Bulls still the focus as Suns wait for D'Antoni decision

Updated: May 7, 2008, 11:54 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The Phoenix Suns think they'll know by Friday whether coach Mike D'Antoni has found a new job, according to sources close to the process.

The expectation in NBA coaching circles remains that D'Antoni's most likely destination is Chicago, provided that the financial obstacles facing the Bulls can be dodged.

D'Antoni
D'Antoni

Although D'Antoni and agent Warren LeGarie continue to hold talks with the New York Knicks -- with the Knicks said to be genuinely interested and contemplating whether to make an offer -- it has been known for days that Chicago is the job D'Antoni wants.

ESPN.com reported Tuesday that Bulls general manager John Paxson, meanwhile, 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 Suns president Steve Kerr. Sources said that Paxson huddled Tuesday with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to discuss the viability of hiring D'Antoni.

Yet it remains to be seen how much Chicago is willing to spend on its next coach, after Reinsdorf agreed to rescind the offset from Scott Skiles' contract and pay him all but $1 million of the remaining $6 million owed Skiles when he was dismissed last Christmas Eve.

As a result, Skiles walked away with a guaranteed $5 million send-off that was not erased by the estimated $18 million over four years that he just received from the Milwaukee Bucks. That means Chicago would be spending more than $8 million on head coaches next season if D'Antoni were to receive an annual salary in his current wage bracket.

The Arizona Republic reported on its Web site Tuesday night that the Suns would not seek additional compensation if D'Antoni wants to leave, simply hoping to relieve themselves of the two seasons left on his Suns deal at $4 million and $4.5 million.

But sources say Chicago could still decide that it can't afford D'Antoni -- or recently dismissed Dallas coach Avery Johnson -- and choose to pursue a more affordable coach with less experience such as Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau, who widely is credited with providing the schemes which enabled Kevin Garnett to transform the Celtics' defense this season.

ESPN.com reported Friday that Chicago was the most likely landing spot for D'Antoni if he could convince Suns owner Robert Sarver and Kerr that it was time to part company. Sources in both organizations continue to send signals that they expect D'Antoni to wind up in Chicago -- one Phoenix source went so far Monday night to describe a deal as "imminent" -- but acknowledge that the financial component is significant.

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 sources close to the situation say that the Bulls are also intrigued by the possibility of teaming D'Antoni's offensive creativity with several skilled young players (Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha) who have been linked to Phoenix in trades in recent years as well a budding star (Luol Deng) who was drafted with a pick traded by the Suns to Chicago.

The Chicago Tribune reported on its Web site Tuesday night that the Bulls' interest in the defense-first Johnson is declining, which could be another indication that Chicago is focused on landing D'Antoni. New York did interview Johnson on Tuesday -- with new team president Donnie Walsh flying to Houston to meet with him -- and still has ESPN analyst Mark Jackson on its radar as the presumed favorite for the job if the rebuilding Knicks can't convince D'Antoni that they have more to offer than the Bulls.

Yet it might be even more difficult to sort out what happens if D'Antoni isn't hired in Chicago or New York ... or whom Phoenix pursues as a replacement if D'Antoni does leave this week as widely anticipated.

D'Antoni staying in Phoenix to coach seems inconceivable now that 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 unless the sides are amenable to a buyout or a reassignment for D'Antoni until he finds a new job.

Identifying potential successors in Phoenix might be even tougher.

ESPN.com reported last week that Johnson 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.

Rumblings on the coaching grapevine persist that TNT analyst Doug Collins, who resides in the Phoenix area, would be high on Kerr's list after they worked at the same network, but 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 -- as opposed to a first-year head coach like Thibodeau -- to take over a team that's still trying to integrate Shaquille O'Neal into its high-octane offense.

The breakdown between D'Antoni and his bosses stem from well-chronicled philosophical differences.

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 practice-floor emphasis placed on defensive preparations and a more stern approach with younger players such as Suns forward Amare Stoudemire and guard Leandro Barbosa.

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

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