Jamal Crawford's first day in the Hawks' locker room was a stunner. It's been a while since he's been on a team this close, where guys have grown up together in the league and played together for four and sometimes five years.
That's an eternity in the NBA, where free agency and turnover in general can make the first day of training camp seem like the first day of kindergarten, what with all the introductions that go on around the room.
"It's just nice to see a team that has this kind of unity and togetherness," said Crawford, acquired on draft night in June in a deal with Golden State, and one of four new permanent faces in the Hawks' locker room this season along with veterans Joe Smith and Jason Collins and rookie point guard Jeff Teague. "You can't take that for granted in the NBA, having that kind of familiarity with your teammates. It's something that you hope leads to some cohesion on and off the court."
The Hawks plan on using that continuity from the past five years to fuel their continued rise up the Eastern Conference food chain. All five starters, as well as eight of the top nine players, return from last year's 47-win team that battled its way to the conference semifinals. To a man, the Hawks are convinced they are headed back there to finish what never got started when they were swept out of the postseason by Cleveland.
"We're a year older and wiser, a year more experienced and better and as confident as ever," said captain and All-Star Joe Johnson, who is with the same team for the fifth year, the first time in his career he's made it this long with the same squad. "If you look around at most all of the championship-caliber teams in the league right now, their core group has been together for a few years. Our group has been through the battles together, we've struggled together and had success together the past two years. We feel like it's our time now."
Hawks coach Mike Woodson has been a part of both a seasoned championship team in his last year in Detroit and then a jumbled situation with a young team his first season with the Hawks.
You can guess which one he prefers.
"My first couple of years here we were still trying to figure out who would be a part of our core," Woodson said. "Sometimes it's trial by fire, where you try some things, they don't work and you try something else. Luckily, we've settled in with a group that's allowed us to accomplish some things and get us to this point. But the makeup of your team and how the pieces fit, it's something that you're always looking at from a coaching standpoint."
New additions like Crawford and Joe Smith were brought in to help push the Hawks over top in the postseason, and they knew that was the case when they came aboard.
"I don't think there's any doubt about it," Crawford said. "They didn't bring us in here for the regular season. They brought us in here so we could take that next step in the playoffs."
If the new faces get are folded into the fabric of a close-knit locker room, that's just an added benefit.
"I'm lucky, I can remember the names of all my (former) teammates," Josh Smith said. "I know some guys play five or six years in the league and they can't remember them all there have been so many."
Smith is the only player still on the roster from Woodson's first season. He was one of four rookies in his draft class -- Josh Childress, Royal Ivey and Donta Smith were the others. And he almost moved on, but the Hawks matched a sign-and-trade offer from Memphis in the summer of 2008 to keep him in the fold.
"That's just the way it goes," Smith said of the turnover that can shred a roster from season to season. "When you're young and just come into the league you don't pay much attention to it. But now, when Jamal talks about it, I sort of understand where he's coming from, even though I've been here my entire career. There's a comfort zone around here that we have with each other because we've all been together for so long. And we're going to lean on that this season in a big way, the same way the good teams always do."
COACHING STAFF: Head Coach -- Mike Woodson, 6th year overall, 6th with Hawks (153-257). Assistants -- Larry Drew, Bob Bender, Jim Todd and Tyrone Hill.
LAST SEASON, REMEMBERED: 47-35 (2nd in Southeast Division), Lost to Cleveland in Eastern Conference semifinals.
THIS SEASON, PREDICTED: 49-33 (2nd in Southeast), Eastern Conference semifinals.
POSSIBLE CHANGES, PREDICTED: Coaching. If the Hawks somehow stumble out of the gate, Woodson could be on the hot seat since he's in the final year of his deal. If Woodson isn't the scapegoat, watch for a trade deadline move involving Johnson, who turned down a four-year extension this summer so he could become an unrestricted free agent next summer.