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Looking Back On The Cheeks Era

This blog has now been in existence for a little over two years. In fact, it was two years exactly on December 11th. In that time, the Sixers franchise has undergone a couple of major transformations, more transformations than most teams go through in a decade.

Allen Iverson was shipped out of town, followed shortly thereafter by Chris Webber. Billy King was shown the door the following season and things were shaken up again when new GM Ed Stefanski cleared enough cap space to sign Elton Brand. Truth be told, since I started this blogs, things have gotten better and better for this franchise. The upward trend lasted right up to opening night of this season, the season that was supposed to be the next step toward a championship.

Throughout these seasons, my feelings about Mo as head coach have run the spectrum. After the jump we'll follow the timeline of Mo's career, the ups, the downs and the bitter end.

Before we get started, I want to make it clear that we aren't talking about Mo the player, nor Mo the assistant coach. He was part of the last championship team the Sixers had in 1983, and he was a big part of it. He was also an assistant coach for Larry Brown during the Sixers' miracle run to the 2001 finals. Mo has given a whole lot to this franchise, that should never be forgotten. We're strictly talking about his three-plus year run as the team's head coach and it shouldn't take anything away from what he accomplished before taking over.


Mo came back home to Philly after a little over three seasons as Portland's head coach. I always thought the plan was for Mo to take the reigns directly from Larry Brown, but the timing didn't work out.

Mo came in as Allen Iverson's hand-picked head coach. The Sixers had traded for Chris Webber during the previous season, the roster was filled out by a young Andre Iguodala, Kyle Korver, John Salmons and Samuel Dalembert. That team was clearly Iverson's team, with Webber as the assistant.

At the time, I wasn't impressed with Mo. Webber and Iverson dominated all the shots, they ran zero offensive sets and played even less defense. Guys like Korver and Iguodala had to scrap to get their touches and the teams sole focus seemed to be getting Iverson and Webber their numbers.

Iverson never came out of games, which really wasn't anything new, but the development of the younger players was non-existant. I think I gave Mo a little bit of a pass because he walked inot a hornets' nest. The Webber/Iverson combo was doomed from the start and Mo never had a chance with that roster. The fact that he was seemingly held hostage by Iverson didn't help matters, but the coach has to be able to get through to his players on some level.

The biggest sin, as far as I was concerned, was the lack of development by the young guys. Chris Webber took 19 shots/game and shot 43% from the field. Webber took more shots than Iguodala and Korver combined. That's got to be on the coach.

The wheels really came off at the end of the season when both Webber and Iverson skipped fan appreciation night. They were disciplined and it seemed like Iverson had played his last game in a Sixers uniform when the season came to an end. That wasn't the case, but I truly believe he burned his last bridge that night. Unfortunately, it seemed like the discipline came down from the front office. From over Mo's head.

Still, it was a homecoming, so the Mo got some slack. I think he deserved it, at that point.

Team Stats:
  • Record: 38-44
  • Points Scored: 99.4/game
  • Points Allowed: 101.3/game
  • Attendance: 677,248 (21st of 30 in the league)


Iverson's tenure in Philadelphia lasted exactly 17 games into the season. In the fifteenth game, at Chicago I believe, Iverson quit on his team. This was the one and only time I think he came to the arena and didn't give everything he had to his team. There were reports that his wife had filed for divorce earlier that day, but still, what I saw on the court was inexcusable. I believe it was the last straw for Mo as well.

We all know what happened over the next week or so. The Sixers put Iverson on ice and scrambled to get the best deal they could. Webber played seven more games, then faked an injury and was bought out shortly thereafter.

For Mo, the beginning of the season was all about the Iverson drama. Once the dust settled, he was left with a roster of young guys who had never been asked to be more than AI's spectators and two veterans new to the team in Joe Smith and Andre Miller. When Miller first suited up the Sixers were 7-20 and reeling in the worst way.

From that point on, Mo exhibited his strength as a coach. He took a bunch of no-names and a couple journeymen and he got them to believe that as a team they could win in this league. To a man, his team bought into this belief, even if it wasn't founded in anything concrete. From the day Miller took over as the starting point guard, the Sixers finished 28-27. A remarkable feat, considering the shape the roster was in.

Andre Iguodala emerged as a blossoming star. Samuel Dalembert's basketball IQ seemed to take a leap forward. The team had no identity other than the one Mo Cheeks created in their heads that they could win if they outworked their opponents.

Mo was the perfect coach for that group of guys, in that situation. He had them in better shape than the competition, and had them believing that if they hustled for 48 minutes they had a chance. I turned out that chance turned into a win more often than not. This was the true brilliance of Mo as a coach, give him lemons and he'll make lemonade.

Team Stats
  • Record: 35-47
  • Points Scored: 94.9/game
  • Points Allowed: 98.0/game
  • Attendance: 615,480 (29th of 30 teams)


Turmoil marked the beginning of the '07-'08 season as well. Off to a sluggish start, the Sixers decided to finally part ways with their GM, Billy King. Ed Stefanski took over and the team actually started to play better basketball. After their win on December 28th they were 13-16, but they had played the toughest part of their schedule. 11 of their 16 losses came at the hands of eventual playoff teams. They had actually won 8 of their previous 11, including impressive wins over the Rockets and the Cavs.

At that point, it seemed as though Cheeks had his troops following the same script he'd written the year before. They were noticably in better shape than other teams, they gave maximum effort on a nightly basis, and they were probably on their way to the playoffs, with or without changes.

Of course, just making the playoffs should never be the goal, and the newly annointed GM had bigger plans for this team. He dealt the Sixers only real shooter for cap relief down the road. Cheeks lost a 30 minute/game performer and a guy he leaned on during crunch time. Along with Gordan Giricek, who never fit in, Cheeks also received an edict from Stefanski, "Play younger, play faster."

It was a tough blow for Cheeks and the team. They went into a pretty quick tailspin, losing 14 of their next 19 games. They hit their low-water mark on Monday, February 4th at 18-30. All hope seemed lost. This was when Mo's message got through to the team. He had more athletes than any team should, he got them to play tough defense and run at every opportunity. He got them to run even when there was no running opportunity there at all. Again, they were better conditioned and better motivated than their competition and it was these two things that led them to finish on a 22-12 run. They were 24 minutes of mediocre basketball away from a 3-1 lead over the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs.

Somehow, he convinced Samuel Dalembert that he was a legitimate center in the league, and he played like one. Iguodala believed he was a star, and played like one. Mistakes happened, but the team just kept on chugging. Kept running. One word was their answer to every question: run.

You can't take anything away from Mo, he did a wonderful job with that team. He may have been too slow to get Jason Smith and Thad Young in the rotation, but he took a team with a serious deficit of talent and had them playing extraordinary basketball for a large portion of the season. Wins over powerhouse teams down the stretch including San Antonio, Detroit twice and at Boston weren't a fluke. The Sixers overwhelmed teams with their hustle and athleticism.

Mo earned the extension he received over the summer. Looking back now, it obviously wasn't a smart move, but he earned it nonetheless.

Team Stats
  • Record: 40-42
  • Points Scored: 96.6/game
  • Points Allowed: 96.2/game
  • Attendance: 609,675 (23rd of 30 teams)
2008-2009 Season

Just as I believe Mo was the perfect coach for the team last season, I think he may have been the worst for the team this year. The beauty of coaching a team without much talent is that beyond getting them to hustle and believe, there isn't much actual in-game coaching to do. When there is little-to-no difference between the ninth guy in your rotation and your starting shooting guard, no substitution pattern is going to make or break a game.

When your offensive philosophy is to run as often as possible there aren't many sets you need to devise. When your half-court offense consists of isolations and driving to the hoop (or trying to turn the half-court into a fast break) the only thing you really need to worry about is keeping your guys in shape and motivated.

The hope was that as the roster evolved, so would Mo. He'd figure out how to play when the talent on his roster was better than most opponents. He'd learn how to keep his guys motivated even when every time they opened a paper they read that they'd already arrived. Most of all, they hoped that Mo would learn how to coach a team that had both the athletes to run and the weapons to be able to score in a traditional half-court flow.

I've read plenty of articles criticizing Elton Brand and/or Ed Stefanski for the team's slow start, but if we honestly look at the games this team has played, that's not the case. They have never spaced the floor properly. They have rarely gotten Brand the ball in the position he needs it. This team doesn't have great shooters on the floor most of the time, but they aren't this bad. Iguodala is a career 32% shooter from three. This year he's shooting 24%.

The things that have killed this team, and its shooting percentage, have been horrible floor spacing, a lack of dedication to the post game, and a lack of creativity and fluidity in play calling. Elton Brand's numbers are down, and part of that is his fault, but not all of it. Mo Cheeks was given a new tool to add to his chest. He had all summer to figure out how it was going to work with the other tools, to find ways to use it to enhance the team as a whole. Instead, what we've seen so far this season is a complete departure from the strengths of the rest of the roster, a horrible integration of Brand into the offense (in the half-court, or out on the break) and a roster demoralized from not living up to the lofty expectations coming into the season.

Give this team a good x's and o's coach and not only will Elton Brand's numbers improve, but you'll see the rest of the team's shooting percentages rise as well. Having a low post pressence is supposed to do two things. First, it's a high-percentage shot in the half-court. If all else fails, you always have that. Second, if the low-post threat is good enough, it's supposed to cause double teams. Those doubles are supposed to lead to open shots on the perimeter. That second part has not happened regulary and the reason is the team has not spaced the floor properly. Not even close.

Ultimately, Mo's forte was working with young guys. Keeping them motivated. Honestly, he'll probably always be better suited to be an assistant. His success with the Sixers over the previous season and a half was basically due to the fact that they had limited basketball talent but unbelievable athletic ability.

This was a move that needed to be made, I can only hope that Tony DiLeo will be more adept at designing and implementing an offensive philosophy. Step one is to get the floor spacing down. It's essential. If more changes are to come, first you need to know, for a fact, what you have and what you need. Get the spacing issues ironed out, let the doubles come and let the ball movement result in wide-open jumpers, then see at what rate these guys knock them down. If we don't fix the spacing, trading for a guy like Mike Miller isn't going to amount to anything. There are systematic problems right now that need to be addressed before personnel decisions are made, otherwise we'll wind up with a great shooter who can't get an open look in the half-court.

Team Stats
  • Record: 9-14
  • Points Scored: 93.3/game
  • Points Allowed: 95.1/game
  • Attendance: 167,132 (21st of 30 teams)
Summing Up

I have no hard feelings toward Mo. He was the right coach for about half of the time he was here. He came into an impossible situation and spent his final 23 games over his head. By all accounts Mo is a great guy and I sincerely hope he gets another shot some time down the line, just not in Philly.

Overall Stats
  • Record: 122-147
  • Points Scored: 96.7/game
  • Points Allowed: 98.2/game
by Brian on Dec 15 2008
Tags: Basketball | Mo Cheeks | Sixers |