The New York Knicks are well aware of Mike D'Antoni's strong desire to coach the Chicago Bulls, as well as Chicago's strong interest in hiring D'Antoni.
They're simply ignoring all that.
NBA coaching sources told ESPN.com on Wednesday that the Knicks continue to regard D'Antoni as their new No. 1 target to replace Isiah Thomas and are preparing a "staggering" financial offer they hope will prove too steep for Chicago to compete with, thus convincing D'Antoni to spurn the Bulls.
It was widely assumed in coaching circles -- and even by the Knicks to some degree -- that New York's involvement was pursued by the D'Antoni camp mostly to get Chicago to increase its offer. But sources close to the situation were stressing Wednesday night that the rough monetary estimates in circulation from the Knicks, believed to be $6 million or more annually, are too substantial not to make them a real threat to the Bulls.Yet sources maintain that Chicago remains D'Antoni's preferred destination and the favorite to land him, now nearly one week since the story emerged that the Phoenix Suns coach and the Bulls were a likely match. It's believed that neither the Bulls nor the Knicks have formally extended a contract proposal, but The Chicago Tribune reported on its Web site Wednesday night that the Bulls are determined to "pay D'Antoni only on their terms" and won't engage in a "protracted price war" with the Knicks.
One source told ESPN.com that the Knicks are likely to move quickly if they can't get D'Antoni by following up with an offer to Mark Jackson or the recently fired Avery Johnson, with Jackson believed to hold a considerable edge given his extended status as the front-runner in New York before D'Antoni became available.
Financial might is clearly the best asset New York can sell as a franchise after two 23-59 records in the past three seasons. New team president Donnie Walsh has not been shy about admitting that the Knicks have only just begun work on an extensive makeover that, based on Walsh's vision, would finally create some salary-cap flexibility for this free-spending franchise entering the summer of 2010, when 2003 draftees LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are scheduled to be free agents.
The chance to work with well-regarded Walsh is another plus point in the Knicks' attempt to beat the Bulls to D'Antoni. Whether that -- along with the money -- is enough of a lure to persuade D'Antoni to revise his Chicago-or-bust stance remains to be seen. Don't forget that the Knicks are unlikely to contend for anything in the near future and would present D'Antoni with an ill-fitting lack of speed and 3-point shooting on a roster headlined by Suns cast-off Stephon Marbury and plodding big men Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph.
Finances, meanwhile, are believed to be the only factor that could cause the Bulls to pull back (or be trumped) now.
ESPN.com reported Tuesday that Bulls general manager John Paxson came away from two interviews with D'Antoni in Phoenix impressed and seriously interested in the coach, who wants to leave the Suns in part because of a tense working relationship with Paxson's good friend, Suns president Steve Kerr. Sources said that Paxson huddled Tuesday with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf to discuss the viability of hiring D'Antoni.
Concerns that D'Antoni's offensive bent would clash with Paxson's philosophy -- which is much more conservative and defensively focused, like that of his pal and Phoenix counterpart Kerr -- appear to have been allayed. Sources say that Reinsdorf himself has voiced an interest in the Bulls' returning to a more defined offensive system like they had in their Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen/Phil Jackson heyday. D'Antoni obviously doesn't run Jackson's famed triangle offense, but Chicago management is said to be intrigued and excited by the possibility of coupling D'Antoni's creativity with several skilled young players who've been linked to Phoenix in trades in recent years (Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha) as well a budding star (Luol Deng) who was drafted with a pick traded by the Suns to Chicago.
The bigger mystery remains how much Chicago is willing to spend on its next coach, with Reinsdorf already committed to paying Scott Skiles an estimated $4 million next season.
When Skiles was dismissed on Christmas Eve 2007, Reinsdorf agreed to rescind the offset from Skiles' contract and pay him all but $1 million of the remaining $6 million owed. As a result, Skiles walked away with a guaranteed $5 million send-off that was not erased by the estimated $18 million over four years he just received from the Milwaukee Bucks.
Chicago, then, would be spending more than $8 million on head coaches next season if D'Antoni were to receive an annual salary in his current wage bracket. If the Bulls are asked to respond to the Knicks' generosity by taking D'Antoni past the $5 million barrier annually, sources say Chicago could still decide it's more prudent to pursue a more affordable coach with less experience, such as Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau, who is widely credited with providing the schemes that helped Kevin Garnett transform the Celtics' defense this season.
The Tribune reported on its Web site Tuesday night that the Bulls' interest in defense-first Johnson is declining, which could be another indication that the Bulls are focused on landing D'Antoni. The Arizona Republic reported that the Suns would not seek additional compensation when D'Antoni's inevitable departure materializes, simply hoping to relieve themselves of the two seasons left on his Suns deal at $4 million and $4.5 million.