The signals suggesting that Mike D’Antoni and the Phoenix Suns will soon part company are getting stronger.
Suns president Steve Kerr said Monday that he will allow D’Antoni to talk to other teams about potential head coaching opportunities.
“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. Because he has requested to speak to other teams about their head coaching vacancies, we have granted him permission,” Kerr said in a statement.
D’Antoni, reached by telephone by The Associated Press on Monday, declined to comment.
“I really can’t say anything,” he said.
SI.com’s Jack McCallum, who spent an entire season with the Suns while writing a book on them, reported Monday that the Bulls general manager John Paxson and Knicks president Donnie Walsh were flying to Phoenix to interview D’Antoni. Knicks’ spokesman Jonathan Supranowitz said the team is not commenting on its coaching search. Paxson had no comment.
On Sunday night, KTAR Radio (620 AM) in Phoenix reported what Kerr confirmed Monday, that D’Antoni has been granted permission to speak with other teams, including Chicago and New York, about their coaching openings.
Kerr had originally told the ESPN Radio affiliate and Suns flagship station last week that D’Antoni would not be allowed to speak to other teams regarding any vacancy.
NBA coaching sources reiterated to ESPN.com Sunday that D’Antoni believes he can’t work under the conditions proposed by Kerr and owner Robert Sarver.
So if even Suns management is now convinced that reconciling with its coach is no longer possible, giving D’Antoni an opportunity to find a new job might be the easiest way for Phoenix to move forward without worrying about the two years and $8.5 million left on his contract. As opposed to firing D’Antoni and paying the full amount or trying to work out a buyout, allowing him to land a new job and thus a new salary would offset whatever the Suns owe him.
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. Kerr stuck to his earlier pledge 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.
ESPN.com reported last week that Chicago has emerged as the most likely landing spot for D’Antoni if he leaves Phoenix. The Bulls also want to interview recently fired Dallas coach Avery Johnson and have already spoken to Mark Jackson and Rick Carlisle. But Johnson would appear to be D’Antoni’s only serious competition with the Bulls, given Jackson’s status as the consensus favorite with the Knicks and Carlisle now widely expected to replace Johnson with the Mavericks.
It’s not inconceivable that Toronto could still emerge as an option for D’Antoni, although Raptors president Bryan Colangelo — who imported D’Antoni from Italy in 2003 to coach in Phoenix — has insisted that he has no plans to fire Sam Mitchell. If the Raptors were to change that stance so they could enter the D’Antoni sweepstakes, they would have to be considered a serious threat to land him given the Colangelo connection and personnel — specifically an array of 3-point shooters around mobile big man Chris Bosh — that would appear to be ideal for D’Antoni.
Identifying potential replacements in Phoenix for D’Antoni is a lot 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. 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.
Sources say that the philosophical split between D’Antoni and his bosses breaks down thusly:
• D’Antoni considers Kerr’s strategic suggestions to be meddlesome and excessive 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 sources say Suns management and some veteran players, while all hopeful that D’Antoni will stay, want more emphasis placed on defensive preparations and want to see the likes of Stoudemire and Barbosa held more accountable for their mistakes.
McCallum reported last week that D’Antoni considers those differences to be “irredeemable.”