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ESPN predicts San Antonio Spurs as Western Conference champions

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And just like that, the we-get-no-respect era of Spurs-fandom comes to an end.

I haven't been making much of the Whirlwide Liter's panel of 210 (nice choice of a number, ESPN) experts who have been making predictions on this upcoming season, but I figured this one rated a bit of your time.

And how about this Nets fan's take on the announcement: "Pop found not only a way to beat father time but somehow effectively put him into the rotation."

This is obviously far from unexpected considering the Spurs made two Finals in a row and could have won both. But since they didn't make any splashy signings and the clock stops for no man, it was possible the temptation to go with the Thunder on internal growth alone would prove too great for the panel to resist. But no, the Spurs prevailed -- and by a significant margin. Perhaps the utter demolition of the Heat is still fresh in people's memories.

The challenges for the Spurs remain the same they have faced for years: health and the Thunder. With Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard all taking the summer off, the Spurs seem set to start off on the right foot, and Pop will surely be careful with minutes to keep everyone fresh. And if those guys remain relatively injury-free, the absence of Patty Mills, caused by surgery to fix a torn rotator cuff, won't be felt as deeply.

As for the Thunder, they will start off the season with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant healthy, fresh, and hungry. And they still present some match-up problems for the Spurs. But the win last season and the uncertainty surrounding the rotation outside the core four of Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson make this new incarnation of the Thunder seem far from unbeatable.

There are other threats in the West, of course. The Clippers are deep and have the terrific one-two punch of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. The addition of Trevor Ariza gives the Rockets an upgrade on perimeter defense and we know their offense can go off at any time. The Warriors were stout on defense last season and have the weapons to improve on offense with a more creative system. Even the Mavs look improved with the addition of the two Chandlers and they were a handful in last year's playoffs.

But you can't blame ESPN for going with the obvious choice here. The Spurs' combination of experience, continuity, emerging talent and coaching acumen makes them the best team in the West, at least on paper.

Now we'll have to wait until tomorrow to see if the panel of experts thinks they will beat the Cavs, who were predicted to come out of the East.

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