MAURICE CHEEKS was never Ed Stefanski's guy.

Just about 10 days ago, the Sixers president/general manager talked about his struggling team by saying it needed to start consistently playing the style of basketball it was built to play.

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In five games after that comment, the Sixers went 1-4.

On Saturday, Stefanski fired Cheeks, replacing him with senior vice president and assistant general manager Tony DiLeo.

"I felt we were not progressing the way we wanted to progress," Stefanski said. "Decisions of this nature are never easy, and this was particularly difficult due to the great amount of respect I have for Maurice Cheeks.

"However, at this time, I felt that it is in the best interest of this team to make a change while there is still time to accomplish the goals we set forth for ourselves at the start of the season."

A simple enough explanation, and with the Sixers off to a 9-14 start before Cheeks' firing it's one that's hard to disagree with - especially with Stefanski committing about $180 million last summer to upgrade the team's roster.

Still, this decision is as much about the past as it is the future.

Cheeks was not the guy Stefanski picked to be his first head coach. He inherited Cheeks when he replaced former Sixers boss Billy King just around this time a year ago.

Usually when a new general manager is hired to change the direction of an organization, he has the opportunity to put in place the people he believes can best implement his philosophies.

But general manager changes normally happen during the offseason when the new guy has the time to evaluate what he has and which changes he wants to make before the start of the next campaign.

Stefanski was hired out of the New Jersey Nets organization when the Sixers were more than a quarter into the 2007-08 season.

He could have fired Cheeks right then, but that would have just further muddled the evaluation process.

And to Stefanski's credit, he also gave Cheeks the opportunity to show what he could do rather than detonate everything from the onset.

With the Sixers playing considerably better, Stefanski gave Cheeks a contract extension in February.

Part of the reason given was that Stefanski wanted Cheeks to be able to coach without the pressure of being a lame duck.

Still, the fact that the extension was just for 1 year was a clear indication that Cheeks would remain under evaluation.

It was fair to Cheeks, but it also gave Stefanski the comfort of knowing that if he didn't like what he saw during the 2008-09 season, he could remove Cheeks without much financial penalty.

The problem, so to speak, came when Cheeks, surprisingly, led the Sixers to the playoffs.

Stefanski was virtually obligated to reward Cheeks with another extension, and he did just before training camp on Sept. 9.

But again, it was only for one additional season, through 2009-10 - not an extraordinary commitment to a guy who had finished fourth in the coach of the year balloting.

The "out" was still there without taking a major financial hit.

Just by comparison, Stefanski gave DiLeo and director of player personnel Courtney Witte 3-year extensions in June.

"I knew of Tony and Courtney and respected them, but I had never worked with them," Stefanski said at the time. "I feel very comfortable with both of them."

While I believe Stefanski wanted Cheeks to succeed, I never believed he had the same level of comfort with his coach, and since he didn't hire him, perhaps he shouldn't have.

Although he knew the Sixers were going to go through an adjustment period with the addition of free agent Elton Brand, Stefanski was obviously disappointed with a number of key players still struggling and more than a quarter of the season gone.

While Stefanski will be the first to admit that the Sixers are not a completed project, he does like this mix of players and believes they should be performing better.

His continued references to wanting the Sixers to consistently play the style of basketball they were built to play were telling.

"Mo did everything he could possibly think to do," Stefanski said. "It just didn't happen. That's why we're trying to change the voice and the direction."

Cheeks was never Stefanski's guy.

Odds are that if Stefanski would have been hired before the start of last season, Cheeks would not have been his choice to be his first coach.

Because of circumstances,

Stefanski didn't have the opportunity to bring in his own coach when he was hired.

Not that Stefanski wanted Cheeks to fail, but firing him was the first step toward putting Stefanski in the situation he should have been in when he first took over the Sixers. *

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