D'Antoni's tenure in Phoenix over
SAN ANTONIO -- Mike D'Antoni, the NBA's Coach of the Year for the 2004-05 season and the man credited with reinvigorating fast-break basketball in a league gone stale, will not be back to coach the Phoenix Suns for the 2008-09 season, SI.com has learned.
D'Antoni deferred questions about his job status after the Suns were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 5 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series on Wednesday night.
"I'm just really proud of my guys," D'Antoni said after the Spurs' 92-87 win that marked the third time in four years that San Antonio has ended the Suns' season.
D'Antoni did not address his own situation. But sources within the organization confirm that D'Antoni feels he does not have the backing of upper management --specifically owner Robert Sarver and general manager Steve Kerr -- and considers the situation irredeemable.
The Suns have long been one of the NBA's model franchises, and both D'Antoni and Kerr, for whatever differences they might have about the direction of the team, are respected around the league. It's hard to believe, then, that D'Antoni's situation would devolve into an ugly, protracted war, New York Knicks style.
How exactly the scenario unfolds depends largely on whether D'Antoni gets another job offer. The most palatable scenario for all in Phoenix would be this: Team A asks the Suns for permission to talk to D'Antoni, who has two years left on his contract; Suns say OK; D'Antoni interviews and is hired.
One landing spot for him would seem to be Chicago, where general manager John Paxson has not yet replaced Jim Boylan, who himself replaced Scott Skiles (now in charge in Milwaukee). The Bulls underachieved this season under both coaches but would seem to have the kind of offensive nucleus (Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Andres Nocioni) with which D'Antoni could build.
One other possibility is New York, where new president Donnie Walsh is taking his time making a head-coaching decision despite speculation that the hiring of former point guard Mark Jackson is a done deal. There have also been whispers of D'Antoni's taking over in Toronto, where Sam Mitchell's coaching future is an ongoing discussion and where Bryan Colangelo, D'Antoni's former boss in Phoenix and still a close friend, is calling the shots. But Toronto doesn't seem as comfortable a fit for D'Antoni as Chicago or even New York. Don't look for that to happen.
As is the custom with all NBA teams, D'Antoni will meet soon with Sarver and Kerr, together or separately. Kerr said before Sunday's Game 4, which turned out to be the Suns' lone series win, that D'Antoni's departure was not a fait accompli as far as he is concerned. He would not comment on D'Antoni's status after Game 5. But a source said that Kerr would make a few demands in the postseason debriefing: that D'Antoni devote more practice time to defense; have more confidence in his bench players, i.e., go to an expanded rotation; develop a clearer plan for a point guard to back up Steve Nash; and get more planned touches out of Amaré Stoudemire in post-up situations.
D'Antoni, sources say, believes that the situation has been festering all season and that nothing would be accomplished in the meeting. Whatever the circumstances of his departure, it will probably be presented as as a rift between coach and GM, and to a large extent that's true. But when Colangelo left for Toronto, mostly because he and Sarver were doomed not to coexist harmoniously, D'Antoni lost his biggest booster in the front office, as well as a friend. It's what happens in the NBA and in all pro sports.
Over four full seasons D'Antoni racked up a 232-96 record, made the Western finals twice and changed the way that observers both in and out of the league thought about the game. Management might have some legitimate gripes about his defensive coaching, and remember that D'Antoni was a bigger booster of the trade for Shaquille O'Neal than Kerr was.
But Suns management now faces one extremely formidable challenge in l'affaire D'Antoni: finding someone better.