Joe Johnson Must Play His Heart Out For Atlanta Hawks to Compete in Tough East

Joe Johnson Must Play His Heart Out For Atlanta Hawks to Compete in Tough East Few teams in the NBA have enjoyed as much continuity in recent years as the Atlanta Hawks.

Just like the Celtics with their veteran Big Three and young supporting cast, the Hawks have maintained the same core group over the last three seasons, and it's served them well. With three straight playoff appearances culminating in a 53-win season, the Hawks are certainly on the right track. Let's see how long they can stay on it.

2009-10 Record: 53-29 (second in Southeast Division, third in Eastern Conference, lost to Magic in East semifinals)

Celtics' record vs. Hawks: 214-130 all time, 0-4 last season

Familiar faces: Joe Johnson (drafted by Celtics, shipped to Suns at trade deadline in rookie season)

Key additions: Josh Powell (free agent), Jordan Crawford (draft), Pape Sy (draft)

Key losses: Othello Hunter (now playing in Italy)

Burning question: Will Joe Johnson still feel the urgency?

Going into last season, the big question was what the future held for Johnson, their franchise player. He was 28, he was going into a contract year, and he could practically taste the glitz and glamor of the free-agent summer of 2010.

But the season and the following summer have come and gone. Johnson continued his amazingly consistent run in an Atlanta uniform, giving the Hawks his fifth consecutive season of 20-plus points per game, and he quickly agreed in the offseason to re-sign for a max offer of six years and $124 million.

So now what? Johnson and generations of his family to come are set for life. He's lost the incentive to play his heart out, financially at least. So will he still be able to light that fire that ignites the Hawks?

The supporting cast around him remains strong, with Al Horford and Josh Smith manning the middle and Jamal Crawford packing some offensive punch off the bench. The Hawks are still a threat. But getting over the hump in the Eastern Conference is going to be tough, and Boston, Miami and Orlando remain the three titans of the conference.

If the Hawks are going to get anywhere against a competitive group of Eastern Conference elites, they need Johnson to lead them. We'll see how much desire he has left.

2010-11 outlook: It took a good deal of luck last season for the Hawks to manage a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs — their entire rotation stayed remarkably healthy all year long, while the Celtics flailed at mid-season when the injury bug hit. The Hawks will likely regress to fourth in the East again in 2011, and anything more than a brief cameo in the conference semifinals will be an uphill battle. The Hawks are good, but the competition is still a touch better.

Did you know? Jamal Crawford has had three 50-point games in his career with three different teams, none of them the Hawks. He scored 50 on April 11, 2004 with the Bulls, 52 on Jan. 26, 2007 with the Knicks, and 50 on Dec. 20, 2008 with the Warriors. His highest single-game scoring output with the Hawks is 33, recorded this past season in a March 17 loss to the Raptors.