For years, Doug Collins was regarded as one of the brightest coaching minds in the NBA. Now, Collins’ imparts his estimable basketball wisdom on millions of viewers through his role as a panelist on ABC’s “NBA Countdown” studio show and as a game analyst for ESPN.

Collins, a star on the U.S. Olympic team in 1972 out of Illinois State, was chosen by Philadelphia with the No. 1 pick in the 1973 NBA draft. After a standout nine-year career — all with the 76ers — Collins coached 11 seasons with Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Philadelphia with stints in the broadcast booth in between.

Collins, 62, will be calling Wednesday’s Trail Blazers-Spurs game with play-by-play voice Dave Pasch at San Antonio. Collins will also appear on NBA Countdown at noon Sunday. The personable broadcaster took time from his schedule for a question-and-answer session with the Portland Tribune.

Portland Tribune: What are your thoughts on the Blazers as they hit the stretch run of the regular season?

Collins: I worked their game at New York (a 94-90 Portland win on Feb. 5) during a period of time when they were struggling a little bit. My point through all of that: Step back. Most of the preseason prognostications had them maybe slipping into the seventh or eighth spot in the West and being a playoff team after losing 13 straight games to end last season. They got off to this great start while playing a little bit of a soft schedule early. Then they hit a lull, when some things were not going as well as they hoped.

But what they’ve done this season is impressive. They’re one of the top four or five teams in the West. Terry (Stotts) has done an excellent job managing that group. They have a very good starting five, one of the best in the league. They’ve added bench. Mo Williams is a good, veteran piece, and I’ve always been a Dorell Wright guy. Their bench still needs some help, though. It’s better than last year, but they still need an active wing with some defensive skills and another big with some experience.

Tribune: What about the contributions of Robin Lopez?

Collins: I’ve always liked Robin. He should be in the conversation for the NBA’s most improved player award for what he has brought to that team. Most importantly, he has lifted so much off the shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge. JJ Hickson is a good player, but last year with JJ at center they had to play small, and there were times when LaMarcus had to guard centers. Now they have some size. At Stanford, Robin was known as the defender and (twin Brook) the offensive player, but I’ve always felt Robin could offer offense, too. (Lopez) is a good free throw shooter, has always been a very good short-range jump shooter on the baseline. I like his toughness, his competitiveness. He takes hard fouls. He does the dirty work. He brings a dimension to the Blazers they didn’t have.

Tribune: Another player you have spoken highly of is Nicolas Batum.

Collins: Batum is the wild card for Portland. When that guy is aggressive, they’re hard to beat. When he has three straight games of 15-plus rebounds (as Batum did last week), that’s a good sign. Terry used him for a while guarding point guards. It’ll be interesting to see if he uses him on Tony Parker Wednesday night. When Batum gives the Blazers that third guy (alongside Aldridge and Damian Lillard), he makes them a totally different team.

Sometimes, he allows himself to drift. He could put his fingerprints on every game with his defense, his rebounding, his penetrating to the basket, his shooting 3-point shots. I’m a big Batum fan.

Tribune: Is Portland a veritable contender to get out of the West and to the NBA finals?

Collins: When we started the season, I listed six top teams in the West, and Portland wasn’t one of those teams. It was Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston, Memphis, the (Los Angeles) Clippers and Golden State.

Portland is on that list now, of course. The thing about the West this year is that every team is flawed. It’s going to be, which one of those teams is going to be playing to its strengths, be healthy and in a groove when the playoffs hit?

Tribune: So ... is Portland a veritable contender to get out of the West?

Collins: (The Blazers) are playing better defense, rebounding well. I really think it’s a matter of if they can get some help off that bench.

The one thing I worry about is both of their backup guards (Williams, CJ McCollum) are small, and Lillard is small. And they don’t have veteran back-up bigs who could give them important minutes in the playoffs. Taking nothing away from (Joel) Freeland or Meyers Leonard, they’re still missing one big guy on that front line, and that will hurt them.

Tribune: This group collectively has no playoff experience, and individually very little. Can a team be successful on its maiden voyage to the playoffs, or does it need to be there first to get that experience for the next time?

Collins: You can grow up quickly. The great thing is, the Blazers have two stars in Aldridge and Lillard. Any time you have players like that, you have a chance.

Tribune: How do you handicap the West playoff race?

Collins: For my power rankings, I use three things — road record and scoring and field-goal percentage differential. Also, do you have a star who can go on the road and win back the homecourt when you lose it? Look what LeBron (James) did on the road when (the Heat) had to win the first year they won a championship.

That said, when I look at the West, it’s a crap shoot. The fifth seed could wind up with a better record and homecourt advantage over the fourth seed. But if I had to pick one team, it would be San Antonio.

Tribune: Why?

Collins: The Spurs have been amazing to me. Early in the year, they couldn’t beat any of the elite teams. They had a good overall record but were 1-11 against the top teams. They’ve had some injuries. Gregg (Popovich) kept saying, “Let me get my entire roster together.” I did a game of theirs right before they left on their nine-game “rodeo” road trip. (Tony) Parker was banged up, Tim Duncan, (Manu) Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard were all out. Then they go out and win six games on that trip, and Patty Mills becomes Pistol Pete Maravich.

Against Portland, (the Blazers) put Batum on (Patty) Mills, so (Marco) Belinelli hits a 3 to beat them.

Everyone says (the Spurs) are too old, too beat up, too heartbroken over what happened to them in the finals last year. You look up and it’s like they’re Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids — they won’t go away.

I gave my Captain Phillips Award to Gregg Popovich. He’s not going to let anybody take his ship. They’re starting to make that push like they always do.

Tribuner: Any other teams in the mix?

Collins: Oklahoma City, of course. (Russell) Westbrook was out for a while and (the Thunder) played really good. Russell comes back, they lose three in a row. Now they’re getting acclimated again to him, but (Thabo) Sefalosha and (Kendrick) Perkins have been out and their defense has slipped recently. Now they have to get Caron Butler in the mix, so they’ll go through an adjustment period.

The Clippers are doing that, too, after picking up Danny Granger and Glen Davis. Blake Griffin was brilliant through the stretch Chris Paul was out. Blake grew tremendously as a player and took a huge step up in his play. I think you have to seriously look at Houston and Portland, too. As I said, health and building momentum going into the playoffs will be key.

Tribune: What about in the East?

There are five teams — Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Toronto and Washington. The rest don’t have any chance of winning a playoff series. If Washington is the fifth seed and the Bulls are No. 4, it would be a good series. The Wizards have caused Chicago all kinds of problems this season with their speed and 3-point shooting, but Nene would have to be back. Toronto won’t get past the second round, I don’t think.

It’s really just Miami and Indiana, though if Chicago and Indy were to play in the second round, it could be one of those grind-it-out series. They’re mirror images of each other.

Tribune: What do you think of the Pacers?

Collins: They are going through a little malaise. From moment one, they have been full-bore saying they want the best record in the East so they can get game 7 (of the Eastern Conference finals) in their building. They have not played well recently. Their defensive numbers have slipped. Paul George’s efficiency has gone down. Lance Stephenson has not played as well since the All-Star break. Now they’ve added Evan Turner to the mix, and they have get him into the scheme of things. Is Andrew Bynum going to be a factor? I don’t know. But the Pacers have to take these next 20 games to get their mojo back.

Their calling card is defense. When teams struggle to score, I worry about them come playoff time. If they’re holding them to 90 points a game, it’s not as big a problem. Over the last nine games, they’re giving up almost 100 points a game. That becomes a problem.

Tribune: So Miami is your favorite out of the East?

Collins: The Heat are making their push, but the concern with them is with Dwyane Wade. Is he going to be healthy the entire playoffs? They’ve done a great job managing his time, but that puts an extra load on LeBron. It’s about matchups with Miami. The Pacers hope their power lineup can beat Miami playing small ball, with Shane Battier having to play David West. Or can Miami play “Bird Man” (Chris Andersen) and Chris Bosh together for significant portions of time?

Tribune: Do you miss coaching?

Collins: I don’t. Coaching is a very lonely profession. You’re so hard on yourself. “What could I have done to get that win? What could I have done differently?” Your mind never shuts off. You’re trying to get players better. You’re trying to win games. There are so many things you have to deal with.

I loved coaching, the opportunity to coach in the NBA, to do it for 11 years with four incredible franchises. The neat thing for me is when I’m in Phoenix, I go to Arizona State and watch practice and watch video with coach (Herb) Sendek. He’s my buddy. We talk. When I’m at Northwestern (where son Chris Collins is head coach), I watch their practices and I sit in the office and talk to Chris. I can get my little moments like that.

Tribune: Your four-year deal with ABC and ESPN calls for you to work with Sage Steele, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons on the “NBA Countdown” show, plus do an assortment of games as an analyst. How has that been for you?

Collins: I’ve enjoyed it. I see things through the eyes of a coach and a player analytically. I’ve never been one to base who I am with a lot of opinions, but it’s been fun for me learning that side of it. Bill is a lightning rod in a lot of ways, but we’ve become great friends. He’s a brilliant writer, a brilliant mind. I love to talk with him. Getting to know Jalen has been one of the treats in my life. People who think they know him from his “Fab Five” days and whatever they think Jalen is ... he has become a dear friend, one of the best “teammates” I’ve ever had. And Sage has become a great host. She’s grown into that role with us. It’s been fun.

The good part of it is, I get enough games, too, where I have a good variety of things to do. I’ll be working the NBA draft and probably the world championships in Spain, too. It's been a good time for me, it really has.

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