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 City.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Tony Parker SG- Manu Ginobili SF- Kawhi Leonard PF- Tim Duncan C- Boris Diaw
KEY RESERVES: C Tiago Splitter, C/F DeJuan Blair, F/C Matt Bonner, G/F Stephen Jackson, F James Anderson, G/F Danny Green, G Gary Neal, G Patty Mills.
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 per game).
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.