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Two Cents On the Cheeks Firing

A Daily Babble Production

With all that goes on behind closed doors in sports so far as pregame preparation and locker room chemistry are concerned, it is hard enough for outside observers to assess the guys who actually play the games with as much accuracy as we would like.  Getting a good read on the impact of coaches is even tougher.

Let's consider that the disclaimer for the fact that I haven't been in the Philadelphia 76ers' locker room, and I'm no expert on what has gone on outside the lines and behind the scenes in the City of Brotherly Love.  Whether Mo Cheeks was doing a complete job as a coach thus far this season remains debatable.  But it does seem as though his firing was at the very least a bit rushed.

There is no doubt the 76ers have underachieved thus far this year, and the pressure to perform is understandably greater this season than it was a year ago.  The team naturally raised expectations last year by rolling to a 22-12 finish and taking the Pistons to six games in the first round of the playoffs.  Those expectations and the sense of urgency only rose when the Sixers committed $80 million apiece to Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala through 2013 and 2014 respectively.  More pressure to win means a quick trigger finger for the folks up top, and that is understandable.  The way of sports is that when teams start heading south, it tends to be easier to change the coach than the roster.  Understandable as well.

So Cheeks' firing isn't a shock.  But still, it seems fair to wonder if he could have had a bit more time.  First, if we're going to skewer coaches when their players aren't doing well, the inverse should be true as well.  Cheeks took an inexperienced team that was expected to be one of the worst in the Eastern Conference a season ago and helped it recover from an 18-30 start to not only make the playoffs but be competitive while there.  That alone probably could have bought him a bit more leeway than it did.

Next, consider the circumstances of this season.  The Sixers are still one of the league's better defensive teams.  A year ago, they were eighth in efficiency; this season, they sit at seventh.  The problem, of course, is at the other end of the floor, where the Sixers have dropped from 18th to 27th in offensive efficiency. 

While this is no doubt a problem, parts of it seem a bit much to blame on Cheeks.  Brand has not been himself offensively, but he is both still getting acclimated to a new system and group of teammates and coming off a season in which he only played only eight games after a major leg injury.  Resolving both of those problems takes one ingredient more than anything else: time.  The fact that Brand, a 73.7 percent free throw shooter for his NBA tenure, is shooting a career low 68.3 percent from the foul line is not his coach's fault.

The shooting issues are not unique to Brand.  The foul shooting and three-point accuracy across the board on this team have been putrid for the second year in a row.  The Sixers are 26th in basketball at 74.7 percent from the line, and it seems harsh to pin that on Cheeks.  This isn't high school basketball.  Coaches at this level aren't assigned to teach players the basics of the game.  That his players can't knock down their freebies is something they have to fix on their own.

Similarly, it likely didn't make it too easy for Cheeks to insert a new big man into the offensive system when his team couldn't shoot from the outside.  The Sixers shoot 30 percent from the three-point line, good for 29th in the league.  More than with the foul shooting, I'm willing to buy that some of the three-point issues should fall on the coach in that he needs to be stressing good floor spacing and doing his best to make sure that the looks his team gets are good ones.  But that said, the guys on his roster are largely fellows who haven't been good three-point shooters for their careers.  Point guard Andre Miller barely shoots 20 percent from deep for his career.  Willie Green is at 31.3 percent, and Andre Iguodala checks in at 32.4 percent.  Kareem Rush, brought in for his shooting touch, leads the pack, and he is a 36 percent perimeter shooter in his five-plus NBA seasons.

The fact that this team was just about as putrid from deep and the charity stripe last season makes that second half run to the playoffs all the more impressive.  It shouldn't come as a shock that players who don't shoot the ball well don't score a lot of points.  Yes, Cheeks as a coach should come under fire for the facts that the team's offensive sets haven't been great, and the decision-making on the floor has been poor all year.  The Sixers largely aren't getting good looks at the bucket, and they are turning the ball over on more than a quarter of their possessions, both indictments of Cheeks' job preparing his team to play.  Still, it likely looked worse than it was on Cheeks' behalf because he was saddled with players who habitually don't hit their shots.

Finally, it bears noting that the early-season schedule hasn't been all that kind to the Sixers.  Of the 23 games Cheeks coached this season, a total of six came against the Celtics, Cavaliers, Lakers and Magic.  Those would be four teams with a combined record of 80-15.  While the Sixers dropped a couple of games that they probably expected to win (at Minnesota, at Charlotte, home to Chicago and New Jersey), I'm not ready to hammer Cheeks for the fact that nearly half of his 14 losses came against the teams with the league's four best records this year.

None of this is to say that Maurice Cheeks is necessarily a world-beater as an NBA head coach.  But the man overachieved with this team a season ago, has a track record as one of the NBA's all-around good guys and was saddled this season with a group that couldn't shoot the ball and was still adjusting to its new star player while playing some tough opponents early on.  Seems like Ed Stefanski could have waited at least a bit longer to pull the trigger on this one.

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