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San Antonio Spurs: 3 biggest playoff-bubble threats in 2018-19

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PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 20: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots a free throw against the San Antonio Spurs on December 20, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 20: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots a free throw against the San Antonio Spurs on December 20, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images) /
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CLEVELAND, OH – FEBRUARY 25: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 celebrates with Bryn Forbes #11 of the San Antonio Spurs after Aldridge was fouled during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on February 25, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH – FEBRUARY 25: LaMarcus Aldridge #12 celebrates with Bryn Forbes #11 of the San Antonio Spurs after Aldridge was fouled during the first half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on February 25, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The San Antonio Spurs will look to claw their way into the 2018-19 postseason, but which Western Conference teams could hamper their chances?

On Tuesday, ESPN released their 2018-19 NBA standings projections. It did not feature the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs, with a predicted record of 44-38 and at No. 9 in the Western Conference. It would be a two spot drop-off from No. 7 if it transpires this season.

Given the depth of the Western Conference and its strength at the top, the Spurs’ chances at the postseason are not guaranteed. It might mean season-long competition from teams on the playoff bubble.

Who could become the biggest threats to the Spurs’ spot in the playoffs? How likely is this to happen? Let’s look at the three teams in play:

3. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Minnesota Timberwolves seemed poised for a breakout season in 2017-18 with a core of Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Jeff Teague. They were in the top four of the Western Conference for the first half of the season, but they drifted to No. 8 by season’s end and had to win their way into the playoffs in the season’s final game.

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Aside from the additions of Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, the Timberwolves have a similar group in place to make a run at the postseason. It may not result in a deep run, but advancements from Towns and Wiggins could go a long way towards how this team performs.

Though, would the Timberwolves belong in the top half of the West? Maybe not, due to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets as fixtures, as well as the competition from the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz.

So Minnesota may very well be neck and neck with the San Antonio Spurs in the 2018-19 season, if both squads sit in the bottom half of the standings for a significant time. These teams play each other four times, so it could make a difference towards how the seeding looks in April.

Next: Trail Blazers

PORTLAND, OR – DECEMBER 20: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots a free throw against the San Antonio Spurs on December 20, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
PORTLAND, OR – DECEMBER 20: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers shoots a free throw against the San Antonio Spurs on December 20, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images) /

2. Portland Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers were the regular season surprise of 2017-18. With a finish at No. 3 in the West, led by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, they flashed the potential to make a postseason run, even if it would end in the second round.

However, a matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans resulted in a series sweep, sending Portland home early and, to another surprise, without a win. This did not lead to roster-wide changes, aside from the departure of Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier and the acquisitions of Seth Curry and Anfernee Simons.

Even with the postseason disappoinment, expectations will be high for the All-Star backcourt that carries them. There’s competition ahead of them, though, that makes a repeat at No. 3 a challenge. Can they get past the Thunder again? Are they about even with the Jazz for the second consecutive year?

If roster questions come to fruition, will it cause Portland to tumble into the bottom of the West? Assuming the San Antonio Spurs are there, it’s certainly a threat. Lillard and McCollum could push them forward on the offensive end and win games by themselves, while San Antonio’s offense, among the lowest in points per game in 2017-18, remains a question.

The Blazers and Spurs play four times this season, including a mid-March game that could decide placement in the West. So these teams might be around each other in the standings for most of the season, if Portland falls off after the playoff failure and the Silver and Black sit around the playoff bubble as expected.

Next: Nuggets

DENVER, CO – JULY 9: The Nuggets announce new contracts for Will Barton and Nikola Jokic at the Pepsi Center on July 9, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO – JULY 9: The Nuggets announce new contracts for Will Barton and Nikola Jokic at the Pepsi Center on July 9, 2018 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images) /

1. Denver Nuggets

The Denver Nuggets were on the wrong end of the “play-in” postseason game against the Timberwolves, dropping to No. 9 in the West. Something similar could happen, again, given their roster blends in with the rest of the conference’s middle ground.

Denver and the San Antonio Spurs, like the Timberwolves and Trail Blazers, may be in that neck-and-neck group in the bottom of the West. It added Isaiah Thomas, once of the NBA’s best scoring point guards, but his heath remains in question. The same for Michael Porter Jr., the team’s first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Aside from them, the core mostly sits in tact. Nikola Jokic, a potentially healthy Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton are all there. If youngsters Trey Lyles and Tyler Lydon take another step forward, too, this could be a team that finishes multiple spots higher than their 2017-18 position.

Improved success is hardly guaranteed, however, with the aforementioned health of Thomas, if Porter Jr. will provide any production this season, if Millsap can stay healthy and live up to his $30 million salary, and the needed jump from the young backcourt to be a threat to the upper-echelon teams.

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Even if any of this happens, it’s still not a guarantee the Nuggets can move ahead of the bottom four. So, look for them to be around the Spurs for most of the season and a threat to push them out of the postseason, into a Timberwolves-esque situation where they contend for No. 7 or 8 in the season’s final weeks.

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