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Bob Ford: Collins vows to make Sixers tougher

When Doug Collins traveled on a redeye flight from Phoenix to Philadelphia on Sunday night, he was so excited he couldn't sleep.

Ed Stefanski, left, shakes hands with new Sixers head coach Doug Collins. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Ed Stefanski, left, shakes hands with new Sixers head coach Doug Collins. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

When Doug Collins traveled on a redeye flight from Phoenix to Philadelphia on Sunday night, he was so excited he couldn't sleep.

This should provide good practice for Collins as he becomes the new head coach of the 76ers, a position that has not been conducive to untroubled minds and restful nights among its recent occupants.

Collins, a high-energy player and coach with a nimble basketball brain that is always running the floor in transition, will be the eighth head coach of the Sixers in the space of nine seasons. He takes over a team that, in that span of time, has gone from being a marquee franchise to one that operates in relative anonymity.

Most frustratingly, after a wasted year under the wrong head coach, Collins takes over a team that is a mystery even to those in its front office. General manager Ed Stefanski and his staff don't really know if the current roster can develop into something good and, after step-back years for some key components, are confused about the potential of more than a few players.

"There's no way you can tell me Thaddeus Young is not a good basketball player," Stefanski said, picking out one example. "I traded [Kyle] Korver in order to get him on the floor and he responded. Then, to go where he was last year doesn't make any sense at all. It just doesn't make sense."

There are a handful of players like that, and a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered. If you stick Andre Iguodala at the small forward position and leave him there, will his production improve? Can Elton Brand still be a useful player, maybe as a high-post center? Is Marreese Speights the worst defender in history, or just a kid who needs the proper motivation?

Collins has been hired to find all the answers. He intends to get everything he can from the current players, and to figure out which ones should be invited to stick around. This will not be a quick process and the goals are simple at the moment.

"You find out who in this group is capable of starting on teams with a chance to be really, really good. I won't know that until I get in the gym with them," Collins said. "We're not ready to be a championship team right now. We're just talking about the Sixers being relevant again."

It would be wrong to blame all that ails the Sixers on the short, disastrous term of Eddie Jordan, who appeared to withdraw from the team as things got worse last season. That will not be the case with Collins, whose passion for the game is legendary and who is famously impatient with those who do not share similar passion.

"He has a great understanding of the game and I think he'll be great at selling those concepts to the players," said Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who attended Monday's press conference. "That's the most critical piece of it. They will believe in him, trust him and love him. That's what we all hope for as coaches."

One thing that was apparent to Collins as he studied the Sixers from his seat as a television commentator is that the Sixers have lacked both mental and physical toughness - and that they couldn't play a lick of defense.

"Toughness is one of the most underrated skills in the sport," Collins said. "Right now, we're very much a finesse team. In practice, you can create competitive toughness, and one thing I have always done is reward competitors."

The only meaningful reward is playing time, so those who want to be on the court will have to earn that time on the practice floor. In that way, Collins can separate the players who desperately want to win from those who would like to win if it's not too much trouble.

"We didn't show any toughness and we need to," Stefanski said. "Doug will get that out or we will make changes. He will take guys and help them find the next level of their games. And if some guys can't find that next level, we'll make changes there, too."

It isn't going to be pretty at times. Collins sounds as if he is leaning toward playing Iguodala, Young and Brand together in the frontcourt, which will make the team undersized at each position. If Jrue Holiday's development is force-fed with added minutes at the point and if shooting guard Evan Turner is the draft pick, the Sixers will be painfully young in the backcourt. Still, it has to be done, and it isn't as if last season was pretty, either.

"There are no quick fixes," Collins said. "If it's quick, it won't last. These guys have had a lot of coaches. They've heard a lot of different voices. I've got to create a relationship with them. If there's trust, then they're more apt to listen."

Collins doesn't come with a system attached to his name. He doesn't come with a resume full of championships, or a record of playing glory that any of his players will remember. Doug Collins only comes with a promise: No one will work harder or care more than he will.

He hasn't had his last sleepless night.