The autograph and memorabilia exchange between the Hawks on locker clean-out day had a more somber tone than usual.Unlike in years past, when the core of the team knew it would be returning for training camp intact in a few months, there's a level of uncertainty to what will go on with the Hawks this summer.
Four of the Hawks' top eight players are free agents this summer. Marvin Williams is a restricted free agent and veterans Zaza Pachulia, Mike Bibby and sixth man Flip Murray are all unrestricted free agents.
All of them could have new uniforms next season, depending what the Hawks decide to do in the draft and free agency this summer.
"It's a possibility," Hawks captain and All-Star Joe Johnson said of seeing a cast of new faces in his locker room. "It happens in the NBA. Guys get shuffled around in this league. It's a part of the profession we're in.
"But I definitely think this group can get to that next level. We just have to get better individually and get better as a team."
Hawks coach Mike Woodson is also entering the final year of his contract. And in the absence of serious discussion about an extension, he too could be in a precarious position in the future, mostly at the whim of Hawks general manager Rick Sund.
But Woodson has already sounded the alarm, at least where his players are concerned, for little to no change among the nucleus.
"We're not that far away," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said, advocating a subtle tweak to the roster as opposed to an extreme makeover. "I think we got exposed in the Cleveland series because we were banged up, we weren't as deep as they were coming off the bench. So in that regard, we have to get better with our bench guys.
"But I've been in this league 27 years, and I've seen teams panic and bust a team up and then they go the other way. We won 47 games, man. So as the coach of this team, I say no, you don't bust this team up. We've got eight, nine good core guys, you build around that. You add two or three more solid pieces to the team and you move forward. You take your chances that way."
The expectations going forward will be far greater than they've been in the past two years.
The Hawks were the youngest team in the Eastern Conference playoff field this year. They defied the odds all season, first by earning a second straight playoff berth and then hosting the first-round series.
All they have to do now is top that next year.
"It's only going to get tougher as we go forward," Josh Smith said. "And there's a lot going on for us right now around here. I wish these guys the best, because I was in the same situation last summer and it's tough. We all think we've got the right nucleus and now it's just a matter of adding the right pieces to push it along."
SEASON HIGHLIGHT: There were many in what turned out to be the Hawks' best season in over a decade. An eight-game December home stand netted seven wins and the Hawks topped that during a March home stand by winning seven straight. But nothing compared to the Hawks' Game 7 blowout win over Miami in their first-round playoff series, finishing off their first win in a seven-game series in 39 years.
TURNING POINT: It came early, as in the Hawks' 6-0 start, a breakout showing that almost reached seven straight until Paul Pierce shot a hole in that run with a buzzer-beating jump shot in Boston in early November. The Hawks kicked off the season with a runaway win in Orlando and then followed that up with another impressive road win a week later, in New Orleans. By the time they reached Boston for that early-season playoff rematch with the Celtics, the rest of the league had been put on notice -- the Hawks were for real.