As we head into next season, there's clearly a top tier in NBA with the Warriors and Cavaliers, then a second tier with the Spurs by themselves, and then there's everyone else. But that "everyone else" is a pretty deep field. Both the Eastern and Western Conference feature up to 12 teams who could realistically fill playoff spots No. 2 through No. 8, and beyond that there are a lot of teams ready to make real strides toward relevancy.
With that in mind, here's a look at six teams that could make big jumps next year, possibly into the playoffs, if fortune breaks their way.
1. Utah Jazz
Utah should have made the playoffs last year. If Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors don't go down at the same time for over a month mid-season, they likely make it in. But injuries happen, and they eventually slipped out by a single game in the standings. But the formula is very much there for the Jazz to become a postseason player starting next season.
Utah is very much the "it" team in NBA media circles when it comes to expected jumps for next season, and for good reason. They added veterans George Hill (at a key position of point guard, a sore spot last season), Joe Johnson (to add both shooting and a small-ball lineup with Johnson at power forward) and hyper-versatile former-Spur Boris Diaw, giving them skill on top of athleticism.
These moves also help shore up the injury concerns. If Gobert goes down, the team can look to a small-ball lineup with Favors and Diaw. If Gordon Hayward misses time, Johnson can slide into the three. And if their numerous shooting-guard options struggle, they can play two point guards with Hill and Dante Exum.
Speaking of Exum, he might as well be an offseason addition all his own. Athletic and possessing great defensive instincts already, Exum missed all of last season after suffering an ACL tear in international play. Exum gives them a long-term prospect, but the addition of Hill means that if he needs time to ease back in from injury, the Jazz can be patient.
The Jazz a star-caliber players in Gordon Hayward (who has played at an All-Star level if adjusted for pace the past two years), two guys on the cusp of that level in Derrick Favors and Gobert, andRodney Hood has that kind of potential and has made big strides. For support? Hill, Diaw, Johnson, Alec Burks, Exum and Trey Lyles. That's a terrific 10-man rotation, with Shelvin Mack, Joe Ingles and Raul Neto on the back end.
When Utah lost its defensive anchor in Gobert to injury last year, the offense exploded as coach Quin Snyder tried to pivot to keep them afloat. The result is a roster that showed it can adapt to whatever tactical approach it needs, provided it can stay healthy enough to hang.
Ceiling: If Memphis, San Antonio or the Clippers suffer injury issues, it's not out of the question for Utah to finish as high as 4th in the West with home-court advantage in the first round.
Floor: There's no reason, outside of a straight-up supernatural-curse-level of injuries, for Utah to miss the postseason.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
Milwaukee has been on a rollercoaster the last few years. They fell completely apart three seasons ago, which resulted in the worst record in the league and the No. 2 pick which gave them Jabari Parker. Parker suffered a torn ACL, but the team still put together a playoff campaign and looked like an up-and-comer, especially after they added Greg Monroe last offseason.
Then they slipped back last season, falling behind early. They weren't able to catch up in the second half of the season despite some promising stats, and wound up missing the playoffs.
The Bucks' offseason didn't produce any major additions. Their bench is drastically different after O.J. Mayo was banned from the NBA for two years, and Jerryd Bayless and Greivis Vasquez departed in free agency.
The reason many expect them to make another surge this year is built on two ideas. One, their internal development with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Parker, Khris Middleton and John Henson, and two, the possibility of a Greg Monroe trade.
The team has been chasing a Monroe trade for months. It became apparent very early on that Monroe wasn't going to be a fit with their athletic roster and his sizable contract presents issues as well. The issue is that there haven't been any real suitors. At this point, Monroe seems a lot like a much-younger version of David Lee with the Warriors, where he was added to help make them a playoff team and instead it seems like his player-type is a liability in the modern NBA of range and versatility.
If the Bucks can just get back moderate depth improvements for Monroe, their young talent might be enough to give them a postseason push.
Parker averaged 14 points and 5.2 rebounds per game on 49 percent shooting last year, despite coming back from the ACL tear. Middleton asserted himself as one of the best up-and-coming two-guards in the league, and after a solid 2015 season provided the Bucks with a great defensive performance, there's reason to believe with seasoning of the youngsters, Jason Kidd's scheme can get them back to at least average on that end of the floor which is all they need. The Bucks looked to help on that end by adding veterans like Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic, but this is still a young roster.
It's possible, but unlikely, that the Bucks' rookies (Thon Maker, Malcolm Brogdon) make an impact, but the Bucks' biggest reason to make a surge next year lies in Antetokounmpo, who showed real signs of being able to play point-forward-center last year. His three-point shot isn't there yet (26 percent from deep), but he averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
If Antetokounmpo makes the jump to legit star, that's going to put the Bucks in the mix for a postseason resurgence and a chance to get on track.
Ceiling: The Monroe trade nets them decent return and Antetokounmpo helps them reach the 6th seed.
Floor: The youngsters continue to only gradually improve and their veterans can't make a dent in their defensive woes as the Bucks get lost in the East's middle mish-mash, missing the playoffs again.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
This one's pretty obvious. The Wolves feature the best Rookie of the Year winner and now second-year player since Kevin Durant in Karl-Anthony Towns, who is a flat out star. Andrew Wiggins, another No. 1 overall pick, is really coming into his own. The Wolves added a dynamic, versatile rookie point guard in Kris Dunn, and they have good supporting talent like Zach LaVine, Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng.
They also tacked on good veterans Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill, but their biggest offseason get was coach Tom Thibodeau. With Thibodeau's regular-season track record and history of valuing each game, there's an expectation that the new coach will be enough to lift the Wolves to the playoffs, with assumed improvement from the youngsters.
(There's also the possibility of a Rubio trade netting substantial upgrades.)
A concern, though: While the Western Conference was weak after the top three teams last year, there's good reason to believe it won't be as weak this year. Portland remains in the mix along with Utah, and teams like Houston, which added some real scoring punch with Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, and Dallas, which raided the Warriors' offload in acquiring Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, could actually be better than last year if things go right.
The biggest issue for Minnesota is that they are still brutally young. Teams that young typically don't make the playoffs. Bear in mind that the Thunder didn't reach the postseason until 2010, Durant's third season in the league. But this Wolves team is really one to watch.
Ceiling: Towns continues to wreak havoc, Wiggins becomes more than a scoring threat, Dunn is a revelation, a Rubio trade nets depth that fits, and the Wolves manage to land the 7th seed and give the Spurs a scare in the first round.
Floor: Injuries or stagnation set in, the team's youth frustrates Thibs in being slow to adapt to his concepts, and the Wolves miss the playoffs by a handful of games, tempering optimism.
4. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers made the playoffs last year... and then completely shook up the whole model. Frank Vogel, gone. Ian Mahinmi, gone. George Hill, gone.
In its place is a revamped starting five of Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis, Paul George, Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner, with Al Jefferson, C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey in reserve.
That new starting five is terrific and that gives them a real shot at making a leap next season. But their depth is extremely suspect. New coach Nate McMillan is going to have his hands full pulling together a 10-man rotation to get to the playoffs with the starters intact.
But Teague gives them a more dynamic playmaker than Hill, Young gives them a different look at forward and with George putting in elite-level play and Turner's improvement, Indy, which was a No. 7 seed last year and lost in seven in the first round to Toronto, could make a jump next year, if not a huge one.
Ceiling: Toronto or Boston stumble, they find some depth, and the Pacers dance into the third seed.
Floor: McMillan, an offensively conservative coach, struggles with the changes to the NBA since the last time he was head coach (though he's been an assistant this whole time), Teague's defensive slide continues, the minutes load wears on Paul George, and Indiana stagnates its way into barely making the 8th seed. It's hard to see a scenario barring catastrophic injury where they don't reach the playoffs.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Hey, we didn't say how big of a jump it had to be. The Lakers have a coach in Luke Walton who is open-minded and better equipped to make the most of their young athletic roster than Byron Scott was, and they added some veterans in Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng who at least know what they're doing.
D'Angelo Russell stands to improve the most and looked the part in summer league. The maturity questions are still there and Russell may not yet understand what it takes to win in this league, but then, Kyrie Irving didn't in his second season, either. Julius Randle had one of the best rebound rates among bigs last year despite his small wingspan and quietly really looks like a franchise block.
If Brandon Ingram fits better into the team concept than expected and Jordan Clarkson continues his ascension as a quality scoring weapon, the Lakers could realistically finally enter the offseason with a little momentum. A playoff berth is too much to ask for, though.
Ceiling: The youngsters make real strides and the Lakers finish within a stone's throw of the postseason with momentum headed into free agency.
Floor: A young team still doesn't know how to win, Walton struggles in his first year as coach, and the Lakers put in another bottom-five defensive year, continuing to look like they have talent but aren't actually headed anywhere.
6. Denver Nuggets
Denver wasn't bad last year. They had injuries to two key players, Jusuf Nurkic (rim protection) and Wilson Chandler (shooting, versatility) that scuttled them in their tough early schedule. But there's a lot to like about this team going into 2016-17. Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Chandler, Nikola Jokic and Kenneth Faried are all starter-caliber players, and they have depth with Jameer Nelson, Will Barton, Jamal Murray, Nurkic and Juancho Hernangomez.
They just need one of the youngsters (Mudiay, Harris, Jokic, Murray) to make a leap in order to be in line for a playoff spot. The Nuggets are firmly under the radar, but in Michael Malone's second season, the playoffs aren't an unrealistic goal.
Ceiling: Mudiay and Jokic take a big step forward in their second season, the team stays healthy with a balanced schedule, and they return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Floor: The youngsters all look "good, not great," injuries leave them short-handed again, and the team is forced to move the veterans at the deadline for not much long-term return.