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As the NBA Finals draw near and the league wets its lips in anticipation of a Lakers–Celtics match up, Bulls fans can take solace in owning the first overall pick in June’s draft, and possibly hiring a new coach, TNT analyst and former Bulls coach Doug Collins. I say “possibly” not because there is still lingering speculation about whether Collins is the Bulls’ guy — Chicago GM John Paxson just won’t make it official until Collins is relieved of his on-air duties, which likely occurred last night as the Lakers wrapped up the West — but rather because plenty of Chicago fans may not be too excited to see Collins back on the team’s bench after a two-decade absence. But more on that later.

First, the good news: Chicago, who was pegged to draft ninth, milked its 1.7-percent chance at winning the top overall pick in the draft and ended up with the right to be second-guessed for the next decade if its pick is a pro flop.

I was shocked, to say the least, that the Bulls won the pick in the lottery. Certainly, the team played poorly enough in the regular season to deserve a ray of hope. But the lottery doesn’t quite work that way, which is why the Timberwolves, Heat, Sonics, Knicks, Bobcats, Bucks, Grizzlies and Clippers each had better odds of winning the top pick than Chicago. As with last season, when the Trailblazers and Sonics leapfrogged the more likely Celtics and Grizzlies to get the top two picks, Chicago has to feel especially blessed to end up on top. Blessed, or if you’re a cynical fan like me, wondering just how commish David Stern manages to yank so many puppet strings at once.

So, who to take, that was the question. It still is, kind of, but now the question is weighted down by another question: Does the hiring of Doug Collins make either candidate, standout freshman power forward Michael Beasley or at-times spectacular freshman point guard Derrick Rose, the odds-on favorite? To answer that, let’s consider this Collins fellow more thoroughly.

The reader feedback on the Sun-Times website is a mixed bag. See for yourself (spelling and grammar left intact, for reasons obvious):

Rita says: “collins is a buffoon. He couldnt win it all with all the talent that he had so, what makes you think that he can now!! Gawd, paxson was a good player BUT, he is an AWFUL GM!!!! He does NOT have a clue on what kind of coach can handle a team full of great talent!”

Curt from Momence adds: “I like the idea of another voice in the conversation regarding the #1 pick. As far as Collins being a good coach, we’ll sea! His analysis on TV seems thoughtful; and I’m a very intellingent person so I shuld no.”

Todd chimes in: “. . . I hope Avery Johnson is still available when we’re looking for ANOTHER head coach in a season or 2 or maybe D’Antoni will be so sick of the Knicks by then.”

Elmhurst’s Blogger Bill checks in: “The ‘MO’ of the NBA is to just keep recycling head coaches over and over again, but that doesn’t make Collins a bad hire. Collins likes a fun to watch up tempo game; that points to the Bulls now taking Rose with the #1 pick in the draft.”

Not so fast there, Bill. You see, as ESPN’s John Hollinger points out, Collins has traditionally employed a slow-as-molasses offensive game plan. Maybe his years as TV analyst during the Phoenix Suns’ Seven Seconds or Less revolution has changed his thinking, or maybe that’s just what he said for the cameras. Another factual tidbit: In his three seasons with the Bulls, three seasons with the Pistons and two seasons with the Wizards, only once did a Collins-coached point guard decisively lead his team in assists. The year, 1986–87. The player, John Paxson. His assists leaders were, typically, Hall of Fame talents like Michael Jordan and Grant Hill. Meanwhile, his point guards were blend-into-the-background role players like Pax, Lindsey Hunter, Chris Whitney and Tyronn Lue. So I wouldn’t rush to judgment that the new coach is going to automatically lust after the flashy hometown point guard, Rose.

As for whether Collins — sans ’80s perm — is the right person for the job, given his recent, stern comments about having no desire to get back into the coaching biz and pay the price in Tylenol . . . well, I for one don’t think the coach matters all that much at the NBA level, to be honest. Sure, Collins has a rep for being a quick-turnaround, get-the-players-hustling-and-
playing-D coach, but then again, so did Scott Skiles. Few coaches are going to overhaul a team’s offensive or defensive philosophies in a severe manner (save for, say, Mike D’Antoni). A team’s production on the court is largely a factor of the GM’s ability to assemble the right parts, and the players’ desire to execute on the court. Professional basketball coaches occasionally put out fires, call a brilliant play out of a timeout, offer a semblance of sincere motivation or settle on a rotation that actually makes some sense. But in the long run, it’s up to the players to produce. It’s about talent, duh.

So Doug Collins could be the answer. But so could Tom Thibodeau, Mark Jackson, Avery Johnson, Kurt Rambis or Dwane Casey. Mostly, the answer to the Bulls’ woes lies in the top overall pick, as well as Paxson’s ability to reconstruct an offensively-challenged, youthful roster that looks thin on long-range shooting, low-post scoring and leadership. If Pax screws this one up, then Rita and Todd are going to wish they were faulty prognosticators, ’cause the franchise just may be set back another decade.