I DON'T KNOW what Ed Stefanski has in mind. I haven't been around him long enough to know exactly how he thinks in terms of coaches.

Everybody says he is high on Eddie Jordan, who is available.

Everybody says he is high on Lawrence Frank, who remains - tenuously - under contract to the New Jersey Nets.

I do know Stefanski well enough to believe he has at least a couple of names in his pocket in the event he needs one. Everyone in Stefanski's position has a couple, just in case.

The point is, the president/general manager needs somebody to coach the 76ers next season.

I say Tony DiLeo, preparing for Game 3 of the first-round playoff series with Orlando tonight, is as strong a choice as anyone, with one huge advantage: He has clearly earned the chance. And he did that well before the stunning Game 1 victory or the tenacious, if flawed, performance in Wednesday night's Game 2 loss.

DiLeo stepped in for the fired Maurice Cheeks after 24 games and finished 32-27. He won more games than any of the other seven replacement coaches in the NBA this season. Only Alvin Gentry, 18-13 with Phoenix, had a better percentage.

"He's come in and been patient with the players," said point guard Andre Miller, who will become a free agent July 1. "He understands the players because he's been around this team for a long time. He knows players' tendencies, what they can, what they can't do. He's been patient, and teaching, a little bit.

"Should he stay or not? I don't know how that works. He's stepped in and done a few things to get us over the hump this year. Not just him, but his assistants also. Sometimes coaches tend to get frustrated a lot. He's been patient; that's the main thing. He's worked with each player and offered advice for the team to get better."

Miller, apparently unaware of DiLeo's success coaching men and women 2 decades ago in what was then West Germany, added, "I don't know if he's coached before this, but it's turned our team around, him stepping in."

Miller made it seem that DiLeo's status could play a part in his own decision.

"I'm happy in my situation with the team," he said. "I like the team. I like the staff. They're personal. They show that they care about the players here. [DiLeo] being here will play a part - whether they keep him or bring somebody else in."

The interesting thing is how long DiLeo patiently waited before he even got the opportunity to coach this season. Were it not for a curious twist of fate, I'm told DiLeo was penciled in to take over in the midst of the 2004-05 season.

That was the one-and-done era of Jim O'Brien. And this is the way the story was told to me: Billy King, then the president/GM, had decided the Sixers had gone as far as they could go in a difficult relationship with O'Brien. They were scheduled to play the Los Angeles Lakers at home. King was prepared to relieve O'Brien of his duties after the game and replace him with DiLeo, the loyal, quiet, unassuming guy who had been an assistant coach, a scout, a personnel specialist and just about everything else you could think of in the front office.

But . . .

The Sixers beat the Lakers convincingly that day. The timing would have been awful.

The change never happened.

But King did replace O'Brien after the season and brought in Maurice Cheeks, who did a wonderful job rebuilding the lines of communication and somehow rising above some dreadful antics by Allen Iverson. Three seasons-plus later, Stefanski knew it was time to change again.

This time, it was DiLeo. Finally.

"I think his personality fits this team, but also our team fits his personality," Willie Green said. "We don't have any superstars. We have a lot of guys who love to play the game, like to be around each other and pretty much will do whatever the coach asks us to do. And we play hard every game. That makes it easier for a coach to coach a team."

DiLeo is anything but loud, anything but dramatic. But he is thorough. He tweaked the defense, refined the offense. He found his way through the forest created when Elton Brand went down for the season. He helped Thaddeus Young establish himself as a rising young talent. He carefully picked his spots with rookie Marreese Speights. He continually reminded everyone how important Samuel Dalembert was with his rebounding and shot-blocking. He placed a heavy load on Miller and Andre Iguodala, but not more than they could handle. Maybe it's me, but assistants Jim Lynam and John Loyer seem more animated on the bench, that there is more communication with DiLeo in the heat of the moment, that DiLeo welcomes the input, a sign that DiLeo is fully secure within himself.

"I'm not a yeller or screamer," DiLeo said. "If somebody makes a mistake, I like to correct it - maybe not in front of the whole team or in front of the whole arena. I believe in giving the players freedom. I respect the players, and I respect their input.

"We have Aaron McKie, who's responsible for our defense. We have John Loyer, who's responsible for our offense. We have Jimmy Lynam, who oversees the situation. I try to get input from everyone, [including] players, and make the best decision. I'm not an impulsive guy who'll make a decision just to make it. And I don't hold grudges."

When asked about a future in coaching, DiLeo regularly says he will sit down with Stefanski after the season. The mission seems clear: Find a young point guard to either get on-the-job training from Miller, or to step in and play. Then find a way to improve the overall three-point shooting; it did not develop from within as well as Stefanski might have hoped. Then incorporate Brand and Jason Smith back into the mix.

I don't know what Stefanski will say in that meeting, but I believe DiLeo will say he wants the job.

Irrespective of how this series with the Magic plays out, I believe he should get it. *

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