Sports Nut

The Wizard of Id

Doug Collins, brilliant coach or emotional basket case?

Doug Collins, the new coach of the Washington Wizards, routinely gets fired for winning. In Chicago, he turned a 30-win Bulls team into a contender, marching as far as Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals in 1989. They sacked him. Trying again in 1995, Collins lifted an equally decrepit Pistons franchise to two playoff appearances but got canned for his trouble. Collins’ 258-197 lifetime record and five playoff appearances in five full seasons suggest that he’s a winning coach. But is he a good one?

No. There’s a reason Collins’ first two stops were a fast burn: He simply exhausts his players. Like a college coach, Collins fusses too much, weeps too much, over-praises good performances, over-condemns bad ones, chases off players he doesn’t like, and even alienates the ones he does—all in all, he’s an awful fit for the NBA. Still, the Bulls and Pistons would have forgiven his histrionics if Collins had done two things: developed his young players and then, just as important, kept them cheerful and focused. He sometimes did the former, but never the latter. And that’s why he’ll fail in Washington, too. 

Collins recently told the Washington Post, “The number one thing I pride myself in is creating an environment where young guys get better. They did in Chicago and they did in Detroit.” During Collins’ first season with the Bulls, Michael Jordan increased his scoring average from 22.7 points per game to 37.1. During his last, Scottie Pippen upped his from 7.9 to 14.4. So give Collins credit for directing, or at least presiding over, the development of two of the best players in league history. In Detroit, Allan Houston increased his totals only slightly, and Grant Hill’s points, assists, rebounds, and shooting percentage fell during Collins’ tenure. So actually, the young guys got better in Chicago but trod water in Detroit.  

What should worry the Wizards is that Collins has yet to develop a big man from scratch. Between 1986 and 1988, the Bulls spent three high draft choices on posts to take the heat off Jordan. Brad Sellers busted, Will Perdue languished on the bench, and even Horace Grant didn’t break out until two years after Collins departed. In Detroit, Collins larded the roster with slashers—Hill, Houston, Lindsey Hunter, Jerry Stackhouse, Malik Sealy—but never could locate a center. (Theo Ratliff, an awfully good one, sat at the end of the bench.) What’s the problem? Collins, a former shooting guard, has an ailment NBA types call small man’s perspective: He elevates guard play and ignores the post. This is a non-issue if you’re building the team around a 24-year-old Michael Jordan, a potentially major one if, like the Wizards, you’re building it around Kwame Brown, an 19-year-old power forward who never played a minute of college basketball.

More troubling is Collins’ propensity to unravel in front of his team. As one Piston explained, “He was smart, but when he took things personally, he lost it.” Problem is, Collins takes everything personally. Often, after regular season wins and losses, he broke down in front of his players. (According to Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, MJ once told a group of players, “You may think you’ve got problems with your coaches, but, well, mine cries every day.”) After chasing Allan Houston out of Detroit, Collins told a stunned Pistons’ locker room, “As far as I’m concerned, Allan Houston can rot in hell.” He so poisoned the atmosphere in Detroit that Grant Hill—as unlikely a mutineer as you’ll find in the NBA—went to Pistons owner Bill Davidson and recommended that Collins be fired.

It’s difficult for a coach, even a mild-mannered one, to keep NBA millionaires emotionally level for 82 games (see Phil Jackson and the Lakers or, better yet, Mike Dunleavy and the Trail Blazers). It’s next to impossible when the coach is himself an emotional basket case. That’s why the Bulls and the Pistons fired Collins—not because he didn’t win, but because his heart-on-my-sleeve act simply wore out the team.

With each stint tarred by his histrionics, how does Collins keep landing NBA jobs? Well, Collins uses his TV career—where his straightforwardly emotional style is an asset—to launch and re-launch his coaching one. Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause hired him away from a local station in 1986. After the Chicago debacle, Collins became the top color man on TNT, where he impressed the Pistons with his intelligence. For the last few years, he sat next to Bob Costas, and later Marv Albert, announcing every meaningful game for NBC. From his TV perch, Collins can evangelize his basketball ethos without contradiction. He looks smart. In a league that endlessly recycles losers, it’s no wonder general managers buy into it.

Jordan, on the other hand, should know better—he slogged through Collins’ antics in Chicago. But at 38, Jordan is more worried about personal comfort; he wants to play for a coach he knows. Phil Jackson is winning championships in Los Angeles; Dean Smith, his college coach, won’t budge from retirement. So that leaves Doug Collins. But where does it leave the Wizards?