Many prognosticators envision an aging club on the decline 12 version of the San Antonio Spurs.
That might be a little harsh since the Spurs are coming off a Western Conference-best 61-21 season. But, then again that kind of regular season success doesn't go all that far in an Alamo City spoiled by multiple championships.
Most Spurs fans couldn't mask the disappointment they felt after Memphis stunned San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs, often exploiting the Spurs aging core with their youth and athleticism.
The surprise ousting of the proud Spurs from a postseason dance they thought had a real chance to produce the franchise's fifth title since Tim Duncan arrived as the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 now has many forecasting the end of a legitimate dynasty.
San Antonio, of course, has been among the NBA's elite ever since Duncan took up residence in South Texas. During the future Hall of Famer's tenure in San Antonio, the club has the best record in the NBA at 780-336 and the four NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007). It also owns seven Southwest Division titles and extended its streak of 50-plus wins in a season to 12 in '10-11.
But, while the club still must rely of the combination of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, it has attempted to sprinkle in a bit of youth and athleticism over the past few years with mixed results.
This season San Antonio again attempted to fortify things with a couple of first round picks, forward Kawhi Leonard, who was drafted by the Pacers with the 15th overall pick and shipped to the Spurs for George Hill, and combo guard Cory Joseph.
The window is certainly closing on San Antonio's chances to win another crown in the Duncan-era and to do so the Spurs must find ways to integrate their new pieces alongside their established All-Star veterans.
Second-year center Tiago Splitter will be key. The former Spanish League MVP got his feet wet in the NBA last season and will be asked to take on a much larger role now that veteran Antonio McDyess called it a career. An ascent by the Brazilian along with a more productive Richard Jefferson coupled with a healthy Big Three could be the formula for one last hurrah.
2010-11 Results: 61-21, first in Southwest; lost in West quarterfinals to Memphis.
ADDITIONS: F Kawhi Leonard, G T.J. Ford, F Gani Lawal, G Cory Joseph
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Tony Parker SG- Manu Ginobili SF- Richard Jefferson PF- Tim Duncan C- Tiago Splitter
FRONTCOURT: Duncan is a very cerebral player that will need to have his minutes in a condensed regular season monitored as much as possible. The three-time NBA Finals MVP ('99, '03, '05) averaged career lows in points (13.4) and rebounds (8.9) last season, but still garners plenty of attention from opposing bigs. Duncan can also still take over in crunch time, but don't expect to see the future Hall of Famer as the focus of the Spurs offense any longer. Duncan's legendary low-post defense is also in decline but he still possesses the smarts to more than hold his own.
Jefferson just hasn't been the same since arriving in San Antonio and was a candidate for amnesty. But, the one time star was kept around for another go- around with the hopes his veteran savvy can add to the mix. The Arizona product needs to be more aggressive on the wing and stop waiting for the big three to do everything.
Splitter is an extremely skilled player limited to 60 games of mainly garbage time duty during his inaugural NBA season. The skilled 7-footer has a lot to prove and the Spurs expect him to make a major leap forward this season.
"We haven't really seen Tiago much, so he's kind of a new player this year," Popovich told the San Antonio Express-News. "He's going to give us a lot of minutes we have to have, because of the quick schedule."
BACKCOURT: Ginobili put up some of the best numbers of his brilliant career last season, scoring in double figures in 67 of the 80 games he played and bettering his previous career scoring best by over 2.0 points per game. Ginobili is a slasher and wants the ball in his hands in crunch time.
Parker, the 2007 NBA Finals MVP, overcame a divorce from movie star wife Eva Longoria during the season to lead the team in scoring with 17.5 points per game. He missed only four games and easily took control of Gregg Popovich's tinkered offense that used to be centered around Duncan. He and LeBron James were the only two players in the NBA last season to average at least 15.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 5.0 assists, while shooting at least 50.0 percent from the field.
BENCH: The Spurs should generate a lot of production from their reserves, most notably Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, and new backup point guard T.J. Ford.
Neal, who will miss a week or two after his appendix burst, was a pleasant surprise in his rookie season, becoming just the second undrafted rookie to make the NBA's All-Rookie First Team after netting 9.8 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting. Neal figures to remain a solid three-point threat again this season.
Blair's big body will go to work inside and gives Popovich an intimidating rebounder, although he has struggled with weight problems. Meanwhile, Bonner can stretch the floor from the pivot with his amazing three-point shooting ability.
Ford, meanwhile, has a lot of starting experience and the quicks to make things seamless when Parker is resting.
Rookies Leonard and Joseph should also be worked in. A hybrid forward with terrific length and a high motor, Leonard could fit in nicely as the eventual replacement for Jefferson.
"I feel good." Leonard said of going to the Spurs. "I had a meeting with them, and I got a great vibe from them. Just any team I'm on, I'm happy with right now. I'm just going in, trying to do whatever the coach wants me to do to make the team successful."
Joseph, meanwhile, is a combo guard that will have plenty of time to learn behind Parker, Ginobili, Ford and Neal.
COACHING: Entering his 16th season at the helm of the Spurs, Popovich is the longest tenured coach with the same team in all four major professional sports. With four NBA titles to his credit Popovich is among the NBA's elite. A master strategist, he is one of the few NBA coaches that will switch schemes on a game-to-game basis in order to expose an opponent's weakness.
OUTLOOK: Does the old war horse have one more race left in her?
That's the question with the Spurs. The gas tank is certainly nearing "e" but this team should be more than competitive enough to compete in the West. Avoiding Memphis or Oklahoma City early in the postseason is probably paramount for a club that will need to regain its bearings come playoff time.