AP

In a Western Conference where there is no true favorite, a free-for-all for the eight tickets to the playoff dance is likely. For San Antonio to be a part of it, Gregg Popovich is going to have to pull off his best coaching job ever.

Considering he’d already surpassed Phil Jackson in many minds before the Zen Master took his latest hiatus, topping anything he’s already done is like asking Al Pacino to make the next great epic gangster flick.

Unfortunately for Pop, he’s got no choice in his next huge challenge.

Manu Ginobili should be out until about the All-Star break after breaking a bone in his left shooting hand on Tuesday in Minneapolis. The lockout-accelerated schedule isn’t going to stop for the Spurs to collect their bearings. They’ll play 17 more games in January and will likely play their entire dreaded nine-stop Rodeo road trip in February without their star shooting guard.

Tim Duncan will still need his rest, DeJuan Blair functions best when not over-extended and there’s no George Hill to ease the burden on Tony Parker. T.J. Ford is off to a decent start, but he can’t be the defensive catalyst that Hill was at the point of attack.

In Ginobili’s place, 22-year-old James Anderson enters the starting lineup. He was terrific at Oklahoma State and put in his rookie season learning the Spurs way, but there’s no question asking him to play a major role is something Popovich could’ve lived with out. Rookie Kawhi Leonard is also due for a minutes bump, while Gary Neal will have little grace period in his return from an appendectomy

How will Popovich pull this off?

Critics have been trying to sprinkle dirt on the Spurs for years, so maybe it’s because I was once accused of being President of their fan club (link: http://www.cbssports.com/nba/story/10431746 ) that I’ve refused to grab a clump. Parker and Ginobili have never gotten the credit they deserve as an elite legendary backcourt, so when healthy alongside Duncan, all things are possible.

Maybe that can again be the case this May, but Popovich is going to have to steer the Spurs through a taxing few weeks for us to see whether that’s even possible. At this point, the Lakers, Clippers, Mavs, Thunder, Nuggets, Blazers and Grizzlies all pass the playoff eye test. By the All-Star break, provided they manage to avoid catastrophe, expect those teams to be in prime position. How will San Antonio keep its head above water to make a second-half push?

Ginobili didn’t toil in international competition this summer. He looked fresh and confident. Presumably, his legs will feel great when he does return, but there’s no guarantee he’ll hit the ground running given the nature of his injury’s impact on his shooting stroke.

Popovich has to walk the tightrope of getting the most out of Duncan without over-extending him. He’s got to push the right buttons with the kids, who now become essential contributors. He’s got to keep Richard Jefferson playing at a high level, one of the few bright spots in San Antonio’s suddenly gloomy forecast.

By no means should you sprinkle dirt on the Spurs, but appreciate the magnitude of the task Popovich is about to undertake. He won’t want you to, but do it anyway. Basketball reasons.

Tony Mejia is senior writer of Pro Basketball News. He can be reached at mejia@probasketballnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA