FEW THINGS have been sure bets for the 76ers this season.

Wednesday in Houston, where they incurred their fifth straight loss, coach Doug Collins trotted out his sixth different starting lineup in 26 games, none of which has included the big offseason acquisition, Andrew Bynum. At times the Sixers have proved to be a very good outside shooting team, other times they've shown why they are called shooters and not makers. Their inside game is practically nonexistent and the defense has ranged from one of the best in the league to one of the worst. Add to that the myriad of nagging injuries that have hit key players and it's somewhat understandable why they are fighting to stay around the .500 mark.

While those variables keep Collins awake at night trying to figure out yet another way to keep treading water, there is that one stabilizing factor that is keeping him somewhat sane. As he puts it, he is now coaching "one of my favorite players of all time."

Thaddeus Young should take that compliment, wrap it and keep it with him not only for the rest of his professional life but beyond. Collins has coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Grant Hill and many, many other greats of the game. And as much as Collins appreciates the play of his power forward/center/small forward, he far more admires the person Thaddeus Young is.

"He wants to win and do things the right way. He does it with dignity every day and that's a coach's dream," Collins said.

Young is having his best, and most physically demanding, season of his six in the NBA. Through 26 games, he is averaging 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds, and shooting 53 percent from the floor. And he is doing all of that playing out of position. Not that Collins is misusing him, it's just that at 6-8, around 225 pounds, and without much of an outside game, there really isn't a true position for Young in the NBA. Yet there he is each and every night, logging 35-plus minutes for Collins, most of the time matched against much bigger and stronger players. He endures such a beat-down on most nights that Collins is wary of practicing him on most days during the season.

"Everybody who is my height in this league and is trying to play that position wishes they had a few more inches," said Young, flashing that ever-present smile. "I'm a tweener, a guy who can guard multiple positions, who can do different things out on the court. It's all about just going out there and competing and sticking with your matchups.

"It's definitely been the hardest season, this and my first year when they decided to make me a starter. That's when I learned that it's tough going out there and guarding bigger guys. Then I was new to the league and new to what was going on. Back then, I think guys were bigger and stronger at the [power forward] than they are now. There were more traditional power forwards then than there are now. Now I think there are so many tweeners playing the position that we've kind of redefined the game a little bit."

Young knows all about redefining. Originally thought to be an outside shooter who could also get to the basket and get out on the break, Collins' decision to match Young against bigger players has been beneficial to him offensively as he can use his quickness around the basket and has bulked up in order to stand the punishment.

"The essence of being a great player is finding that niche, that role that allows you to be that," Collins said. "Look at a guy like Shawn Marion. He'll play 'five,' 'four' or 'three' [center, power forward or small forward]. He's a high-energy guy who can do so many different things for you. When you have a guy like that, it gives you great flexibility. The great thing about Thad and what I love about him is he's all about the team. He's not worried when he has to play against these bigger, stronger forwards all the time. The other day he had to play against Ron Artest [Metta World Peace], and the day before he had to play against David West. Those kind of guys take it out of Thad, and that's why he has to keep his energy level up.

"His speed and quickness and running the floor, that's his strength. One thing I think we've done in the 3 years I've been here is that we haven't pigeonholed him and said, 'This is the spot you play.' We've allowed him to do what he does best."

And Young can appreciate Collins' plight. During last year's lockout, he got a look at the game from a coaching perspective. While taking classes at Victory University in his hometown of Memphis (Young has promised his mother he will get his degree), Young helped impart his wisdom to others.

"I'm friends with the athletic director, Scott Robinson. We've been friends for the past 8 years; he's athletic director and head basketball coach," said Young. "So during the lockout I was a student assistant coach there. I was working out with the team. They were all about my age and they would be calling me 'coach,' which was strange. I actually got to sit on the bench for three or four games and get a little experience in. It was cool. Players try to listen. I actually had a good time. I got to interact with the players a little bit, got to interact with the coaching staff and got to learn how some of the stuff goes down as far as preparing for games and watching game tape and breaking down film with some of the guys and what they did in certain situations.

"It was definitely an experience. I don't want to be a head coach, but I wouldn't mind being an assistant. It isn't a D-I school, so there were a lot of setbacks. I got to be at practice and give my insight to a bunch of different things.

"I was on the other end of the table this time, being with the coach. That was a different experience because you get to see everything from the coach's eyes. It was interesting to see how the players would react to different things that you ask them to do and how they take coaching."

He quickly learned that not every player is as easy to coach as he is.