Posted Oct 29 2009 1:02PM
ATLANTA -- Opening Night is the NBA's version of New Year's Day, where everywhere you look, the mood is good, the forecast is sunny and everything feels right, if only for a night.
This year is the exception, though. This year comes with a quirky twist. This is the year of the pending free agent. And therefore, in select cities, Opening Night qualifies as the beginning, all right. Quite possibly, the beginning of the end.
As in: The end for LeBron James in Cleveland? Dwyane Wade in Miami? Chris Bosh in Toronto? And others?
Wednesday, the fog of uncertainty made its way to Atlanta and was thicker inside Philips Arena than the sparse crowd. It hovered over the Hawks' bench, right above coach Mike Woodson and leading scorer Joe Johnson, two important pieces from a 47-win team who aren't guaranteed to appear at Opening Night next season - at least not in Atlanta.
And that's the theme of 2009-10. The entire 82-game schedule, and even the postseason, will effectively serve as an opening act for a much larger show. The real intrigue, as everyone knows, begins once the dribbling ends and the free agent negotiations begin.
The season is shaping up as a seven-month audition, and the significance is not lost on Atlanta, because it involves the coach and the club's most valuable player. Well, perhaps a clarification is in order: Atlanta will not burn for a second time if Johnson and/or Woodson walk next summer. Not like Cleveland, which will close shop if free agency doesn't go its way. And yet, the situation with the Hawks is unique. That's because the organization definitely wants to keep one of them. The other, the Hawks' aren't so sure about.
Put it this way: The Hawks offered Johnson $60 million this summer to stick around. He turned it down. As for Woodson, all he received on opening night was a hearty handshake and a "great job, coach" backslap from Ed Peskowitz, one of the Hawks myriad of owners, after the team's 120-109 win over the Pacers.
"Thanks," said Woodson. "Thanks a lot."
Come next summer might Woodson be saying thanks for nothing?
He's the rare coach who's working in the final year of his contract, which isn't his choice. The fate of most coaches is decided the year before he reaches the end. Teams would rather not deal with the distraction of possibly having a lame duck situation. It sends a mixed message to the locker room. Either he is extended, or he's fired. With Woodson, the Hawks have chosen to walk a fine line and adopt a wait-and-see approach.
Woodson does have some credentials. He's in his sixth year, the team's win total has improved the last four seasons, and young talent like Al Horford (24 points and 16 rebounds last night) and Josh Smith (18 points, eight assists) are improving on his watch. The team appears to be going and growing in the right direction, but evidently there's some doubt whether Woodson is the right coach for the next step.
With the Celtics, Cavaliers and Magic all superior to the Hawks and showing no signs of falling back, that next step would be steep for any coach.
If Woodson is sweating his fate, he hasn't shown it yet. Not in Game One, anyway. All signs were fairly positive for the Hawks against the Pacers, especially in the final moments, once they unveiled their defense, absent for three quarters.
"We can score and rebound, but we've got to defend," Woodson said. "That's what will win games this year. If I can get them to do all three, we'll be in great shape."
Then there's Johnson, the only true star on a team loaded with borderline types, who's betting that next summer will bring as much money, or more, than the Hawks offered.
That's a toss up. The economy is working against him, as is a declining salary cap and a pending labor deal in two years. More teams than ever are embracing frugality and chafing at signing off on the luxury tax. Of course, all it takes is one team (Knicks? Heat?) to feel fiscally frisky and desperate enough to spend.
Strange: The Hawks want Johnson, but he's not sure. Woodson wants the Hawks, but they're not sure.
They all agree about Wednesday's win over Indiana, a good start for a team that can realistically hope for a 50-win season and, perhaps, a shot at the Eastern Conference finals. In their opener, the Hawks made the stops when it counted, saw Johnson take charge in the second half, and found a way to win -- everything that's necessary to win big games in spring and summer.
"A lot of what we do will depend on me getting guys happy and comfortable," said Woodson. "We're all trying to understand each other and they're trying to understand me."
Meanwhile, we'll be busy trying to understand a season that's about to take on a whole new meaning, all because of what's coming next summer. Opening Night is over, and those at the end of their contracts are now working on their closing statements.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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