Knicks trying to swing deal to get Francis from Magic

Steve Francis is being strongly sought by the desperate New York Knicks, who want to pair him in the backcourt with Stephon Marbury in a bid to save their season.

Two sources involved in the Francis trade discussions told ESPN.com on Tuesday that New York is actively pursuing Francis, who is being shopped full throttle by the Orlando Magic.

The Denver Nuggets remain in the hunt for Francis, but they are not the leading option as they were a few days ago. The Minnesota Timberwolves also were trying to stay in the mix, looking for a third team to take on players Orlando is not interested in.

New York was believed to be offering Penny Hardaway, Jamal Crawford and at least one other player, likely Trevor Ariza, David Lee or Nate Robinson, in a deal in which the Knicks would also take back center Kelvin Cato, whose $8.64 million salary comes off the cap at the end of the season.

Cato would have to be included along with Francis ($13.7 million) to provide a match for the salaries of Hardaway ($15.75 million), Crawford ($6.5 million) and the third player, be it Robinson ($1.2 million), Lee (860,000) and/or Ariza $640,000).

The trade, if it were to come to fruition, would provide Orlando salary cap relief and at least one young starter for a franchise looking to rebuild around Dwight Howard.

The Magic will have Grant Hill's $16.9 million salary off their cap in the summer of 2007, and freeing themselves of their obligations to Francis would leave them well below the salary cap two summers from now when a bumper crop of free agents hits the market.

Another financial factor influencing the Magic's decision-making is the impending transfer of ownership control from Amway magnate Rich DeVos to his children. DeVos' son-in-law, Bob Vander Weide, will represent the Magic as their owner. Orlando has been unsuccessful in securing public financing for a new arena and is losing money under the weight of a nearly $67 million payroll. Francis is owed $49.3 million over the next three seasons.

When Francis' name first surfaced in trade rumors, there was speculation that the Knicks would try to trade Stephon Marbury for him. But a league source said team president Isiah Thomas envisions a Marbury-Francis pairing that would evoke comparisons to the Thomas-Joe Dumars guard tandem the Pistons won with in the 1980s, or the Walt Frazier-Earl Monroe backcourt the Knicks had in 1973 the last time they won the championship.

"It could be great, or it could be a disaster," said one source, describing the Knicks as "really pushing" to acquire Francis as they trudge through a losing streak that ballooned to 10 games with their drubbing in Dallas on Monday night. With a record of 14-37, the Knicks are in danger of going into the All-Star break with the league's worst record. Only Charlotte (14-39) is worse.

The Knicks had been linked to Francis last week in a reported three-way trade also involving Denver in which Francis would have ended up with the Nuggets. That rumor produced a flood of subsequent reports involving Denver forward Kenyon Martin, including another offer involving Hardaway that would allow the Nuggets to lower their payroll -- though it wouldn't necessarily bring long-term cap relief.

New York also has had discussions with the Portland Trail Blazers involving Hardaway, whose contract is one of the few expiring maximum deals this season of the type that are annually dangled in February before teams seeking cap relief.

Dallas forward Keith Van Horn's $15.7 million salary comes off the cap this summer, but Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has said his team has no interest in trading Van Horn to the Raptors for Antonio Davis, who also has an expiring contract and was dealt by the Knicks to Toronto for Jalen Rose in a deal that will allow the Raptors to move well below the cap this summer.

The Chicago Bulls have had no luck in their efforts to move Tim Thomas and his expiring contract of nearly $14 million. The Bulls are expected to offer Thomas a buyout if they can't trade him, and he is hoping to sign with a playoff team prior to March 1, the deadline for players to eligible for the postseason.

Chris Sheridan, a national NBA reporter for the past decade, covers the league for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.