Where do the Hawks go from here?

After a pretty nice show of backbone in Game 6 and Game 7 of Atlanta’s first round series against the less talented but far gritter Bucks, the Hawks were absolutely drilled by the Magic. The Hawks lost the four games by an average of 25 points, including a 43-point loss in Game 1 and a 30-point loss (at home) in Game 3.

Why am I dwelling on the series? Because it’s a good indicator of just how far the Hawks still have to go to be true contenders in the East.

While it’s true that the franchise has increased its win total in each of the last six seasons, it just doesn’t seem like this team is anywhere near contention. Complicating matters, the Hawks’ most steady player, Joe Johnson, is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Complicating matters further, Johnson has not endeared himself to Hawks fans over the past week or two. After a pretty nice first round (21-5-6) against Milwaukee, Johnson posted just 13-5-4 and shot under 30% against the Magic. That’s not the kind of performance that will convince a team to sign him to a max contract. Moreover, he’ll be 29 at the start of free agency, so one wonders if his best years are already behind him. He was outplayed by a 33-year-old Vince Carter, if that’s any indication.

Johnson is one of those players, not unlike Michael Redd a few years ago with the Bucks, who is not a “max” guy yet will command a maximum contract. I’ve said this over and over — just because a player is the best that a franchise has, it does not make him a franchise player.

The problem the Hawks face is that Johnson will be able to walk this summer with no compensation. He maybe willing to work out a sign-and-trade with his new team, but just like Chris Bosh, why would he agree to lower the talent level of his new team when he can sign with several teams outright?

Either way, between his performance against the Magic and his recently sour relationship with the fans, it does not seem like Johnson is long for Atlanta. Another issue is what to do with Mike Woodson, who has guided the team during its ascension.

Moving forward, the team has two very talented youngsters in Josh Smith (24) and Al Horford (23). In other words, the Hawks are set at power forward and center, but need a lot of help elsewhere. Mike Bibby is old, Jamal Crawford is a nice sixth man, but isn’t starter material on a championship-caliber team and Marvin Williams has yet to develop into the player that had Atlanta’s scouts drooling over his potential, so much so that they passed on Deron Williams and Chris Paul to select him with the second overall pick in 2005.

Cap-wise, they’ll have about $9 million to spend this summer, assuming Johnson walks. This team needs to focus on point guard and the wings. Jeff Teague didn’t get much run, but with Johnson, Bibby and Crawford in tow, there weren’t many extra minutes to go around. The Hawks’ plan going forward will depend on how they feel about Teague, who posted a PER of 11.07 in an average 10.1 minutes of playing time. Is he really their point guard of the future? (Let’s not forget that they passed on Darren Collison for Teague — think they’re regretting that decision now?)

For the Hawks to become a true contender, they need to land a franchise player on the wing or at the point. They own the 24th pick in this year’s draft, so Hawks fans shouldn’t hold their breath there. John Salmons has been mentioned as a possible free agent acquisition assuming Johnson walks. Salmons, coupled with the possible return of Josh Childress from Greece, could keep the Hawks competitive in a post-Johnson world.

With all the anticipation heading into this summer’s free agency period, one thing is certain — the Hawks will be right in the middle of it.

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