The Atlanta Hawks want to be considered among the Eastern Conference's elite teams. How Jeff Teague responds to an increased role and Joe Johnson to a down season could determine whether they can elevate themselves to that level.
The Hawks open the season when they visit New Jersey on Tuesday night in the Nets' final home opener in New Jersey before their move to Brooklyn next season.
Atlanta made a fourth straight playoff appearance in 2010-11, losing in six games to Chicago in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was the third straight year the Hawks failed to advance beyond the second round, while their regular-season victory total dropped from 53 games in 2009-10 to 44.
They did, however, beat the Bulls twice after failing to win a game in the second round the previous two years.
With the organization choosing to keep its core largely intact aside from the loss of sixth man Jamal Crawford, Atlanta realizes this could be its last chance to win with this group.
"We have a sign in the locker room, 'No more excuses,'" second-year coach Larry Drew said. "We're at a point in our careers now where it's time to take that next step."
With Kirk Hinrich recovering from shoulder surgery that will sideline him until February, Teague will start at point guard as he tries to prove his impressive play against Derrick Rose in the playoffs wasn't a fluke.
Teague, a first-round pick in 2009, averaged 5.2 points and 2.0 assists during the regular season, but averaged 14.8 points while starting for the injured Hinrich against Chicago.
"I told him before our first practice I expect him to take the bull by the horns,'' Drew said. "I don't want him waiting on anybody. Let's force the other guys to keep up with him. He's the type of player who can impact the game with his speed and quickness.''
Atlanta ranked 26th in the NBA in scoring last season with 95.0 points per game. With Teague running the offense and Josh Smith having shed 25 pounds in the offseason, though, the Hawks are hoping to play more of an up-tempo style.
They also hope to counter the loss of Crawford, who averaged 14.2 points, with the additions of veterans Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic and Jerry Stackhouse.
Still, the most pressure to take Atlanta to the next level rests on Johnson. After signing a six-year, $119 million contract in July 2010, Johnson is still trying to live up to the expectations.
He averaged 18.2 points last season - his fewest in six seasons - while taking 2.1 fewer shots per game.
While Johnson is facing a lot of scrutiny on the court, Kris Humphries is playing under an increased spotlight for a different reason. That didn't seem to affect him in New Jersey's 90-84 win at Washington on Monday, however.
Following his short-lived, much-publicized offseason marriage to reality star Kim Kardashian, Humphries - who recently re-signed with the Nets - ignored the boos and finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds to help lead New Jersey back from 21 down.
Deron Williams had 23 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. The Nets (1-0) held a 58-39 advantage on the boards despite playing without injured center Brook Lopez, who is out at least six weeks due to a broken right foot.
Humphries is expected to carry a bigger load inside with Lopez out. He averaged 10.0 points and 10.4 rebounds last season and while he faces increased attention from opposing fans, it doesn't bother him.
"To me, it's motivation. People are yelling at you - you've got to perform, you've got to play hard. They might want to have a reason to say something. You want to try and give them that reason,'' Humphries said. "For me, it's just makes it a little hostile environment - and it's kind of fun to play in that environment."
Atlanta and New Jersey split four meetings last season, with each team winning both of its home games. The Hawks have lost 16 of 18 in New Jersey.