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The Only Question Was When

The way the 76ers were going, it was only a matter of time before they changed coaches.

The clues were all there. For as much time as I spend around the 76ers, I knew those clues rapidly accumulating. Not just the losses, although losing 8 of 10 games, including 5 straight at home, just added to the morass.

It had reached a point where it wasn't a question of whether Maurice Cheeks would be fired as the coach, it was simply a matter of when. There had been speculation in another publication--not one that regularly covers the team--that Cheeks was losing the locker-room. I hadn't seen that.

Before Friday night's game in Cleveland, I asked president/general manager Ed Stefanski whether he could share what he was thinking. He gave no indication that a change was imminent. He was sitting with senior VP/assistant GM Tony DiLeo at the time, and I suggested that DiLeo was Stefanski's Joe Biden, just a heartbeat away.

As it turned out, though, DiLeo was really a heartbeat away from becoming the Sixers coach for the remainder of the season. His tenure began tonight against the Washington Wizards. The timing was perfect for him, because it was a game the Sixers should win. And with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Wizards again as the following two opponents, the opportunity is there for DiLeo to get off to a strong start.

But, as I said, the clues kept piling up. As I was leaving the locker room after Friday night's post-game session with the players, assistant coach Jeff Ruland was coming back in. He looked as if his dog had just died, or as if somebody had just robbed his house. In truth, he didn't know Stefanski would be meeting with Cheeks this morning at Philadelphia College Of Osteopathic Medicine, or that Stefanski would be pulling the trigger. But, in retrospect, he had the same feeling I did.

It's so easy to say that this was all Cheeks' fault, but that's not the case. Stefanski is the one who invested $160 million in elton Brand and andre Iguodala, and another $25 million in Lou Williams. Stefanski is the one who revamped the bench, drafting Marreese Speights and signing Kareem Rush, Royal Ivey, Theo Ratliff and Donyell Marshall. Somehow, with all those moves, the Sixers somehow moved away from last season's singular strength, their ability to run, to create havoc at both ends in the open court.

I really believe Cheeks tried everything he knew to try. And to his credit, he never changed. He was as calm, as accessible, as cooperative after losses as he was after victories. I was a minute or so late for his pregame meeting with reporters in Cleveland. He laughed and told me I was late, but that he knew I had probably been talking to LeBron James. I hadn't been, but it was a great opening.

"LeBron said to say hi,'' I shot back.

We all laughed. Cheeks always found a way to laugh, to ease a difficult moment.

The trouble was, the moments were becoming more and more difficult, more and more frequent. Somewhere in there, the Sixers didn't address their inability to be effective in halfcourt sets. They added Rush and Marshall as guys who could make perimeter shots, then barely used them. They placed Brand in the post and viewed it as a strength, but didn't give him the spot-up snipers he needed to be able to thwart double-teams. The scrambling defense that was often underscored by Reggie Evans' passionate, animated pressing disappeared. Opponents could spread the floor and shoot threes all night, knowing the Sixers' defense was likely to be late.

''We have different faces, and we're all trying to adjust,'' Evans said. ''A lot of stuff changed. Hopefully, this (move) will get us back to the way we were. Tony sounds like we're going back to the way we played last year. I think that would be healthy for us.''

It's also too easy to lay a major chunk of blame at the feet of Samuel Dalembert, although that seems to be a popular approach. Dalembert has struggled mightily, particularly coming off a strong season. He has been as guilty as anyone in being indecisive and unsure. He's not afraid to say so, either.

"We have to look in the mirror and say 'This is what we want to do,''' Dalembert said. ''We all haven't been playing the way we're capable. I want to run. I'm more comfortable when we run. That opens things up for Elton. We have to take responsibility (for being able to play together).''

Andre Miller, who hasn't been close to the point guard he was last season, said DiLeo indicated they would be ''paying more attention to detail, kind of like a training camp, a lot of teaching . . . Everybody is impatient. I want to win. Whatever changes management makes, the players have to deal with it. We've got players who want to compete right away.''

DiLeo has had a major influence in scouting, draft ing and developing several of the players on the roster. He was a strong voice in the acquisition of several of them, either via trades or free agency. He knows more about them that possibly anyone else in the organization. He played fast-break basketball for Paul Westhead at La Salle University. He won championships and coaching awards in Germany.

He saw the same clues I saw, that you saw, that we all saw. And he probably saw even more of them. DiLeo and Stefanski have a vision  of how they want the Sixers to play. They hadn't been seeing it. It is now DiLeo's opportunity--his turn--to see whether they can do it.