The final stretch is here; a 14 game sprint to the end of the season.
As has been the case for much of the back half of the season, the middle-class of the league is extremely bunched up allowing teams on a weekly basis to oscillate from a playoff birth to narrowly missing the playoffs.
Utah now stares down the barrel of the league’s toughest remaining schedule, per Tankathon. While many games are featured in downtown SLC, the Jazz will welcome the most motivated of teams chasing the league’s best record (DEN, BOS x2, MIL), a playoff birth (SAC x2, PHX, BKN) and those needing to at worst make the play-in tournament (LAL x2, POR).
If we look at these games in totality using the win probabilities from FiveThirtyEight, we can get a sense for which outcomes are most likely trending toward the end of the season.
The most likely outcome from a simulation of 1,000 scenarios, is a record of 6-8 to close the year at just over 25% probability.
This would, assuming the most likely outcomes hold for all other teams, net them a tie for the 10th seed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. This puts the Jazz at a 2.5% chance to win the #1 pick and a 11.6% chance to break into the top 4 of selections.
If we look at some more extreme outcomes, like a 3-11 record to close the season, we can evaluate how that changes the landscape.
A 3-11 close, assuming the most likely outcomes hold for all other teams, would put the Jazz in a tie for the 6th seed with the Indiana Pacers. This puts the Jazz at a 8.3% chance to win the #1 pick and a 34.5% chance to break into the top 4 of selections.
Conversely, an 8.6 record, assuming the most likely outcomes hold for all other teams, would put the Jazz in a three way tie for the 13th seed with LAL and MIN. This puts the Jazz at a 0.8% chance to win the #1 pick and a 3.6% chance to break into the top 4 of selections.
Unfortunately, we cannot just assume all other team’s most likely outcome comes to fruition. Certainly other teams in the neighborhood of the Jazz will be leaning one way or the other as well, complicating the end game.
But the Jazz have the power to control their destiny in this respect: losing more games will tie directly into improved lottery positioning, even if that position can’t be higher than 7 or 8.
Utah finds themselves favored in just three games the rest of the way (vs SAC, vs POR, and vs OKC). Should the Jazz take a serious approach including wonky rotations, reduced minutes for their stars, or even outright sitting core chunks of the rotation, they’re 100% in business to climb dramatically in the lottery standings.
This ascension would be massive, not just for the probability to win the lottery but in the class of players projected to be available at the selection. A 7 or 8 pick puts you in the Jarace Walker, Cam Whitmore, and potentially Ausar Thompson range while a 12 or 13 pick puts you in the Gradey Dick, Cason Wallace, and Taylor Hendricks range.
The difference is the star upside for these prospects, with the former three having some reasonable pathways to All-Star status and beyond. That’s the prospect Utah should be gunning for.
These are hard decisions, no doubt. Hardy and the crew want to win, surely. Fans want to win as well. But hanging our hat on the 9th seed, a play-in birth, is a poor reward when our eyes are set on future championship contention.
A 14 game sprint of mostly losses affects the culture very little but could have massive ripple effects for the franchise long term. We’ll see if the Jazz really go for it.