After surviving the seven-game western trip that ended in the Salt Palace Saturday night, the New York Knicks have the third-best record in the NBA and are inspiring talk of a championship, while general manager Al Bianchi is an early favorite for NBA executive of the year. Could David Checketts have done as well as Bianchi? "It's the kind of situation where you knew if you did some of the right things, you could really be a hero. Now, that's Bianchi," says Checketts, the Jazz's GM.

Before Bianchi took the GM job in 1987, the Knicks' famous 79-day search involved Checketts, who withdrew from consideration. In a recent conversation, Bianchi even asked Checketts, "What would you have done?"Early last season, Checketts was mildly critical of the Knicks, saying, "I wouldn't have handled them at all the same way, but there's no telling how things would have worked differently."

These days, he's impressed. "I like what Al's done," he said. "They've got a lot of lively bodies. They press you, they work hard, they want to win."

Bianchi's landmark deal was trading Bill Cartwright to Chicago for Charles Oakley, after holding onto Cartwright through last seasson. "The Oakley trade was a great trade," noted Checketts. "I would have traded Cartwright sooner - but by waiting, he got a better deal."

Bianchi's plan of attack? "I had to look into the chemistry in-house and with the team," he told the New York Post. "When we came in, there were too many people dealing with negatives. They said this couldn't be done, that couldn't be done. My job was to get people with the right attitudes, change things so we had the right chemistry from top to bottom."

It's working - the Knicks entered Saturday's game with a better record than the Jazz.

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STILL WAITING: Four weeks later, the Bart Kofoed camp is still unhappy. While Bobby Hansen is back to no-contact practicing and the Jazz keep auditioning 12th men, Kofoed is almost ready to play in the CBA and the NBA Players Association is still trying to win back his $80,000.

The Jazz chose not to pay off Kofoed's guaranteed money, terminating the contract. Ron Grinker, Kofoed's agent, is awaiting the outcome of arbitration on the contract matter before considering other strategy.

"The team may wish they had just quietly released Bart, which they could have," Grinker said. "They've dealt the cards; now they can play with them. The backlash of this may be more far-reaching than they'd ever imagined . . . The arbitration is the least of their worries at this point."

Asked if he wished he'd handled the matter differently, Checketts said, "I guess it would probably have put it behind us, but on the other hand, I haven't had any second thoughts . . . In a game like the one against Charlotte, I look at Hansen sitting at the end of the bench, and I get more angry."

Grinker has landed Kofoed a CBA job, but Kofoed wanted to wait until he was in better shape before resuming his basketball career. Grinker is also convinced Kofoed will be back in the NBA soon, once his name is cleared. "Bart's an NBA basketball player; he's proven that," said Grinker. "He'll be back," said one NBA player personnel director.

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BRIEF STAYS: Eric White stayed just long enough to find a place in Jazz history. Of 107 Jazz players in the franchise's 15 seasons, White has played the least - one game, for two minutes.

That tops the record of NBA veteran Walt Bellamy, who started and played 14 minutes of the Jazz's first game ever - an 89-74 loss to the Knicks in October 1974 - and was waived the next day. Other short stays: Jeff Cook and Carl Kilpatrick, who were injured and later activated for two games each; Toby Kimball and Dick Miller, three games; John Block, John Brown and Darryl Dawkins, four games.

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CONTRACT TALK: Jerry Sloan has yet to sign a new contract with the Jazz; he was given the latest draft of a proposed deal Friday. "That's not a big deal to me - I haven't worried about it," said Sloan.

Once signed, Sloan's contract will take him through the 1991-92 season. "At least, they're showing enough confidence in me that they think I can do the job," Sloan noted. "I feel the same way. We're going to make some mistakes, but we're going to do some good things, too. Our players have been very responsive."

The Jazz, meanwhile, are coming closer to the NBA minimum player payroll. They opened the season at $5.4 million, plus $600,000 they could count on deferred money that Mel Turpin already earned. Thurl Bailey's new contract brought them to about $6.4 million - $300,000 short of the minimum. A new deal for John Stockton would easily take care of that; otherwise, Checketts will have to choose some other way to distribute the money.