Magic Ships Francis to the Knicks

Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury will form the highest-paid backcourt in the NBA.
Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury will form the highest-paid backcourt in the NBA. (Chitose Suzuki - AP)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

When the Orlando Magic suspended Steve Francis for conduct detrimental to the team last month, Francis said he wanted assurances that he wouldn't be forced to leave and added that constant trade rumors had flustered him and contributed to his sub-par performance.

But in recent weeks, as Francis became more disgruntled and his play more lethargic, the former University of Maryland star was more open to getting a new address.

He received a phone call yesterday that relieved and excited him: The Magic had dealt Francis to the New York Knicks in exchange for Penny Hardaway and Trevor Ariza. "When I called him this morning, I just said, 'Happy Birthday,' " said Francis's agent, Jeff Fried. "This was like a birthday present for Steve."

Francis, who turned 29 on Tuesday, now forms the highest-paid back court in the NBA with Stephon Marbury. The two 6-foot-3, shoot-first point guards have a combined five all-star appearances and will earn a combined $30.2 million this season. The Charlotte Bobcats' total player payroll is $33.3 million.

Francis had traveled with the Magic to New Jersey late Tuesday and only needed to cross the Hudson River for an afternoon news conference with his new team. "This is a trade that we all feel makes us a better basketball team for both now and in the future," Knicks President Isiah Thomas said in a statement. "In Steve, we add an all-star caliber player to our team without giving up core assets that are key to our future."

The star-crazed Knicks have been desperate to shake up their team, which has the second-worst record in the NBA at 15-37. Since the end of last season, Thomas has made a number of high-profile moves, acquiring Coach Larry Brown, Quentin Richardson, Eddy Curry and Jalen Rose. The new, new-look Knicks will face the Washington Wizards on Saturday.

Francis made three consecutive all-star appearances from 2002 to 2004 but he is posting career lows in points (16.2), rebounds (4.8), assists (5.7) and three-point shooting percentage (25.7) this season. He had been unhappy with his role in Orlando under Coach Brian Hill and was suspended two games after he refused to enter a blowout loss in Seattle. Francis apologized but soon thereafter, the Magic began vigorously pursuing trades.

Denver, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Lakers also showed interest in Francis, who is averaging 19.3 points, 6.4 assists and 6.0 rebounds over his seven-year career, but Francis's team of agents -- Fried and Nate Peake -- centered on getting their disgruntled client to New York. "We came to a realization that this was not the best situation and opportunity for Steve," Fried said. "We're not going to sit back. He has but one career. What bigger platform is there than Madison Square Garden? As I said to Steve, 'It's showtime.' He's raring to go."

Francis, the No. 2 pick of the 1999 draft, is scheduled to earn $49 million in the next three seasons and he was the last piece remaining from the blockbuster deal that sent Tracy McGrady to the Houston Rockets in 2004. In that deal, the Magic received Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato for McGrady. Mobley was traded for Doug Christie (who has since been waived and retired) and Cato was used to acquire Darko Milicic from Detroit last week.

Francis was blamed for stunting the growth of second-year forward Dwight Howard, the league's leading rebounder at 12.6 per game. During All-Star Weekend, Miami Heat center and former Magic star Shaquille O'Neal said, "As long as Steve Francis is there, doing what he's doing, Dwight Howard won't get any better."

The Magic is looking to build around Howard and second-year point guard Jameer Nelson, whose improved play this season has forced Francis off the ball and ate up some of his minutes. The trade will provide salary cap relief since Hardaway is in the last year of a deal that will pay him $15.8 million this season.

Hardaway's career began in Orlando in 1993 but was later derailed by injury. He won't play for the Magic because of an arthritic knee condition. Grant Hill's contract will expire in the summer of 2007, leaving the Magic $15 million to $20 million under the salary cap to pursue free agents. Ariza, the Knicks' second-round choice in 2004, was averaging 4.6 points in 36 games but had fallen out of favor with Brown.

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