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Cleaning House With new owners on the way, the Atlanta Hawks have sacrificed the season to build for the future

Why would anyone want to buy the Atlanta Hawks? The team ranks
last in NBA average attendance (13,911), hasn't had a winning
record since the 1998-99 lockout season (through Sunday, Atlanta
was 20-42), and over the past year has unloaded its best players
and gotten little talent in return. "I thought it was the dumbest
thing on earth," says Hawks forward Stephen Jackson of the
personnel moves. It's certainly not how any respectable fantasy
league general manager would operate his team. But Atlanta G.M.
Billy Knight's wheeling and dealing has delighted Steve Belkin,
whose ownership group expects to complete its $250 million
purchase of the Hawks, the NHL Atlanta Thrashers and Philips
Arena from Time Warner this month.

Since last summer Knight has traded former All-Stars Glenn
Robinson, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Theo Ratliff and Rasheed Wallace,
and all he has to show for those moves are center Joel Przybilla
and four players whose contracts are expiring after the season:
Wesley Person ($7.7 million per year), Chris Mills ($6.6
million), Bobby Sura ($6.3 million) and Zeljko Rebraca ($4.2
million). Abdur-Rahim and Ratliff have upgraded the Portland
Trail Blazers into playoff contenders, and Wallace, who was
acquired from Portland but played only one game before being
traded again, is expected to improve Detroit's chances of
reaching the NBA Finals.

In the counterintuitive world of NBA finances, however, the
Hawks' future is full of promise. "We gave Billy Knight a
basketball strategy statement on what we hoped to do, and one of
our main objectives was to have a lot of flexibility," says
Belkin, chairman of the Boston-based Trans National Group, a
direct-marketing and investment company. Instead of paying a
luxury tax on an overpaid, losing team, the new owners will enter
this summer with two first-round picks and at least $17 million
in cap space. Now to find players. "The franchise is going to
have to turn around and start winning before it will be a place
where people will desire to play," says Abdur-Rahim.

The winning attitude will start with Belkin, a Boston Celtics
season-ticket holder who supplied financial backing for a group
that failed in 2002 to land the expansion franchise in Charlotte.
When talks between Time Warner (parent company of Sports
Illustrated) and Texas auto dealer David McDavid stalled last
summer, Belkin made his pitch for the Atlanta sports properties.

Belkin believes a winning team will draw fans to Philips Arena,
and to that end he's placing his trust in the 51-year-old Knight.
A former ABA and NBA player who ended his eight-year career with
the Indiana Pacers as the team's alltime leading scorer, Knight
spent five years as a protege of general manager Donnie Walsh in
the Indiana front office. As G.M. of the Memphis Grizzlies in
2001, Knight sent Abdur-Rahim to Atlanta in a three-player deal
that gave Memphis the draft rights to Pau Gasol, who surprisingly
went on to become Rookie of the Year.

While the Hawks will try to compete for free-agent-to-be Kobe
Bryant this summer, Knight concedes that it will be difficult to
land a player of that caliber. He saw how the Chicago Bulls,
after breaking up their championship team, failed to entice free
agents such as Tracy McGrady. The truth is, cap space in itself
offers no guarantees for would-be contenders: Shaquille O'Neal
remains the only superstar free agent to lead his new team to a
championship. The more realistic approach, taken by Denver and
being adopted by Utah and now the Hawks, is to rebuild through
the draft (lucking into a player like Carmelo Anthony doesn't
hurt) and by signing second-tier free agents (such as Denver
point guard Andre Miller). Cap space also allows a team to trade
for stars from clubs that are looking to dump high salaries.
"We're not going to spend just to spend," Knight says. "We want
to build for the long term." Just what a new owner wants to hear.

COLOR PHOTO: ANDY LYONS/GETTY IMAGES FLYING SOLO Jason Terry (31) has been left with little help since Knight (inset) dismantled the team to create cap room.


Summer Stock
Five top free agents the Atlanta Hawks may be chasing in the

1. Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers (unrestricted)
Says he'll "evaluate every option" at end of season

2. Steve Nash, G, Mavericks (unrestricted)
Best available playmaker will have plenty of suitors

3. Kenyon Martin, F, Nets (restricted)
Nets likely to match any offer for first-time All-Star

4. Quentin Richardson, G, Clippers (restricted)
Fourth-year player having breakout season (17.4 ppg)

5. Mehmet Okur, C, Pistons (restricted)
Can Pistons afford both Okur and Rasheed Wallace?