- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The slumping Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday became the fifth NBA team to make a coaching change before Christmas this season, deciding they had to fire Maurice Cheeks despite extending his contract twice in the past year.
As reported by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith, citing sources close to the situation, Cheeks was informed of his dismissal Saturday morning after the Sixers suffered their eighth loss in 10 games Friday night at Cleveland and dropped to 9-14.
The move was officially announced by the Sixers later Saturday. Assistant general manager Tony DiLeo will replace Cheeks on an interim basis. Philadelphia defeated the Washington Wizards behind Elton Brand's season-high 27 points on Saturday night in DiLeo's first game.
The move caught the Sixers by surprise.
"They want to win and win now," Brand told The Associated Press.
Team president and GM Ed Stefanski said he met with Cheeks, describing the former 76ers star as a "gentleman throughout" and a "class act."
"I felt we were not progressing the way we had wanted to progress," Stefanski said. "I didn't feel on the floor we were executing the philosophy we wanted to have as Sixers basketball."
NBA coaching sources told ESPN.com the Sixers were determined to give Cheeks every chance to halt Philadelphia's slide after picking up his option for this season in February, extending his contract again in September and spending big money in the offseason to sign Brand away from the Los Angeles Clippers and re-sign Andre Iguodala.
But the Sixers appeared to be sliding further and further away from the high expectations generated by Brand's arrival, falling into their current 3-8 funk after a brief uptick in November that nudged their record to 7-6.
DiLeo has spent 19 seasons with the 76ers. He was promoted to senior vice president/assistant general manager in 2003. His son, T.J. DiLeo, is a guard for Temple and said after the Owls' 88-72 win over No. 8 Tennessee that he was excited his father had a chance to coach.
"I think it's unfortunate for Mo, he's a great coach, but my dad is ready to step in," DiLeo said. "This caught us by surprise. We had no idea."
DiLeo said he hadn't talked to his father yet but noticed one missed call from him on his cell phone.
Sources said that the firing happened now because removing Cheeks -- whose contract is guaranteed through next season -- was the easiest way for management to shake things up.
"I knew something would happen because of the high expectations, but I didn't think it would happen that fast," Brand told The Associated Press.
After Friday's 88-72 road loss to the Cavaliers, Iguodala provided a worrying glimpse of the team's psyche, telling reporters: "We didn't have the mental toughness down the stretch. We kind of gave in. I'm not saying that as a team we didn't play hard, but we didn't execute and we didn't get the stops we needed."
Sources close to the situation say that Stefanski, while planning for DiLeo to coach the team for the rest of the season, will explore the possibility of a reunion with Eddie Jordan, who was fired by the Wizards on Nov. 24 after a 1-10 start.
It remains to be seen whether Stefanski -- who worked with Jordan in New Jersey -- can hold off until after the season to hire the full-time replacement for Cheeks he wants most, or whether he will decide he has to move quickly in spite of the additional expense.
Cheeks is a Sixers legend who started at guard for the club's championship team in the 1982-83 season and posted a 122-147 record in three-plus seasons as coach in his return to Philadelphia. A second-half surge last season was enough to take the Sixers into the playoffs with a mark of 40-42, but the bar had been raised significantly after Philly extended Detroit to six games in the first round and then signed Brand.
The Sixers, though, have struggled to integrate Brand offensively with the holdovers from last season who thrived in a frenetic, up-tempo system Cheeks employed to mitigate Philadelphia's lack of outside shooting.
Sources say Cheeks had been urged by his bosses to keep trying to push the ball, on the premise that Brand, as a former All-Star, could adjust to anything and eventually would find his niche. But the Sixers have clearly lacked cohesion at both ends. Brand also missed two games recently with a hamstring injury.
Other coaches fired this season, in addition to Cheeks and Jordan, have been Oklahoma City's P.J. Carlesimo on Nov. 22 with a record of 1-12; Toronto's Sam Mitchell on Dec. 3 with a record of 8-9; and Minnesota's Randy Wittman on Monday with the Wolves at 4-15.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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