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Why fans shouldn’t just pay attention to the Jazz down the stretch

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With Utah wrapping up the #1 seed with each passing game, fans should begin paying attention to the likely play-in tournament candidates

Orlando Magic v Utah Jazz
While the Utah Jazz are must-see-TV, there’s a handful of other teams lining up for the play-in tournament that will determine Utah’s round 1 playoff matchup.
Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

97.4%

While such a figure appears to represent Jordan Clarkson’s FT% this season, it’s actually the probability of the Utah Jazz being the #1 seed in the West (and the NBA) by regular season end, per Basketball Reference.

Let that sink in for a second...ah, that just feels right!

With their 3rd 9-game win streak of the season in two, the Utah Jazz look as formidable as ever with the league’s best Point Differential (+12.1), best eFG% advantage (+6.3%), and Adjusted Four Factors (0.129).

While there are a handful of games left for the Jazz with a healthy dose of intrigue (including a 3-game stretch beginning tonight against the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns, and Portland Trailblazers), the Jazz are the most dominate team in the league, as far as the regular season is concerned.

For fans, that means all eyes are on the playoffs, and the play-in tournament.

Beginning last season in the Orlando bubble, the NBA adopted a mini-tournament preceding the actual playoffs in which seeds 7-10 from each conference would play for a chance at the final playoff spots.

See below for a diagram of how the play-in tournament works!

NBA Playoffs
NBA Playoffs diagram for the Play-in Tournament
NBA.com

While such a model will attract an enormous amount of attention league wide, it’s especially poignant for Jazz fans with Utah sitting atop the standings.

Let’s take a look at the impact of having the #1 seed, who Utah could face in round 1, and what/who to watch along with Utah as the season winds down.

Impact of the #1 Seed

Securing the #1 seed your respective conference is a big deal for all of the obvious reasons.

Theoretically, the #1 seed plays the worst team. Such a fact is aided further by structure of the play-in tournament, where the 10th seed has a path to break into the playoffs. For Utah, who hasn’t proceeded to the 2nd round in three seasons, that’s a big deal.

You retain home court advantage throughout your conference. In a normal season, that’s a nice boost, especially for Utah who, along with Denver, have the only tried and true home court advantage.

But in a COVID impacted season such as this, the Jazz may have 10,000+ fans cheering them on at Vivint Arena while other teams may continue with none? That’s a sizeable edge.

Utah Jazz v Toronto Raptors
Utah Jazz fans in the area could amplify an already crucial home court advantage during the playoffs
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

This year, however, there’s an additional advantage to having the #1 seed!

By virtually every metric possible, there’s a sizeable drop-off in individual and team talent after the projected #7 team Portland Trailblazers.

Take a look at the below chart which ranks each West team in various advanced metrics., paying special attention to the drop-off from the 6-7 seeds to 8-12:

Western Conference
Western Conference team ranks in various advanced metrics
Stats via CleaningTheGlass, NBA.com, NBA Stuffer, and FiveThirtyEight

Just imagine that the #2 seed Phoenix Suns in all likelihood will host a Luka Doncic led Dallas Mavericks or a Damian Lillard led Portland Trailblazers while the #1 Utah Jazz likely face one of the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, or Sacramento Kings.

Talk about a killer round 1 advantage.

The #1 seed was always important, especially to a team in Utah who is trying to make it’s first serious title run. But in a year as unique as this, having the best West and league record will be critical to achieving the aspirations we all have for the team.

Play-in Tournament Candidates

You could probably tell by the above chart, but there are a good handful of teams likely to be jostling for a spot in the play-in tournament as the season closes.

At the top of the list lies the LA Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, and Portland Trailblazers. One of these teams will be left in the #7 seed, required to win one game to advance to the playoffs. Given the talent of these teams, whoever is left out in the cold will easily make the playoffs and likely be the true #7 seed.

Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz
While unlikely, there is a path to a Jazz-Mavs round 1 matchup in the playoffs.
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

That leaves a 5-team group of the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Sacramento Kings competing for the final 3 play-in tournament spots. There’s just a projected 4-game gap in the loss column for these 5.

Following the results from last night’s NBA action, here are Jazz odds for a round 1 opponent:

Let’s take a brief look the 4 teams with >10% odds to matchup with the Jazz and evaluate their attractiveness as a round 1 matchup.

Memphis Grizzlies

This is a pretty ideal matchup for the Jazz. While the team will be more healthy come playoffs, the Grizzlies are young, inexperienced, and flawed.

From a numbers perspective, Jazz have a clear advantage in shooting efficiency, shot distribution, player talent versatility, etc. The one wrinkle is the Grizzlies’ ability to swing extra possessions and points from the opponent.

Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies
The Jazz pulled off an impressive 3-0 record against the Grizzlies within a small 6 day span.
Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

From a narrative perspective, Memphis doesn’t have a super star or a top 50 second player. The Jazz beat the Grizz 3x this year with all 3 of their stars having incredible games.

Best case scenario: 4-0

Worst case scenario: 4-1

Golden State Warriors

Given that the Jazz wouldn’t have the best player in the series (Stephen Curry), facing the Warriors would be far less mouth watering (again, s/o Ben Simmons) than the Grizzlies.

As we saw earlier this season, the Warriors can detonate at any moment and steal a game with their prolific shooting. They are, however, the most inconsistent team in the league per NBA Stuffer.

The narrative surrounding the series would be the Jazz depth and above average talent at every rotational spot should burry the Warriors.

Best case scenario: 4-1

Worst case scenario: 4-2

New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans have a lot of talent. It is possible, however, they have even more weaknesses.

Statistically, they allow a ton of 3’s and have the 2nd worst half-court defense. They do pound the paint on the back of Zion Williamson, but rarely get the consistent production and impact from any of their core.

The narrative surrounding the series would likely be the Jazz splashing from deep and working to make any other Pelican score not named Zion.

Best case scenario: 4-0

Worst case scenario: 4-2

Portland Trailblazers

This is BY FAR the worst possible outcome for the Jazz. Damian Lillard’s stardom may be the most admirable from afar, but strikes as much fear in opponents as anyone.

Historically, we know what they’re capable of with their shooting and defense when healthy, even though this year’s resume looks meager.

The narrative surrounding the series would likely be Lillard vs Mitchell, though honestly, the affect Nurkic and Gobert will have on the pull-up 3 would determine the series.

Best case scenario: 4-2

Worst case scenario: 3-4

San Antonio Spurs

Again, no superstar and the 2nd best player is nowhere near the top 50. This is a very attractive matchup if you’re the Jazz.

Statistically, the Spurs want what the Jazz want: the midrange. Being 4th in frequency and 12th in efficiency doesn’t scare Utah one bit.

The narrative surrounding the series would likely be the superstars (Gobert and Mitchell) dominating the series from tip-off in pretty dramatic fashion.

Best case scenario: 4-0

Worst case scenario: 4-1

Who/What to Watch Going Forward

Based on the analysis described above, the Utah Jazz would likely have the following preference for matchups of those with a >15% probability of #8 seed:

1 - SAS, 2 - MEM, 3 - NOP, 4 - GSW, 5 - POR

Given how polarizing some of the potential matchups can be, Jazz fans have a lot to monitor for the rest of the season alongside our own team.

For San Antonio, they have the hardest schedule remaining per Tankathon. We should be rooting for the Spurs to beat the Mavericks on 4/11, to beat the Blakers on 4/16 and 5/8, and to beat the Pelicans on 4/24. Jazz play the Spurs on 5/3 and 5/4 and it wouldn’t be the worst thing to see some “rest management” from Utah in those games.

Memphis has an average schedule the rest of the way. It’d be ideal to see them win as many games possible, except that they lose (hopefully handily) to Dallas on 4/14 and win no more than 1 game vs Portland on 4/23, 4/25, and 4/28.

Utah Jazz v Chicago Bulls
Quin Snyder and Donovan Mitchell will certainly be paying attention to the play-in tournament. We should look forward to it as well as fans.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

New Orleans ranks 10th in hardest strength of schedule, with most of their tough games against the East. Hopefully the Pelicans can top the 76ers on 4/9 and 5/7, while also taking down Brooklyn on 4/20. That would really help their stock to make the #8 seed.

Golden State Warriors have a nice schedule the rest of the way, with multiple games against the Rockets and Wizards. Jazz fans should root for the Cavs to upset them on 4/15, Wizards to win on 4/21, and the Rockets to beat them 5/1.

Ideally, Portland wins as many games possible and bumps the Mavericks to the 7th seed or that they prefer to play the Suns in round 1 instead of Jazz or Clippers/Nuggets.


Regardless of how these games play out, Jazz fans should definitely care about how these teams respond to stylistic components shared by the Jazz. For example:

We should watch how the Warriors and Mavericks respond to each other, teams who are prolific from deep in efficiency and frequency.

We should watch how teams defend the Blazers on the Lillard pull-up 3.

While just a couple examples, they are items that will definitely shape round 1 of the playoffs as it concerns the Utah Jazz.

With a 97.4% chance at the #1 seed, Jazz fans may find themselves wishing away the rest of the season. Instead, we should look at the epic race taking place for the play-in tournament.