I KNOWKnicks GM Donnie Walsh hates all the talk about the summer of 2010 and coach Mike D'Antoni has his hands full just trying to win a game these days, but the rest of us are left to deal with the reality that this Knicks season is all about next season and the free agents who will be joining the team. Hot stove Basketball doesn't end just because the Knicks front office wants it to or because LeBron James has come and gone, already having made his only appearance at the Garden this season. Each visit by a prospective free agent is significant given the fact the Knicks should have enough cap room to sign not just one, but perhaps two high-profile players.
That's why Joe Johnson was under a microscope during the Hawks 114-101 victory over the Knicks last night, not only because of his 19 points and seven rebounds, but because he possibly is someone the Knicks could pursue during the offseason.
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Johnson is among the list of players who will be a free agent at the end of the year, and his relationship with D'Antoni makes it likely he will be high on the Knicks' wish list.
His performance last night didn't hurt him any either. After shooting 2-for-10 in the first half, when the Knicks built a 54-47 lead, he scored 12 second-half points as the Hawks rallied from 14 down in the third quarter to win going away.
"He's a very, very, very good Basketball player," D'Antoni said.
Johnson, who played for D'Antoni in Phoenix for 3 1/2 years before going to Atlanta in 2005-06, wasn't greeted with the fanfare LeBron received the other night, when the Garden was practically falling all over itself trying to make LeBron feel loved. That's too bad, because Johnson is exactly the type of player the Knicks need. He's big, he can run the floor, he can score, and he's not shy about being a leader.
Earlier this year, he called out his teammates, saying the Hawks needed to play better defense and share the Basketball on offense. He is an example why Garden fans need not put all their hopes in LeBron James being a Knick . There are other quality players available, which is why Walsh was right to go this route even if it means living through one of the worst starts in Knicks history.
Johnson, 28, was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for his performance last week, when he averaged 20 points and 6.5 rebounds a game in helping the Hawks go 3-1. He was averaging 21.3 points and 5.7 rebounds a game for the season entering last night's game and has averaged more than 20 points a game since joining the Hawks.
"I've grown a lot as a player and a person," Johnson said of his time in Atlanta. "Every year has been something different, whether it's becoming a vocal leader or leading by example. It's been coming pretty natural for me."
Johnson said he will wait until the end of the year to focus on free agency, but it's likely he will be open to listening to the Knicks , who dropped to 1-8. For starters, he loves playing in the Garden.
"I think everybody pretty much likes playing here," he said. "This is the Mecca of Basketball. To get to perform on a big stage like this, regardless of the Knicks' record, you always want to come in and put on a good performance."
And he likes D'Antoni. "That's my man still today," Johnson said, "him and his coaching staff he's got over there. Phil Weber ... I love them guys. We have some great memories together."
D'Antoni acted like the feeling was mutual. "He's a great kid," the coach said. "He works extremely hard."
Who needs LeBron?
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