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Wednesday, March 2, 2005
Portland has lost seven of nine

Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. -- For all his popularity among the players and the fans, Portland Trail Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks ultimately didn't have the wins.

Cheeks' Blazers Story
First two seasons Last two seasons
Win. Pct. .604 .460
Scoring 95.9 ppg 91.4 ppg
Longest win streak 12 games 5 games
Playoff trips Two None

Cheeks was fired Wednesday morning, after the Blazers had lost seven of their last nine and tumbled to 22-33.

"Our players liked Mo a great deal, but sometimes a fresh voice might ignite them to go in a different direction," Blazers general manager John Nash said.

With Portland's chances of making the playoffs dwindling, the Blazers appointed Kevin Pritchard, the team's director of player personnel, as interim head coach.

While not entirely giving up on the playoffs, Pritchard's appointment indicated the Blazers were going to focus on evaluating their younger players.

"I'm not going to mislead anybody. It's a long uphill battle to get to the playoffs from where we're at -- 11 games under .500," Blazers President Steve Patterson said.
Tim Legler's Take
While the firing of Maurice Cheeks isn't a surprise to me, the timing of it is quite surprising. While the Blazers were never a team that was expected to contend for a title this season, it was thought that they would have a shot at a playoff spot. But for a number of weeks, it's become quite evident they wouldn't, so it's a little strange that the Blazers management didn't either move more quickly to rescue the season or leave Cheeks in place until the end of the season to avoid the turmoil that comes with a coach being removed during the season.

All that said, I don't believe that Cheeks is a bad coach. He will make a good coach somewhere else down the line, but this was just a tough mix with the different personalities that he had to coach. Also, the front office has to accept some of the blame for the mistakes that were made in personnel decisions and for letting the players usurp Cheeks' power.

Now it's time for the Blazers to find a coach who can whip this team into shape, and that's going to be difficult. Obviously the two big names on the coaching market are Phil Jackson and Flip Saunders. Blazers owner Paul Allen definitely has the money to lure either one of these coaches, but Saunders may be a better match for the Blazers. He has a system that is suited for the current personnel and he's respected enough to earn the support of the players. I'm not sure that Jackson is ready for this type of challenge at this stage of his career, which may be why he stays away from the job.

ESPN analyst Tim Legler is a frequent contributor to Insider Insider.

The Blazers are in 12th place in the Western Conference, six games back of the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth and final playoff spot. They went 41-41 last season, missing the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

With the loss to the Pistons, Cheeks leaves the Blazers with a 162-139 record. He was in the final year of a four-year contract worth an estimated $12 million.

Cheeks, who played in the NBA for 15 seasons, was hired by Portland in 2001 to replace Mike Dunleavy, who was also fired.

The Blazers hardly made Cheeks' tenure easy -- on and off the court.

There were several players cited for marijuana possession, and forward Qyntel Woods was investigated in a dog fighting scandal.

While generally popular among his players, Cheeks had a couple of high-profile verbal run-ins with former guard Bonzi Wells and current forward Darius Miles. Both players served suspensions for their actions.

Former Blazer forward Rasheed Wallace also drew unwanted attention to the team two seasons ago when he threatened a game official on the loading dock of the Rose Garden.

Cheeks never shied away from questions about his team's misbehavior, bringing him the respect of fans and reporters who covered the team.

He endeared himself to many in April 2003 when he came to the rescue of a 13-year-old girl, Natalie Gilbert, who forgot the words to the national anthem before a playoff game against the Dallas Mavericks. Cheeks went to her side and helped her with the words.

Both Patterson and Nash said it was with great regret that they broke the news to Cheeks on Wednesday morning at the team's practice facility.

"We were kind of hoping in January and February that we'd gain some momentum -- but that didn't happen," Nash said.

Pritchard, who was hired by the Blazers in August after serving as a scout for the San Antonio Spurs, was asked if he thought the role as interim coach was an audition.

"This is not the role and not the career path I want to take," Pritchard said. "That said, I would do anything to help this organization."