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On the surface, Minnesota's trade of Christian Laettner and Sean Rooks to Atlanta for Andrew Lang and Spud Webb looks like a steal for the Hawks.

And maybe that's what it will end up being. Certainly in terms of pure talent, Atlanta got more. But the Timberwolves see this as a case of addition by subtraction. Laettner wore out his welcome in Minnesota by feuding with Kevin Garnett, the rookie expected to be the team's future franchise player.It all started during last Sunday's loss (naturally) to Washington. Laettner and Garnett argued in a timeout huddle, and continued as they headed back onto the floor. After the game, Laettner told a writer from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, "You need certain people to shut their mouths. You've got to have the rookies and the young kids shut up, you've got to have the coaches and the veterans take care of the team. We've got some big britches on this team. We've got a lot of people who know everything."

Kevin McHale, T-Wolves VP, said of Laettner the next day, "I don't know why he would blame guys who don't play as much. When you're 14-35, the focus should be on the guys getting the most minutes."

Other T-wolves also sided with Garnett. "To be honest about it, I was pissed off at what (Laettner) said," guard Doug West admitted. "How could he talk about Kevin like that?"

"It was bad judgment on (Laettner's) part," said Tom Gugliotta. "If it's a team matter, say it to us, not the press."

The final straw apparently occurred at a team meeting the next day, when coach Flip Saunders brought up the subject of team unity, apparently hoping Laettner would step up and clear the air. He didn't take the hint.

(Final note: Word is that Minnesota took Lang and Webb over offer from Portland of Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant for Laettner and West.)

TRADE TALK: Miami coach Pat Riley has traded away eight players since Nov. 3, chiefly to set up the Heat's offseason free-agent pursuit. Tim Hardaway, Chris Gatling, Ty Corbin and Tony Smith are free agents after this season, and Walt Williams can opt out of his contract. That means the Heat could have as much as $5.7 million under the salary cap to work with.

"This is really all about the opportunity to go in that (free agency) direction," Riley acknowledged.

Ditto for the Knicks. By sending Doug Christie and Herb Williams to the Raptors for Willie Anderson and Victor Alexander - two more soon-to-be free agents - New York should have $9.5-10 million under the cap.

The Knicks' reportedly had Juwan Howard as their No. 1 priority, with Reggie Miller No. 2, but now they might even have enough money to pursue Shaquille O'Neal.

Some folks in New York thought this might signal that the Knicks brass have given up on this season, which they deny. "I think this is a move for this year, and for the future," said Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld. "I don't think it's going to hurt us at all from a competitive standpoint. In fact, this is a move that I think could help us."

Raptors VP Isiah Thomas was more up-front. "I think New York put itself into position to make a run at some high-priced free agents," he said.

MAVS' MESS: Those youthful Mavericks are squabbling again. Jason Kidd said that he should be the leader of the team because Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn forfeited that right by ego-tripping over money, endorsements and shot totals.

Jackson's nautical response: "Wherever that came from, that's his opinion. He makes enough money. If he wants to buy his own boat, let him buy it. Buy 20 of them. Buy a yacht. I hope he has an anchor and some life rafts. I don't have any boats. I can swim, though. I won't drown."

Jackson also chewed out backup point guard Scott Brooks in a recent game in Salt Lake City for shooting instead of passing.

Speculation has already started that JJ will be dealt for a big guy.

BALLISTIC BAKER: Milwaukee's Vin Baker is the latest Buck to blow up.

After a second blowout loss in a row, Baker stormed out of the locker room and, the next day, blasted his teammates through a popular medium - his agent.

"He's become frustrated with the whole situation," agent Lou Albanese said. "Everybody has the green light to shoot. Vin wants more of a team concept and it's not happening."

What do you want to bet that, in Baker's mind, "we need more of a team concept" means "I have to shoot more."