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KNICKS' VAN GUNDY MAY GO FISHING FOR ROD

Even prior to Friday's upsetting two-point OT loss to the Hawks, those wired into the Knicks claim Jeff Van Gundy was threatening to shake things up . . . apparently feeling a number of players had stopped listening to him.

It's unclear how the acquisition of Rod Strickland -- known to tune out a coach or two during his 11 1/2 seasons touring NBA cities -- will improve the situation, yet that's the way it seems to be shaping up.

According to sources, the Knicks and Wizards continue to discuss a trade that would return the native New Yorker to the team that drafted him later this week. As compensation, Washington would get Chris Childs, Kurt Thomas, John Wallace, Mirsad Turkcan and cash (as much as $3 million) to help clear roster space by paying off people.

Should the deal fall through, understand it won't be because the salaries involved are incompatible. Rather than subject you to the boring details, all you've got to know is that a third team is no longer required to make this work. Both the Knicks and Wizards, while conforming to league rules, would be able to absorb the obtained salaries on their respective caps.

Why would the Wizards find this an attractive package?

Because they're comatose and show no vital signs of recovery. Because it's a way to dump an unproductive, unhappy player with bad practice habits and a bloated salary. Because power owner Michael Jordan has an itchy trigger finger and is dying to make a loud noise, if for no other purpose than to get the attention of the rest of the players on the team.

Would the Knicks be giving up too much? No. A motivated Strickland is superior to Childs. The departure of the free agent-in-waiting Thomas means nuclear sub Marcus Camby would play more meaningful minutes. Wallace's daylight and contribution is erratic, at best. Whereas trading Turkcan translates into a healthier herd.

"I don't see why the Knicks would hesitate swapping these four players for Strickland," ventured one eastern conference GM. "Jeff only plays eight guys, anyway."

A perturbed Payton?

Those courtside in Seattle Monday say Payton and Paul Westphal were jawing at each other all evening during the Sonics' last second victory over the Nets. "It was as if Gary (6 for 22 in 46 minutes) didn't want to be out there," said one bystander. "For the most part, he was just going through the motions."

Rod rails for Juwan

Strickland says Juwan Howard's critics don't know what they're talking about. "It's not his fault his numbers are down. He's not a small forward, but he's playing on the perimeter. That's fine for a guy like Scottie Pippen. He's a slasher who can also spot up for jumpers, but that's not Juwan. His game is about posting people up around the basket. He'll never complain about playing out of position, so I'll do it for him."

Hoop du jour

The Celtics are shopping free agent-to-be Danny Fortson, if for no other reason than to establish whether the 6-6 macho forward has any real value. "You like him against maybe 10 teams, and none of them are playoff bound," says a western conference executive.

Is there a better one-two punch than Jordan and Susan O'Malley?

Eddie Jones says he wants MJ (Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson) money to re-sign with the Hornets.

Why doesn't Maverick owner-to-be Mark Cuban put Dennis Rodman in charge of interviewing prospective coaches, and really illuminate the farce? If Don Nelson had any leftover dignity, he'd tell Cuban what he really thinks about importing Rodman, and get on with the rest of his life.

Tim Hardaway swears he likes Chicago buddy Antoine Walker. You could've fooled Walker. "He's not a bad guy. He's just an (expletive deleted)," Hardaway told the Boston Herald. "I know it and he knows it. Once he gets over being an (expletive deleted) he'll be fine. Maybe hearing me say this will open his eyeballs." Or at least his ear drums. "He's not mature yet," Hardaway continued, referring to Walker's abominable shot selection and bent for arguing with the referees. "He's a great, great athlete. He has all the skills you can put in a player. But his attitude is (messed) up. You've got to change your attitude to win games and he hasn't done that."

Teammates of Keith Van Horn are beginning to question his toughness. "The next tough rebound he pulls down in traffic will be his first," one stated.

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

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