Hawks’ Johnson headed for free agency

ATLANTA (AP) — There’s a new reason for the Atlanta Hawks to enter the 2009-10 season with a renewed sense of urgency. This could be the team’s final season with Joe Johnson.

Johnson, the team’s three-time All-Star, top scorer and captain, plans to play out the final year of his contract this season and enter free agency instead of accepting the team’s offer of an extension.

The Hawks offered a four-year, $60 million extension this summer, but Johnson instead plans to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. He would join an expensive class of free agents also expected to include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Johnson and the Hawks will open their preseason schedule with a home game against New Orleans on Wednesday night.

The Hawks won 47 games and finished fourth in the Eastern Conference last season before falling in the second round of the playoffs.

Johnson said his full focus is on this season and the team’s goal of winning the Central Division.

“Definitely. I think it’s right there,” Johnson said, adding the Hawks no longer are too young to join Boston, Cleveland and Orlando as the favorites in the East.

“I think we’ve grown a lot over the years,” he said. “I think we’ve grown a great amount. I look forward to us being a different team. A lot of immature things we did on the court the last few years, even last year, I think we’re ready to put that behind us and move forward and start being that team that can win our division.”

Hawks general manager Rick Sund spent the offseason working out new deals for Mike Bibby, Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams, trading for guard Jamal Crawford and signing veterans Jason Collins and Joe Smith. Sund also drafted point guard Jeff Teague.

The one notable loss was Flip Murray, who last season was the high-scoring backup guard, the role now targeted for Crawford.

Sund would not address Johnson’s status on Tuesday. He said the challenge for coach Mike Woodson in the preseason is to determine the best way to utilize the newcomers.

“I think more than anything else you’re looking for your different combos,” Sund said. “You know who you’re starting five are, but how do you utilize your depth?

“We have an awful lot of multi-position players and that really helps a lot. You can go a lot of different ways. You can go big or you can go with smaller lineups. There are a lot of possibilities.”

The starting five return with Johnson, Williams, Bibby Josh Smith and Al Horford.

Johnson, 28, averaged 21.4 points and 5.8 assists last season to rank among the league’s top 20 in each category. He is entering his ninth season.

“I’m getting old,” he said with a laugh. “No, I still feel good.

“I’ve got some goals set to be one of the elite players in the league. It’s going to be an exciting year.”