From one well-placed Suns source comes this warning about Amare Stoudemire coming back this season: "As well as he's doing, I still think it's 50-50."
SPECIAL MIDWEEK EDITION: Why Sun resembles Pop
The safer bet on this scorecard: Phoenix will survive just fine even if Stoudemire isn't back until next season and even if the Suns go to the playoffs with no Amare and no Colangelos.
D'Antoni has a pretty low profile for a reigning NBA Coach of the Year, but that's about to change. With the Suns' reigning Executive of the Year, Bryan Colangelo, leaving Tuesday to take over the Toronto Raptors' front office -- and with his father and Suns patriarch Jerry Colangelo expected to soon leave the organization he helped start as a consequence of his son's acrimonious departure -- look for D'Antoni to be pushed out front as the new face of the Suns' hierarchy.
Not necessarily with a new title right away. Club sources indicate that there's no rush to formally add to D'Antoni's duties or hire a successor to Bryan Colangelo to work with D'Antoni and the rest of the basketball staff. Yet those same sources also insist that the coach's influence, which was already significant on the personnel side given that the Suns' helter-skelter style of play is D'Antoni's brainchild, will swell now to Gregg Popovich proportions.
I'm told that the Suns see him as their Pop, responsible for maintaining what now ranks as one of the league's most envied cultures and making the loudest recommendations to owner Robert Sarver on trades and roster expenditures.
"Apart from our three All-Stars," said one source, "I don't think we have a bigger asset than Mike."
Fear The Worst fever is nonetheless spreading through the Suns' fan base. It's a fear of the unknown, basically, after nearly four decades of Colangelo leadership with the Suns.
It's a fear exacerbated by the fact that Bryan Colangelo is in the midst of a heady run of masterful moves -- among them bringing D'Antoni to Phoenix in the first place, which might not have happened otherwise if they weren't so close -- at the time of his departure. The younger Colangelo has been even better in his job this season than last season when he won the EOY trophy, restocking a 62-win team with numerous quality newcomers (such as Boris Diaw, Kurt Thomas and Eddie House) to fill the voids created by Stoudemire's October knee surgery and Joe Johnson's determination to leave the Suns through restricted free agency to sign with Atlanta. The Suns, as a result, have a cushy lead in the Pacific Division and thus possess an inviting playoff path to the Western Conference finals, whether or not Stoudemire can return in late March or April as he hopes.
In reality, though, Phoenix has been quietly relying on a committee approach on the big (and) small decisions since the under-fire Sarver fronted the group that bought the Suns late in the 2003-04 season for a league-record $401 million.
Examples? Nash intimates say that his move from Dallas to Phoenix, which pitched the Suns to a new level as much as anything, never would have happened if his former teammate Rex Chapman wasn't a Suns executive at the forefront of the recruiting effort. Sources say it was Nash, meanwhile, who convinced D'Antoni to convince management to make Johnson's replacement, Raja Bell, the Suns' No. 1 free-agent target last summer . . . even before they knew they were losing Johnson.
It remains to be seen who will emerge as the R.C. Buford in the Suns' new structure. Buford, of course, is the Spurs' chief talent hound whose growing stature among front-office executives enables Popovich to keep coaching as his focus. With Chapman entrenched in Minnesota after leaving last June to assist Kevin McHale and Suns investor/consultant Steve Kerr adamant that he won't leave his TNT broadcasting post for a full-time Phoenix gig because of the impact on his family, it's believed that the Suns will rely on assistant general managers David Griffin and Mark West to handle the day-to-day duties in the front office until the offseason. Additions to the cabinet will then be considered in the summertime, but D'Antoni is expected to wield much more say-so than Colangelo's eventual replacement, with Kerr continuing to provide input as well.
Chances are that approach will only add to the one-sided local perception that Sarver is an impulsive, tight-fisted novice who, so soon after letting Johnson go, refused to give Bryan Colangelo a big raise because A) he wants both Colangelos out so B) he can really make this his team. Yet those criticisms overlook Sarver's unprecedented investment in the team . . . his behind-the-scenes moves to stabilize the Suns financially in the face of some serious debts . . . and his willingness to offer Nash a deal worth nearly $66 million that, at the time, was branded as crazy money for a 30-year-old point guard who had never, even been mentioned as an MVP candidate. Sarver also re-upped Stoudemire on a max contract before the season even though there were already concerns about Stoudemire's knee.
So . . .
I don't see a reason for Suns fans to panic unless something happens to D'Antoni, who's signed through the 2008-09 season. His presence means the Suns have one of the most progressive coaches in the game when it comes to strategy and relating to players and a basketball man with the charisma, vision and worldwide experience it takes to be the point man for an organization on and off the floor.
Provided he gets the right help and proper support from the boss.
Chris Birck/NBAE/Getty Images
Look for the Suns' Mike D'Antoni, right, to have a louder voice in his organization than ever before now that Phoenix has a GM opening
. . . somewhat like San Antonio's Gregg Popovich.
I was so astounded to hear that LeBron James got booed by his own fans last week that I figured it had to be an erroneous report. No way this could be true. No way Clevelanders could be dumb enough to jump on one off night and risk giving LBJ even one bad memory to make him start thinking about leaving his hometown team . . . a team he has publicly pledged his future to every time some big-market media type asks him about bolting to the Knicks or Lakers in the summer of 2007.
That's why, in this week's Power Rankings, I invited Lake Erie locals to write in and tell me what really happened last Friday against Washington. Were these loud boos? A smattering? Were they booing LeBron or the team in general? The floor is yours:
Edward (Cleveland): I was at the game where booing supposedly occurred. "Exaggerated" is the understatement of the year. LeBron is our savior. This city would never, EVER jeopardize offending LeBron, because if he leaves via free agency they might as well fold the Cavaliers or move them to Vegas. If LeBron isn't re-signed long-term, you'll probably see every local resident marching up to Dan Gilbert's office with torches and pitchforks in hand. Allow me to reiterate my initial point: LeBron's booing was very exaggerated!
Rick (Edmonton, Canada): I was in Cleveland for the game and, no, the reports are not exaggerated. I was sitting seven rows back from the Cavs' bench as the final minutes ticked away and the boos got louder. LeBron did stink up that second half but as an individual visiting a city looking to revitalize itself, I thought booing the face of Cleveland was totally out of line. LeBron has two major weaknesses -- free throws and one-on-one D -- but the fans there should be booing the other four guys who stand around and wait for LeBron to do everything.
J.R. (Cleveland): I was there and I didn't hear booing. I did hear an awkward sort of moan as the team continuously fell short.
Alex (Cleveland): Yes, reports of LeBron being booed were indeed correct. Yes, it was probably the dumbest move us Cavaliers fans could have made. But when you have lived through The Drive, The Fumble and The Shot, anything that resembles a collapse gets us unnerved. We basically just don't want to see our team miss the playoffs like last year and all those missed free throws brought back horrible memories.
John (Canton, Ohio): To even call it a smattering of boos would be a gross exaggeration. You had maybe 20 drunk idiots booing and the rest of the place was just quiet. Absolute non-story if you ask me.
Duane Lumpkin (Columbus, Ohio): Please stop this mess. You need to remind LeBron that he's an athlete and every athlete is subject to being booed -- ask Namath, Bradshaw, Kobe, O.J. and A-Rod. If this is another "reason" that LBJ might be leaving, please remind him that baseball MVPs have also been booed in New York recently. Please remind LeBron and every other superstar that he (or she) may be booed in any venue where he or she may play poorly -- if they repeatedly strike out, throw interceptions or miss foul shots.
Scott (Ohio): I'd buy the Cleveland fans booing LeBron. It could have been worse; Browns fans threw beer bottles.
Andy (Cleveland): There were about 100 people booing out of 20,000. And they were not necessarily booing at LeBron missing free throws, just the overall performance during a game Cleveland needed. This was completely blown out of proportion and now everyone thinks LeBron is going to leave. Why would we boo LeBron?
Mike (Cleveland): The fans were certainly booing, but I'm not so sure it was LeBron or just the effort of the team recently and in that game. They keep finding ways to lose to teams that they should be beating. The Wizards at home? Come on. LeBron missed his last seven free throws and didn't make a single shot in the second half. When the best player in the league is missing FREE throws, then the fans tend to get edgy. If Mickey Mantle can get booed, then so can LeBron.
Kevin (Arlington, Va.): The boos were definitely audible on the DC telecast of the game. Audible to the point that my non-NBA-fan friend said, "Holy cow, why are they booing LeBron?"
A look at the most active movers, upward and downward, in ESPN.com's weekly NBA Power Rankings:
Highest Rise: No. 7 Denver Nuggets
Steepest Fall: No. 18 Milwaukee Bucks
Noah Graham /NBAE/Getty Images
Kobe Bryant moves by Magic center Tony Battie to the hoop. Bryant had 28 points in a 102-87 Lakers victory. LA is now 29-28.
Quote of the Day
You've probably heard that the Spurs were close to acquiring J.R. Smith before last Thursday's trading deadline. Although rebounding has proven to be its biggest weak spot, besides health, San Antonio was actually close to filling multiple voids on what was originally thought to be the deepest team in club history.
The Spurs' trade with New Orleans for the out-of-favor Smith, according to NBA front-office sources, also would have netted Lithuanian sharpshooter Arvydas Macijauskas in exchange for Brent Barry. Smith probably wouldn't have played much right away on such a veteran team, but the 20-year-old would have given San Antonio some sorely needed athleticism at the swing positions. And while Macijauskas has done little but sit as a Hornets rookie -- he seems an especially poor fit on a team without a low-post threat, especially one that runs the Princeton offense -- coaches would probably view him differently if he were coming off the bench for the Spurs and getting the open looks on the perimeter created by Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
The deal collapsed, however, when the Hornets' earlier acquisition of Marc Jackson last Thursday consumed more salary-cap space than New Orleans/Oklahoma City anticipated. With 30 minutes to go before the trade buzzer, San Antonio thought it had saved the deal by finding a third team to absorb the contract of second-year Hornets forward Jackson Vroman, but time ran out before the trade could be completed.
But not before Barry was advised by the Spurs that he was about to be dealt . . . and then told to get back on the team's plane to Memphis.
Look for Tim Thomas to wind up in Phoenix if his buyout from the Bulls is completed Wednesday as expected.
League rules prevent the Bulls from adding a formal clause to Thomas' buyout that prevents him from signing with an Eastern Conference team after being released. But the sides can strike a handshake agreement to that effect and apparently have, with Chicago intent on preventing Thomas from joining New Jersey (his hometown team) or Philadelphia.
Mothballed all season after the Bulls acquired his expiring contract as part of the Eddy Curry deal, Thomas would be eligible for the playoffs with his new team as long as he's waived by Chicago before the Wednesday deadline. The Suns have competition in the West from San Antonio, but the Spurs are essentially looking for optional depth (with Tim Duncan and Robert Horry hobbling) similar to last spring's signing of Glenn Robinson.
Phoenix can offer a bigger role than most playoff contenders with Kurt Thomas lost for the rest of the regular season to a stress fracture in his right foot. Thomas' setback makes the Amare Stoudemire-less Suns even smaller than they were and thus desperate for size of any kind, even though Tim Thomas is a 6-10 small forward.
Readers respond to the latest edition of the ESPN.com NBA Power Rankings:
HoustonHam (Houston): The Rockets are the hottest team in the NBA and you put the Wizards in front of them? I don't see the logic in that. Houston's schedule hasn't been the toughest, but Yao has been a monster lately. You'll see -- we can match up with the Mavs in the first round. If we get there.
Stephen Gilbert (NYC): How can any team be ranked below the Knicks? They lead the NBA in turnovers and are last in assists. Has any team ever done that before? As a recovering Knick fan, I have to say they're in a class by themselves.
Casey (Los Angeles): Denver? Seventh? Are you crazy? They're winning their division, but that's because it stinks. How many teams in the NBA have better records? Come off it. The Clippers are hoping to fall to the sixth spot in the West just so they can draw Denver in the first round instead of Dallas or San Antonio.
Paul Fuller (Dallas): You just HATE the Mavs, don't you? You admit the facts -- they're .800 for the year, they're 22-3 since Jan 1, they've SMOKED Detroit (by 27), split with the Spurs (won by 19, lost by two) and clubbed Miami twice. And if they lose in San Antonio this Thursday, even by one, you've promised to drop them to No. 3. Somehow it's the Mavs' fault that while they've been going 22-3, they've failed to separate from the Spurs? How about this perspective: While the Spurs have gone 19-5 in 2006, they've LOST ground to the incredible, streaking Mavs. THAT would be quite a story.
Keith Buohl (Bridgewater, Mass.): Doctor Detroit: I take offense to your comment that the Mavs are headed to No. 3 if they lose at San Antonio. Why would losing to the third-ranked team on the road be so damaging? It wouldn't be like Dallas lost to the Hawks (as Detroit did two weeks ago) or the Sixers (San Antonio before the break). Dallas' record against the top teams is unbelievable, as you wrote recently. You've kept the Pistons in the top slot after a loss. Why not make life easy on yourself and just leave Detroit at No. 1 and San Antonio at No. 2 for the rest of the season?
Ed's note: Tip of the hat to Mr. Buohl, who I'm pretty sure is the originator of the Doctor Detroit nickname for the committee (of one). But I can assure him and everyone else that nothing is decided in advance. Official, final rulings are not made until Sunday night after taking stock of the whole week and using our secret formula to sort everything out 1-to-30.
John (Chicago): Are the Pistons going to contest any of the technicals against Rasheed Wallace? I think it's bunk how a lot of the refs single Rasheed out. They need to focus on doing their job. They are clearly out to get him.
Marc Stein: Yes. Teams do contest Ts occasionally and one team exec told me that Ts are rescinded (but not announced as such) roughly 10-to-15 percent of the time. With 'Sheed at 13 Ts for the season, meaning he's three away from a one-game suspension, I'm sure the Pistons will protest against anything protest-able.
Furthermore: 'Sheed's T count is obviously, eventually going to cost Detroit its streak of starting the same five guys every game, since I highly doubt he can make it through the rest of the year getting only two more. You also have to wonder how many one-game suspensions he'll get . . . and how that might impact Detroit's ability to hold off Dallas and San Antonio for the best record in the league and home-court advantage in the Finals. One-game suspensions, remember, follow No. 16, No. 18, No. 20, etc. The good news? 'Sheed's T slate IS wiped clean before the playoffs. However . . . a new T count DOES start in the playoffs and one-game suspensions start when you get your seventh T. Can 'Sheed stop himself at six Ts in the postseason?