Atlanta Hawks President Stan Kasten, who said the Hawks may be one player away from winning the NBA championship, is negotiating with free agent center Moses Malone, according to a published report.

Malone, an unrestricted free agent who can be signed without compensation, wants to sign with the Hawks "this week," The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution reported in their combined editions Monday.Kasten and Malone's agent, Lee Fentriss, have been talking by telephone since Friday and are trying to work out a salary that would meet Malone's demands but still fit in the Hawks' budget under the NBA salary cap, the papers quoted unidentified sources as saying.

Neither Kasten nor Fentriss would comment on the report.

Malone, 33, was voted the NBA's Most Valuable Player following the 1979, 1982 and 1983 seasons. A 10-time All-Star selection, he played the last two seasons with Washington.

According to sources close to Malone, the 6-foot-10 pivotman turned down Washington's two-year, $4.2 million offer and would prefer to sign with the Hawks, the papers said.

Last season, Malone averaged 20.4 points and 11.3 rebounds in 79 games with the Bullets. The Hawks, who used three players in the middle - Wayne "Tree" Rollins, Jon Koncak and Scott Hastings - got a combined 12.1 points and 14.6 rebounds per game from the threesome.

Of the three, only Koncak remains property of the Hawks, and he missed nearly half the season with a knee injury. Rollins became a free agent at season's end, and Hastings was claimed by the Miami Heat in the expansion draft.

With weaknesses at shooting guard and center, the Hawks lost to the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Atlanta acquired an accomplished shooting guard this week when it traded Randy Wittman and its first-round pick in last Tuesday's NBA draft to the Sacramento Kings for Reggie Theus, a 10-year veteran who averages 18.8 career points.

Asked after the seven-game loss to Boston if the free-agent market was an avenue the Hawks might pursue, Kasten said he'd prefer to stay away from free agency "unless you're one player away, and this is the player who puts you over the top. We believe that the Hawks might be one, or fewer, players away. It might be the right time for the Hawks to go after a free agent."