his roster. Some members of the organization would prefer a coach who is a bit more pliable in his dealings with management and players.
Regardless of what ownership and the front office want, however, Collins still holds all the cards. He could ask to serve the final year of his contract in a front-office advisory position, one that would give him the freedom to come and go as he pleases. His son, Chris, recently was hired as basketball coach at Northwestern University in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., and the father could easily transfer his passion to attending some of those games. That would also provide a painless transition for the Sixers.
If Collins, an Illinois native, opts to return to Chicago, where he coached three seasons with the Bulls, he probably could find a position with that organization. He and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf have maintained a close friendship over the years. Or, as likely as any outcome, Collins could resume his work as an analyst on television, where he is among the best at that craft.
What does not figure is Collins' coaching the final year of his contract. The Sixers are unlikely to be competitive next season - and for the foreseeable future - and it is difficult for any coach to hold together a team without the hammer of the organization's contractual support.
Just as the organization put itself into a hole with a big trade that went terribly wrong, it has no leverage with the coach, and the Sixers almost certainly will have to buy their way out of that.
A team executive who declined to speak on the record said Collins has the support of the organization, but confirmed that neither the coach nor the team has addressed the subject of a contract extension. A year ago, Collins received a one-year extension on his original three-year contract very soon after the team's postseason ended.
Since the group headed by Josh Harris bought the team before the 2011-12 season, the owners have had a run of bad luck. First there was a lockout that took away nearly half of their inaugural season, then, after a decent-enough playoff run, the Bynum deal blew up in their faces. It's not as if the team can stand more news that places it in a negative light.
Home attendance, which peaked at an average of 20,560 in 2001-02, the season after the Sixers went to the NBA Finals, fell steadily afterward as the team struggled, bottoming out with an average of 14,224 for Eddie Jordan's disastrous 2009-10 season. There have been modest increases in the last three seasons, starting with the hiring of Collins for the final season of Comcast-Spectacor ownership. There was a sizable bump in preseason ticket sales when the team traded for Bynum, and attendance this season averaged 16,653 before Wednesday's game.
The organization will have a huge season-ticket renewal problem this offseason, and the last thing it needs is engaging in a popularity contest with Collins. Selling tickets for next season will be difficult enough.
"They really want to avoid a backlash if the fans sided with Doug," the first NBA source said. "They will be happy if Doug makes the call and it works out that he leaves."
The only wild card in the deck Collins is holding is that he always bristles at the notion that he is not a long-term coach. Rightly or wrongly, because each of his three previous coaching jobs had different circumstances, he is seen as a coach whose demanding ways burn the candle at both ends.
Collins coached three seasons in Chicago, 21/2 seasons in Detroit, and two seasons in Washington. He is completing his third season with the Sixers. Perhaps he is determined to break his own record, just to answer those critics.
Whatever the decision, it will be Collins making it, and making it soon. The Sixers can't wait to hear.