Basketball players just aren't built like they once were. Today's breed of ball players aren't as mentally tough as they were in the playing days of Doug Collins, who suited up for the Philadelphia 76ers from 1973 through 1981.
Collins, who is in his second season as the Sixers' coach, has learned that lesson first hand now that he has deals with the modern generation of players on an everyday basis.
"The one thing about players today is that they're very sensitive, and very fragile," Collins said before his team's game against the Boston Celtics on Easter Sunday. "They didn't grow up with tough coaches. You know, I had my ass kicked since I was six. It's a different time, and so I treat this team very much with kid gloves. I really do, and I'm still looked at as an ogre."
That doesn't make things easy for Collins, who must always be conscious about what he says.
"It's terrible, I mean, it's hard. It really is hard." he said. "I honestly find myself during the games looking at the coach [and asking], 'Was I alright with those guys during that timeout? Did I hurt anybody's feelings? Was I OK?'... 'Coach, you're fine, you're fine'... I said 'OK, OK, I just wanted to make sure I didn't hurt anybody's feelings.' That's the sensitivity, and the younger the guys, it seems like the more sensitive. And that's what you're wrestling with."
Young and sensitive doesn't always make for a good mix, but that's the hand Collins has been dealt. Philadelphia is the NBA's 11th youngest team this season with an average age of 26.34.
"We're still a very young group, and with a young group there goes a lot of ups and downs," said Collins. "The one beauty of coaching a veteran team is guys have seen a lot and they've been around a lot of coaches, and so there's a different perspective. ... Younger players are still carving their own niche, you know. They're still carving their own niche as players, finding out who they are. And so as a coach, piecing that together is a very delicate thing."
Collins wasn't having many problems putting together the Sixers' puzzle at the start of the season. Philly, now 29-27, won 10 of its first 13 games and improved to 20-9 after a win on Feb. 13.
After that, tough times fell upon the 76ers, and the losses started piling up. Collins' squad dropped five straight heading into the All-Star break. Since the break, Philly is 9-13 and has been overtaken by the Celtics for first place in the Atlantic Division, not to mention the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. As of Monday, the Sixers are tied with the Knicks for the seventh seed.
Much of Philadelphia's early season success was due in part to the outstanding performance of center Spencer Hawes, who averaged a double-double in December (12.0 points, 12.5 rebounds) and scored 10 or more points in eight of his first 12 games while totaling double-digit rebounds in seven of those contests. Hawes went down with Achillies and back injuries that forced him to miss 17 straight games and 28 of 31 games overall between Jan. 18 and March 16. Hawes is back and has played in the 76ers' previous 12 games, but the team still hasn't been able to regain its stride.
"Well, we're out of sync," Collins said. "Spencer was arguably one of our best players the first 15 games of the season. ... We were averaging about 102 points per game, we were No. 1 in field goal percentage and we always are a team that really doesn't turn the ball over -- I think we're still number one. He was such a facilitator. He goes out, and we have to change a little bit. I start playing a couple rooks. The minutes get split with [Nikola Vucevic] and [Lavoy Allen], and then Nik gets hurt and so he's out for a while. And since he's come back, it's been a little bit of an adjustment for him.
"But since Spencer has come back, he has not been in the rhythm. What ends up happening is the 30 minutes that those guys were splitting, Spencer's getting. So now I'm playing like eight guys ... But we've just been out of sync, we really have. I think the chemistry of our team has changed."
Collins pointed back to a lesson he learned from legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski in the early 1990s that has helped him cope with the circumstances.
Said Collins, "I learned this from Coach K in '91-'92, when he won the national championship. They said 'You've got the same team coming back next year to defend.' He said, 'Well first of all, we're not going to defend, but secondly it's not the same team. It's the same players, but it's not the same team, because everybody changes over the course of a year.' And we've had some guys change, and I mean their play. And so it's changed our team. And I think we're still adjusting very much to that, and that's what I'm trying to get my hands on to try to make that better."
Philly's struggles continued in Boston, as a 14-point second quarter from the Sixers put them in a 14-point hole at halftime after trailing 25-22 through one period, and they would ultimately be blown away by Boston, 103-79. Plenty of things went wrong in the game, but perhaps the biggest shortcoming for Philadelphia came in the turnover department, where they had 14 giveaways.
"Turnovers on the road against a team like this can't happen," forward Elton Brand said. "We've had leads, in the Miami game, in the Toronto game, going into the second half, couldn't hold on to them. Execution is just slipped. So it's just not one thing, it's a myriad of things."
There isn't much time for the Sixers to right the ship. Ten games remain in the regular season, and with a three-game deficit in the division race, a string of losses could be devastating. Philadelphia and New York are tied for the seventh seed in the East, but the Bucks (28-28) aren't far behind, trailing by only one game. If the 76ers don't finish strong, there's a chance they might miss the playoffs. Nevertheless, confidence in the locker room remains high.
"We try not to look into the past, with the past however many games we haven't been doing well," said rookie forward Allen. "You know, just look toward the future."
Confidence won't be a problem for Collins. The challenge will be getting his players to buy in.
"I'm always confident, that's my life," he said. "Look at me, I'm 61 years old and in the NBA after 40 years. I'm a confident guy. The question is, can I breed that with our team? That's the key."