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Hawks face uncertain future after blowout losses
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ATLANTA — As Joe Johnson headed to the bench for perhaps the last time in an Atlanta uniform — booed mightily by his own fans, his team on the way to another blowout loss — it was hard to keep in perspective all the good things the Hawks did this season.

Like winning 53 games. And finishing as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

But getting swept in the second round of the playoffs for the second year in a row raised a troubling prospect: The Hawks have reached their ceiling after five straight seasons of steady improvement, at least with this star player (Johnson) and this coach (Mike Woodson).

Johnson's contract is up. So is Woodson's. There's no guarantee either will return next season, even after the Hawks won their most games since 1996-97.

"I don't think we're that far away," Woodson insisted. "If you add two or three pieces to this team, legitimate pieces, we've got a legitimate shot at making a run at it."

Treated to a farewell buffet that included shrimp, clam chowder and mountain trout, the Hawks returned to Philips Arena on Tuesday to clean out their lockers and meet separately with Woodson and general manager Rick Sund before heading into a summer filled with uncertainty.

Losing to Orlando was surely no cause for embarrassment — the Magic haven't been beaten in more than a month — but it's the way the Hawks ended the season that was so discouraging.

The Magic won by an average of 25.3 points, the most lopsided four-game sweep in NBA history. For a team that's gotten used to improving every season, the Hawks have clearly run into a major roadblock.

Last year, a team with three injured starters was blown out in four straight by the Cleveland Cavaliers. This time, the Hawks were healthy and felt capable of seriously challenging the Magic; instead, another sweep by even greater margins than those doled out by LeBron James & Co.

"It just kind of came crashing down toward the end," said Jamal Crawford, who won the NBA's Sixth Man Award. "I hope our season doesn't get lost in the way it ended."

Management will have to decide whether this cast needs a major overhaul or only minor tweaking.

The most likely change will come on the sideline. Woodson has been at the helm for six years, but there were times when the players seemed to tune him out, times when a more imaginative offensive mind might have helped. The owners hardly gave Woodson a rousing endorsement by steadfastly refusing to even talk about a new contract until after the season, which gave him the appearance of a lame-duck coach.

Asked about his future, Woodson said, "I have no idea. I don't know. My contract is up at the end of June. I'm sure we'll sit down and discuss it."

He clearly wants to stay with the Hawks, a team that won 13 games his first season but became only the seventh in NBA history to win more games than the previous season for at least five consecutive years.

Ultimately, it may not be his choice.

"You don't start something and go through hell for six years and not want to finish it," said Woodson, who can start talking with other teams in a week and has been reported as a possible candidate in Philadelphia should Larry Brown take control of the 76ers front office.

Johnson didn't sound nearly as committed to staying in Atlanta, especially with the way the season ended. He averaged 13.4 points on 32 percent shooting over his last seven playoff games, and criticized Atlanta fans who booed him and the team for the worst home loss in playoff history, a 105-75 rout in Game 3.

Johnson was jeered the first time he touched the ball Monday night and booed even louder when he came out for the final time, having scored only 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting.

"I just need to take some time off, man, clear my head, spend some time with my family," Johnson said.

All things equal — and remember, the Hawks can offer him more money than any other team — would he definitely return to Atlanta?

"I don't know, honestly," Johnson replied. "I really don't know."

Even with what figures to be the most glamorous free-agent class in NBA history, it's hard to envision the Hawks signing a better player or coming up with some combination through a sign-and-trade that would be more productive than Johnson, a four-time all-star.

Besides, Atlanta doesn't want to repeat its mistake after the 1999 playoffs, when a second-round sweep led the team to trade away Steve Smith and Mookie Blaylock. Nine straight losing seasons followed.

"I've been on that side where they blow a team up and it never recovers," Woodson said. "This is a solid ballclub that just needs some more pieces."

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