Looking for higher ground, Hawks utter 'p' word

ATLANTA -- At the Atlanta Hawks media day, expectations are high enough that folks are daring to mention the "p" word again. That's right -- the owners of the league's longest drought at eight years and counting are daring to discuss the postseason.

So is this a playoff team?

"I think so," said head coach Mike Woodson. "I think we've got a legitimate shot of making the playoffs. I thought we had a legitimate shot last season up until the last month and a half."

"Some of our young guys have gotten much, much better. Some of them I can't even call them young guys anymore," he said, pointing out that Josh Smith and Josh Childress were entering their fourth seasons and Marvin Williams his third. "They're not babies anymore.

"The last two or three years you're constantly teaching, teaching, teaching ... I'm past that stage now."

The players seemed to agree.

"Definitely," said Joe Johnson, who is completely recovered from the calf strain that kept him out at the end of last season. "I know we haven't had great results, but I wanted to be part of this rebuilding process."

"I think so," said forward Josh Smith, fresh off a summer working out in Houston with Calvin Murphy and Hakeem Olajuwon. "We can't just talk about it, but … I think we have enough depth to get it done."

"No question about it," said sixth man Childress, who spent his offseason taking classes at Stanford to get his degree in sociology at Stanford. "The mindset we have is we're shooting for the playoffs … I think we all feel we're ready."

Most of the players have been in town for a few weeks working out, and the early reports on rookie big man Al Horford have been strong -- a couple players threw out the word "beast." Horford says he prefers playing power forward, but he may be playing a lot of his minutes at center this year, with Josh Smith and Marvin Williams at the forwards.

In either role, hopes for him are high. "I think he's going to be a big-time player in our league for a long time," said Woodson. "It's no joke, his team winning two national titles."

For the immediate future, a five-man competition for minutes at point guard between Speedy Claxton, Tyronn Lue, Anthony Johnson, Acie Law and Salim Stoudamire should provide the most drama. Woodson says it's an open competition, but if you're looking for horses to put your money on, go with Claxton to win, Lue to show and Law to place.

Claxton bombed as a free agent pickup last year, but he's looked rejuvenated after offseason knee surgery, and the coaches have taken note.

"It's good to have Speedy back healthy," said Woodson. "He's by far been the biggest surprise in the last three weeks playing here. To me he's the Speedy of old. He's happy, he's talking, he's up and down the floor making plays, and he's not laboring like last year."

Claxton had knee trouble all last season but didn't go under the knife until June, when doctors removed floating debris that had been causing him so much trouble. He described himself as at 85 percent, with the mental adjustment being the hardest part -- he'd conditioned himself to avoid moves that caused his knee pain a year ago.

Lue may be more comfortable coming off the bench anyway, a role where he's thrived the past few seasons. "1 through the 5, I don't care, just put me out there," said Lue. "I'll start, come off the bench, 12th off the bench, whatever."

Some other notes from training camp:

• Lue, who won two rings with Kobe Bryant as a Laker, felt his frustrations were just the result of how competitive he is. "He belongs [in L.A.]," Lue said. "A guy that works as hard as he works, he just wants to win. You can't complain about a guy that makes all the money in the world and still wants to win."

• Johnson said Shawn Marion's situation in Phoenix took him by surprise and that "it was great" playing with Marion when the two were teammates with the Suns. "But I don't know what's going on because I'm not there anymore," he said.

• In the wake of Friday's piece on the Celtics needing a nickname other than "Big Three" for Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, a number of fans have written in proposing The GAP band -- standing for Garnett, Allen and Pierce, while also mimicking the name of the late-70s funk band.

• One other tidbit from Boston I couldn't work in on Friday -- the agape mouths of Celtics personnel when Garnett was talking about Boston's wonderful weather. It's all about perspective, people. Fly in from Atlanta for the weekend and it feels a tad chilly. Show up after a decade in Minnesota, though, and apparently it seems like Tahiti.

• And finally, for Golden State fans -- yes, you can pinch yourself. I said "league's longest playoff drought" above, and for the first time in eons your team's name didn't come up.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.