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Five surprising facts on how the Utah Jazz are winning this year

It's not getting the win that's the surprise, mind you. Teams should know by now not to expect to beat the Jazz.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Last night the Utah Jazz defeated the San Antonio Spurs, for the second time this season, and won the three game season series. It snapped a four year streak of losing said series to their former Midwest division rivals. But more than that, it's a declaration from these young Jazz that they are no longer a team to be walked over. Sure, overall the Jazz sport a non-impressive 20-record; but as described here earlier on the site, the team is much more competitive overall. They are getting blown out less. They are in more close games, as a percentage value of all their games. And they are blowing teams out more frequently as well. I'm not going to re-hash, or even update, those values again until the end of the season. But what I am going to do here is use game data to explain, debunk, or champion five points about how the Jazz win games this year.

If you have been paying attention, this will not be a surprise. If you are Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears, all of this is new information. (Just joking Marc.)


1. This team gets up for big games

If the Jazz were the ancient Apache, they would have a number of highly valued scalps to their name this season. Of the 21 wins this year, only 7 of them are from teams worse than the Jazz are: @ New York Knicks, @ Orlando Magic, vs. Philadelphia 76ers, vs and @ the Minnesota Timberwolves, vs. Los Angeles Lakers, and vs. Sacramento Kings. Simple maths tells us that two thirds of their wins, then, come against better teams. Obviously when your team is only winning 30 some percent of their games, MOST teams are better than you are. I get that. But the sheer regularity of winning these games that the team should LOSE (on paper) is what is remarkable.

You expect some give and take when a team is within five wins to your value (+/- 5). The Jazz have beaten the following teams this season (the +/- value for season wins in parentheses):

If you look at the win% difference the evidence is as numerous, but more ridiculous (e.g. the Warriors are +42.95% better in Win %, and that's just a funnier number that +22 wins, even if it is more accurate). For the most part the Jazz are not winning close games against their cohorts. Yes, they'll beat the Sacramento Kings, but it's not like the majority of their wins are made up by these lower rung battles. This is a team that head hunts for the best teams, and scalps them.


2. These are not Trap Games or Schedule Losses for the other team, for the most part

For much of the season now the Jazz have been without starting shooting guard, and actually good player, Alec Burks (14 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg, 38% from three). Sadly, they've also been without Rodney Hood, the promising rookie with limitless range. At some points of the season the Jazz have gone into games without either of their top non- Gordon Hayward wing threats, while also being without the services of Joe Ingles. Basically, the Jazz have been unlucky with health this season, being forced at times to start Patrick Christopher, Elijah Millsap, and others. A lack of wing health and depth automatically puts the Jazz in a serious injury disadvantage against almost every team in the league, every night.

Sometimes injuries happen to other teams as well, and the easy thing is to claim victory over a better team by beating them when they are hurt. I did not look up the values for this but the Jazz, more often than not (I remember doing the game preview for almost every game this season) are more hurt than the other team. In fact, there are examples where the Jazz were healthier than the other team, but lost to them -- like the games against the Indiana Pacers. This is anecdotal evidence, and if I had more time maybe I will investigate this fully. But one thing I do know a lot about is the schedule.

A schedule loss is just one where cumulative short term fatigue, or the dynamics of which teams play before or right after a particular game, come into play. Playing a team that's close to your level in the 5th game in 7 nights is most likely called a schedule loss. On equal footing your squad would have a chance to win, but in this game there's a huge external factor working against the side. This happens a lot when a team goes on a cross conference road trip, and need to play a bunch of road games in short order.

A trap game is a game where one team really SHOULD win, but doesn't because the win is assumed.In these games a team just don't have spark or energy, and comes out flat and remains flat while looking ahead on the schedule for a more worthy opponent.

Historically many of the Jazz home wins over the last two decades (and I have done this study) are against teams on road trips, many of whom played the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, or Portland Trail Blazers the night before. Flying into Utah, in the middle of winter, after playing a tougher opponent the night before, is draining. And the Jazz built up many season where they won close to 30+ games a season at home. That's not the case this season.

This season many of the Jazz' home games are the FIRST game of a back to back set, or a game where a team on a road trip has had one or two days rest, and is not fatigued. This partly accounts for the lack of home dominance this season, and also the fact that there have been so many close games at home this year. Games against the Jazz in 2014-2015 are not specifically schedule losses.

What about calling these trap games? You could argue this, but we've seen players from other teams have spectacular nights in the ESA while their team loses. The Golden State Warriors win, for example, had that team playing with so much "juice" it wasn't just a guy like Stephen Curry (32 points, 5/11 from deep, 7/9 from the line, a near triple double) killing the team, but guys like Draymond Green were all smiles and Leandro Barbosa came off the bench to score 15 points in 13 minutes. That was a team that was riding such a positive wave of energy, that the Jazz just sucked out of them.

Is it a trap game, automatically, when a great team loses to a bad team? Maybe. But it's not a trap game if the other team is playing well enough and they still lose.


3. Utah is doing things on the road

While 2/3rd of the Jazz wins this season are against teams that the casual fan and the National Media agree are "much better" than the Jazz; this season hasn't been about home cooking at all. Utah has 12 wins in Utah this year, but 9 outside of Utah. That means that out of all the wins so far this season, 42.86% of them are road wins. If you are a Jazz fan you know that this value is pretty high.

Since 2001-2002 up to today the Jazz have 359 home wins in the regular season, and only 211 road wins. That adds up to 1.70 home wins per 1.00 road win. This season the ratio is 1.33 home wins per 1.00 road wins. In fact, the percentage of wins that are road wins for this 14 year time period is 37.02%. The 42.86% road win mark is the larger number, and about one standard deviation above the norm.

It's not significant right now, but if the data set was larger (a lot of those 90s teams were really bad on the road) this would appear to be more impressive. The small scale look looks good as well, though, the last few seasons the road win % (that is wins that are road wins) has been 30.56%, 30.23%, and 36.00%. In this case the 43% of all our wins being road wins is impressive.

Also impressive have been who the Jazz beat on the road: the Detroit Pistons (potential East playoff team); New York Knicks (bad team, but this was a schedule loss); Miami Heat; Orlando Magic (okay, bad team here); Memphis Grizzlies; Minnesota Timberwolves (bad team); Chicago Bulls; (Milwaukee Bucks (East playoff team); and New Orleans Pelicans (potential West playoff team).

So that's four bad teams (included in that is the one schedule loss that the Jazz won on a buzzer beater); two potential playoff teams; and three good teams. Beating the Bulls, in Chicago by 20 when they are healthy is something special. Winning games against Miami, Orlando, and Memphis all on the same long road trip is also nice. There are some quality wins here. Quality road wins.

Wins which were not available to the Jazz during the peak Deron Williams / Andrei Kirilenko years. (That one 4-0 road trip notwithstanding) In fact, the ability to be competitive ON the road shows both development and discipline.

If you look at the numbers, the Jazz have scored 901 points in these 9 road games, and giving up 839 to the bad guys. On average, that's winning 100.11 to 93.22, with an average final margin of victor of +6.89 points. For the 12 home wins the averages are 100.17 points for, 86.50 points against, for a final margin of +13.67.

The Jazz win better at home, and more of their wins come at home. But on the road they are still winning more games than expected, beating teams they shouldn't beat, and still winning by more than 5 points on average (a not close game).


4. Utah is not just beating up on the teams worse than Utah

Before every Jazz win this season the team has been the underdog for most of them. If you add up their cumulative record before tip off the team is 210-427, that's a winning percentage of 32.98%. By the same method, the teams the Jazz have played, at the time of their wins, have a cumulative record of 308-319 -- that 49.12% winning percentage is heavily skewed downwards because of wins against the Knicks (then 2-7 before tip off), Thunder (3-8), 76ers (4-24), and Timberwolves (5-25, and 5-26). Still, the overall +/- for wins is -98 for the Jazz before top off on games they win. And the win percentage is -16.16%. If you get rid of the really bad teams and look at how the Jazz do against everyone NOT called the Knicks, Philly, or Minny (keeping the OKC win when they were bad here) the numbers change.

Removing the Knicks, Phlly, and the two Minny games the Jazz pre-tip off cumulative record is 177-358, or 33.08 win%. The opponents go up to 292-238, a 55.09 win%. The difference in total wins is now -115, -6.77 on average (so playing against a team that's greater than the +/- 5 wins range), and there's a -22.01 win% difference.

Against ALL of the teams (including beating up on bad teams), the Jazz win by the final margin of +10.76 points this season, scoring 100.14 points on average and giving up 89.38 points to the bad guys.

Against this 17 strong group of teams like the Bulls, Grizzlies, etc . . . the team wins by a final margin of +11.12 points, scoring 100.71 ppg, and giving up 89.59 ppg.

Those are the values for those games played at that specific point in time. Back then the good teams had a cumulative winning percentage of 55.09%. And our deep lotto club really stepped it up to win these handful of games.


5. More wins are coming

Okay, so this is a team that is capable of winning road games. And capable of beating good teams. And the location of the game does not seem to matter, but the opponent's relative quality does. That said, it's still a team that only has 21 wins, and is winning only 38.18% of their total games. These games display just the wins. And in the wins, obviously, your team is supposed to look pretty good. There have also been times where the team looks bad.

Utah remains a team that has also LOST a lot of games this season. They've lost to all many of teams on the good or bad, or at home or on the road axis:

  • Home losses vs. Good teams: HOU, DAL, NOP, CHI, LAC x2, TOR, MIA, ATL, GSW, MEM
  • Home losses vs. Bad teams: DEN, ORL, IND, BOS
  • Road losses vs. Good Teams: DAL x2, LAC x2, ATL, TOR, GSW, OKC x2, WAS, NOP, HOU, SAS, CLE, POR, PHX
  • Road losses vs. Bad teams: IND, SAC, CHA

You may have noticed that a lot of those losses have come to playoff teams, particularly Western Conference playoff teams. Of the remaining 27 games this season the Jazz have a different set of opponents:

  • Good West Teams (10): @ MEM, vs HOU, @ GSW, vs POR, vs OKC, @ PHX, vs MEM, @ POR, vs DAL, @ HOU
  • Good East Teams (4): vs MIL, @ BKN, vs DET, vs WAS
  • Bad West Teams (9): vs. LAL, @ DEN, @ LAL, vs MIN, @ DEN, @ MIN, vs DEN, @ SAC, vs SAC
  • Bad East Teams (4): @ BOS, @ PHI, vs NYK, vs CHA

So there are a lot of games against good West teams, but also a lot MORE games against "good" East teams and bad teams of both conferences. As Prodigal Punk pointed out in his excellent Downbeat yesterday, the Jazz have the easiest remaining schedule in the Western conference, by strength of schedule.

via. John Schuhmann, NBA.Com

Digging deeper, the Jazz only play seven more back-to-back sets (@DEN/MIL; @MEM/BOS; WAS/@LAL; @DEN/OKC; @PHX/@SAC; @MEM/POR; DAL/@HOU). If you figure the Jazz will be competitive in some of those games, and come out with some wins that sets up the next thing. Of the remaining, single, stand-alone games left, only three of them are hard. Utah could win 10 of the stand-alone games with how well they are currently playing; and then win some of the back-to-back games too. The last four games of the season look rough, but what we know about this team is that THOSE teams don't want to face the Jazz in spoiler mode either.

This year the team has demonstrated that they are capable of winning anywhere against any team.