- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Mike D'Antoni's strong interest in coaching the Chicago Bulls emerged last week. Now it's being officially reciprocated.
NBA front-office sources told ESPN.com on Monday night that Bulls general manager John Paxson came away from two interviews with D'Antoni in Phoenix impressed and seriously interested in the coach who wants to leave the Suns in part because of a tense working relationship with Paxson's good friend Steve Kerr.
Sources in both organizations openly expect D'Antoni to wind up in Chicago -- with one Phoenix source going so far as to describe a deal as "imminent" -- but it's believed that financial complications account for the one obstacle that could derail his move from the desert to the Windy City.
ESPN.com reported Friday that Chicago was the most likely landing spot for D'Antoni if he could convince his owner (Robert Sarver) and team president (Kerr) that it was time to part company. Yet it remains to be seen how much the Bulls are willing to spend on a new head man when they still owe an estimated $6 million to new Milwaukee Bucks coach Scott Skiles, according to NBA coaching sources.
It has been suggested in coaching circles that D'Antoni could be too expensive for Chicago, especially if the Bulls are also required to provide Phoenix with some form of compensation for letting him out of his contract.
What's increasingly clear is that D'Antoni will be leaving the Suns as soon as he can get another job, which would spare Phoenix from paying off the two years and $8.5 million left on D'Antoni's contract by firing him or trying to negotiate a buyout. With D'Antoni determined to move on but not inclined to forfeit the money owed him by quitting, Kerr announced Monday that he was backing off his earlier vow to deny the coach permission to speak with other teams. Allowing D'Antoni to land a new job and thus a new salary would offset whatever the Suns owe him.
"As we have continued to convey, we value Mike D'Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns and would like him to continue leading this basketball team," Kerr said Monday in a statement. "Because he has requested to speak to other teams about their head coaching vacancies, we have granted him permission. We will have no further comment until this process further evolves."
D'Antoni, reached Monday via phone by The Associated Press, likewise declined to elaborate.
"I really can't say anything," D'Antoni said.
Although he also interviewed with new New York Knicks president Donnie Walsh within the past 48 hours, New York is not considered a realistic destination for D'Antoni. Chicago would appear to be a much better match. A position with the Bulls would offer not only a move to the easier East but also an opportunity to work with several players who have been linked to Phoenix in trades in recent years (Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha) as well a budding star (Luol Deng) who was drafted with a pick traded by the Suns to Chicago.
If there's a basketball issue working against D'Antoni's candidacy in Chicago, it's that Paxson -- like his friend Kerr -- is much more conservative and defensively focused in his approach than D'Antoni.
But the bigger uncertainties are what happens if D'Antoni isn't hired in Chicago or New York and whom Phoenix pursues as a replacement if D'Antoni does leave this week as widely anticipated.
It's difficult to envision D'Antoni staying in Phoenix to coach after details of the Suns' in-house discord have been made so public. The Suns, though, clearly don't want to fire D'Antoni, who likewise won't walk away from his contract without a new gig, raising the possibility of an ominous impasse.
Identifying potential replacements for D'Antoni in Phoenix might be even tougher.
ESPN.com reported last week that recently dismissed Dallas Mavericks coach
Avery Johnson -- who's still on the Bulls' radar after they interviewed likely Mavs successor Rick Carlisle and Knicks favorite Mark Jackson -- has already been ruled out as a possibility for Phoenix.
Kerr, furthermore, strongly dismissed recent suggestions that he would be a candidate to move to the bench, reiterating his long-held stance that he wouldn't even consider coaching until his children are out of school. TNT analyst Doug Collins, who resides in the Phoenix area, is bound to be mentioned as well, although it's unknown whether Collins can be lured back to coaching at age 56 after turning down offers from Milwaukee in the summer of 2005 and again last month.
Complicating matters further is the fact that Phoenix almost certainly would need an experienced coach to inherit a team that is still trying to integrate Shaquille O'Neal into its high-octane offense.
D'Antoni met with Sarver and Kerr for more than two hours Friday, with Kerr saying afterward that they all wanted to take a few days to digest what was discussed. Yet Kerr also has stated repeatedly since the Suns' season ended last Tuesday in San Antonio that he and Sarver remained hopeful of convincing D'Antoni that the parties' philosophical differences could be resolved.
But sources close to the situation have maintained for days that D'Antoni does not want to continue coaching in Phoenix if he must implement the changes suggested by his bosses, which include increasing the time spent practicing defense and a more stern approach with younger players such as Suns forward Amare Stoudemire and guard Leandro Barbosa.
Sources say D'Antoni considers Kerr's strategic suggestions to be meddlesome and representative of a lack of support from the front office after the Suns averaged 57 wins over the past four seasons, three of which ended with playoff losses to the execution masters from San Antonio. But some veteran players, sources add, have echoed management's request for more emphasis placed on defensive preparations and seeing the likes of Stoudemire and Barbosa held more accountable for their mistakes.
Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum -- who spent the 2005-06 season as a virtual member of D'Antoni's coaching staff to write the acclaimed book "Seven Seconds or Less" -- reported last week that D'Antoni considers those differences to be "irredeemable."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
12hMatt Walks, ESPN.com