The Hawks waived PG Gary Payton.

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Suns stump for Glove; Celtics won't face sanctions
By Marc Stein,

Suns stars Shawn Marion and Steve Nash have told that they're personally lobbying free agent Gary Payton to sign with Phoenix after he clears waivers Thursday, but league sources indicate that Payton is leaning toward a return to the Boston Celtics.

Gary Payton

NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik, meanwhile, told on Wednesday that the league does not plan to sanction the Celtics if Payton does re-sign with Boston. The Celtics have been accused of prearranging Payton's return by trading him to Atlanta for Antoine Walker and promising to re-sign the veteran guard after the Hawks released him. General manager Danny Ainge has denied those claims.

Granik did say the practice of teams trading a player and then re-signing him after he clears waivers will definitely be "something we take a look at" in the process of ongoing negotiations with the players' union on a new labor deal. Granik also acknowledged that "there is something that doesn't feel quite right" when, for example, Dallas can include Alan Henderson in last Thursday's trade for Keith Van Horn and then reacquire Henderson after Milwaukee releases him. Thus, that deal suddenly became Calvin Booth for Van Horn.

"But in a salary-cap world, sometimes you end up with trades that make sense in accounting terms and don't necessarily make a lot of sense in the sporting world," Granik said.

"If Payton re-signs with Boston, I'm not sure what great harm has been done. It's not anything anyone in the league is that worked up about. It's hard to see where any great principles have been violated."

The only thing that would change that stance is if, say, the Celtics or the Mavericks were found to be paying an under-the-table bonus to Payton or Henderson as part of these trades.

"And I don't think anyone believes that that's taking place," Granik said.

To bring Walker back to Boston, Ainge sent Payton, Tom Gugliotta and Michael Stewart to the Hawks, along with a future first-round pick. The draft choice was Atlanta's motivation to participate, after which the Hawks happily bought out the remainder of Payton's contract and waived him in time to make the former All-Star eligible for the playoffs.

The only sure way to prevent Payton from choosing his next employer is claiming him off waivers. A claiming team, though, must have the salary-cap space to absorb Payton's $5.4 million salary and none of Payton's current suitors do.

Payton, according to sources, has narrowed his choices to the Celtics and Suns. Going to Phoenix would put him in close proximity to his family's main residence in Las Vegas and, more importantly, put the 36-year-old in contention for the championship ring he's still searching for. Adding Payton to the recently acquired Jim Jackson and Walter McCarty would ease the Suns' depth concerns. And with Payton, Phoenix could curtail Nash's minutes leading up to the playoffs as Nash recovers from recent hamstring trouble.

Indications are, however, that Payton wants to play significant minutes and preferably start, both of which are more likely with the Celtics. It's also likely that Payton feels he has a better chance of landing a new contract from Boston when he hits free agency again July 1, which could give him incentive to rejoin the Celtics as soon as possible.