ONE OF THE dilemmas of being a pro beat reporter is trying to walk a fine line between being seen as judging the hometown team too harshly and being viewed as little more than a hometown writer.

That's why, when I wrote last week that, at least at that point, I didn't have room on a three-man ballot for the 76ers' Maurice Cheeks in the Coach of the Year voting and Sixers chairman Ed Snider insisted Cheeks was unquestionably Coach of the Year, I decided to throw out a lifeline.

And, please, I say unabashedly that Cheeks has done a marvelous job. The case for Cheeks includes a victory total that will exceed even the wildest expectations from a team that was predicted to finish dead last in the Eastern Conference, not having a single All-Star on the roster, having just three players who have ever been past the first round of the playoffs, adjusting to an in-season change of chief basketball executives, and starting the season as a lame duck before getting a 1-year extension.

I understand Snider's loyalty to his team, but if the feeling's that strong it makes me wonder whether the coach might be in line for an additional extension.

I feel no need to vote a specific way just because others might, but I also began to wonder what others in my position were thinking. Via independent requests and a weekly conference hookup with colleagues all over the NBA, I assembled 22 ballots. This is hardly scientific and might have nothing to do with the actual voting that is done by a committee with an April 17 deadline.

What came back was a list of eight different names, with five getting at least one first-place vote. New Orleans' Byron Scott was the runaway winner, with 14 first-place votes and 89 points. Houston's Rick Adelman was second with 31 points. Cheeks was third with 29. Adelman got three first-place votes. Cheeks got two.

I asked Cheeks yesterday who he would vote for if he had a ballot. He answered as graciously as I knew he would. And he did it without ever mentioning another coach's name.

"Obviously, New Orleans has been very good,'' he said. "Any time you win 22 games in a row [as Houston did], that's very, very good. All the Western teams have been very good, Phoenix taking in [Shaquille O'Neal] . Anybody can win and it would be OK. It's almost like making the All-Star Game; there's always someone left out that deserves to be there.''

I can live with that. I hope Snider can.

Rumorville

Multiple sources say that one team already has asked for permission to speak with Sixers executive VP Larry Brown. One of those sources says the team is in the Eastern Conference.

Funny thing is, at least for now all the teams in East have coaches.

Stretch time

Maurice Cheeks, hit hard by flulike symptoms, left the bench with about 10 minutes remaining in Wednesday night's victory over the Detroit Pistons, but he knew he had to be at practice yesterday because he had arranged for the players to go through a session with Carol Berringer of Pilates & More in Wayne.

"I do a little bit of it myself, just a little,'' Cheeks said, his voice rough and hoarse. "I wanted to change it up a little bit, just to give them something a little different, see what they thought of it later on.''

Andre Iguodala said he has done pilates in the past, but, "I was sweating. I forgot. I was hurting. It's hard. It helps us, just to do something different. It's kind of like we're lifting [weights] anyway. Guys got a chance to chill out and relax.''

Speaking up

Andre Miller doesn't say much in the privacy of team meetings and huddles, but about 20 minutes before Wednesday night's game, he said, "We need these games. We need all of them. Let's be ready to play.''

"For him to say that, I think guys really kind of got it,'' Andre Iguodala said. "I think guys kind of turned on the switch.''

Iguodala said Miller spoke in "a stern voice,'' which was "kind of shocking. But once he said it, I was like, 'All right, let's go.' ''

Too close to call

With four games to go, the Sixers are holding the No. 6 seed in the East, a game behind No. 5 Washington, three games behind No. 4 Cleveland, a game up on No. 7 Toronto. The Pacers come in tonight at 34-44, hanging by a thread, two games behind No. 8 Atlanta.

Cash or credit

When the Miami Heat recently included some of its injured players to take telephone calls from people interested in season tickets for 2008-09, Shawn Marion closed a deal for a package of $10 seats, but didn't try to convince the caller to upgrade. "It's a recession, man; we're in a recession right now,'' he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Words to live by

*

Indiana's

Jermaine O'Neal,

a six-time All-Star, insisting he can get back to that level: "I don't feel I have to prove anything to my doubters. I feel I need to prove it to myself, that I can get back and dominate once again. At 29, I'm not ready to give that up.''

* Orlando general manager Otis Smith, hearing that Shaquille O'Neal wanted to someday assume that position with the Magic: "I thought he wanted to be the sheriff.'' *

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