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Default 07-20-2001, 09:19 AM

Peter Vecsey
INSIDE THE COMBAT ZONE NEW YORK POST
July 20, 2001 --
HOOP DU JOUR

BOSTON - Now that a number of name players are no longer authorized free agents, holdover trades finally are official, the new salary-cap figure ($42.5 million) has been established and guys like Rodney Buford have found a league at last to play in (even if it's only a short season), it's time to move into the stands at Shaw's 10-team summer fling and separate the serious (discussions) from the delirious:

KNICKS While they continue to explore various avenues to upgrade at the point (last time we looked at them in the Raptors series, there were three playmakers on the floor and none of them was named Mark Jackson), delete any notion about them acquiring Gary Payton.

The Sonics, sources stress, have no desire to swap their all-star pain-in-the-posterior for either Allan Houston or Latrell Sprewell, who's not available, anyway. They've been deemed "too old." As is Terrell Brandon, a regular rider in the Timberwolves' shopping cart.

Seattle wants two reputable young players (Portland proposal of Damon Stoudamire was rejected) and a first-round draft pick for Little Noxious. If that's not doable (his attitude and a demand for a three-year extension, if traded, has made everyone leery), they may be forced to keep Payton for the two remaining years on his contract.

Gary wants to stay. Owner Howard Schultz prefers he leave. UN delegate Magic Johnson, a Starbucks' business partner of Schultz's, has been asked to make peace, I'm told.

As for New York, obtaining Brandon continues to be a genuine option.

NETS Michael Jordan isn't the only one trying to make a comeback. Jayson Williams, working out almost every day, tells me his shattered leg isn't giving him problems.

Now that Jason Kidd is running the show instead of Stephon Marbury, he's craving to play again for Jersey. Suns are obligated to pick up $3M tab when Chris Dudley is bought out of contract.

PACERS Having finished a far second to Sacramento for Chris Webber's stigmatized services (Jermaine O'Neal was so worried he was trade bait, he showed up at rookie camp), they are determined to come in first in the race with Miami (involved in trade talk with Golden State) for Hakeem Olajuwon. A meeting is set up for today, sources reveal.

The Rockets pray it goes flawlessly. They're eager to work out a sign-and-trade to get him off their books and, therefore, be in position to re-sign Maurice Taylor and Shandon Anderson. Accepting Derrick McKey (one year left) and Sam Perkins (unguaranteed option) would permit Indiana to pay Hakeem $8M, $4M more than Houston's willing to pay their franchise center, who's equally eager to prove he's both fit and fly.

BUCKS When asked if he's considering a sign-and-trade (Scott Williams and Darvin Ham) with Miami for outlaw Anthony Mason, George Karl declined to confirm or deny the info.

Milwaukee also is pursuing Joe Smith and has offered Rafer Alston a minimum (690G) one-year guarantee, whose daylight is bound to increase as a result of Lindsey Hunter's trade to the Lakers.

HAWKS Re-signing Nzur Mohammed exhausted means to compete with Toronto (done deal) and Chicago (now talking to Tim Hardaway) for Alvin Williams, the perfect presence alongside Jason Terry.

Denver's unsightly alternative is to swap Tariq Abdul-Wahad and Voshon Lenard for Alan Henderson. Bad contracts for bad contract. Or secure Shammond Williams or Emanual Davis in a sign-and-trade? Seattle says it fully intends to keep both. Pacers may offer Travis Best and other goodies for Toni Kukoc and replace him with Rod Strickland.

SUNS If Marbury's selfishness repulsed his Nets teammates, how can management expect him to co-exist with ultra-sensitive Penny Hardaway, who tends to dominate the ball himself?

Apparently it doesn't. Word has it, Phoenix is talking to Memphis about sending Penny home in return for Arizona's Michael Dickerson and Bryant Reaves.

SIXERS For a guy who was contemplating retirement during the Finals, Larry Brown sure is spending a lot of time on the phone with GM Billy King and pests like myself. Brown hired Phil Ford to replace Maurice Cheeks. Randy Ayers and Herb Brown are expected to join him in Portland. Should Strickland decide not to wait for the Pacers to renovate their roster, look for Brown to reach out for him.

Speedy Claxton, on the IR last season, looked so good Wednesday (impressive numbers across the stats sheet), fans gave him an ovation when he left the game with two minutes left. Claxton and exciting Celtic free agent Khalid El-Amin are the only point guards who are doing whatever they want, whenever they want, no matter who's harassing them.

NUGGETS What was Dan Issel thinking when he signed Avery Johnson to a three-year, $14.4M guarantee? Judging by his age, diminished skills, lack of height and outside shooting ability, one year would've been more than sufficient.

Does Issel really think Johnson's going to be happy playing meager minutes for a loser behind Nick Van Exel? What's taking ownership so long to select a GM? From what I hear, Kiki Vandeweghe will get the nod over John Nash and Billy McKinney.

WIZARDS For an 18-year-old 7-footer, it's startling to see how much agility, aptitude and outside accuracy Kwame Brown brings to the NBA.

One gift he conspicuously lacks, is a post-up game. Not once has he attempted a back-to-the-basket move. "He's a four fading to a three," sized up Karl.
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