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After firing, Stefanski now the target

Ed Stefanski talked about a "new voice" and a "new direction." So why did his explanation for firing 76ers coach Maurice Cheeks sound so much like the same-old, same-old?

Tony DiLeo is the Sixers' new coach. Maurice Cheeks was fired after the team started 9-14.
Tony DiLeo is the Sixers' new coach. Maurice Cheeks was fired after the team started 9-14.Read moreRON TARVER / Staff

Ed Stefanski talked about a "new voice" and a "new direction." So why did his explanation for firing 76ers coach Maurice Cheeks sound so much like the same-old, same-old?

Close your eyes and Stefanski could have been Billy King smooth-talking over the still-warm coaching corpse of Jim O'Brien. Or Randy Ayers. Or Chris Ford. Nothing changes except the names of the guy with the ax, the guy without the head, and the underachieving slugs in the locker room.

There is a chance that this will work, that Tony DiLeo will emerge from the organizational shadows and push the right buttons to fire up the Sixers' sputtering offense. But it was hard to be encouraged last night. It was hard to listen to Stefanski, now a year into his tenure as team president, and DiLeo and come away feeling that there's a plan here.

"I wish I knew exactly what was wrong," Stefanski said. "I can't put my finger on exactly what's wrong. That's why I feel a change in direction and a new voice ... we can find out."

But is he looking for changes in the X's and O's on the dry-board in the locker room? In selling the defense-first philosophy to the players? In the combinations of players on the floor in different situations? These are the things a head coach can do. Which weren't being done properly by Cheeks as the Sixers bumbled to a 9-14 record?

"I don't have the exact answer," Stefanski said with surprising frankness. "No one has it right now. People have got to know their roles and perform to the highest level. I think it's important to know your role and to do it out there."

At first glance, this looks like a case of the two top personnel guys - Stefanski from Penn, DiLeo from La Salle - convincing themselves that the head coach was mishandling the world-beating roster they'd assembled. It's a short step from there to believing they could do a better job.

"He knows the plan," Stefanski said, explaining the risky decision to make DiLeo his coach. "He knows exactly what we were thinking when we put the team together."

Translation: The team they put together is not the problem.

DiLeo, 53, hasn't been a head coach since a 10-year tenure in Europe that ended in 1990. It says something about the rust on that part of his resume that he coached the West German national team.

"It's something that just comes back to you," DiLeo said. "It's really about managing people. ... That's what I try to do, to delegate, give people roles."

Nobody wants to trash the outgoing coach, especially when it's someone as beloved here as Cheeks, the gentlemanly point guard on the 1983 championship team. You find clues in words such as roles. Stefanski and DiLeo both used it, and that's how you know where they thought Cheeks came up short.

The other side of the debate is that the players don't have the skills or the will to fulfill their roles. Playing defense has been optional in the NBA for generations. Playing it intensely, night after night, is a matter of attitude and desire.

In February, Cheeks received a contract extension from Stefanski for getting a young team to play aggressive defense, which led to an exciting fastbreak offense. Ten months later, Cheeks is gone because many of the same players aren't responding.

The biggest change in those 10 months was not in Cheeks. It was Stefanski's bold decision to sign free-agent forward Elton Brand. That move displaced either Thaddeus Young or Andre Iguodala and created an apparent chemistry problem with enigmatic center Samuel Dalembert.

The Sixers were inconsistent, lacking the personality they'd developed at the end of last season. Something was wrong. It is unlikely that Cheeks was that something, but it is the nature of his job that he took the hit here. The real money is invested in the players, and the real power is in the hands of the man who chooses those players.

With few exceptions, NBA coaches are expendable.

"We're in a result-oriented business," Stefanski said. "Our report card is in the paper every day."

Based on that cold logic, Stefanski's first year has been underwhelming. He extended Cheeks' contract twice in seven months and then fired him three months later. He spent $79 million on Brand, who still appears to be hampered by the injury that ended his 2007-08 season. He re-signed Iguodala, who disappeared in the playoffs and has been maddeningly inconsistent this season.

Stefanski has played the fire-the-coach card issued to every general manager. Time will tell whether he played it well, but he doesn't get another free pass. The Sixers spent years letting King change coaches with impunity. That can't happen again.

The target shifts now to Stefanski. It is, after all, a result-oriented business for him, too.