Joe Johnson left a 62-win Phoenix Suns team in 2005 to sign with the Atlanta Hawks, who had only 13 wins in 2004-05. He said he doesn't know what his plans will be when he again becomes a free agent this summer, but he knows he won't go through another rebuilding situation.
"I cannot go back. I can't backtrack," the All-Star guard said before the Knicks' 99-98 victory over the Hawks last night at Madison Square Garden. "I can't go into a situation [like] when I first got here to Atlanta. That's tough."
But Johnson said the Knicks' plan to attract a second star-caliber player with the extra salary-cap space Donnie Walsh carved out before the February trade deadline does make them more attractive.
Without the Tracy McGrady trade, which cleared enough money for the Knicks to spend more than $30 million on a new team, they might not have had a chance to attract a second star, which could have impacted their ability to sign a first star.
"I think two guys is definitely what it's going to take," Johnson said of the Knicks, who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday. "I don't think one guy can turn the whole franchise around. If he can, it may take a couple of years, and right off the bat, that's tough. I think two guys would be more attractive."
In a wild scramble in the final seconds of the game, Wilson Chandler blocked Josh Smith's layup attempt, and Al Horford's putback came after the final buzzer, clinching the win for the Knicks (22-41).
Danilo Gallinari had 27 points for the Knicks and Smith had 25 points and 10 rebounds for the Hawks (40-23).
Johnson, who had 22 points, sat in the same stall in the visitors' locker room at the Garden that unofficially has been reserved for all of the marquee 2010 free agents.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Johnson have sat in that same spot. It's something that prompted a chuckle from Johnson, who is absolutely the Knicks' fallback option if the LeBronathon falls short.
But the Knicks will need to know if they have any shot at LeBron before July 1, because if there isn't a strong enough feeling that James would leave Cleveland for New York, Walsh and Mike D'Antoni have to put all of their attention on Johnson. He said he won't wait around to see how the dominoes fall.
"I can't base my decision on what LeBron's doing," Johnson said. "I'm not going to really worry about that until July. We've got something special going on right here, so I'm going to ride this wave and see how far we take it."
Johnson has a lot invested in the Hawks, who finally broke through with a winning season at 47-35 in 2008-09. The Hawks are fourth in the East this season and believe they can contend with the big three of the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic.
Former Knick Jamal Crawford, who is a lock for the Sixth Man of the Year award, stands to benefit if Johnson leaves because he would move into Johnson's starting spot.
But Crawford, who is set to end his career-long playoff appearance drought (nine years is the longest of any active player), sees something building with the Hawks.
"I want what's best for him," Crawford said, "but for me personally, I want him back in Atlanta."