A day after intimating he wanted to come back to Houston, Mike D’Antoni told Rockets ownership he’s becoming a free agent and won’t return.
Just like that, the list of elite coaching prospects on the market just got deeper. As did the number of ready-made win-now vacancies.
ESPN was the first to report that D’Antoni – whose contract expired after Houston got eliminated Saturday by the Lakers in the Western Conference semifinals – would not be returning.
“It’s with incredible sadness and gratitude that my wife laurel and I announce that our incredible journey in Houston has ended for now and that we’ll be moving to a new chapter,” D’Antoni said in a statement.
The veteran coach had been in the last year of his deal after rejecting extension offers not once but twice last offseason. His agent Warren LeGarie and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta have blamed each other for the breakdown, but as late as Saturday night D’Antoni had said he hoped to return to Houston next season.
“We’ve got a great organization, great city, great fans, team’s great. I mean, everything’s good here. We’ll see what happens, but I couldn’t ask for a better situation. I had four years. Hopefully it keeps going, but you just never know. But everything is good on this side, for sure,” said D’Antoni.
“It was fun. It’s still fun. You always hate to lose. It’s always a little bittersweet, but I couldn’t ask for better people to work with and better players to work with. A lot of things stand out, a lot of little things, but I had a great four years, for sure.”
That great four years saw the best record in the West (.682), but only one trip to the conference finals and none to the NBA Finals.
Rockets star James Harden had expressed a desire to have D’Antoni back.
“Of course. Of course,” Harden said Saturday night. “Mike has done some unbelievable things here.”
Now D’Antoni – a two-time NBA Coach of the Year – will join 2016 champion Tyronn Lue and highly regarded Billy Donovan on the open market.
The 69-year-old D’Antoni is expected to draw plenty of interest, including from both Philadelphia and Indiana, according to ESPN. He’d been a 76ers assistant under recently fired Brett Brown before landing in Houston.
D’Antoni revolutionized the NBA with his ahead-of-it’s-time “Seven Seconds or Less” offense in Phoenix, playing with a pace and 3-point penchant now widespread in the league. His Hall of Fame point guard, Steve Nash, was just named as the Brooklyn Nets’ coach instead of Lue.
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