The Phoenix Suns’ contending run is over, a franchise that is leaning on older legs and a failed premise for championship parades has reached the end of Mike D’Antoni’s desert mirage. This hustle out of town isn’t so much about a new boss meddling with D’Antoni’s methods, but the coach sniffing out a buyer’s market on the bench. He’s leaving Steve Nash in the dust to chase a $25 million contract score.
This way, D’Antoni won’t have to listen to Steve Kerr’s painful truths about the fatal flaws in his genius. Gimmick coaches don’t have staying power. He’s a younger, fitter Don Nelson. He’s a sharper-dressed Doug Moe. Yet, there is still a glow on his four seasons and a star-less coaching market makes him an attractive hire.
So, he’s requested a chance to talk with other teams and wants out of Phoenix. Who knows who the Suns will hire, but this is for D’Antoni’s own good. Had he stayed with the Suns, and Nash started breaking down, and Shaq struggled, he wouldn’t have been so marketable for these openings.
Kerr understood his mandates would probably chase D’Antoni out, because it was clear the coach’s burgeoning ego struggled with the loss of his GM responsibilities to a rookie executive. Here’s the thing, though: Had the Suns hired front office superstars Jerry West or R.C. Buford, know what they would’ve told D’Antoni?
Probably just what Kerr did.
Use his practice time to teach defense, and stop coddling Amare Stoudemire.
Only, D’Antoni didn’t want to hear it out of Kerr. Hired by the Colangelo family, D’Antoni was ganged up on by new owner Robert Sarver and his close friend, Kerr. The GM is serious when he says he doesn’t want to lose his coach, but it became clear that D’Antoni’s ego couldn’t handle such outrageous mandates as, you know, defense and discipline.
There comes celebrity within the profession when Mike Krzyzewski installs your offense with Team USA and Duke, when NBA owners with empty seats demand their coaches play your way, when the sport is declaring you a genius, a revolutionary. There have long been these words hanging in D'Antoni's office: “At the end of the game, the best defensive team is the one with the most points.”
The GM’s two old coaches, Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson, with the 13 championships between them, had to be privately thrilled to watch the “Seven Seconds or Less” philosophy play out with the Suns. Unlike D’Antoni, they don’t believe that the solution to every problem is scoring more.
Yes, D’Antoni would’ve had a case to be the boss of himself had he made smart choices between Bryan Colangelo leaving as GM two years ago, and Kerr arriving a year ago. Just understand: Kerr wouldn’t have been so cash-strapped that he had to trade Kurt Thomas and two No. 1 picks because D’Antoni signed Marcus Banks to a $21 million contract after trading the draft rights of Rajon Rondo to the Celtics. D’Antoni was wise to re-sign Boris Diaw, but did it really need to take $45 million?
D’Antoni talked to the Bulls and Knicks in the past 48 hours, but only the Bulls are a legitimate choice. Besides Luol Deng and Ben Gordon, D’Antoni has long been enamored with Tyrus Thomas, whom he wanted to trade up to get in the 2006 draft, a league source said.
New York president Donnie Walsh is talking to a lot of candidates for GM and coach whom he isn’t serious about considering for the jobs. He’s leading the league in courtesy interviews. Walsh knows he needs a coach who’ll be confrontational with his cast of misfits and bring toughness to his team. This isn’t D’Antoni. Even so, he felt obligated to talk to him. Anyone who knows Walsh has a hard time believing he’ll make an offer.
The fact that Avery Johnson and Rick Carlisle are two of the hottest names in the marketplace suggests that Kerr is sincere when he says he doesn’t want to lose D’Antoni. Who’s out there? Carlisle lost momentum for the Bulls job, a league executive said, when Chicago officials kept hearing such unpleasant stories about his people skills from old colleagues in Detroit and Indiana.
And no wonder there are teams leery of the deposed Dallas coach, too. Johnson should be ashamed for resorting to such self-serving misrepresentations to prop up his Mavericks coaching career. After his firing, he suggested that his roster had been largely limited, that the Mavericks’ successes had been at different times, a “miracle,” and a result of “significantly overachieving.” Everyone knows he lobbied hard for Jason Kidd, but now distances himself on the trade.
So yes, it will be fascinating to see how brilliant Johnson is as a defensive tactician when he isn’t following Don Nelson; or when he’s working somewhere without an owner willing to go into the luxury tax.
The market is flooded with head coaches carrying baggage and uninspiring assistants. Why is Memphis’ Marc Iavaroni getting to return for a second season? A big part of the reason is that his front office didn’t think it could upgrade.
In its own way, that’s the case with D’Antoni and the Suns, too. D’Antoni believes management doesn’t support him, because Kerr wants his players to defend, wants discipline. D’Antoni had a good run in Phoenix, but on his way to Chicago, or wherever he goes, he has to know the truth: His championship chances are still compromised with the words written on the board in his old office.