No, this post won't be about the obvious guys like the Los Angeles Lakers or Oklahoma City Thunder (and that's for the Western Conference alone). This will be about the teams the San Antonio Spurs shouldn't simply sleep on; the last time they did that, a Manu Ginobili injury to end the regular season (and he had played in 80 season games, starting all but one!) allowed the Memphis Grizzlies, which had shadowed the Spurs throughout the regular season, to steal home court advantage and eventually the series. Of course, the Spurs bounced back and swept the regular season series last season, largely due to Manu remaining healthy for the final matchup (although he WAS out for a good part of the season), Tim Duncan having flashback games, and Kawhi Leonard forcing Rudy Gay into bad shooting nights.
Some mid-tier Western teams the Spurs should still watch out for:
The Dallas Mavericks - yes, I know it's a shock to see the once-proud I-35 rival in the dreaded "mid-tier" rank, but bear with me. Two years removed from a championship, and the Mavs have only Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Rodrigue Beaubois left from the championship team. Dirk had one of his worst career seasons, and despite their best efforts the Ponies were unceremonially swept in the first round, a fate they share with the 2007 Miami Heat (irony, thy name is spoken). Although Mark Cuban has surrounded the German sharpshooter with youth, picking up Darren Collison for French big man (and former Spur, sigh) Ian Mahinmi, signing erstwhile Grizzly OJ Mayo, and picking up Jared Cunningham, Jae Crowder, and Bernard James in the draft - whilst reshuffling their big man rotation with the addition of center (and Nowitzki teammate on Team Germany) Chris Kaman and a former 1st overall power forward in Elton Brand, this team still lacks identity. Will it be a dark horse? Will it be a simple road block by a title contender on the way to the Finals? Or will they go barely above .500 and miss out on the playoffs?
The Denver Nuggets - one of the biggest blockbuster trades was just completed nearly two months ago, when the Philadelphia 76ers sent out versatile, defensive swingman Andre Iguodala to the Mile-High (basketball) Club. A guy named Dwight Howard was also reportedly involved in the deal. If there is a team that no one considers a serious title contender but still incredibly fun to watch, it would be this one. As a team they led the league in points per game, and factoring in their second-fastest pace, they were the third most efficient offense in the league (behind the Spurs and the Thunder), and although they were 29th in points allowed per game, worse even than the woeful Charlotte Bobcats, adjusting for pace it increases to a more respectable but still mediocre 20th in defensive efficiency. Nevertheless, with Iguodala in the fold, their defense should definitely improve, placing in the top half as opposed to the bottom. Even with their run and gun mindset, they took the Los Angeles Lakers to seven games, mostly because they could outrun the Lakers with their youth and athleticism. The Spurs should therefore take their visit/s to Pepsi Center with a little preparation.
The Minnesota Timberwolves - yes, I know, this may be premature, but Rick Adelman has effectively pressured David Kahn into making really good trades and signings to keep Kevin Love happy - and the result is addition by subtraction. Wesley Johnson, one of many horrible players for the Wolves last season, is out - and his minutes taken by do-it-all Russian forward Andrei Kirilenko, who along with rookie combo guard Alexey Shved, took home a bronze medal, much to the chagrin of Team Argentina. The Wolves also effectively traded Darko Milicic for Greg Stiemsma - and anytime you can get an undrafted young shot blocker for a guy who has borne the bust label by virtue of being taken before Dwyane Wade, you do it. And while their backcourt has lingering health questions - I don't expect Adelman to play Brandon Roy a lot as the season goes by, preserving him for the playoffs - it beats starting out Ricky Rubio with guys like Luke Ridnour. Nevertheless, the Spurs have had amazing games against the Wolves - Manu Ginobili went for a 44 point (13-18 from the field, 7-9 from beyond the arc, 11-12 from the line for an eye-popping 94.5 TS%) performance in his Sixth Man of the Year season, whilst the next season saw Tony Parker save the Spurs from an 0-4 season start with his career high of 55 points (22-36 from the field, 2-3 from beyond the arc, 9-10 from the line for a more pedestrian but still amazing 68.1 TS%), and Tim Duncan had a 21 point, 15 rebound (6 offensive boards) outing in only 24 minutes this last season. So while they're nowhere title contention yet, they should prove to be a tough out for whoever faces them in the postseason.
Memphis Grizzlies - the memories still rankle, I guess. However, a frontcourt that starts Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Rudy Gay whilst having an annoying backcourt in Mike Conley and Tony Allen sporting the best defense in the West (I kid you not) should be a tough out regardless of whoever the face. Teams that don't have the size or toughness advantage will buckle, although it's also worth noting that the Grizzlies are vulnerable to buckling themselves (just ask a Clippers fan about the Miracle in Memphis... speaking of which, what's the best comeback in Spurs history anyway?) and have a sharp dropoff in talent beyond their starters. Their lack of 3 pt shooting also kills them - Tony Allen may lay claim to the Bruce Bowen Award of Lockdown Perimeter Defense, but he surely is not a corner 3 maestro. I'm less afraid of this team than two years ago, what with the Spurs adding length to stopper up Gay and a big body in Boris Diaw (and more playing time for Tiago Splitter, we hope) to counter that fearsome frontcourt.
Honorable omissions: Golden State, because this year they'll be relying on their best offensive player and best defensive player to stay healthy. If only Stephen Curry didn't have paper ankles or Andrew Bogut didn't continually roll 1s on his conditioning roll.
Utah - We know what they can do. But are Mo Williams and Randy Foye, sharpshooters alike, really the answer to their inside-outside game? Will their plethora of expiring contracts make a trade involving Paul Millsap and/or Al Jefferson viable? And most of all, was their playoff appearance a fluke caused by injuries causing teams like Portland to miss the playoffs due to their FO hitting the panic button? Speaking of which...
Portland - LaMarcus Aldridge may be the third best power forward in the West. Damian Lillard might score enough points to upset Anthony Davis' bid for Rookie of the Year. Nicolas Batum MIGHT deliver on his 8 digit contract. But this team is all about hypotheticals for now. And while my biggest memory of these guys is a 40 point blowout where Pop essentially gave the game up before opening tip by opting not to play Timmeh, Tony, and Manu, the Spurs reciprocated late in the season with a 35 point drubbing - although Aldridge was shut down for the season.
Thoughts, Fellow Pounders?