In May 2008, the Chicago Bulls thought they had their man. After weeks of discussion, they had made an offer to the head coach they wanted to replace interim coach Jim Boylan. The Bulls were said to be "impressed" with their target coach, and a deal was "imminent." The job was extremely attractive, too, with Joakim Noah and Luol Deng (who was widely considered to just steps away from becoming a superstar in 2008), and an impending top draft pick that would turn out to be Derrick Rose.
And there was no hotter coaching commodity, no more logical fit, than Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni was fresh off one of the most exciting teams in recent NBA history, the Seven Seconds Or Less Phoenix Suns (subject of the great Jack McCallum book of the same name, one of the best NBA books of all time), but he'd been thwarted by new general manager Steve Kerr, who had traded for Shaquille O'Neal and was in the process of tearing the whole franchise down. He had two years left on his contract with Phoenix, but he and Kerr weren't going to get along, and every team in the NBA, wanted to talk to D'Antoni. Coach Pornstache was in the catbird seat.
And at the last second...he turned down the Bulls and signed with the New York Knicks, accepting a four-year, $24 million contract. Bulls GM John Paxson was furious. In an official team statement, he said, "[Saturday] morning, Jerry and I spoke and agreed that Mike was a good fit, and I placed a call to his agent. Jerry wanted to meet with Mike again [Saturday] and talk about a deal. Unfortunately, we were never given an opportunity to make an offer of any kind, which is the most disappointing thing in all of this right now. I thought it would have been fair to listen to what we had to say, but at the end of the day we simply weren't given the opportunity." The Bulls were left in the dust, and D'Antoni, at the pinnacle of his profession, was peddling his wares in one of the most high-profile jobs in sports.
Suffice it to say, nothing turned out the way anyone expected.
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On Thursday night, Mike D'Antoni, head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers (another of the most high-profile jobs in sports), just like six years ago, had to answer questions about an open job he didn't have while under pressure at the one he did. But the parameters are a little different this time. And mostly, so are the jobs.
In May 2008, D'Antoni was to leave the Suns for the Bulls or the Knicks. This time: It's leaving the Lakers for... the Marshall Thundering Herd. Marshall, which fired its coach after going 4-12 in Conference USA this year, has reached out to D'Antoni, an alum, to see if he has interest in taking over their top position. After the Lakers lost to the Milwaukee Bucks -- the team that has the worst record in the NBA, even worse than the Philadelphia 76ers, who just tied the NBA record for most losses in a row -- reporters asked D'Antoni about reports of Marshall's entreaties. D'Antoni seemed to deny interest , saying "C'mon guys... I'm the head of their capital [fundraising] campaign. I'm close friends to them." But CBS's Jeff Borzello has a source who says there is "mutual interest." Which means that Mike D'Antoni would have gone from the most sought-after man in coaching to taking over a lower-tier Conference USA team in the span of six years. A six-year span in which he coached the freaking Knicks and the Lakers. Meanwhile, the team he turned down, the Bulls, has the most respected coach in the game and is heaving nightly sighs of relief that matters went down the way they did. How in the world did this happen?
It is worth noting that D'Antoni never really had much of a chance with the Knicks or the Lakers. In New York, D'Antoni (along with team president Donnie Walsh) was promised absolute autonomy, which the duo had until Carmelo Anthony (a player whose ball-stopping was never going to mesh with D'Antoni's style) started flashing a little leg at Jim Dolan; when that happened, D'Antoni's and Walsh's wishes were completely ignored. (Despite two years of cleaning up Isiah Thomas messes in order to even have the space to bring Anthony in. This is something Phil Jackson should remember; he's not the first person Jim Dolan has promised to leave alone.)
And in Los Angeles, D'Antoni was given the impossible job of making both Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant happy at the same time, in a system neither had ever played in before, after taking over after the season had already started. The Howard business was doomed from the start, and when he left, and Kobe (who also wasn't the right fit for D'Antoni's strengths) got hurt, D'Antoni never had a chance. Now Kobe is saying he doesn't think D'Antoni should return -- while acknowledging D'Antoni "hasn't really gotten a fair shake at it since he's been here" -- and D'Antoni's NBA obituaries are being written. And the Thundering Herd have come calling.
It's strange, too, because most of the offensive principles that D'Antoni helped innovate -- the spread-the-floor offense, an emphasis on the 3-pointer, constant picking-and-rolling -- have become more commonplace throughout the league; if Howard could have settled down for a second, he would have seen that in many ways D'Antoni was the perfect coach for him. (In many ways, D'Antoni would be ideal for Houston, in an alternate universe.) D'Antoni has made some mistakes -- he has been stubborn with his system, even if it's the system each team hired him to run -- but it's not like he became a terrible coach all of a sudden. He was just put in two positions in which it would have been impossible for anyone to succeed. His fault was not in his abilities in his jobs; it was in his choice of them.
But that doesn't matter: In the world of coaching, a position that is often assessed more by subjective factors than objective ones, the narrative has been set: D'Antoni is a dead man walking, an empty asset, someone who you could seriously imagine coaching the Marshall Thundering Herd. The Bulls are soaring, the Knicks and Lakers are both completely starting over, and even though the reasons may have nothing (or little) to do with D'Antoni, he's the one who takes the hit. Even though he's the same coach he was when he was a genius, when best sellers were written about him, when everybody wanted him. It's a fickle world, coaching. When you make your living in large part relying on the whims of millionaire 20-year-olds, you're never really in charge. It can get away from you faster than you could have imagined. It can send you from Phoenix to New York to Los Angeles to Huntington, W. Va., in the blink of an eye.
D'Antoni has had Spike Lee and Jack Nicholson courtside for the last six years; he may soon have Marco the Buffalo . To quote Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross:
"Coaching … [slugs whisky] … it's a tough racket."
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