When Doug Collins took over as the coach of the 76ers last May, he knew very little about the task at hand.
He did know, from afar, that he needed to find out where Elton Brand was physically and mentally. He also knew that the team was painfully young.
As for on-court issues, that would have to wait until Collins got on the floor with his team at training camp. Once that happened, it became clear to him rather quickly that one area where the team could prosper would be in the play of its bench.
Collins immediately saw in guard Lou Williams exactly what the 6-1, 180-pound guard was signed to do - come off the bench and provide an offensive spark. In Thaddeus Young, Collins saw a gifted player who could provide matchup nightmares for opponents, if Young could get back to being the player he was before last year's abysmal season.
Check and check.
The two have contributed to one of the highest-scoring reserve units in the NBA. When Collins makes the move to insert one of them off the bench - usually in the middle of the first quarter - it's like putting on an old pair of jeans for the coach. He just gets this look and feeling of complete comfort.
He expected the bench to be good, but, like everything else with the team, questions were plentiful at the beginning of the season.
"I did [expect good things from the bench], but for that to happen you had to have guys like Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young, who are such terrific players, be willing to accept that role of coming in off the bench," Collins said.
Both have embraced their roles. Williams, of course, was handed the starting point guard spot before last season began by new coach Eddie Jordan, despite never having been a starter or being a true point guard.
Young had started 138 of his 216 games before this season. The problem that often arose was where he fit in best, at the small or big forward.
Collins decided both positions were best for the fourth-year player. Collins is a master of getting mismatches on the court for his players, and none has prospered from it more than Young.
"The one thing that I've learned is his strengths and have tried to get him into that position," Collins said. "He's a very talented player, fast, quick, relentless. But his growth on the defensive end has really made us a team that has a chance to win. When you play the last 5, 6 minutes of the game, defense is vital, but you also have to be able to score. If you look at the teams around the league that have good closing teams, not only can they defend but you've got to guard all five of their players. When Thad is out there as a 'four' with E.B. [Brand] and whichever three perimeter guys we have, all five of our guys are a threat to score. When you have that, then you have a chance late in games, because they can't just load up on one guy."
Last Sunday in Cleveland, the starters began the game as though they had anticipated a starting time an hour or 2 later. There was sluggishness abound. So Collins went to his comfort zone. Before the game was 7 minutes old, the Sixers had three subs in the game and a fourth waiting at the scorers' table. Before the quarter was over, a 12-point deficit had turned into a one-point game in what eventually became a Sixers victory.
"We're a team, and that's what it's all about,'' said starting point guard Jrue Holiday. "Sometimes, for whatever reasons, the starters might not be playing that well. When that happens, it's great that we have a bench that can come in and pick us up and take care of things. There's no jealousy or anything like that when you get subbed for. It's for the good of the team."
Unlike Jordan, Collins looked at the talent he had and put his players in the best position to succeed.
"It doesn't do me any good to have this master plan if those guys don't believe in it," Collins said. "I sold both Lou and Thad on the fact that I promised them that I would play to their strengths and they would be in the game when it counted. I think that's what all the guys want to do, they want to be rewarded and they want to be out there when the game's counted on. Those are two of our clutch guys coming down the stretch. We have the No. 1 scoring team off the bench. You have to have the cooperation of your team to know that this is what's best for the team and in doing that it is what's best for everybody."
It will be interesting to see the status of Elton Brand, who dislocated his right pinkie for the second consecutive game Tuesday against Dallas. The good news is there is no break, but the finger popping out of its socket frequently isn't a good sign . . . The Sixers will host Minnesota tomorrow night and Golden State on Sunday evening before playing at Indiana on Tuesday . . . Jason Kapono, who has left the team for personal reasons, is expected to be back before the end of the week.
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