(Sports Network) - Father Time had seemingly skipped over the San Antonio
Spurs' door last season, a nod of appreciation for the winning basketball they
provided for more than a decade.
The perennial title contenders, led once again by the veteran triumvirate of
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, rolled to a Western Conference-best
50 wins in the lockout-shortened 66-game season.
The Spurs were clicking on all cylinders heading to the postseason and were
riding a 20-game winning streak -- the longest stretch that extended into the
playoffs in NBA history -- when time finally caught up in the form of the
Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder, whose star -- Kevin Durant -- was 10 years old when Duncan won
the first of four NBA championships with the Spurs, knocked out San Antonio
with four straight wins in the Western Conference Finals. The Game 6 clincher
saw the Spurs squander an 18-point lead.
Despite failing to reach the Finals for the fifth straight year, the Spurs
come into the season relying on the usual suspects
Duncan, 36, signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason, and free-
agent-to-be Ginobili intends to spend the rest of his career in San Antonio,
however long that is.
"If I'm going to play next year (2013-14), it's highly likely it's going to be
here," the 35-year-old Ginobili said on the Spurs Nation blog.
Parker, who joined Duncan and Ginobili on the wrong side of 30 in May,
finished fifth in the MVP voting last season after averaging 18.3 points and a
career-best 7.7 assists per game. A freak accident during a bottle-throwing
fight at a nightclub nearly cost Parker his eye in June, but the Frenchman was
able to play for his country in the Olympics less than two months later.
Parker has been cleared to play without the protective goggles he wore in
London, and is looking forward to doing battle with the same nucleus.
"I like our chances. I like that (the front office) chose stability and we
have the same team," Parker said at a recent media session. "I think the big
thing for us is all our young guys have one more year of experience of being
through the playoffs and big games. I think that will be very helpful to us."
Those "young guys" Parker is referring to include forward Kawhi Leonard and
center Tiago Splitter, who are expected to play significant minutes.
Leonard, the 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of San Diego State, is
just 21 years old and averaged 24 minutes per game his rookie year. Splitter,
a former Spanish League MVP, put up 9.3 points and 5.2 rebounds, but will be
leaned on more heavily in the post in his third full season.
2011-12 Results: 50-16, first in Southwest; lost in West Final to Oklahoma
ADDITIONS: C Eddy Curry
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Tony Parker
SG- Manu Ginobili
SF- Kawhi Leonard
PF- Tim Duncan
C- Boris Diaw
KEY RESERVES: C Tiago Splitter, C Eddy Curry, C/F DeJuan Blair, F/C Matt
Bonner, G/F Stephen Jackson, F James Anderson, G/F Danny Green, G Gary Neal, G
FRONTCOURT: For the fifth straight season, Gregg Popovich lowered Duncan's
minutes-per-game to save the future Hall-of-Famer's legs for the playoffs. The
progression of DeJuan Blair and the addition of Leonard provided seamless
transition in a frontcourt that finished ninth in the NBA in rebounds (43.0
Duncan, who missed the All-Star Game for just the second time in his 15-year
career, still averaged 15.4 points and 9.0 rebounds during a grueling regular
season schedule. His pick-and-rolls with Parker at the top of the key are
every bit as effective as they were a decade ago, though his defensive skills
eroded to a 2.9 defensive win share last season -- the lowest of his career.
Splitter figures to get better defensively as he adjusts his game to the NBA,
and he's already shown productive skills on the offensive side. The 6-foot-11
Brazilian will split time with Boris Diaw at center. Diaw started throughout
the playoffs but was very inconsistent in his production.
Leonard, a draft-day steal, earned the fourth most Rookie of the Year votes,
making it much easier for the front office to move the ineffective Richard
Jefferson last season.
BACKCOURT: The Spurs' offense used to revolve around Duncan, but Parker has
clearly taken the reins in recent years. With one of the quickest first steps
in the league, the four-time All-Star was the playmaker for the second highest
scoring team in the league (103.7 PPG), while only two teams (Philadelphia and
the LA Clippers) committed fewer turnovers.
Parker shot poorly (41 percent) in the four losses to the Thunder, showing how
truly valuable his effectiveness is to the team's success. His clutch-time
scoring (with five minutes left in the fourth quarter or overtime with neither
team ahead by more than five points) ranked among the league leaders and just
ahead of the Lakers' Kobe Bryant.
Ginobili, used off the bench but viewed essentially as a starter, sat out a
month last season because of a broken hand and also missed time due to an
oblique strain. The Argentine averaged just 12.9 points -- his lowest since
2003-04 -- but showed he has something left in the tank by averaging a team-
high 19.4 points in the Olympics.
BENCH: When Popovich looks down his bench, he will see familiar faces in
Blair, Splitter, Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Matt Bonner and
Patty Mills. Other than Mills, each played over 20 minutes a game last season
and have their defined roles.
Blair, who has no anterior cruciate ligaments in his knees after multiple
surgeries in high school, has missed just three games during his three-year
NBA career. The 6-foot-7, 265-pound power forward is effective around the rim
and gives the Spurs another big body on the blocks.
Jackson has not been as productive offensively as he was earlier in his
career, but he's still a headache for most small forwards on the defensive
side. Neal, Green and Bonner are all solid 3-point threats.
Mills, a 6-foot guard from Australia, may be a diamond in the rough. The Saint
Mary's College product showed promise when he saw extended playing time at the
end of the regular season, including a 34-point, 12-assist effort in the
regular season finale against Golden State.
COACHING: Popovich has been at the helm for 17 years now, the longest tenured
coach with the same team in all four major professional sports. The 63-year-
old garnered his second Coach of the Year award last season and is putting his
focus on stopping the opposition in 2012-13.
"For us it's about the defense. We have to be able to make more stops in the
fourth quarter than we did last year," Popovich said.
OUTLOOK: Chalk up another 50 wins for Popovich's bunch, a feat the Spurs have
accomplished every year but one since the head coach took over full time. The
only season they failed to win 50 games came in a lockout-shortened 1998-99
campaign and ended with the franchise's first NBA crown.
Another title is unlikely this season, however, unless the Spurs add an X-
factor at the trade deadline to help the Big Three ride off in the sunset.
The Sports Network