Keith Van Horn may be the centerpiece in Scott Layden's plan to transform the Knicks into a younger, bigger team, but the former 76er is not the traditional center the general manager originally sought.

The NBA's stock of free-agent centers is all but empty, and trade speculation is bound to focus on current Knicks center Kurt Thomas. But despite rumors of a possible deal with Dallas, Layden is in no rush to trade his toughest remaining defender.

Once the Knicks traded away Latrell Sprewell to acquire the 6-10 Van Horn, who can play both forward positions, some might have assumed Thomas would be next to go. But while Thomas is an undersized center at 6-9 and provides little shot-blocking ability, he is a productive scorer and rebounder and the team's best low-post defender.

According to several NBA officials, Layden is most likely to trade backup point guard Charlie Ward, whose nine-season tenure is the longest of any current Knick. Ward is entering the final year of a contract worth $6 million, and he would receive an additional $900,000 if he were traded. But only $2 million of his salary is guaranteed, which means his contract can be bought out for that amount if a team merely wants to clear salary-cap space.

Although the summer-league performance of second-year point guard Frank Williams boosted the Knicks' confidence in his ability to back up Howard Eisley, the team would seek an athletic point guard in any deal.

Of course, the Knicks still need a center. Seattle 7-footer Peja Drobnjak, a restricted free agent, is available, but he is a jump-shooting center and poor rebounder. Atlanta's Theo Ratliff is no longer available since the Hawks traded forward Glenn Robinson to Philadelphia in the Van Horn deal. Sacramento 7-footer Keon Clark is on the trading block, but he was charged with marijuana possession a year ago and also said he doesn't want to play in New York.

The most obvious trading partner for the Knicks is Dallas, whose owner, Mark Cuban, is anxious to improve his roster and had wanted free-agent center Alonzo Mourning before he signed with the Nets. One Western Conference official said no one on the Mavericks' roster is untouchable except All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki.

But the only Knick the Mavericks truly want is former Mav Thomas, whom coach Don Nelson covets as the physical defender they lack. They would have no problem taking Ward in a deal or paying his 15 percent trade kicker. But Cuban also wants to cut payroll by dumping some of his own bad contracts, which could threaten any deal between Dallas and the Knicks. If Layden deals Thomas, he wants to package the long-term contracts of either Eisley or swingman Shandon Anderson with him. But Cuban traded Eisley to the Knicks in the first place.

Three Mavs might interest Layden: 7-6 center Shawn Bradley, 6-11 center/forward Raef LaFrentz and backup point guard Nick Van Exel, who excelled in the playoffs. Cuban and Nelson would love to unload LaFrentz, who played sparingly but has six years left on a $70-million contract.

As one Eastern Conference general manager said of LaFrentz, "He's awful for that amount of money."

Bradley is primarily a defensive force and isn't an especially strong rebounder. Even though his contract runs through 2007-08, it averages $5 million a year and his salary actually goes down to $3.5 million this season. Van Exel is the best value with two years worth about $22.7 million remaining on his deal. But if the Mavs trade Van Exel, they won't take back any long-term contracts.

Several possible combinations of players would work in a trade between the Knicks and Dallas, but the one that probably best suits the Knicks' needs would bring Van Exel and Bradley in exchange for Thomas, Ward and either Othella Harrington or Michael Doleac.

With two months left until training camp, there's plenty of time for Layden to make another move, but he might decide keeping Thomas is his best option. "Scott's trying," the Eastern GM said, "but the big one was to get Van Horn."
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