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VAN GUNDY'S SNIPING HAS EWING CALLING HIS OWN SHOTS

It's amusing to read how Knick General Manager Scott Layden will have to make hard decisions in two summers regarding the re-signing of Patrick Ewing, or whether he'll trade for Rod Strickland, or how much he's willing to pay Kurt Thomas.

Layden is nothing but a well-paid, glorified buffer between Dave Checketts and Jeff Van Gundy, who despise each other.

Layden's job description is merely to scout and make calls concerning possible trades, that's it, and that's just the way he likes it. No pressure. If anything of remote consequence needs to be done, forensic tests will prove Checketts' fingerprints and signature are all over it.

Van Gundy was the last to know Patrick Ewing's exact return to active duty because Ewing's lost trust in his coach.

The way I hear it, Ewing was informed Van Gundy had been talking behind his back saying, in essence, "Judging by practice, he should've been back playing by now."

In other words, nothing serious. Ewing feels betrayed by someone he heavily endorsed for promotion and whose job he tried to save by playing hurt (and winding up nearly crippled) last season.

Aside from that, Ewing's confidants claim he's grown uncomfortable around Van Gundy, feeling he's not the person he was as an assistant, or even a year ago. Van Gundy may have changed, but his offense is still largely authored by Pat Riley.

As far as everyone's assumption that Ewing tipped off John Thompson ("A little birdie told me") regarding his due date back in the lineup, it's not true. Sources say Thompson's inside information came by way of one of Ewing's Georgetown's loyalists.

Trade winds

TNT's Kenny Smith says if Mark Jackson were traded from the Pacers to the Raptors it'd make Toronto the better of the two teams. Not coincidentally, such a deal had been discussed to the point where Jackson knew, if it went down, the free agent-in-waiting was assured of getting a one-year extension. Then, all of a sudden, the Raptors mysteriously broke off negotiations.

Which reminds me, shouldn't the Raptors at least be eliminated from the playoffs before Tracy McGrady starts spouting off about how much he'd like to play with Allen Iverson? I mean, didn't this guy learn anything in college?

Iverson, by the way, tells me he's very much against the 76ers trading Larry Hughes.

"Given the time to play together we can be compatible and competent. He wants to stay and I want him to stay. Our relationship goes way beyond basketball. We've gotten very close. We may talk about basketball five percent of the time, the rest of it is personal. He's going through a lot of things I went through at his age and I've been trying to help him. We really identify with each other."

Skiles unlike Ainge

Now that Scott Skiles has won his first two games on the Suns' sidelines, it's fashionably safe to say he has all the components and intangibles to be a great head coach.

Actually, people in the know have been saying the same thing for years. Skiles is intelligent, intense and disinterested in making friends with his players, all the strengths that were Danny Ainge's weaknesses.

Against the Pistons in Skiles' first game after moving over two feet on the bench, he cracked down from the get-go. Tom Gugliotta picked up a technical and was yanked from the game. Oliver Miller subsequently took an identical route for the same reason. An unnecessary fancy pass by Todd Day earned him a seat belt later on.

"If you need to be disciplined, Scott's not going to look the other way," said an insider on the scene. "He's going to do what he has to for the good of the team, no matter what part of the game. He knows he can't let players get away with stuff. Once you give 'em too much freedom, you can't take it back."

Youth being served

The rookie game during this season's All-Star Weekend (Feb. 12-13) in Oakland is certain to be the most competitive in league history. That's because it'll pit the previous draft's pedigrees against those from the last draft who were lockout-deprived of their showcase.

This might be league selector Rod Thorn's toughest career assignment. Only a man who survived the teen-age years of twin daughters could qualify for such a thankless chore.

Vince Carter will participate in the main event and Matt Harpring is out injured for the season. That leaves Jason Williams, Paul Pierce, Raef LaFrentz, Mike Bibby, Michael Dickerson, Michael Doleac, Larry Hughes, Al Harrington, Antawn Jamison, Michael Olowokandi, Ruben Patterson, Cuttino Mobley, Dirk Nowitzki, Brian Skinner, Predrag Stojakovic, Bonzi Wells, Pat Garrity, Roshown McLeod, Rasho Nesterovic, Felipe Lopez and Jahdi White.

As I recall, it was reputed to be a shallow draft.

This year's crop is a little more manageable, featuring Steve Francis, Elton Brand, Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion, Adrian Griffin, Wally Szczerbiak, Baron Davis, Andre Miller, Jason Terry, Ron Artest, James Posey, Corey Maggette, Richard Hamilton and possibly (based on hearsay) Jonathan Bender.

Two shots

If Shawn Kemp were to pull a Danny Ainge, he'd need a lifetime of overtime to have enough time to spend with all his children.

After watching Kobe Bryant torch the Hawks and T'Wolves, NBC has begun bargaining to obtain the TV rights to Laker practices.

(Peter Vecsey is an analyst on NBC's NBA coverage and a columnist for the New York Post.)

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