Francis dealt to Knicks for Penny, Ariza

Steve Francis is headed to the New York Knicks, who acquired the three-time All-Star from the Orlando Magic on Wednesday for
Penny Hardaway and Trevor Ariza.

The deal will pair Francis with Stephon Marbury as the highest-paid backcourt duo in the NBA. The Knicks were still talking with several other clubs as team president Isiah Thomas worked at remaking a roster that has stumbled to the league's second-worst record, 15-37.

For the Magic, the trade will provide salary cap relief in 2007 (once Grant Hill's $16.9 million comes off the cap) when they can drop further beneath the cap than any of the league's 30 teams. That will be particularly attractive that summer when a bumper crop of free agents -- including Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter and Mike Bibby -- will be on the market, giving Orlando several options in figuring out exactly how to rebuild around 20-year-old power forward Dwight Howard.

Francis is owed $49 million over the next three seasons, while Hardaway's $15.75 million contract comes off the cap at the end of this season.

Ariza, who fell out of favor with Knicks coach Larry Brown, was averaging only 4.6 points in 36 games for New York. He was a second-round pick by the Knicks (43rd overall) in 2004 after spending just one season at UCLA.

Francis, who turned 29 on Tuesday, had been on the trading block since refusing to re-enter a game against Seattle on Jan. 11. The Magic suspended him and sent him home before he was reinstated following a meeting with coach Brian Hill and team executives. He was averaging a career-low 16.2 points this season, a drop of more than five points from last season.

The arrival of Francis could mean the impending departure of
Jamal Crawford or Quentin Richardson from New York, where Thomas is willing to try almost anything to reverse the fortunes of a team that has failed to meet even the lowest of expectations. Already with a league-high payroll of more than $120, the Knicks will now be above $130 million next season. But while other owners and general managers have been shocked by the Knicks' free-spending ways (they took on a $34 million obligation when they traded Antonio Davis for Jalen Rose two weeks ago), Thomas has been given the go-ahead by owner James Dolan of Cablevision to spend whatever it takes in an effort at making Madison Square Garden the basketball mecca it once was.

The Knicks began the day 10 games behind Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot, and only a miraculous turnaround could get them into the postseason this year. Still, it was a virtual certainty that New York would make a deal of some kind, and Crawford even polled the team's beat writers after Wednesday morning's shootaround to ask them where they believed he would be headed (Insider was the only one who told him Denver).

The Francis trade, first reported by ESPN.com, came on a day when the Knicks awoke to rumors of a possible trade with Minnesota for
Kevin Garnett, a rumor that made its way around the league late Tuesday night -- possibly as a piece of disinformation that was disseminated in order to force the Magic's hand. Garnett's future in Minnesota seems secure through the end of this season, but all bets are off once the summer arrives -- especially if Garnett tells ownership he'd like to be traded.

Hardaway was also shopped to the Portland Trail Blazers, who had been unwilling to part with Darius Miles in a deal that also would have brought Theo Ratliff to New York.

Hardaway, a 12-year veteran, will be reunited with the team he broke into the NBA with in 1993 when the Magic acquired Hardaway and three first-round draft picks from Golden State for Chris Webber. Hardaway left Orlando after six seasons to sign as a free agent with the Phoenix Suns, who traded him to New York 4½ years later in the deal that brought Marbury to the Knicks.

Hardaway played in only four games for New York this season and had been away from the team for several weeks, ostensibly to rehab his arthritic knees. It was not known if he planned to play for Orlando this season, nor was it certain whether Francis was to be available for the Knicks on Wednesday night for their home game against the Miami Heat. Francis was expected to at least be in the building, however, as the trade happened while the Magic were in the New York area for a road game against the New Jersey Nets.

"This is a trade that we all feel makes us a better basketball team for both now and in the future," Thomas said in a news release announcing the deal. "In Steve, we add an All-Star caliber player to our team without giving up core assets that are key to our future."

Francis had career averages of 19.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists in 452 career games for the Rockets and Magic entering the 2005-06 season. He was the 2000 NBA Co-Rookie of the Year and was selected to start for the Western Conference All-Stars from 2002-2004.

"Acquiring a player of Steve's level and talent is very exciting for this team," Brown said. "In him, we have added a veteran that could help us in many areas, and assist with our young players' development."