The Maurice Cheeks era of the Portland Trail Blazers is over. The team fired its head coach Wednesday morning, ending the relationship after just less than four seasons. The Blazers are in the middle of their worst season in 23 years and are riding a current three game skid.
Cheeks leaves the Blazers with a 162-139 record, fourth best for Blazer head coaches. He guided the team to the playoffs twice, but failed to win a series during his tenure in Portland.
The team came close two years ago, as they took the Dallas Mavericks to a game-seven showdown in the 2003 playoffs, only to come up short in the final minutes. However it was during that series that the highlight of Cheeks’ time in Portland occurred, when he helped local girl Natalie Gilbert, then 13 years old, through the national anthem when she forgot the words.
The Blazers’ and Cheeks’ plight started last year, when the team went 41-41 and missed the playoffs for the first time in over 20 years. The team fell to the draft lottery for the first time in franchise history, drafting Sebastian Telfair with the 13th overall pick.
Cheeks started the 2004-05 season on the hot seat and had to get the team to compete for a playoff spot. After wallowing at .500 for 30 games Shareef Abdur-Rahim was lost for over a month and the Blazers’ record plunged. They are currently 22-33 and are 11 games under .500 on the year.
Recently Cheeks has dealt with controversy stemming from his conflict with Blazer forward Darius Miles, whom he had a verbal altercation with last month that led to a two game suspension of Miles. Other low-lights during Cheeks’ years in Portland include Qyntel Woods’ animal abuse allegations, numerous marijuana infractions by multiple players and the trading of Bonzi Wells and Rasheed Wallace.
Though obviously upset, Cheeks was reflective about his time in the River City. "In this business I think we all understand what we are here for. We are here to win basketball games," Cheeks said at his press conference. "If you don’t win basketball games, something’s gonna happen."
Cheeks’ firing should come as little surprise to anyone who follows the Blazers, but the timing is somewhat suspect. Players, fans and the media had all predicted the firing to occur after the season was finished, but Blazer GM John Nash thought otherwise.
"It’s a wins-and-losses driven business," Nash said. "In recent weeks and months our team has not made progress, so we felt it was time for someone else to take over."
That someone is 37-year-old Trail Blazer Director of Player Personnel, Kevin Pritchard, who was hired last August. Pritchard, a University of Kansas alumnus, was a second round draft pick in 1990 by Golden State and spent his years as an NBA journeyman. Pritchard also played internationally and was a head coach at the ABA level and now takes over the Blazers on an interim basis.
"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."
The Blazers now start the search for a new permanent head coach, and the names Phil Jackson and Flip Saunders will most likely be tossed around all summer. The likelihood of hiring either man is questionable, however they are the two marquee names on the market at this point and Blazer owner Paul Allen is a reported Jackson fan.