D'Antoni the key in coaching derby
Rick Carlisle appears headed to Dallas. Mike D'Antoni or Avery Johnson might end up in Chicago. And Mark Jackson remains the front-runner in New York.
Unless, of course, Sam Mitchell gets the boot in Toronto.
Then all bets are off.
The NBA's coaching carousel is spinning like mad again, and right now it's too early to say how it will all shake out.
"D'Antoni is the key to the whole thing," said one Eastern Conference official who wished to remain anonymous. "Depending on what he does, some of those other pieces might start to fall into place."
D'Antoni already has interviewed with the Bulls and Knicks. The Suns gave him permission to do so even though he technically remains their coach. But the two sides clearly have decided to part ways, and now Phoenix just wants to make sure it gets off the hook for the remaining two years and $8.5 million left on D'Antoni's contract.
Here's a quick rundown of each of the three teams that have current openings, as well as a few others that could come up in the days ahead:
General manager John Paxson is taking a deliberate and methodical approach. He not only has interviewed Carlisle, D'Antoni and Jackson, but also little-known Nuggets assistant Mike Dunlap. Paxson reportedly plans to meet with Johnson soon. There appears to be no truth to the Tom Izzo rumors.
The question for the Bulls is, Which direction do they want to go? D'Antoni would create the most excitement among fans and bring an entertaining style of play, but Chicago doesn't have the Steve Nash-type point guard and outside-shooting big man to make that system really work. Johnson, with his emphasis on defense, might be a better fit for the personnel the Bulls have now.
There is also the distinct chance that Chicago opts to go the assistant route, with Boston's Tom Thibodeau a likely candidate. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been loath in the past to pay top dollar for coaches and managers (he also owns the White Sox), preferring instead to go with a hungry, young prospect seeking an opportunity or a chance to get back in the game (e.g., Tim Floyd, Bill Cartwright, Scott Skiles). Another potential factor in the search is that the Bulls also still owe former coach Scott Skiles $4 million for next season, according to reports.
New York Knicks
The consensus around the league seems to be that president Donnie Walsh likes Jackson, but wants to wait and see if anything better comes along. Mitchell could get in the mix if the Raptors were to cut him free (it is considered unlikely because they still owe him $8 million to $9 million over the remaining two years of his contract). Walsh was interested in Mitchell last year for the vacant Pacers job, and is said to be extremely high on him. One league source close to Walsh said he'd rate Mitchell's chances as "50-50, at least" were he to become available.
Walsh is taking a bit of a risk that Jackson could take a job with the Bulls or some other team in the meantime, and that Mitchell could stay put in Toronto. But even if that happens, he won't be left without good options. With the Knicks' deep pockets, Walsh surely will be able to lure a D'Antoni or a Johnson -- or maybe other big-name coach who becomes available after the playoffs.
Carlisle appears to be a good fit for Dallas. He's an experienced hand who led two different teams to the conference finals. His Detroit and Indiana teams were known for playing tough defense, but he is also known for being a creative offensive mind (he handled the offense for Larry Bird when the Pacers went to the Finals in 2000). With Jason Kidd, the Mavs need to find ways to push the ball and be more creative on offense.
But Carlisle's hiring is no sure thing, at least at the moment. Like the Knicks, the Mavs have deep pockets -- and a superstar in Dirk Nowitzki -- to attract just about any coach. Mark Cuban might want to wait and see if a Flip Saunders or some other candidate comes along before making a final decision.
Mike Woodson's contract runs out at the end of June, and many expect him to be let go despite the Hawks' run to the playoffs. There have been whispers about the team's unimaginative offense and a lack of support from players in the locker room. On Wednesday, GM Billy Knight announced that he won't be back next season (he could land with the Knicks as Walsh's top assistant). It's not difficult to imagine Woodson being the next to go.
However, the Hawks' uncertain ownership situation could come into play. Some around the league wonder if current management will be willing or able to offer a long-term deal for a bigger-name coach -- especially with Josh Smith and Josh Childress about to enter the free-agent market. This might be why Larry Brown, who was said to be interested in the Hawks, decided to go to Charlotte. If true, the Hawks might seek to extend Woodson on another one-year deal or look to an assistant coach who won't demand a lot of money.
Assuming the Suns and D'Antoni eventually part ways, there will be an attractive coaching vacancy in Phoenix. Early reports are that TNT analyst Doug Collins could be at the top of GM Steve Kerr's wish list. Collins has the experience and winning résumé to instill that defensive mind-set Kerr wants, and he lives in the Phoenix area.
As of now, it appears Mitchell will be back in Toronto, despite a disappointing season that ended with a five-game, first-round loss to the Magic. GM Bryan Colangelo has said he isn't looking to make a coaching change. Even if it were to happen, however, don't look for D'Antoni to end up in Toronto. The Suns reportedly wouldn't let him interview with the Raptors.