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Timing of Cheeks' firing a head-scratcher

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Dec 13 2008 5:29PM

This one was a surprise.

Not because Mo Cheeks was long for the job with the Philadelphia 76ers. Like all coaches not in the upper stratosphere of the coaching hierarchy -- your Phil Jacksons and Gregg Popoviches -- he was only as good as his last 10-game stretch, only as secure as how well his star was playing. But the 76ers, while underachieving at 9-14 when Cheeks was fired Saturday morning, were not an embarassment when they went on the court, not a disjointed bunch that clearly was no longer listening to or playing for its coach.

This wasn't P.J. Carlesimo (Oklahoma City) or Eddie Jordan (Washington), whose team's putrid won-loss records sank any chance they had of survival.

This wasn't Sam Mitchell (Toronto), whose differences of opinion with his general manager about his team's personnel were too big to overcome.

This wasn't Randy Wittman (Minnesota), whose fan base was staying away in droves as the paying public grew indifferent to the on-court product.

The timing of this move by team president and general manager Ed Stefanski was a head-scratcher.

"It's not 100 percent on the coach," a source with knowledge of the 76ers' thinking said Saturday afternoon. "But at the same time, we didn't seem to have a plan."

Stefanski named assistant general manager Tony DiLeo coach for the rest of the season. DiLeo has a good reputation as a coach, spending time over the last two decades on the Sixers' bench as an assistant and in Europe as a head coach. But unless circumstances change dramatically, Jordan -- who became close with Stefanski while both were in New Jersey earlier this decade -- will be the odds-on favorite to get the job permanantly. Many league execs still think quite highly of Jordan, and none of the players who matter in Washington threw Jordan under the bus after he was fired.

Cheeks' coaching moves have frequently been criticized over the years, both in Philadelphia and in Portland. But he lost his job this time not only because of Xs and Os, but because so many of the 76ers' players that blossomed under him last season, including center Sam Dalembert, forward Andre Iguodala and guard Lou Williams, struggled to get going this season. And the moves Cheeks made, like benching second-year forward Thaddeus Young and elevating guard Willie Green, haven't produced enough dividends.

"Ed just wasn't seeing any progress," the source said, and Stefanski expected more from a team that had signed free agent Elton Brand to an $82 million deal and re-signed core players Iguodala and Williams for $80 million and $25 million, respectively.

"We weren't progressing at the rate [Stefanski] thought we should, and he thought it was time for a move," the source said.

Yet Stefanski can't escape criticism, either. Bringing Brand in was the signing coup of the NBA offseason, to be sure. But in doing that, Stefanski changed the team's footprint.

The Sixers are still a very good transition team. But when the game slows down, having to cater to Brand leaves the lane clogged. Last season, Iguodala, Young and Williams had driving room when Philly ran its halfcourt sets, and Dalembert showed occasional decent low-post play. But now, Brand is the man in the paint, forcing everyone else out on the perimeter. Left to fend for himself on the weakside, Dalembert's numbers have plummeted, and Williams has just begun to play well.

Brand is recovered from the Achilles' injury that kept him out of all but eight games last season with the Clippers, but he's been slowed by a bad hamstring, and his offensive numbers (15.9 points, a career-low .436 from the floor) have been unspectactular. No matter what the stats say, Philly looks and plays slower this season.

And Stefanski didn't get a big-time shooter who could stretch the court and take pressure off of Brand inside. Veterans Donyell Marshall and Kareem Rush, signed later in the summer by Philly, don't strike much fear into opposing teams. The result is Philly's 93.3 scoring average, 28th in the league (only Charlotte and Oklahoma City have scored 100 points fewer times than Philadelphia's six), and .314 percentage behind the three-point line, 26th in the league.

"Everybody zones them," an Eastern Conference executive said Saturday.

The Sixers had just scored one of their more impressive victories eight days ago, rallying from a double-digit deficit in the second half to win on the road at Detroit. True, they had bad losses early to the Bobcats and Timberwolves, and lost a home-and-home to the Cavaliers on Wednesday and Friday. But last we checked, Cleveland was 20-3, owner of an 11-game win streak and the only remaining undefeated team at home this season. The Cavs are rolling, and losing to them is no embarassment. (Another league source with knowledge of the team's thinking said Saturday that the Cleveland losses played no role in Cheeks's firing.)

Cheeks received his second one-year contract extension in less than a year last September, taking him through the 2009-10 season. While Stefanski didn't hire Cheeks (that was former president Billy King, whom Stefanski replaced early last season), Stefanski and Cheeks had quickly established a solid, working relationship with one another.

Cheeks quickly acquiesced last year when Stefanski asked him to give more time to the team's younger players, getting Young and young vets Rodney Carney and Williams bigger minutes. The transition transformed the team, as the 76ers went on a 19-7 run last spring, turning opponents over and becoming deadly in transition. They rode their hot streak into the playoffs, where they stretched Detroit to six games before succumbing in the first round.

They weren't a finished product, though, and it was no secret that Brand was Stefanski's target, just as he'd been King's ultimate target. After a brief dalliance with Atlanta free agent Josh Smith, So Stefanski cleared as much cap room as possible, sending Carney and center Calvin Booth to Minnesota, and then struck, getting Brand to spurn his former team, the Clippers, as well as the Warriors, for the Sixers' $80 million offer--the "Philly Max," as Brand later called it. After keeping Iguodala and Williams, all the heat was on Cheeks.

Saturday, he became the latest coach--one-sixth of the league's head men already gone in little more than five weeks--to succumb to the pyre.

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