Fifty-seven games into last season, the Utah Jazz were 29-28. They finished that campaign at 48-34 and fifth place in the Western Conference. They upset the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, before getting stomped by the Houston Rockets in the conference semifinals.
Now, 57 games into 2018-19, Utah is 32-25. The Jazz started their midseason turnaround a little earlier than they did in 2017-18, and they have the easiest remaining schedule in the Western Conference, according to Basketball Reference:
As you can see in the graphic above, that particular model forecasts a final record around 48-34 (same as last season), with a best-case scenario of 56-26.
FiveThirtyEight predicts 49-33. It puts Utah’s chances of making the postseason over 99 percent (Basketball Reference is at 98.6 percent).
At this point, making the playoffs is pretty much a foregone conclusion. But 56-26 seems about as likely as missing. So, just how high up the standings can the Jazz climb?
Let’s start by looking at the FiveThirtyEight forecasts on each of Utah’s remaining 25 games:
- Jazz (35%) @ Thunder (65%)
- Mavericks (13%) vs. Jazz (87%)
- Clippers (15%) vs. Jazz (85%)
- Jazz (25%) @ Nuggets (75%)
- Bucks (36%) vs. Jazz (64%)
- Pelicans (21%) vs. Jazz (79%)
- Jazz (51%) @ Pelicans (49%)
- Jazz (57%) @ Grizzlies (43%)
- Thunder (39%) vs. Jazz (61%)
- Jazz (77%) @ Suns (23%)
- Timberwolves (28%) vs. Jazz (72%)
- Nets (14%) vs. Jazz (86%)
- Jazz (61%) @ Wizards (39%)
- Jazz (85%) @ Knicks (15%)
- Jazz (71%) @ Hawks (29%)
- Jazz (75%) @ Bulls (25%)
- Suns (7%) vs. Jazz (93%)
- Lakers (18%) vs. Jazz (82%)
- Wizards (14%) vs. Jazz (86%)
- Hornets (13%) vs. Jazz (87%)
- Jazz (77%) @ Suns (23%)
- Kings (9%) vs. Jazz (91%)
- Jazz (48%) @ Lakers (52%)
- Nuggets (32%) vs. Jazz (68%)
- Jazz (53%) @ Clippers (47%)
So, while FiveThirtyEight’s final projection has Utah at 49 wins, its model has the Jazz as favorites in 22-of-25 games from here on out. A 22-3 close would put the team at 54-28, not far off the best case given by Basketball Reference.
It’s probably safe to assume they don’t get to mid-50s. NBA teams lose games they’re supposed to win all the time, but 50 is certainly within grasp. The Jazz would have to go 18-7 from here on out. That’s a tall task, but not an impossible one. And even though they didn’t improve at the trade deadline, there’s reason to believe this roster is capable of an 18-7 closing kick. I mean, it closed out last season with a 29-6 run.
So, what exactly does Utah have to do to hit its peak heading into the playoffs? Other than take advantage in the games it really should win, there’s at least one lineup Quin Snyder can lean more heavily on. That, and three young guards—Donovan Mitchell, Dante Exum and Royce O’Neale—all need to keep rising.
The one lineup switch you’ve heard about ad nauseam this season is Jae Crowder for Derrick Favors. According to Cleaning the Glass, Utah is minus-0.1 points per 100 possessions (51st percentile) with Favors at the 4 and Rudy Gobert at the 5. It’s plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions (90th percentile) with Crowder at the 4 and Gobert at the 5.
When that second frontcourt is surrounded by Mitchell, O’Neale and Joe Ingles, Utah is plus-43.8 points per 100 possessions (100th percentile).
The sample size on that five-man group is small. Probably too small to draw any big conclusions. But that’s a lineup that got a little run while Ricky Rubio was out with an injury, and it absolutely deserves more time down the stretch.
Crowder isn’t a great shooter, but his 33.3 three-point percentage at least forces defenders to come out to the line to guard him.
Ingles is down a bit this year from deep (36.8 percent, compared to 44 percent over the previous two seasons), but he still bends defenses outward.
And then there’s O’Neale, who has quietly become one of the most reliable 3-and-D guys in the NBA. Among players with at least 100 three-point attempts, O’Neale is eighth in three-point percentage.
And because I love you guys, I’m going to make something up called 3-and-D Rating right here on the spot. I’ll take everyone with 100-plus three-point attempts this year, and figure how many percentage points they are above or below the league-average three-point percentage. Then, I’ll add that number to the player’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. It’s not a perfect measure. It probably favors shooting way more than defense. It needs some tweaking. But here’s the top five in that number at the All-Star break:
- Davis Bertans (11.8)
- Meyers Leonard (11.4)
- Royce O’Neale (10.6)
- Joe Harris (10.5)
- Myles Turner (10.2)
Lineups with Mitchell and Gobert, Utah’s two most important players, should feature as much shooting as possible. Keeping the lane open for Mitchell’s slashing and Gobert’s rolls to the rim should be viewed by Utah’s coaching staff as critically important. As good as Rubio and Favors are as individual players. They just can’t keep that lane open.
Game after game, Rubio’s defender is more or less playing free safety, clogging the lane or helping wherever he needs to. Rubio’s open three-point looks are the product of the oppositions’ game plans.
And while Favors should be commended for the work he’s put in to extend his range, as well as the team-first approach he’s had to a diminishing role, things are just so crowded when he’s on the floor with Gobert. Favors is a starting center. He just happens to be on the same team as one of the top-two or -three centers in the league.
And now, back to that lineup that fits around Mitchell and Gobert. When Mitchell, O’Neale, Ingles, Crowder and Gobert are on the floor, Utah plays like a 63-win team, according to NBA Math’s FATS Calculator:
That’s a .768 winning percentage. The winning percentage for an 18-7 run to get to 50 wins? .720. When just Crowder and Gobert are on the floor, Utah plays like a team with a .683 winning percentage, which would work out to 17-8 over 25 games. When Favors and Gobert share the floor, the Jazz play like a 43-win team (.524)—13-12 over 25 games.
Utah doesn’t necessarily have to start games with that lineup (though it would probably help)—and it’s played the Crowder/Gobert frontcourt about twice as many minutes as the Favors/Gobert pairing—but it needs to be used more going forward.
The hangup for Snyder may be getting Rubio off the floor, who he seems to trust about as much as anyone on the roster. That’s what makes the breakouts of Exum and O’Neale so key.
Exum was already on the way up before his ankle injury sidelined him in January. In his last 16 games, he averaged 8.8 points and 3.8 assists (19.2 and 8.4 per 36 minutes), with a .603 True Shooting Percentage. And while Exum has shown flashes in the past before coming back down to earth, I’m with Snyder in thinking that last stretch was different:
Quin Snyder called Dante Exum last night to tell him this injury is different. Quin told him his play took a noticeable step in the last month and it will pick up right where it left off when he comes back.— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) January 7, 2019
Assuming he’s that player for the rest of the season, there’s little reason to play Rubio over him. Exum’s under contract for two years after this one. Rubio’s deal expires this summer. Exum’s 6’6” and multi-positional. He can get to the paint whenever he wants. He’s not a great shooter either, but he can put pressure on the rim and bend a defense inward with drives. Defenses are indifferent to Rubio. That’s worse.
And even if Exum isn’t quite that player yet, O’Neale is good enough to start over Rubio. His shooting, combined with his lack of usage makes him a much better fit next to Mitchell and Gobert. And while it might be emotionally tough for Rubio to have a smaller role for the rest of his time with the Jazz, the team’s ceiling should take priority over the feelings of a player who may not be on the roster in five months.
Rubio and Favors are both solid NBA players. In fact, that’s probably underselling Favors quite a bit. I’m convinced he could be a borderline 20-10 guy as a starting 5 for a bunch of different teams. They just don’t fit perfectly. And fit is paramount in basketball.
If Utah goes with the status quo for the rest of the season, it’ll still make the playoffs. The Jazz’s win total will end up mid- to high-40s. Then, unfortunately, they’ll likely face a team like the Denver Nuggets or the Carmelo Anthony-less Oklahoma City Thunder. They’d likely be clear underdogs in either situation.
If they make the adjustments that have been staring them in the face all season, there’s evidence to suggest they can get to 50 wins, secure home-court advantage in the first round and maybe get a series against the anti-moneyball San Antonio Spurs. In that scenario, It’s a lot easier to see a third straight trip to the conference semifinals.