WHETHER IT'S his seven straight seasons as a double-digit scorer or his three 50-point games, combo guard Jamal Crawford is known for his numbers. But there is one digit that he wishes weren't part of his reputation: zero, the number of playoff games he has appeared in during his nine-year career, the longest current drought in the NBA. "Believe me," says Crawford, "I'd like it to be over."

Barring an epic collapse, Crawford—who was sent to Atlanta from Golden State in the off-season for guards Speedy Claxton and Acie Law—will get his wish. The Hawks have all five starters and eight of their top nine players back from the franchise's first conference semifinalist in 10 years. This season's team is even talking about a championship. "Just talking to the core guys here, they all say, 'Let's see if we can get it,'" says Crawford. "This is the most talented team I have ever played on."

While the Cavaliers, Celtics and Magic reloaded with superstars, the Hawks focused on revamping their bench. A lack of quality depth forced coach Mike Woodson to use a short rotation last season, which meant the starters played an average of 35.4 minutes. Crawford—who averaged 19.7 points with the Warriors and the Knicks last season—brings firepower to a second unit that added veteran big men Joe Smith and Jason Collins as well as rookie point guard Jeff Teague, the 19th pick, from Wake Forest. "Last year, yeah, I burnt guys," says Woodson. "I have some combinations now I can play with."

The Hawks now have the option of going small with a Crawford--Joe Johnson--Mike Bibby lineup ("We can put shooters everywhere," says Woodson) or big with the 6'5" Crawford running the point. Crawford has no problem accepting a reserve role in Atlanta. "These guys are like an '80s team with how long they have been together," he says. "My job is just to fit in."

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE with 2008--09 statistics


PG MIKE BIBBY PPG: 14.9 APG: 5.0 SPG: 1.24 FG%: 43.5 3FG%: 39.0
SG JOE JOHNSON PPG: 21.4 APG: 5.8 RPG: 4.4 SPG: 1.06 FG%: 43.7
SF MARVIN WILLIAMS PPG: 13.9 RPG: 6.3 APG: 1.3 FG%: 45.8 3FG%: 35.5
PF JOSH SMITH PPG: 15.6 RPG: 7.2 BPG: 1.61 SPG: 1.36 FG%: 49.2
C AL HORFORD PPG: 11.5 RPG: 9.3 APG: 2.4 BPG: 1.42 FG%: 52.5

KEY BENCH PLAYERS: G-F Jamal Crawford, 19.7 PPG; C Zaza Pachulia, 5.7 RPG; F-C Joe Smith, 6.6 PPG; G-F Maurice Evans, 7.2 PPG • New acquisition

COACH: Mike Woodson (sixth season with Hawks) • 2008--09 RECORD: 47--35 (second in Southeast)

POINTS SCORED: 98.1 (19th in NBA) • POINTS ALLOWED: 96.5 (10th in NBA)



Seasons in a row that the Hawks have improved their wins total. The last team to have a longer stretch was the Timberwolves, who increased their victories annually from 1992--93 to '97--98.


I like their signings of Joe Smith and Jason Collins because they needed size off the bench. Those are moves a contender would make, and moves the Hawks didn't make in the past.... Everyone would agree that Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are the top two shooting guards, and in my mind Joe Johnson is No. 3. You can't build a championship team around Joe, but if he's your No. 2 guy, you have a chance.... I'm not sure how much upside Al Horford has because he doesn't have that impressive athleticism. But he will be very good for a long time because he rebounds, he defends and he plays every play.... Josh Smith seems to be focused more on making the spectacular dunk than on the things he needs to do to help win. To his credit he has taken fewer threes the last couple of years, but so often the ball just stops when it gets to him and then bad things happen. Still, the guy is only 23. He could turn out to be a better version of Dennis Rodman and lead the league in rebounds and blocks.... It was a promising sign that Marvin Williams developed three-point range last year. He can be a 17-, 18-point scorer eventually, and he's a decent defender because he makes the effort.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (CRAWFORD)JAMAL CRAWFORD He has a great shot at ending his playoff drought. PHOTOBOB ROSATO (JOHNSON)

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