This series follows management’s head coaching missteps that have inevitably cost the Wizards adequate franchise development. Next up...
With the (forced) resignation of Leonard Hamilton in April 2001, then President of Basketball Operations Michael Jordan would have a second opportunity to choose a head coach that would guide his team to success. That selection would be Doug Collins, who when hired by the Wizards, had been out of coaching since being fired by the Detroit Pistons in April 1998.
Collins would be offered a four-year contract by the Wizards.
Collins was hand-picked by Jordan primarily because of their previous experience. Collins began his head coaching career with the Bulls in 1986, where he’d have a successful run with the team, making several playoff appearances, including an appearance in the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals.
Collins’s rosters during his tenure as Wizards head coach were largely the same as those from previous seasons, lacking balance and overall sustained production. One key difference, however, was the presence of Jordan, who’d stepped down from his front office role to take to the court once again. During the 2001 – 2002 season, Jordan would lead the Wizards in scoring with 22.9 points per game, followed closely by budding superstar Richard Hamilton, who averaged 20.0 points per game. In the front court, however, the Wizards would continue to struggle, with its most efficient player being Christian Laettner, who posted a meager 7.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds per game.
On the other side of the ball, the Wizards would show their sharpest improvement, holding their opponents to 94.3 points per game – their best average since the 1993 – 1994 season. Rookie Brendan Haywood averaged a very solid 1.5 blocks per game, and fourth year player Jahidi White averaged 1.1 blocks per game. The Wizards’ big men, too, while severely offensively challenged, would prove to have some utility on the rebounding end.
During the 2002 – 2003 season, the Wizards would continue to enjoy success, ranking 10th overall in opponents’ points per game. Brendan Haywood continued to anchor the paint and continue to develop into a solid overall player, albeit in very limited minutes. Second year player, Kwame Brown, too, would show some promise, averaging 1.1 blocks per game and 5.3 rebounds per game.
The Wizards’ defensive turnaround can be attributed to Collins’s historical coaching philosophy and his penchant for getting the most out of his rosters. In addition, Collins had the benefit of several veterans on his team during the 2002-2003 season, who while limited offensively, were able to dispense valuable instruction on the team’s young players. These veterans included Charles Oakley and Bryon Russell, who brought a combined 26 years of experience to the roster.
Regarding roster development, Collins’s time as head coach can be viewed with very mixed opinions. Neck-deep in doldrums following the failed Gar Heard and Leonard Hamilton coaching stints, the city of Washington was desperate to find some excitement in what was essentially a dead franchise. That uplift would come in the form of arguably the best player in NBA history (albeit 38 years old at the time) joining the roster. The city was abuzz, too, at the prospect of Kwame Brown, the team’s number 1 overall selection in the 2001 draft, becoming perhaps the franchise’s building block for the future. For the first time in the team’s recent history, the Wizards sold out each home game following Jordan’s comeback announcement.
Hopes were dashed, however, when several plans did not round into shape. Kwame Brown would struggle to develop his offensive game, averaging 4.5 and 7.4 points per game over his first two seasons. Off the court, the local media publicized Brown’s struggles adapting to adult life, as well as his clashes with Jordan, who verbally lambasted Brown due to his lack of toughness and aptitude. One can only surmise the impact of having a player of Jordan’s stature berate a player just out of high school. Collins, in this context, was likely viewed as a mere an extension of Jordan.
Richard Hamilton, another Wizards core young player, would vanish from the team’s plans when he was traded before the start of the 2001 – 2002 season. Hamilton was shipped to Detroit as the center of a six player deal, for which the Wizards would receive in return from the Pistons Jerry Stackhouse, Brian Cardinal, and Ratko Varda. It would become yet another “youth for age” transaction for which the franchise had become infamous.
Collins was fired by the Wizards in May 2003, less than one month after Wizards owner Abe Pollin relieved Michael Jordan of his duties in a watershed moment for the team. The termination did not come as a surprise to Collins, as he expected to be eradicated to officially mark the end of Jordan’s tenure.
During the 2001 – 2002 season, the Wizards under Collins were 21st in points per game and 11th in points allowed per game. During the 2002 – 2003 season, the team was 24th in points per game and 10th in points allowed per game.