By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – When Philadephia 76ers broadcaster Tom McGinnis talks about new Detroit Pistons coach Maurice Cheeks, the national anthem story is not the one he tells.
Instead, what comes to mind is Game 7 of the 2001 Eastern Conference semifinals, when Cheeks was an assistant for Philadelphia, the team for which he played 11 seasons of his 15-year NBA career.
In that game, the 76ers led the Toronto Raptors 88-87 with two seconds left on the clock. The Raptors inbounded the ball and screened to get Vince Carter the final shot. The 76ers’ Tyrone Hill switched on the screen and leaped into the air to contest Carter’s shot. Carter missed, and the 76ers advanced.
McGinnis remembers the play for that vital defensive maneuver and attributes it partly to Cheeks.
“Earlier in the playoffs, he kept telling the players, ‘Switch everything,’” McGinnis recalled, “Tyrone Hill ended up guarding Carter and forced him to double-clutch just a hair on the release of his jump shot. Carter missed the shot by maybe an inch, and I think part of it was Maurice just constantly reminding the players to switch on everything.”
What that story demonstrates, and what most people talk about when they mention Cheeks, is his understanding of the game. He stayed with one team for over a decade and played with all-time greats including Julius Irving, Charles Barkley and Moses Malone.
Though their play overshadowed that of Cheeks, when he retired in 1993 he held the record for steals and was fifth all-time in assists.
McGinnis said that experience translates well into Cheeks’ interactions with players, particularly guard Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City, where Cheeks spent the last four seasons as an assistant coach.
“He relates to the players extremely well,” McGinnis said. “The way he’s been able to work with Westbrook, that has to be a major part of Russell Westbrook’s development the last couple, three years. Mo’s been out there four years, and that coincides with almost every season, except for one, maybe, for Westbrook, who’s become one of the more dynamic players in the NBA.”
Matt Dery, a long-time radio talent who is in his 13th season as the pre-game, halftime and post-game host for Pistons games, said Cheeks’ NBA experience is a definite plus, particularly for this team.
“It seems that there’s some guys that have been a part of this group that have been unhappy having to be coached by guys that they weren’t familiar with,” Dery said. “If you’re not familiar with Mo Cheeks by now, with all the highlight shows that they show now on NBA TV and ESPN, here’s a guy that has played the game and has been there, and a lot of them should be able to relate to things that he went through, so you hope that the relatability is going to equate into some wins for this group.”
Los Angeles Clipper Willie Green played under Cheeks as a head coach with the 76ers as well, and he called it an honor and privilege to play for Cheeks. He referred to Cheeks as a player’s coach and said the coach’s playing experience was a factor that gave players confidence in his coaching ability.
“It’s very helpful,” Green said. “Like anything that you do, you want to have someone that has experienced it … I don’t know if you’d want to fly on a plane without an experienced pilot. Mo is an experienced coach. He played the game, he knows what he’s doing, and I wish him the best.”
Oklahoma City star Kevin Durant expressed similar positive sentiments, tweeting Monday, “Congrats to the great Mo Cheeks on getting the head coaching Job in Detroit! He will be missed!”
Along with his prowess as a player and his experience as a coach, Cheeks is revered for his character. Some people question how good a coach he is because of his mediocre 284-286 record as a head coach, but no one disputes the kind of person he is.
“The biggest thing in the NBA for a coach is you have to have the players’ respect,” McGinnis said. “Maurice Cheeks is a good man, and guys know that. These players are so savvy. They know. They can look right in a guy’s eyes and know who’s got it and who doesn’t.”
“Maurice is a winner,” McGinnis added. “He has every bit of chance to turn that thing around as anybody else would.”
Ultimately, though, the season comes down to more than Cheeks. There is only so much he as an individual can do to influence the outcome of the season, which is obviously the result of a team effort.
Cheeks will be the fourth Pistons coach since 2008. Michael Curry got one year, John Kuester got two years, and Lawrence Frank got two years. For Detroit to finish better than fourth or fifth in the division, as has been the case the last five years, the transformation will have to involve more than just Cheeks.
“It’s time to start talking about guys getting better,” Dery said. “Part of that is the coach, but I think now it’s time for the players to step up, guys start making shots, guys start making plays and the players start winning games, as opposed to always talking about the coach.”