Commentary

FAQ: D'Antoni's decision; future for Knicks, Bulls, Suns

Originally Published: May 11, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Mike D'AntoniAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesCan Mike D'Antoni lead the Knicks back to the playoffs? Can he win without Steve Nash? What will the Bulls do now? How do the Suns replace the architect of their run-and-fun style? All are good questions.

Ready for five burning questions in the wake of Mike D'Antoni going from the Suns to the Knicks and stunning the Bulls?

You get the answers, too.

How did the Knicks win the D'Antoni Derby?

Money inevitably will be branded as D'Antoni's main motivation. D'Antoni's new yearly wage of $6 million makes him the league's third-highest-paid coach in terms of annual salary.

But it wasn't just the money. Believe what you wish, but don't underestimate the following factors:

• As one veteran coach put it Saturday: "Donnie Walsh is known for never sticking his nose into his coach's business."

Mark that down as a huge lure for D'Antoni.

Although I strongly contest the notion that Steve Kerr was as meddlesome as he's been portrayed since the Suns' in-house tensions spilled into the public forum, that's how D'Antoni felt. He went without a day-to-day boss for about a year before Kerr was placed in charge of the front office and clearly never adjusted to the new guy suggesting that he should be spending more time in practices on pick-and-roll defensive schemes or coaching Amare Stoudemire with a firmer hand or looking for a defensive specialist to add to his staff.

You can pretty much guarantee that D'Antoni will get along better with Walsh, even if Walsh's nose gets closer to D'Antoni's office than our scouting report suggests. That's because Walsh hired D'Antoni, meaning D'Antoni is Walsh's guy.

Kerr, remember, assumed operational control in Phoenix long after D'Antoni had the Suns running, gunning and winning. Big difference.

• Here's another reason: All D'Antoni has been hearing for days is how ill-matched New York's roster is for his system and how he has no shot to win there for the foreseeable future. As Howard Beck of The New York Times notes in his story for Sunday's editions, one former colleague calls D'Antoni "the world's greatest contrarian." It's one of my favorite things about one of my favorite coaches.

Translation: D'Antoni always will try to do what everyone says he can't do. That includes winning 58 games a season while constantly telling his players to try to get a shot off with 17 or more seconds to go on the shot clock. Or urging his bosses to trade for the lumbering Shaquille O'Neal at midseason.

Combine that gumption with the opportunity to be regarded as an absolute folk hero if he can help Walsh resurrect these fallen giants, and D'Antoni had plenty of motivation to take on this challenge.

It must be stressed, though, that there are folks in Phoenix who don't have such a noble or satisfied view of D'Antoni's departure, miffed that he's leaving behind a team (a) originally constructed to play his helter-skelter style, (b) still struggling to integrate Shaq after D'Antoni pushed hardest for the deal and (c) when its window is widely believed to be narrowing rapidly if not almost shut.

How did the Bulls let another one get away?

Until Scott Skiles' dismissal, Bulls general manager John Paxson was somewhat insulated from lasting criticism because it was so easy for us media types to focus on the famously contentious relationship Skiles had with some of his players.

Since Skiles' departure on Christmas Eve, Paxson has been wearing the bull's-eye.

More and more you hear loud dissatisfaction with Paxson's ongoing inability to trade for a big name -- or at least a dependable low-post scorer. Likewise, the two huge personnel choices he made recently (Ben Wallace over Tyson Chandler and Tyrus Thomas over LaMarcus Aldridge) appear to have backfired.

So imagine what kind of heat Paxson will be subjected to now that the Bulls couldn't close the deal with a coach whom we've known for more than a week was burning to get to the Windy City.

In this case, though, I suspect Paxson will get more blame for Chicago missing out on D'Antoni than he probably deserves. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf is clearly the chief culprit here.

Sources close to the process insist that Paxson was excited all along about landing D'Antoni -- if not quite as geeked as D'Antoni was to get the Bulls' job -- in spite of our natural inclination to wonder if Pax had the same philosophical differences with D'Antoni as his good friend Kerr had.

Paxson said in a club statement Saturday night that the Bulls were denied an opportunity to make a formal offer in the morning before D'Antoni committed to the Knicks. But who said they had to wait all week when New York's rising interest was well known for more than 48 hours?

I've consistently heard the past several days that the slow-moving Reinsdorf's reservations created New York's opening. D'Antoni was Paxson's top choice, as Reinsdorf's trip to Phoenix on Friday to speak face to face with D'Antoni would suggest. But Reinsdorf's typical insistence on a drawn-out "process" approach -- combined with his long-standing reluctance to spend big on anyone not named Michael Jordan or Phil Jackson -- ultimately left the Bulls looking decidedly indecisive (yet again) compared to the eager Knicks.

D'Antoni noticed, too.

There have been persistent rumblings from the start that Reinsdorf didn't want to give his next coach a long-term deal that paid $4 million-plus annually. Sources say it quickly became apparent to D'Antoni, during his sit-down with the owner and a lengthy Friday night conference call with Bulls officials, that the Knicks were offering more passion to go with the money.

The worst part is that the Knicks' offer wasn't even unmatchable, lucrative as it is. New York, remember, was initially believed to be offering D'Antoni a five-year deal. Had Chicago been quick to offer a pretty standard $18-20 million over four years, chances are that would have been close enough, given how much D'Antoni originally wanted to be there.

The strangest part of all of that is that Reinsdorf himself, according to club sources, has spoken since the end of the season of a desire to identify a more defined offensive system for the defensive-minded Bulls, as they had featured in their Michael, Phil and Scottie Pippen triangle heyday. Instead, they let D'Antoni take the NBA's most entertaining offensive concept to Manhattan.

Is this a bigger gamble for the Knicks or for D'Antoni?

It's not even close. D'Antoni is shouldering almost all of the risk.

The tag team of Walsh and D'Antoni gives the Knicks credibility they haven't had since Jeff Van Gundy was their coach. The tag team of Walsh and D'Antoni, furthermore, will cost only a combined $44 million over the next four seasons. You'll recall that Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan authorized a $50 million contract to Larry Brown, who lasted one season as the Knicks' savior.

You also figure that Mark Jackson is destined to get a turn coaching the Knicks someday, disappointing as it for some Knicks fans that one of their heroes (and mine) didn't get the job this time.

The stakes for D'Antoni are altogether different.

I've heard him joke many times that we'd never know if the Suns' success was due to his system -- or Steve Nash's expertise running it -- because D'Antoni was going to retire seconds after Nash did. I remember someone asking him last May about Houston saying it hoped to run more after parting company with Van Gundy and hiring Rick Adelman. D'Antoni's reply? "Better go get you a Nash."

Well …

Now we're going to know. We'll soon learn if he's as adaptable as a coach as Walsh believes, starting out with a roster sorely lacking the shooters, athleticism and quality floor leadership D'Antoni had in abundance in the desert.

One more concern for D'Antoni is the media maelstrom that awaits him in Gotham. Given how he bristled when criticized in Phoenix -- either by fans or his bosses -- you have to wonder how he'll cope in the MSG cauldron.

Where will the Bulls turn now?

They will interview recently dismissed Dallas coach Avery Johnson after moving away from Johnson this week to focus on D'Antoni.

They will continue to consider former Minnesota coach Dwane Casey, who has already interviewed once with the Bulls and is bound for Dallas as an assistant to Rick Carlisle if he can't get the Bulls' job.

And they will request permission to speak with Boston Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, architect of the defense that's giving LeBron James so much trouble in the playoffs.

The Bulls almost certainly will hire one of those three -- odds favor the less experienced (but less expensive) Thibodeau -- and then start working on boosting the morale of players like Luol Deng, Ben Gordon and Joakim Noah, who were hoping so much to play for D'Antoni.

Where do the Suns turn?

For the Suns' first offseason coaching search in two decades, it's much easier to rule out potential candidates to replace D'Antoni than to identify them.

Kerr has said repeatedly that he won't even entertain the thought of trying coaching until his kids are in college.

Sources with knowledge of the team's thinking have maintained for days that Avery Johnson won't be considered.

And Phoenix-area resident Doug Collins told ESPN.com earlier this week that not even the Suns' opening could get the 56-year-old to reconsider his stance about going back to head coaching. "The work that has to be done and the headaches you have to put up with today, I'm not willing to pay that price," Collins said.

Suns assistant Alvin Gentry, who has coached three NBA teams (Heat, Pistons and Clippers) and has close ties to several Suns players, is unlikely to be considered after such a messy end to the D'Antoni Era and his tight relationship with the outgoing coach.

Even the best available veteran coach is not a realistic option because ESPN's Van Gundy is serious about sitting out another season -- and because the Suns, I'm told, don't want to bring in the polar opposite of D'Antoni.

So who, then?

The process is just starting, so it's way too soon to identify a favorite. But we've been provided a handful of names that at least will be considered, if not for the top job then somewhere else on the bench.

Vinny Del Negro is a loyal aide on Kerr's front-office staff. He has no coaching experience, but he does have Kerr's trust and a comfort level with the Suns' current roster. Although it would seem to be a long shot, installing Del Negro and flanking him with a veteran mentor (or two) like Del Harris as an on-the-job tutor almost certainly will be discussed.

Dan Majerle also figures to be in the conversation under the same premise, while fellow Suns broadcaster Eddie Johnson has already asked to be considered for the top spot. They're more likely to be hired as assistants, but putting a young former Sun in charge is a long-standing franchise habit, as seen with Paul Westphal, Danny Ainge and Frank Johnson.

Jeff Hornacek is another Suns alumnus who will be mentioned, although realistically he joins Majerle and Johnson in line behind Del Negro. Thibodeau will be mentioned often, too, given that Kerr was hoping to convince D'Antoni to hire him as an assistant for this season.

The only established candidate to surface at this early juncture is Paul Silas. He's 64 and has been out of coaching since Cleveland let him go in March 2005, but Silas is also a former Sun who clicked fantastically with Charles Barkley as an assistant during Barkley's time with the Suns. Could Silas click similarly with Shaq?

You can safely assume that Phoenix, with O'Neal around, prefers to hire experience to deal with him. Yet you also can safely assume that Kerr -- coming off a week of helpless waiting for D'Antoni to find a new job and relieve the Suns of the nearly $9 million they owed him -- has a name or three on his list that no one knows yet.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics