April 12, 2011; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant (24) controls the ball against the defense of San Antonio Spurs shooting guard James Anderson (left) during the first half at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

ESPN NBA Forecast: Spurs projected as No. 3 seed in Western Conference

ESPN’s NBA Forecast derives from the collective aggregate of a panel of 100 basketball minds from around the blogosphere. They covered the Eastern Conference yesterday with the Miami Heat pulling away as the definitive No. 1 seed.

The Western Conference, however, is a bit more tricky with a defined elite tier — consisting of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs — and several rungs of teams that are above-average and would be viable contenders for the No. 2 seed if they weren’t in the West.

The ESPN analysts project that Oklahoma City and Los Angeles will both win 59 games while the Thunder will earn the tiebreaker. The Spurs, last year’s No. 1 seed, are projected to win 54 games.

Beckley Mason of Truehoop made a solid point and one that deserves reiterating; this projection essentially means they believe the Spurs will undergo the third highest drop in winning percentage, belonging in the same group as Houston and Phoenix, who underwent dramatic aesthetic changes this season. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound right. (I may have been on the high side but I projected the Spurs to win 62 games this season.)

The rest of their projections follow:

     1. Oklahoma City Thunder — 59-23
     2. Los Angeles Lakers — 59-23
     3. San Antonio Spurs — 54-28
     4. Los Angeles Clippers — 50-32
     5. Denver Nuggets — 50-32
     6. Memphis Grizzlies — 48-34
     7. Dallas Mavericks — 46-36
     8. Utah Jazz — 41-41
     9. Minnesota Timberwolves — 41-41
     10. Golden State Warriors — 38-44
     11. Portland Trail Blazers — 35-47
     12. Houston Rockets — 33-49
     13. New Orleans Hornets — 31-51
     14. Phoenix Suns — 30-52
     15. Sacramento Kings — 29-53

A little on the low side: It appears that the consensus, at least from my view, is a little cautious. The odds of there not being a team that wins 60+ games seem remote as does the No. 8 seed sneaking into the playoffs with an even W-L record, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1998.

More belief in Houston, not New Orleans?: The panel apparently likes Houston’s incoherent roster a lot more than I do. New Orleans, on the other hand, is ripe with potential, flexibility in the interior and Eric Gordon is an elite scorer at the 2-guard position. I don’t think they will contend for a playoff berth but their roster at least makes some coherent sense. (I projected the Hornets to win 44 games, a bit too high in retrospect.)

A difficult road: Should these matchups come to fruition, San Antonio’s chances of reaching the Western Conference Finals would be very slim. A first-round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies isn’t ideal and neither is the potential second-round matchup against the Lakers. A bit of bracket luck will be needed this year for the Spurs as defeating imposing physical teams have always been a struggle.

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