The first names that usually roll off the tongue when the chatter commences about the potential free agents in the expected bonanza of 2010 usually are LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, three megastars who quickly could change the face of any franchise.
But there's another potential free agent that's flying a bit under the radar, and he wouldn't be a bad fallback option if the Knicks can't land any of the big-ticket items.
Joe Johnson, whose average of 21.5 points per game leads an up-and-coming Hawks team that took the eventual champion Celtics to the brink of elimination in the first round of last year's playoffs, is among the best to be had in the second tier of the Class of 2010. The Knicks don't have a true shooting guard and Johnson would fit perfectly in coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo scheme, one that he's very familiar with because he played for him while in Phoenix.
In fact, Johnson - who shot poorly last night, hitting only 5 of 15 shots and finishing with 15 points and seven assists - had nothing but lofty words for the man roaming the opposing sideline.
"When he first took over as head coach and then after that they made a big trade with Steph and Penny," Johnson said last night, recalling the Knicks' 2004 trade with the Suns that landed Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway for Antonio McDyess and others, "he really gave me an opportunity to put my skills on display. And I can't thank him enough for that. He's done so much for me in my career. He's been a great coach and I appreciate him for it."
The respect and admiration is mutual. D'Antoni has said he believes the Suns would've gone on to win the NBA title in 2004-05 had Johnson not fractured his left orbital bone during the second game of the Western Conference semifinals against Dallas. He praised Johnson's skills again last night, noting how the guy who came into last night's action as the 13th-leading scorer in the league has emerged as a nightly threat.
"He's just probably more in a role of being the No. 1 guy, taking big shots," D'Antoni said. "He's good. He's 6-8, 250, and to have a two-guard that big, that strong, that talented on defense and offense is great."
So could there be a New York reunion between the two?
"I don't know," said Johnson, who is earning $14.2 million this season and has one more year left at $14.9 million on his five-year, $70-million contract. "I can't really answer that because like I said, I don't know what's going to happen. He was a great coach and I enjoyed the time that we were together."