IN HIS CAREER as a basketball player, Karl Malone has made no real trouble. There was the occasional contract squabble, the hint of playing somewhere else, but soon it was over and Malone was back to being the dutiful company man.

This year, however, has been different. Rather than an occasional remark just to keep things interesting, Malone has stepped up the rhetoric. In fact, as he grows older he isn't getting mellower, he's getting crankier. He's showing up in strange places, saying controversial things and acting like, well, a superstar.The latest newsmaking event came this week on "The Tonight Show." He first appeared Thursday to woof and flail with Dennis Rodman in an attempt to hype their July tag-team wrestling match. Then he appeared as a guest the next night. Word is he's soon to appear on an episode of "Baywatch."

All this, of course, has to have coach Jerry Sloan cringing. For someone who has been known to practice his team on Christmas Day so players don't get distracted from basketball, this can't be good news. Malone grappling with Rodzilla on national television? As Sloan would sarcastically say, Why don't they just go out and dance together?

Sloan may have seen this coming. Back in October, Malone served notice he wasn't going to be a quiet camper when he called teammate Greg Ostertag a fat-(expletive) for arriving out of shape. As the season rolled along, so did Malone's discontent. He declared he wanted to play with a great center before he retires, which seemed to rule out the Jazz. He said he wanted to be traded if Sloan's contract wasn't extended.

He told a national sports talk show host he wants to finish his career playing in rain country, which can only mean one of three places: Seattle, Portland or Rangoon.

Malone added another threat early this week by saying if the Jazz don't get rid of KFNZ afternoon radio hosts David Locke and Tom Nissalke, he wants out. "It's me or them," he said.

You get the idea Malone is working overtime thinking up reasons to leave the Jazz. So is it time for Malone to move on? Would he and the Jazz both be better off with a change of scenery?

From the Jazz's perspective, trading him for a young superstar may seem a good idea, but in reality it's unlikely. Finding a player who will be as durable, reliable and trouble-free would be virtually impossible.

But if the Jazz did trade Malone, who could they get? Based on this past season's salaries, here's what is out there for the approximate $5 million Malone makes per season: A.C. Green, Dale Davis, Vlade Divac, Christian Laettner, John Starks, Sean Elliott, Steve Smith, Kenny Anderson, Jason Kidd, Brian Grant, Tim Hardaway, Tom Gugliotta or Glen Rice, to name a few. While all are good players, it's unlikely any of them would get the Jazz closer to a championship; they can't get their own teams there. Of that group only the 34-year-old Green has a championship ring.

Getting a younger franchise player such as Alonzo Mourning could work for the Jazz. All it would have taken this year is to trade Malone AND John Stockton to Miami. Mourning has a $105 million contract, which is more than Malone's, Stockton's, Jeff Hornacek's, Bryon Russell's and Greg Ostertag's combined. Then when Mourning's contract expires in 2003, they could deal with re-signing him for even more money.

If you traded Malone and Bryon Russell you could have Derrick "I'm-Not-a-Problem" Coleman. If you traded Malone and Jeff Hornacek, you could have Chris "Neither-Am-I" Webber.

To put market value and salary cap into perspective, consider this: If they weren't on the same team, it would take Malone's and Shandon Anderson's salaries combined in order to acquire GREG OSTERTAG.

You could actually trade Malone for Grant Hill. But nobody is going to trade one All-Star for another who is 10 years older. Or you could get in the record books with perhaps the worst trade in basketball history, by offering Malone and Anderson for Robert Horry.

Had it happened during the regular season, the Jazz could have traded Malone to Chicago for Dennis Rodman and Jud Buechler. As they say in the commercials, "Think of the possibilities!" At least Rodman would be that much closer to Las Vegas.

On the other hand, if the Jazz keep Malone, he may just get them back to the Finals. If they wait until his contract expires a year from now, they can re-sign him to a new contract as a free agent, or if they lose him to free agency and use his salary slot to sign another player. In either case, it's a better option than trading him this summer for what talent is available.

So let the Mailman wrestle on television, flex his muscles on "Baywatch" and show up on the late night TV shows. Let him talk all he wants. It may aggravate the Jazz, but think what they're getting for the price. Then think of Rodman.