SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Mike D’Antoni openly admitted Monday night’s return to Phoenix, his home for six seasons, is a “big deal” to him.

“There’s a lot of emotion involved,” he said. “They were good years. Too bad it ended on a bad note. We set out to win a championship and didn’t do it. But I still feel real close to the fans and the players.”

I’ll be particularly interested to see Amare Stoudemire’s salutation. Will he sincerely welcome back D’Antoni, give him a perfunctory hug, or outright snub him?

Shortly after the Suns were snuffed Stoudemire voiced some uncomplimentary sentiments about his then-coach’s alleged lack of defensive preparation. At the same time, D’Antoni has let it be known, no matter how well he prepped Stoudemire, he couldn’t get him to understand his guidelines regarding help defense.

“I’m fine with Amare,” D’Antoni claims. “I thought we accomplished a lot together. He became All-NBA First Team during that time. He may not have always done what I asked, but I can’t deny he did a lot of good things.

“I don’t take his criticism personal. We had just lost a series and we all were feeling pain and frustration. I understand players.

“I’ve always tried to hear their gripes and then try to work it out. Had I stayed that’s what Amare and I would’ve done. And I’m not being Pollyanna.”

My initial reaction to Jason Richardson’s re-routing from Charlotte to Phoenix is positive. After all, Jason is out of Michigan State, which automatically earns him the Plaxico Burress Good Character Stamp of Approval.

Then again, what do I know about all things Arizona? I had McCain, laying 47 electoral votes.

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NOT SURPRISINGLY, 76er president/GM Ed Stefanski has escorted Maurice Cheeks to the NBA’s busy checkout counter. It could’ve been done before Friday night’s game with the Cavaliers, of course, but that would’ve meant interim Tony DiLeo beginning with a sputter. Meanwhile, Philly has four winnable games on tap — Washington twice, Indiana and Milwaukee. A harsh dose of realism follows, on the road in Boston and a West Coast trip.

“Two questions,” column contributor Alan Elliott e-mails, “Who is Tony DiLeo and when is the Oklahoma City dispersal draft?”

Considering the 76ers’ big spending ($67 million payroll), skimpy attendance (26th, 13,900), upper crust management’s low opinion (COO of Comcast Spectacor Peter Luukko) for the coach’s knowhow and substandard 9-14 record (eight losses in last 10 outings before the coaching change), Cheeks was a goner many times over.

Head coaches are dropping like Republicans.

Twenty-three games into the season a record five head coaches had already bitten the dust.

“The league should start to allow teams to trade coaches,” Elliott proposes.

I second the motion. Didn’t it happen at least once in major league baseball, in prehistoric times (late ’50s, early ’60s), when I was a kid, or was that dreamed up in the back of a classroom?

It just seems like with so many coaches being axed, somebody should be bold enough to trade. It’s a creative way to recycle the same old suspects without having to round ’em up. And think of all the guaranteed money that would be saved by not having to pay them off when they leave.

“I know Larry Brown would love the idea,” Elliott submits.

How about Don Nelson for Mike Dunleavy and a stale six pack? Or Mike Woodson for Lawrence Frank with another Bob Knight disciple to be named later? Cheeks for Porter could have worked; maybe a three-way with Scott Skiles? Surely somebody would’ve been willing to deal for Eddie Jordan.

Not to insinuate owners haven’t figured out the secret to saving money. Just look at the heirs to the thrones of P.J. Carlesimo, Sam Mitchell, Jordan, Randy Wittman and Cheeks — Scott Brooks, Jay Triano, Ed Tapscott, Kevin McHale and DiLeo. Their promotions (or Wolverine demotion) appear to be strictly economically based decisions. No other conclusion can be drawn.

I take that back; there also is the undeniable fact management felt pressured to respond to unrealized expectations caused by last season’s playoff appearances (Toronto, Philly and Washington), imported marquee contracts (Jermaine O’Neal, Elton Brand) and re-signed exceedingly overpriced (Gilbert Arenas, Andre Iguodala) players.

Do you realize DiLeo (Germany) and Tapscott (American University) last coached over 20 years ago?

I thought NBA head coaches had to have clout, in terms of salary and long-term security, to have any chance of gaining players’ attention and respect? That’s their agents’ position, anyway. I’m not so sure it makes any difference anymore as long as owners are consistently and overtly supportive of those they put in charge.

Seems to me, owners have lucked into something functional and feasible. Except for special cases, by all means, kiss those guarantees goodbye, it says here.

Believe me, the rest of the league will have no trouble filling coaching vacancies with validated basketball minds (minus the giant egos and $4,000 suits) despite paying minimum, say, $1 million yearly salaries.

I assure you, nobody would suffer, not the teams, the coaches and not the players.

Peter Vecsey covers the NBAfor the New York Post.

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