Okay everyone, hold onto your butts. This is how the Utah Jazz are going to make the NBA Playoffs. Yes, right now they are 9th in the West with the Dallas Mavericks, Portland Trail Blazers, and Houston Rockets ahead of them. But don't give up hope. You shouldn't. Not not. Not when the schedule is finally going to turn in our favor. The Jazz don't need to overtake all of these teams, just one of them. So let's look at the standings:
-  Dallas Mavericks (33-30) -- 3.5 games ahead of Utah
-  Portland Trail Blazers (33-31) -- 3.0 games ahead of Utah
-  Houston Rockets (31-32) -- 1.5 games ahead of Utah
-  Utah Jazz (29-33)
Utah is 1-1 against Dallas so far, with one game left to play. Utah went 1-3 against Portland, and lost the season series. And Utah is 1-2 against the Houston Rockets, with one game left to play still. For those keeping score at home, and I know you are, the Mavs play the Jazz on the 2nd night of a back-to-back after playing the Clippers; and the Rockets play the Jazz on the 2nd night of a back-to-back after playing the Thunder the night before. Objectively, the Jazz should have at least a 50/50 shot to win those games. (If not more.) If Utah wins both of those games then Utah's only 2.5 games behind Dallas, and 0.5 games being Houston.
Let's regroup -- the Jazz don't need to overtake all three of these teams, just one. And if they take care of business in the head to head then they have a fighting chance. So let's now look at the schedules:
They have only 19 games to play, and 9 of them are at home. They have the fewest back-to-backs to play, and the fewest 3rd game in four nights to play. The schedule favors them in terms of fatigue, but they have the hardest schedule, with their opponents having a combined win percentage of 57.1%. They have to play five times against the other three teams we're talking about, in addition to playing the Top 4 in the West 5 times as well (Warriors x2, Clippers, Spurs). The only really good thing is that their last game is at home against the Spurs -- and the Spurs will be sitting guys.
They have one four-game road trip yet to play, and three other two-game trips. They are in the lead right now out of these four teams, but they have to keep it up over the next 19 games.
This is honestly the hardest team for the Jazz to catch because Utah has to not just tie them, but pass them thanks to going 1-3 in the season series. They have 19 games left to play, which is the least. They have only 5 games against the East, and everything else is crappy for them. They play the Top 4 in the West 6 times still (Warriors x2, Thunder x2, Clippers, Spurs). In addition they play 5 back-to-backs, and 6 games qualify as the 3rd game in four nights. They do play a bunch of bad teams as well, so perhaps it evens out?
They have an important four game road trip starting out next week, and the cumulative finishing record they have to face are teams that have a win percentage of 54.8%. Not as bad as the Mavs, but still pretty high.
The Rockets have only 19 games to play, and only three of them are against the top 4 in the West (Thunder x2, Clippers). They avoid the Spurs and Warriors. That's good news. The bad news is that they play 12 of their final 19 games against teams that have a win percentage of .500 to .799. They only have 5 back-to-backs and 5 games that are the 3rd game in four nights. And again, only 3 against the Top 3 in the West. But they are going to be challenged.
Furthermore, the East teams they have to face still are all kind of hungry, like the Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Chicago Bulls. If Utah beats Houston in that head to head game, they will have a hard time keep them away if Utah ever figures out how to win games in a row again. Houston could be in for a big fight to hold onto the 8th seed. If they do they would have earned it. Their opponents average out to a win percentage of 49.2%, they play some weak teams (like the 76ers), but a lot of teams better than them too.
Utah has the most games to play still 20, have the most back to backs to play (5, tied with POR and HOU), and most 3rd game in four nights to play (6, tied with POR). But they face the second weakest finishing schedule -- only 50.2%. There is a five game road trip that they have to tangle with, @CHI, @MIL, @HOU, @OKC, @MIN, but the hardest games are coming up in the next week. After that, pretty much smooth sailing. I can even expect the Jazz to lose only one game in April -- for reals.
The Jazz only play the Top 4 in the West five different times, Warriors x2, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers. It's possible that the Spurs will be resting guys at that point in the season as well, because that is one of their last games of the season and the start of a road trip for them. The counter the tough teams the Jazz still have to play the Kings, Lakers x2, Nuggets, Suns x2, and Timberwolves x2.
Let's put this in another way . . .
If you put these schedules up against one another by difficulty you see some cool trends.
Assuming each team will lose to a team winning 80% or more games (except for Dallas who play San Antonio at the end of the season), this means Dallas gets +1 win, Portland gets +0 wins, Houston gets +0 wins, and Utah gets +0 wins.
If you then assume that these teams will go 50/50 against any team that has a winning percentage of .500 to .799 then you see that Dallas will play 10 games and win +5. Portland will play seven and win +3 games. Houston will play 12 and win +6 games. Utah will play six games and win +3.
Finally, and this is the biggest assumption, these teams will win every game against a sub .500 team. This means Dallas will play six games and get +6 wins. Portland will get +8 wins. Houston will get +7 wins. And Utah will get +11 wins.
If you add that up Dallas finishes the season with the most wins still, and somehow Utah still misses out.
|vs. Top 4||1||0||0||0|
|vs. .500 to .799||5||3||6||3|
|vs. sub .500||6||8||7||11|
This is poop! You said the Jazz will make the playoffs! I did. Be patient.
Being overly simple is not what will happen in real life.
First of all, none of these teams are going to run the table against sub .500 teams. Especially not when these teams have to play one another still. The key part is the HOUSTON / UTAH match up. Utah can't catch Portland unless they pass them. And Dallas has to fall quite a bit to be in striking distance. But at the beginning we talked about how the Jazz NEEDED to win the Houston game and the Dallas game. If they do that then the final tally for wins ends up being: Dallas 44 wins, Portland 44 wins, Utah 44 wins, Houston 43 wins.
Of course, it's hard to assume that these teams will be winning 50% of their games against teams that are winning 50 to 79% of their games either. So you can expect some teams to do better than others there. Furthermore, at some point the Dubs and Spurs may be resting players. Golden State plays the Mavs, Blazers, and Jazz twice each, and the Spurs play each of those three teams once each as well. If that particular team gets to play two of those three games against a resting GSW/SAS squad that could imbalance the equation.
San Antonio has been selective with this in the past, letting Utah take a win down the stretch the ensure that they play them in the playoffs. This is precisely what happened years ago when the Jazz won 36 games and made the post-season. I could see the Spurs being selective here again, possibly in our favor.
But at the end of the day, the Jazz need to win games. The simple method shows that the Jazz have to play 7 teams with a sub .400 winning percentage still, and 4 games against a team with a sub .500 winning percentage (that doesn't go sub .400). Objectively it's an easy finishing schedule. There's the road trip, the back-to-backs and three in fours, and five total against the West's top 4. I think our guys can weather those storms.
If Utah wins against Houston and Dallas (the 2nd night of a back to back for both of those teams) it could be up to which team wants it more.
And ultimately, that's that heart thing that I as a Jazz fan have to question my team about the most. They have talent and they have a do-able schedule. They just have to want it.
I think they do. And I think they will.