-Photos by Charles Hallman
PHILADELPHIA — I watched the Philadelphia 76ers last week play their last regular season contest and fail to clinch their first winning season since 2004-05. At the same time, the hometown Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t fail to clinch the NBA’s worst record for the second consecutive year.
Philadelphia is in the playoffs this week. Minnesota yet again is not.
76ers Coach Doug Collins is a coach of the year candidate — after a 3-13 start, the Sixers finished 38-28 and 41-41 overall. “No one picked us to be in the playoffs,” said Collins last Wednesday.
Conversely, the Wolves, who no one picked as playoff participants either, finished at 17-65 and closed out the campaign on a 15-game losing streak. This clearly has put two-year Minnesota Coach Kurt Rambis on the fired coach watch list.
“If given more time, they [the Wolves’ coaching staff] probably could turn it around,” believes Detroit Pistons television analyst Greg Kelser, who briefly talked to me prior to him working the Pistons-Sixers telecast. “I personally hope they can survive and maybe get another shot at it. But you know how this league is.”
This I do know — you either win with talent or pretend to without it.
I wasn’t there, so I didn’t see if Minnesota President David Kahn’s nose grew longer as he uttered to reporters last week, “This is a team on the come.” However, Kahn’s so-called “come” team left the building sometime around Groundhog Day.
“Some franchises, regardless of the players they bring in, just can’t seem to get themselves on the right track,” adds Kelser. “Minnesota is one of those teams. It’s real puzzling.”
If I have a criticism of Rambis, it’s that he seemed hell-bent to fit his Wolves players into his lauded “triangle” offense rather than fitting it to the players. The result was of the square pegs into round holes variety, with a two-season winning percentage of .192.
The numbers aren’t there for keeping Rambis around, admits Philadelphia Daily News Columnist John Smallwood.
Perhaps the Wolves need a “turnaround” type of coach as Collins, who by the way was available when Kahn hired Rambis two years ago. At every stop, Collins’ teams improve: plus-10 in his first year; plus-20 his second and in the conference finals in Chicago; an 18-game improvement his first year in Detroit; the same positive mark in Washington; and a plus-14 this year in Philly.
“He understands the younger player, the new breed of player today, which I think is very important,” says Smallwood. “Some guys come in and stick to what they have been doing 15-20 years ago. That doesn’t work or connect.”
Collins (top overall pick in the 1973 NBA Draft who played all eight pro seasons in Philadelphia) says that throughout his life, whether as a coach or a top television analyst for several seasons, he couldn’t do what he has done by himself. He uses Proverbs 3:5-6 as a life benchmark.
“It’s what I always lived my life by,” he says. “Anytime I ever had a huge decision to make in my life, I always pray to the Lord that He will open the door for me or let me know what door I should walk through. I always trusted Him with all my heart.”
Collins also credits the lasting impact on his life of the late Will Robinson, his college coach and the first Black coach in Division I. “I was a White kid from an all-White southern town in Illinois, and came to Illinois State [in the early 1970s] and fell in love with a 60-year-old Black man from Detroit. He taught me about unconditional love… hard work and effort.
“He taught me life lessons that I am so thankful for, and [that] I carry with me every day,” says Collins. “I hope that in some way I impart those on our players — more than just the strategy of basketball, but life skills.”
“He sold these guys,” says Smallwood of Collins’ masterful salesmanship in Philadelphia. “He’s a hell of a coach.”
Asked about Minnesota, Smallwood says, “I think their problem is more management, but the general manager is not going to fire himself.”
As Rambis deserve some blame for this year’s Wolves — who posted skids of 6+ games six times while winning two consecutive games just four times over the course of the season — I believe the problem goes much higher than Kahn to Wolves owner Glen Taylor.
The only Twin Cities pro-team owner listed among America’s richest, Taylor sells the team like a character in Glengarry Glen Ross while raising ticket prices as the team’s win-loss record continues to plummet.
Instead of firing Rambis, maybe the owner should pink-slip himself.
Minnesota fans “deserve better” is Smallwood’s opinion.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.