Commentary

Woes on O were kiss of death for Cheeks

Updated: December 13, 2008, 11:15 PM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

Andre Iguodala and Elton BrandJesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesIguodala and Brand landed huge contracts in July but have yet to pay off for Philly.
Why can't they score?

Break everything down, and that is the essential question for this year's Philadelphia 76ers. A team that overcame its shaky half-court game by running opponents into the ground a season ago has suddenly become unable to score in any environment, and it cost coach Mo Cheeks his job.

It's not hard to figure out why Philly made the move. At 9-14, their season was slipping away, and despite the high-profile acquisition of Elton Brand, the Sixers were just 28th in offensive efficiency entering Saturday's game against Washington.

Cheeks' teams have a track record of finishing strong after slow starts, but he won't get the opportunity this time because things seemed to be getting worse rather than better. Philly had only two wins in its past 10 games, and one of them (an OT win in Chicago) was perhaps the worst game I've seen this season.

Additionally, making the move now gives the Sixers a chance to right the ship before the season is lost. Philly has a friendly four-game stretch coming up (Wizards-Bucks-Wizards-Pacers) before a brutal six-game holiday road trip.

Theoretically, that should give new coach Tony DiLeo -- named the interim coach after serving as assistant general manager for more than five years -- a chance to implement some changes and get a confidence-building win or two before the team hits the road.

Regardless of who is at the helm, he isn't going to succeed unless the Sixers score a few points. Philly's D remains stout, ranking eighth in defensive efficiency after finishing 10th a year ago, but the Sixers' putrid offense is costing them one game after another.

Part of the reason is Brand isn't in peak shape yet. His 14.75 player efficiency rating and 43.6 percent shooting have been attributed to rust after he missed nearly all of last season with an Achilles tendon injury, and the Sixers had better hope that's the only reason -- he's on the first year of a six-year, $80 million deal that will pay him until he's 34.

But to focus on Brand misses the bigger picture. No matter how he's playing, he's still a far more gifted offensive player than Reggie Evans or Jason Smith, the two players whose minutes he took.

The fact is, the Sixers have been far worse this year even when you take away Brand. Of Philly's top seven players, only point guard Andre Miller is providing a reasonable facsimile of what he produced a year ago. The others have been inconsistent at best, disastrous at worst.

Insider: Troubled Sixers
It's not just Elton Brand who's struggling. See which other Sixers John Hollinger sees afflicted with declining numbers across the board. Insider Insider

Read on, and the news gets more depressing: The Sixers compiled their slow start despite being as healthy as any team in basketball; their top seven players have missed only three games. What happens if there's an injury and they have to rely on the minimum-wage contingent (Kareem Rush, Theo Ratliff, Royal Ivey and Donyell Marshall) that fills out the end of their bench?

As a team, the Sixers appear to have two major problems: a lack of transition baskets and a lack of outside shooting. Philly hasn't run with the same conviction it did a year ago, perhaps because the team has leaned on the idea that Brand can bail them out in the half court. That was what made them a halfway decent offense last season despite wayward outside shooting and no post game.

Meanwhile, the half-court offense has been stifled by packed-in defenses, and the Sixers can't make them pay -- Philly is 29th in 3-pointers made and 28th in 3-point percentage. No wonder Brand is struggling: Teams can collapse on him with impunity and dare slashers like Iguodala, Williams and Young to beat them from outside.

Here's where DiLeo can have an impact with his personnel usage. In particular, I'd recommend two objectives, even if they compete somewhat: (1) playing small and (2) using rookie Marreese Speights more often.

Going small will allow the Sixers to run -- there's a big difference between Brand trailing the play as a 5 and having Brand try to get out with Miller and Iggy at the start of a transition. Philly can play Young at power forward (where he excelled a year ago), keep Iguodala at small forward, and alternate Green and Williams at the 2.

Playing Speights will also help. He's a big guy, but he can shoot, and he's played far better than Dalembert or Evans in the early going. When the Sixers use traditional lineups -- which they'll need to do when Young is out of the game -- he's an obvious choice to bring off the pine.

Beyond that, the next move on the chessboard may belong to Stefanski. He'll have to import a shooter who can prevent opponents from hanging back in zones all game. The original thought was that Brand's arrival could allow Young and Igoudala to play as the wings and that the team shooting would be decent enough to get by, but clearly that hasn't worked.

It's time for Plan B for the front office, part of which I'm guessing involves calling Kevin McHale every day and saying, "Are you ready to trade Mike Miller yet? No? OK, how about now? No? OK, how about now?"

And in a roundabout way, that's another reason to pull the trigger on the coaching changes sooner rather than later. If DiLeo can't get any more from this gang than Cheeks could, it's a clear sign for Stefanski that his roster is flawed enough to require drastic action at the February trade deadline, and he'll be able to reshuffle the deck with a clear conscience.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.

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