Clock is ticking for Hawks this season

Joe Johnson learned the hard way that planning for anything beyond today in the NBA is a fool's paradise.

The Hawks' captain and three-time All-Star was the 10th pick in the 2001 draft and a starter as a rookie in Boston. He was good enough to start for most of the first half of that season and feeling pretty good about things when the Celtics, without the slightest warning, traded him to Phoenix.

"I learned my lesson right then and there," Johnson said. "And I learned it the hard way. You can't count on anything in this league but right now. It's a now-or-never thing, man, because the clock is always ticking."

That lesson needs to be applied to Johnson's Hawks this season. They kick off the 2009-10 season Wednesday night against Indiana at Philips Arena with higher expectations than they've had in years.

It could be Johnson's last season in a Hawks uniform; he turned down a four-year, $60-million contract extension offer from the team this past summer and will become a free agent at season's end. It could also be the last season for Hawks coach Mike Woodson, who is in the sixth and final year of his contract.

If this is it, however, the Hawks are poised to go out with a bang.

While Eastern Conference powers Orlando, Boston and Cleveland have all assembled championship caliber teams, the Hawks have quietly crept onto the scene with their best team in at least a decade. All five starters and eight of the top nine players are back from a 47-win team that lost to the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals last season, the Hawks' best finish since 1998-99.

Veterans Jamal Crawford, Joe Smith and Jason Collins and rookie Jeff Teague join a team that Woodson said must play with a sense of urgency if they have aspirations of crashing the Big Three's party in the East.

"This is six years and running for me and our staff," Woodson said. "We've got to put our foot on the gas this season and take our swing. We're still trying to get to that next step. That's the only thing I'm pushing for. And you just never know. That clock is always ticking. You never know how long that window will be open. You've got to take advantage of the moment because you just never know. Key guys could get hurt, you just don't know.

"A lot of teams loaded up. Boston loaded up with a lot of veteran guys and they're trying to win another title. Will those veterans be around another three or four years and can Boston depend on them to try and win a title then? I don't know. It's now. Everybody has to look at now. I don't know if I'm going to be here or if Joe's going to be here or whatever. So it's now."

While the Hawks have assembled what is easily their most talented and complete roster in at least a decade, the league's elite teams have put together budget-busting squads that could have competed in any era.

The Celtics team that eliminated the Hawks in the playoffs two years ago added veteran All-Star Rasheed Wallace to support Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Cavaliers team that ended the Hawks' season last year imported Shaquille O'Neal to serve as the new bodyguard for reigning league MVP LeBron James.

And as the Hawks found out in last week's preseason finale blowout in Orlando, the defending Eastern Conference champions have added plenty of firepower, led by veteran All-Star Vince Carter. The Magic's staggering $84-million payroll is roughly $20 million more than the Hawks will spend to compete in the Southeast Division.

"Earlier in my career there was all this talk about the Western Conference being the true power but the Eastern Conference is just as powerful if not more these days," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "If you want into that big boy club, you're going to have to go through one of these top-level teams. I think everybody understands that."

The same goes for the Western Conference, where the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers added Ron Artest to an All-Star mix that already includes Finals MVP Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. The Denver team that the Lakers vanquished in the conference finals also returns intact.

Even San Antonio, a franchise that's been lauded for years for maintaining strict fiscal discipline, stole Richard Jefferson in a three-team trade with Milwaukee and Detroit that kicked its payroll up to $79 million, well over the league's dollar-for-dollar luxury tax threshold.

"In the five years we've been here, you can look back and see how the league has shifted," Woodson said. "When I got here we were coming off of that title season in Detroit and the Pistons were still poised as the powerhouse of the Eastern Conference and, really, the league. Boston was in rebuilding mode like we were and then boom, they get Garnett and Ray and things take off. Cleveland was already coming on with LeBron and the Magic had just gotten their hands on Howard, so you could sort of see the tide shifting. We weren’t in that mix at first but the last two years, we've made a move as our team has matured and we've added some key veteran pieces.

"But that's the beauty of our league, man. Things are always changing. Teams are always getting better, if they're doing the right things. The methods might be different, but you're either getting better or you are not. We've gotten better every year we've been here and we expect to continue that trend."