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Magic trade Francis for Penny

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The Orlando Magic reached into their past Wednesday, dealing perhaps their best player for a bet on the future.

The team traded guard Steve Francis to the New York Knicks for Penny Hardaway and Trevor Ariza, continuing their shift toward a younger lineup.

Francis was averaging a team-leading 16.2 points, but the mercurial guard has feuded with coach Brian Hill this season and struggled to fit in. The three-time All-Star missed two games after being suspended for refusing to re-enter the fourth quarter of a blowout loss.

Assistant General Manager Otis Smith said Orlando wasn’t desperate to unload a problem player, but instead wanted to build a championship-caliber franchise.

“We’ll miss Steve in a lot of ways,” Orlando assistant general manager Otis Smith said. “We’ll miss the passion he brought for the game, we’ll miss the energy he brought for the game, but I think we’ll be better off in the future.

“It’s a move toward a championship, and not just a move to stay stagnant and win 36 games.”

Acquiring Hardaway, who began a perennial All-Star career in Orlando but has only played four games this season because of injuries, gives the Magic salary cap room.

It also brings back a maligned figure from the past. Hardaway orchestrated a locker room coup that led to Hill’s dismissal from his first stint as Magic coach with 33 games remaining in the 1996-97 season. The Magic have not advanced past the first round of the NBA playoffs since.

Hardaway has spent most of this season working out on his own in Houston. Smith said he’d play a similar role in Orlando, even joking that Hardaway wouldn’t see the city.

“We will have a conversation with Penny Hardaway, but Penny Hardaway will never put on an Orlando Magic uniform,” he said.

Smith said the salary cap room freed up by Hardaway’s $15.8 million contract, along with the expiring contract of aging All-Star Grant Hill, would give the Magic plenty of free-agent options in 2007.

“It’ll make us a player in 2007, if not the biggest player — or one of the biggest players,” Smith said.

It was the second trade in a week for the Magic, who acquired former No. 2 overall pick Darko Milicic and Carlos Arroyo from the Detroit Pistons for a first-round selection and center Kelvin Cato on Wednesday.

Ariza, a second-year forward, clashed with Knicks coaches and played inconsistently. He averaged 4.6 points in 36 games.

Orlando is building around second-year forward Dwight Howard and guard Jameer Nelson, who shined as Francis struggled at points this season but has been out for a month with a foot injury.

“The moves we have made during the last few days are geared to grow and improve our team,” coach Brian Hill said. “Trevor is a young, athletic small forward, who will fit in defensively with what we are trying to accomplish. I genuinely like Steve as a person and wish him nothing but the best.”

Francis’ agent Jeff Fried said the guard was happy to be headed to New York, where he’ll be paired with Stephon Marbury, forming one of the league’s most expensive backcourts.

“Steve’s excited as can be,” Fried told The Associated Press. “He’s just excited to get there and perform.”

New York was 15-37 entering Tuesday night and had the second-worst record in the league. Orlando was 19-33, third in the Southeast Division.

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