Sixers hope brighter future will make up for dismal present
With injuries continuing to decimate the 76ers roster, inconsistent play staying the norm, and Andrew Bynum's future here still the biggest sports question this side of Chip Kelly, some members of the organization have spent time recently gazing into the future.
Early in the week, swingman Thaddeus Young was lost for what could be a month with a strained hamstring, taking his team-leading 7.5 rebounds and undeniable floor leadership to the sideline with him.
Friday, Jason Richardson confirmed what many had thought - that he needs surgery on his left knee and that his recovery time could be up to a year, perhaps seriously jeopardizing the 32-year-old's career.
With the Feb. 21 trading deadline approaching and more bodies missing, general manager Tony DiLeo was asked about plugging holes. His face gave away his answer before his words did. Putting fingers in dikes isn't the solution for now. Building a new flood wall is what must be done, and it appears that is exactly what DiLeo and company are prepared to do.
"If it will improve the team and not just in the short term, but long term, also, then we'll look into things," DiLeo said of a possible move before the deadline. "We don't want to jeopardize anything in the short term that will hurt us in the long term. We're looking to build.
We're in a good position on one hand, because we have flexibility with contracts. But we're in a bad position on the other hand, because we just don't have the answers. We haven't seen our team out there yet. It's hard to really plan when you don't have all the answers yet. Hopefully, we'll have the answers by the end of the year and we'll move forward in the future."
The answer in this case is Bynum, not Allen Iverson. DiLeo has reiterated all season that the organization is thinking long-term with Bynum, that after this season, the team hopes to sign him to a long-term, big-money contract and build around him. Of course, the longer Bynum stays off the court, the more doubt about that plan must be creeping into DiLeo's mind.
Bynum said Monday that he is still targeting a debut date of sometime soon after next weekend's All-Star break, though he also acknowledged that pain in his left knee still is preventing him from moving laterally, jumping and bending easily. He is still working out alone, with no defense or anyone to push or bang with.
The Sixers' first game after the break is Feb. 20 in Minnesota. Bynum still appears a long way from getting back then.
Which, of course, makes the future even murkier. With a lot of expiring contracts, do you totally rebuild around your foundational pieces of Jrue Holiday, Young and Evan Turner? Do you take a chance on Bynum, knowing full well that he could be only a part-time player for the rest of whatever kind of contract you might give him?
And what about the coach?
When Doug Collins was signed to take over the Sixers in May 2010, he talked of building a strong foundation for the franchise, of creating a winning attitude, and said that championships were not right around the corner. After two seasons of starting that and creating a long-lost buzz by getting to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, the team appeared to turn a major corner last summer by acquiring Bynum. Instead, Collins has had to deal with a slew of new faces, a barrage of injuries and, of course, no Bynum. The year that was supposed to be somewhat of a reward for his work has become, if not a nightmare, at least a series of bad dreams.
"It's been one of the tougher jobs I've had, with all the new faces, trying to piece it all together, and then the injury to Andrew all season long," Collins said. "We've had some key people missing, but that's my job as a coach. I hope I've done the best job I can do, that's all I've ever tried to do. I wish we were better than 21-27, that's for sure. But I try my best. That's what I always do. When I played for the Sixers, I gave them my body, and now that I'm coaching them I've given them my heart and soul. So I don't think I can give them anything else.
"It's been draining. Draining because your mind won't shut off. You find yourself in the middle of the night trying to have that peaceful pillow where you're not thinking, 'Well, if they come in with this guy, do I go with him; if he's not going well, can I get this guy into the game? When can I get Jrue into the game, and who can I get to play point guard with the second unit? Are we
going to make any shots?'
"My mind doesn't shut off. But that's what coaches do."
And Collins does it with as much passion as any of them. His actions on the sideline during a game make it easy to read what he is thinking. He lives and dies with every possession, each quarter, every game. He knows players can't and don't do that, for it is their job to move on to the next day. But each loss takes a piece of him, each win is a joyous triumph.
He signed an extension before this season, one that can keep him through next season. He probably craves that familiar, comfy TV analyst's chair at times, and relishes the high that teaching basketball gives him at other times. Will one override the other at the end of this season?
He will be 62 when next season begins, but has the energy of people half his age. His competitive nature can't be questioned, and he is praised as a basketball genius around the NBA by players, coaches and executives. But have this season's frustrations left him questioning a return next season?
Perhaps, but Collins won't go there, as he is tunnel-visioned on this season, on getting this ever-thinning group into the playoffs, where young players such as Holiday, Young and Turner can gain valuable experience.
"I'm in a great spot," Collins said. "Do I take it hard? Yes, I do. This franchise is more than a basketball game for me. I came here to get them back to the elite. This year has been hard, because what we got [Bynum] isn't here. These guys see me every day come in here with energy and ready to get better. This franchise, when I came back, I wanted it to be better when I left than when I got here.
"I don't know if you can plan to go through what we've gone through this year. It's been pretty tough. It's been the toughest year I've ever had as a coach. The reason is because there is great expectations. I've gone to places where the roster was thin but there weren't a lot of expectations. Going into this season, after finishing the way we did [last season] and making the big trade, there were a lot of expectations of being a top-four team and a lot of exciting things happening.
"But no Andrew and now
we've lost J-Rich. Thad's now out, we've had Jrue out, we've had Swaggy [Nick Young] out, and we've got all these new faces. This has been the toughest challenge I've ever had. I don't think you can plan on anything like that. I think Tony [DiLeo] every day is on the phones seeing what the options are. The one thing you can't do is you can't make any decision that's going to rob you of your future. You can't do that. If you do something, it has to be something that is going to work into your future. It's got to be somebody that's going to be here, not just rent a player for a year, or whatever. It has to be somebody that if you're going to make a deal that you think can be a part of your team for a while."