Commentary

In turning away from Cheeks, Stefanski hopes new face sparks Sixers

Updated: December 16, 2008, 10:57 AM ET
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Tony DiLeoJesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesSixers interim coach Tony DiLeo, center, wants to put Elton Brand in a better position to succeed.

PHILADELPHIA -- A somewhat embarrassed grin temporarily brightened the face of Ed Stefanski as he strode, wearily but victoriously, to the home locker room. Someone had called out, "There goes the genius," and Stefanski wasn't sure whether to take the remark with gratitude or a grain of salt.

It had been a long day for Stefanski. The Philadelphia 76ers' team president had begun his Saturday by firing coach Maurice Cheeks, replacing him with assistant general manager Tony DiLeo.

What's that? You've never heard of DiLeo?

You mean you weren't following the West German league back in the mid-1980s, when DiLeo last coached, guiding an outfit known as Saturn Cologne -- whose best U.S. player was St. Joe's product Bryan Warrick -- back when there was still a wall dividing East and West Berlin?

"I have a piece of that wall," DiLeo said afterward, feeling on top of his own recently partitioned world after getting a sustained 48 minutes of effort -- a missing quantity that Stefanski repeatedly cited as one of his main reasons for axing Cheeks -- in a 104-89 victory over the Washington Wizards on Saturday night.

After losses in eight of their previous 10 games -- a downturn marked by a lack of focus, concentration and effort, according to Stefanski -- the Sixers won easily for the first time in nearly a month behind season highs in points from Elton Brand (27), assists from Andre Miller (12) and rebounds from Samuel Dalembert (17) as well as 29 bench points from Thaddeus Young (15) and Lou Williams (14).

"We saw what kind of basketball we can play for 48 minutes, and hopefully we can build on this," DiLeo said. "We didn't have that many lulls in this game."

So ended a whirlwind day in the City of Brotherly Love, where DiLeo was welcomed with a chorus of boos as he was announced as the head coach during pregame introductions.

Some of that booing was a product of the fans' loyalty to Cheeks, the legendary former Sixers point guard who was rewarded with a contract extension in September after having his option picked up for the current season back in March, when Philadelphia was playing as well as any other team in the Eastern Conference except Boston. When they pushed the Detroit Pistons to six games in the first round of the playoffs, the Sixers set expectations high for this season.

The offseason signing of Brand was supposed to take Philadelphia to another level, but Stefanski decided things had headed irrevocably south Wednesday night when Cleveland came to town and beat the 76ers on the second night of a Cavs back-to-back. Stefanski went to team owner Ed Snider that night and said he was ready to make a change, and Friday night's 16-point loss at Cleveland was the final straw.

The bad news was delivered to Cheeks at 10 a.m. Then Stefanski telephoned each and every player to try to avoid having them learn the news through the media, and later in the day set about the task of defending a firing that, though it might seem justified by some, caught the locker room by surprise -- even with their 9-14 record (going into Saturday).

"I thought it might be the personnel, not the coach," Miller said, "but I knew something would happen because of the high expectations. I just didn't know it would be this fast."

Stefanski said he had seen a discernable drop-off in the quality of the team's play over the past 10 games. When the point was made to Stefanski that patience, as the old saying goes, is usually judged to be a virtue, he did not necessarily agree that impatience must therefore be a vice.

Impatience, he believed, was the one thing that could light a fire under the Sixers when nothing else was working.

"It was my decision only, and [ownership] supported it -- and that's why they brought me in here, to be in charge," Stefanski said. "And as I said, you have to make difficult decisions, maybe not popular ones, but a change of direction is what we needed."

Stefanski kept coming back to that concept when he wasn't using the term "regression" rather than the more politically correct "lack of progress," which he said at least two dozen times in explaining the move.

"I can't put my finger on exactly what's wrong, but maybe with a new voice, a new direction, we'll find out," Stefanski said. "The fans in Philadelphia don't want to use the word patience, they never have, and I won't use the word patience -- but I also won't jump into things quickly. I'm big on reviewing things, I'm big on plans and having all the facts in mind before making a decision.

"I'm not the kind of guy to just rush into it. If I was, I might have come in here last year and blown the whole thing up."

Instead, dynamite day came Saturday, and DiLeo and Stefanski left the building believing their franchise was one step closer to being as respectable as it was at the end of last season.

For this season, it's DiLeo's job to get them back there. And on Saturday, he succeeded for a night. Going forward, DiLeo wants the Sixers to run more off defensive stops, get Brand the ball in better position to score, and institute more movement on the strong side to deter double-teams when Brand has the ball.

Ultimately, though, it will be Stefanski's reputation that rises or falls most by the results produced by the former scout and assistant GM now occupying Cheeks' old seat -- a long way away and a long time removed from the last time DiLeo sat in a similar seat, back when the Berlin Wall was still standing.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.