With the Spurs set to start training camp Tuesday, Coach Gregg Popovich warmed up with a media briefing Friday at the team's practice facility.
Among other things he talked about during a session that lasted about 10 minutes, Popovich said the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers are easily the top teams in the NBA's rugged Western Conference.
Leave it to Pop, a guy who always pushes the envelope, to go out on a limb. Seriously, the Thunder and Lakers look so strong that it's them and then a team called Everybody Else in the West.
"There are a lot of teams that are competitive in the West," Popovich said. "But if you look on paper, you've got to look at those teams right off the bat. There are others, but those two hit you in the face pretty quickly."
The Spurs finished the 2011-12 regular season with the best record in the West (50-16) by three games, but the Thunder beat the Silver & Black in the conference finals. San Antonio took a 2-0 lead in the series but the Thunder won the next four games to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since it moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City.
The Spurs had won 20 consecutive games, including a 10-0 start in the playoffs, before the wheels started coming off in Game 3 of the series against the Thunder.
As young as they are talented, the Thunder return the core of the team that lost to Miami in the Finals -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Big men Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka are also back.
Pop: 'Lakers have potential to be a great team'
The Lakers, who got Orlando All-Star center Dwight Howard in a trade that sent Andrew Bynum to the Magic, are expected to push the Thunder for supremacy in the West. Los Angeles also acquired All-Star point guard Steve Nash, who played with the Phoenix Suns last season.
Add Kobe Bryant to the mix and you can see why the Lakers are the early favorite to win it all this season.
"The West has been very difficult for a long time," Popovich said. "We've always talked about that. It just seems that getting out of the West is really difficult for everybody every season. That hasn't changed.
"When you see what the Lakers did, they have the potential to be a great team. Oklahoma City is Oklahoma City. The rest of us want to all improve so that we can catch those guys."
And what about the Spurs, who return virtually everybody from a team that came within two victories of playing in the Finals? What must they do to remain in contention for a championship?
"It's all about the defense," Popovich said. "We've got to do our best to become a better defensive team. That's easy to say but it's more about a consistency. It's about a consistency we didn't have(last season), and it really showed up against Oklahoma City. Part of the reason is because they're very talented, very athletic and a hell of a team.
But we can do things defensively if we commit to that end of the court, so that we become a good defensive team because I think last year we were probably a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack, defensive team. If we can become a good defensive team, I think we'll be real happy with our season."
Duncan has been linchpin for Spurs
The Spurs once again will be led by their Big Three -- forward Tim Duncan, guard Manu Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker.
Duncan is preparing for his 16th season with the Spurs, who drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in 1997. Now 36, Duncan is arguably the best power forward in history and has helped San Antonio win four NBA titles.
Asked how Duncan is looking, Popovich quickly replied: "Great, as usual. The guy just does amazing things with his body. Such a dedication to fulfill his responsibility and be ready for his teammates, he sets an unbelievable example. He looks even thinner and more mobile than he did last year. He's really something else."
Ginobili, 35, has won three NBA rings in his 10 seasons with the Spurs.
"Manu is Manu," Popovich said, responding to a question about him. "He's back. Everybody knows Manu. There's not much to say."
Ginobili and Parker, 30, played for Argentina and France, respectively, in the Olympics this summer.
Parker, who also has won three NBA titles with the Spurs, had a scare before the Olympics when the cornea in his left eye was scratched during a fight in a New York nightclub. Parker played with protective goggles in the Olympics and made it through the Games without incident.
Popovich said he didn't know if Parker, who led the Spurs in scoring and assists last season, has had his eye examined by team doctors since returning to San Antonio for the start of training camp.
"He's been looked at during and after the Olympics by a lot of people," Popovich said. "We'll do the same. All indications are that he's totally ready to go and has no problem."
An All-Star last season, Parker is preparing for his 12th season with the Spurs.