- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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As Doug Collins stepped away from the Chicago Bulls' unpredictable coaching search Friday, another surprise surfaced in this seven-week saga.
NBA coaching sources told ESPN.com on Friday that Phoenix Suns assistant general manager Vinny Del Negro -- despite possessing no bench experience -- is getting serious consideration for the job that was widely presumed to be going to Collins for the second time.
Collins told The Chicago Tribune that he and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf mutually agreed that Collins' name would be withdrawn from consideration. A week ago, Collins was seen as a lock to leave his post as a TNT analyst to return to Chicago, nearly 20 years after Reinsdorf fired him.
Del Negro, meanwhile, spent Thursday and Friday with the Bulls on an extended interview and was described by multiple sources close to the process as the new favorite, perhaps edging past former Minnesota Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey.
As Collins faded from shoo-in status this week, Chicago is known to have met with three candidates in the following order: Sacramento Kings assistant coach Chuck Person, Casey and Del Negro.
Yet it must be noted that Del Negro, if he has indeed risen past Casey and Person to the top of Chicago's list, would hardly be the first favorite in this process. The Bulls' search, nearing the two-month marker, has featured interviews with more than a dozen candidates and frustrating near-deals with Mike D'Antoni and now Collins -- both of whom, sources say, were wanted badly by Bulls front-office chief John Paxson.
The Bulls' failure to reach an agreement with Collins has only added to the perception around the league that Paxson can't be as decisive as he'd like to be because of his boss. ESPN.com reported May 10 that the slow-moving Reinsdorf's insistence on a drawn-out approach was among the clinchers that helped convince D'Antoni to take the eager New York Knicks' lucrative offer, after it was well known in coaching circles that going to Chicago was D'Antoni's initial strong preference.
Del Negro has also interviewed for the Phoenix vacancy created by D'Antoni's departure after spending the past season as a top aide to Suns president Steve Kerr, who is close with Paxson. Del Negro, 42, has made no secret of his desire to move to the coaching side of the game, recently telling The Arizona Republic: "It has always been tugging at me. . . . I enjoy the business part of [basketball], but this process has opened my eyes to the passion I have for coaching."
Yet Del Negro didn't make the list of four finalists in Phoenix, with Kerr making it clear that he wants to hire someone with more experience. Coaching sources have maintained for days the Suns will hire Detroit Pistons assistant coach Terry Porter -- formerly the head coach in Milwaukee -- to replace D'Antoni.
Casey, 51, possesses a significant experience edge over Del Negro and Person, having spent more than a decade as an assistant with the Seattle SuperSonics before going 53-69 in 1 1/2 seasons as Minnesota's head coach. After posting a 33-49 record in his only full season with the Wolves in 2005-06, Casey was fired halfway through the 2006-07 season with Minnesota at 20-20. The Wolves went just 12-30 under Randy Wittman after Casey's dismissal and wound up trading Kevin Garnett to Boston three months later.
At this point, though, Chicago is likely facing a public-relations roasting no matter whom it hires. After Collins told ESPN.com in an early May interview that he had "no interest" in leaving the TNT booth to coach again -- no longer interested in dealing with "the headaches you have to put up with" in the modern game -- Collins' change of heart was warmly received in Chicago as a welcome development after the disappointment of losing the D'Antoni derby to the Knicks.
In an interview with the Tribune, Reinsdorf acknowledged it was Collins who initiated Friday's withdrawal while he was deliberating.
"I love Doug Collins," Reinsdorf told the newspaper. "It's not a great thing for friends to jeopardize a relationship for business. And relationships with coaches always end at some point.
"I didn't push Doug to this decision. But while I was hesitating, he came to his conclusion. I'm disappointed because I won't be reunited with Doug. But in my heart, I know he made the right decision."
Said Collins, whose friendship with Reinsdorf developed after he left the Bulls following the 1988-89 season: "I just knew over the last few days that Jerry was really struggling over whether or not to do this, and I didn't want Jerry to have those struggles. I love him. And I didn't want him feeling that kind of angst.
"This is absolutely mutual. When this first came about, there was a tremendous amount of excitement about this possibility. And I'm losing that. The feeling now is more, 'Should I do this?' Once I got to that point, it meant no. I always make decisions [where] yes is yes, no is no and maybe is no."
It's believed the Bulls, like Phoenix, will not be reaching out to former Dallas coach Avery Johnson or freshly dismissed Detroit coach Flip Saunders this late in the process. The Bulls have also yet to give an indication they are waiting for the NBA Finals to end to request permission to speak to Boston Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, as expected at the start of Chicago's search.
The Suns and Pistons are expected to fill their vacancies next week. In Phoenix, Porter possesses the only head-coaching experience -- as well as those strong ties to Kerr -- on a list of finalists which also features San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, Utah Jazz assistant Tyrone Corbin and Houston Rockets assistant Elston Turner. In Detroit, Pistons assistant Michael Curry remains the overwhelming favorite to replace Saunders, with sources indicating that Porter is not a candidate for that job.
Whether the Bulls -- billed by one source to be deciding now between Del Negro and Casey -- will make it three coaching appointments next week remains to be seen. It has been known since early May that Casey has a standing offer to join Rick Carlisle's new staff in Dallas if he does not land the Chicago job, while Del Negro might be considered for an assistant coach's slot with Chicago if the Bulls change course yet again.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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