NEW YORK — As he discussed Larry Johnson's status, Knicks president Scott Layden spoke only of the past.
The Knicks would like Johnson to make a graceful exit and have offered him a buyout for the remaining three years of his contract.
Johnson, a two-time All-Star who has spent five seasons in New York, has a chronic back condition that has hampered him for several years and kept him out of last season's playoffs. A co-captain, he averaged a career-low 9.9 points in 2000-01.
"Let me say this about Larry, he's such an important part of our team with his leadership, and I think we saw last year in the playoffs how important he was through his absence," Layden said Friday. "He's been an unbelievable competitor for us. He's laid it out and won many games for us."
Despite his accomplishments and his popularity among his teammates, Johnson would seem to be the odd man out in New York. The power forward spot includes Kurt Thomas, Clarence Weatherspoon and Othella Harrington, and the small forward slot is manned by Latrell Sprewell and Shandon Anderson.
That doesn't leave a lot of room for Johnson, whose best times with the Knicks came when he led them to the NBA Finals in 1999. As noted in the Knicks playoff media guide, he "made the right arm "Big L" signal a symbol of Knicks' postseason success."
Johnson is due to make $28.8 million over the next three seasons, with the Knicks holding an option to pay him $6.9 million in 2004-05.
Johnson would forfeit the money if he retired, so that is not a viable option. If he stayed on the injured list for the next three seasons, he would collect all the money — a situation the Knicks clearly would not be comfortable with.
Johnson's agent, George Bass, has told reporters that Johnson has been working out and will be ready for the start of training camp Oct. 1. Bass did not return phone messages Friday.
"Larry Johnson is on his way in. He's going to take his physical, so that's where we are," Layden said, refusing to divulge details of his negotiations with Johnson's agent.
A source close to Johnson told The Associated Press, on condition of anonymity, that the Knicks have offered about $14 million — roughly half of what Johnson is owed, but not in a lump sum.
A bad back has contributed to Johnson's production falling steadily over the course of his 10-year career. In his first four seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, he averaged 19.4 points.
Johnson's biggest strengths for the Knicks were as a defender and an outside threat who could spread opposing defenses, although his shooting percentage fell in each of his five seasons in New York, from 51 percent in 1996-97 to 41 percent last season.
In a meeting with reporters at Madison Square Garden, Layden said the Knicks would be aggressive in trying to use their $2.875 million medical exception before a Monday night deadline.
The Knicks received the exception because of a career-ending injury to Luc Longley. Free agent center Marc Jackson was among the players the Knicks were considering, but he reached an agreement with the Houston Rockets on Friday. Other free agent big men on the market include Chris Gatling, Olden Polynice and Anthony Mason.
"Clearly there are some big names out there," Layden said. "But if we don't use it, we're going to be just as happy with our team."
Layden stressed that the Knicks were also pursuing trade options involving the exception, which is especially valuable because it allows them to acquire a player making almost $3 million in exchange for as little as a future second-round draft pick. Under most circumstances, the salaries of traded players must be within 110 percent of each other to conform to salary cap rules.
Another option could be taking on a long-term contract that another team was willing to shed. Big men who fall under that category — and who make less than $2.875 million — include Eric Montross, Lorenzo Williams and Chris Crawford.
Although they are already well-stocked at guard with Mark Jackson, Charlie Ward, Howard Eisley, Allan Houston and Lavor Postell, the Knicks won't limit their search to big men.
"If we're going to improve our team, we're not going to isolate it to one position. We're going to look at all the options," Layden said.