The Knicks want center Theo Ratliff as badly as Ratliff wants them. A source close to Ratliff told The Post at last week's Boston summer league, where the Hawks were competing, that Ratliff wants out of Atlanta.

"He's miserable beyond belief," the source said.

When contacted, Ratliff's agent Joel Bell declined to comment on whether Ratliff has demanded a trade. However, when asked if Ratliff would play for the Knicks, he said, "He would be very happy to be with New York. He's an East Coast guy."

Hawks GM Billy Knight said yesterday he has no intention of trading the 6-10 Ratliff, but ultimately it may not be his decision. Knight disputed the notion he's not allowed to make trades until new ownership takes over. But multiple sources say his hands are tied on making any blockbuster moves that could affect the value of the team until the new owners are in place. Knight admitted he considers himself an "interim GM."

"I'm not getting into discussions we may or may not have had," Knight said. "We're not trading Theo. We plan to keep him. Centers are hard to come by."

Indeed, Knight loves Ratliff, and if he keeps his job it is doubtful he'd trade Ratliff. The Pacers have also targeted Ratliff if Brad Miller leaves, and the Mavericks have attempted to pry him the past several months.

Don Chaney is extremely fond of Ratliff's game. The former Sixer fits into what the Knicks need: a true big man who can block shots and shore up their interior defense. The free-agent center market is running dry, with only Elden Campbell and Predrag Drobjnak the only ones left the Knicks might consider.

So why is Ratliff so miserable? The way it's explained, he feels the Hawks' guards on defense are unable to keep players out of the paint, forcing Ratliff to constantly be burdened with penetrators. Ratliff also feels he has to cover for Glenn Robinson, a notoriously lazy help defender.

Ratliff will make $10 million this season, so the Knicks would have to offer Kurt Thomas and another player to make the salaries work. Former Hawks GM Pete Bab**** often said he'd never trade for Latrell Sprewell, and Knight declined to discuss Sprewell yesterday.

* In another attempt to get bigger at small forward, the Knicks recently contacted Lamar Odom's reps but were told not to bother, that Odom won't accept a $4.9 million exception.

[Only registered and activated users can see links. ]