Will Maurice cheeks return to the Trail Blazers? The popular coach has done his best work this year: At week's end the surging Blazers (37-35) were within a half-game of the Jazz for the eighth playoff spot, despite a series of in-season trades that have forced Cheeks to reshuffle his lineup three times. But according to two of his friends in the NBA, Cheeks has spent the past month wondering if the team is pushing him out the door by encouraging him to pursue the 76ers job this summer.
The friends say that an hour before Portland's Feb. 17 loss to the Lakers in L.A., G.M. John Nash told Cheeks that he would probably be given permission to interview with Philadelphia as a potential replacement for Randy Ayers, who had been fired on Feb. 10. ( Chris Ford is the Sixers' interim coach, but he is not expected to return next season.) A few weeks later Nash again mentioned that potential move to Cheeks, a former star in Philly who was an assistant there for seven years before coming to Portland in 2001. In neither case had Cheeks asked for such permission.
Rumors have swirled that Nash is interested in bringing in Jim O'Brien, the former Celtics coach. "You can imagine how this makes Maurice feel," says one of his friends, an Eastern Conference official. "Here he is trying to deal with a very difficult team, and at the same time his boss is saying, Maybe you should be looking for another job."
Nash and Cheeks declined to talk to SI about their meetings. Though Cheeks was disappointed that the team barred him from interviewing with the Sixers last summer, he maintains that he isn't eager to leave Portland, where, according to the club's marketing surveys, he is the most popular Blazer. "I love the area, I love the team, I love the people," says Cheeks, whose contract runs through next season, with a team option for 2005-06.
Cheeks may no longer be the 76ers' top choice: After Ayers's failure the feeling around the league is that they may prefer a stern X's-and-O's technician like Mike Fratello. "I'm not a great basketball coach yet," admits Cheeks. But he is a relationship builder and a quiet leader by example, and that makes him perfect for the Blazers, who may enter next season with six players 23 or younger. Cheeks's calming influence will be especially crucial to the continued development of 22-year-old power forward Zach Randolph, who has blossomed into the favorite for the league's Most Improved Player award. "I hope Maurice stays, and I hope the Blazers don't let him talk to Philadelphia," says veteran point guard Damon Stoudamire, who with Cheeks's support has rehabilitated himself after several marijuana arrests to become a team leader this season.
It may be that Nash, by facilitating his coach's return to the 76ers, is simply trying to do the right thing by Cheeks. If that's the case, the two should meet to clear the air. Then owner Paul Allen, a Cheeks supporter, should offer him a lengthy extension to prove that the franchise is committed to a coach who has been a tower of strength during often troubled times.