When a team loses on a constant basis, as the 76ers did early in the season, no one is happy.

When a team turns things around and starts winning pretty regularly, almost everyone is happy.

Almost everyone.

The Sixers have won five of their past seven games and aren't even comparable to the team that started the season 3-13. The reasons have been many - better defense, Jodie Meeks, a slew of home games - but the biggest might be that coach Doug Collins has shortened his bench.

Benefiting from Collins' decision are Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams. Suffering from it are Andres Nocioni, Evan Turner and Marreese Speights.

The reasoning is pretty plain and simple. Young and Williams have been terrific off the bench, both playing as well as anyone could have expected. Still, the coach agonizes over keeping his players happy.

"I'm as sensitive as anybody," Collins said after yesterday's practice at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "After the game is over, I always tell [assistant coaches] to make sure everyone is OK. I know what it's all about. I try to stay on top of it as much as I can.

"It's hard to play six perimeter guys. The hardest thing about it is you give two guys 10 minutes and the guys aren't happy with 10 minutes. I told 'Noc' yesterday [after an 88-70 win over New Orleans], 'I'm sorry. Evan got 21 minutes [Sunday] and I couldn't get you in the game.' He's a seasoned pro. I don't want to run him into a game with a 20-point lead with 5 minutes to go."

In the past four games, Nocioni has had two DNPs and played a little more than 18 minutes combined in the other two. He is averaging only 3.1 points in his last seven games. In his prior nine games, he averaged 11.7.

Speights, who has struggled with his offense all season, saw his first action in three games on Sunday, getting 13 minutes but missing all five of his shots.

Turner played more than 20 minutes (21) for the first time in six games, but is only 11-for-30 from the floor in the past nine games. Still, if it comes down to the rookie or Nocioni vying for minutes, Collins would lean toward the rookie, a part of the future.

"I would probably lean that way," Collins said of playing Turner over Nocioni. "Thad has given me that combo 3-4 [small and power forward]. Noc is a combo 3-4. You start [the game] with the two bigs, which we like. Then we come in with Thad and we get one of the bigs out of the game. During that homestand [I shortened the bench]. Evan will get the first look, and if he's not getting it done, I'll go with Noc. It's just so hard. Noc is such a great pro, it's hard to juggle those minutes. It's one of those things I hate.

"The ideal rotation is eight guys and a specialist. You've got two on the perimeter and you're rotating three bigs and then your ninth guy is either a rebounder or a defender or a guy who can make shots. That's the easiest of all worlds. Everybody wants to play, and I don't blame them. They're NBA players and they want to play. The one thing we talked about is just being very supportive of each other."

They'll need to be. Tonight, they'll face the Nets in North Jersey, followed by home games against the Clippers tomorrow and Lakers Friday. After that, it's eight consecutive road games, where they have gone 1-10 this season. *

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