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Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Ten games ago, the Utah Jazz were 12-10, had the league’s 23rd ranked offense, 11th ranked defense, a bench that was a complete disaster, and found themselves in 6th place in the West. Then the scheduled eased up. Since then the Jazz have won eight out of their last ten, are 6th in net rating, have bolstered their bench unit, and have one of the most elite starting lineups in the league now. AND YET, they still find themselves 6th in the West. How is that still possible?

The Utah Jazz had faced a schedule that was the most difficult in the West. The teams above them in the standings—Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Mavericks, and Rockets—only one had a schedule that placed in the 10 most difficult in the NBA at that point. So naturally as those teams’ schedules became more difficult and the Jazz’s became easier, the Jazz could make up ground.

Over the last ten games, those teams—other than the Nuggets and Rockets—have started to stumble.

LA Lakers - 6-4

LA Clippers - 6-4

Denver Nuggets - 9-1

Dallas Mavericks - 5-5

Houston Rockets 7-3

The problem is the Lakers were 7 games ahead of Utah ten games ago. Clippers were 4, Mavericks and Nuggets were 3.5, and the Rockets were 2.5. Now the Jazz are 5.5 games behind the Lakers, 3 behind Nuggets, 2 behind the Clippers , 1.5 behind the Rockets, and 1 behind the Mavericks. So Utah is still in 6th but the field is becoming more grouped. With the Lakers and Clippers becoming mortal, and the Mavericks losing Luka then facing a more difficult schedule, Utah has gained ground.

That ten game span has changed some pecking order and exposed some of the top 5 in the West’s offenses and defenses.

Team Summary after 10 games

Team NetRTG Before NetRTG After ORTG Before ORTG After DRTG Before DRTG After ExpW 82 Before ExpW 82 After
Team NetRTG Before NetRTG After ORTG Before ORTG After DRTG Before DRTG After ExpW 82 Before ExpW 82 After
LA Lakers 8.1 6.8 112.5 112.6 102 105.8 67.8 57.8
LA Clippers 6.8 5.6 111.5 111.8 104.6 106.2 58 55.1
Denver Nuggets 5.7 4.8 108 110.2 102.3 105.3 55.9 53.4
Dallas Mavericks 8.2 7.6 116.9 116.1 108.7 108.5 60.2 59.1
Houston Rockets 4.9 4.2 113.5 113.6 108.7 109.4 53.2 51.6
Utah Jazz 0.4 2.1 106.3 109.1 105.9 107 42 46.5

Utah is making some headway, and the early returns from their bench should help their defensive rating and offensive rating. The Jazz may still be in 6th place, but the next 10 games could provide Utah the runway to finally start leapfrogging some teams. But in order for that to happen, the teams ahead of Utah have to make some unforced errors. Here is the remaining strength of schedule for all the teams ahead of Utah in the standings.

The Mavericks, Lakers, and Clippers all have as easy or easier schedules as the Utah Jazz. That does not bode well for Utah as the season moves on. However, Denver and Houston may have a reckoning awaiting them as the schedule proves more difficult. That reckoning will not occur in the next 10 games. Here’s the next 10 games for all five of those teams and Utah. I’ve added the 538 & Cleaning The Glass predictions for those games and the season.

Next 10 Games

Upcoming LA Lakers Result LA Clippers Result Denver Nuggets Result Dallas Mavericks Result Houston Rockets Result Utah Jazz Result
Upcoming LA Lakers Result LA Clippers Result Denver Nuggets Result Dallas Mavericks Result Houston Rockets Result Utah Jazz Result
Game 1 Suns W @ Kings W @ Rockets L @ Thunder L Nuggets W Pistons W
Game 2 Pelicans W Pistons W @ Pacers W Nets W 76ers W @ Bulls W
Game 3 Pistons W Grizzlies L @ Wizards L Hornets L @ Hawks W @ Magic W
Game 4 Knicks W Knicks W @ Hawks W Bulls W @ Thunder L @ Pelicans W
Game 5 @ Mavericks W Warriors W @ Mavericks W Nuggets L Timberwolves W Knicks W
Game 6 @ Thunder W @ Nuggets L Cavaliers L Lakers L @ Grizzlies L Hornets W
Game 7 Cavaliers W Cavaliers W Clippers W 76ers W Trail Blazers L @ Wizards W
Game 8 Magic L Magic W Hornets W @ Warriors W Lakers L @ Nets W
Game 9 @ Rockets W @ Pelicans W @ Warriors W @ Kings W Thunder L @ Pelicans W
Game 10 @ Celtics L @ Mavericks W Pacers L @ Trail Blazers W Nuggets W Kings W
538 Projection 7-3 8-2 8-2 8-2 8-2 6-4 9-1 6-4 9-0-1 5-5 7-3 10-0
Estimated Record 33-10 34-9 31-13 31-13 31-11 29-13 30-12 27-14 32-11 27-16 27-15 30-12
538 Season Projection 59-23 62-20 58-24 57-25 54-28 53-29 53-29 50-32 55-27 53-29 51-31 55-27
Cleaning The Glass Prediction 58-24 59-23 55-27 55-27 53-29 49-33 59-23 56-26 52-30 51-31 47-35 56-26
Bold = Wins, Italics = Tie, Normal = Loss / Ties estimated as wins Via 538 Elo/Raptor Ratings

Current projection models do not like Utah as they were playing some horrendous ball and have had a terrible bench. They project losses to the Pelicans (twice) and to the Orlando Magic. It’s not actually crazy to project that either. Utah has been bad on the road even when healthy. Those models could begin to paint a rosier picture if Utah has a successful road trip. Out of all those teams, only the Nuggets play as many road games as Utah during the next 10 games.

Can Utah gain ground? Yes. Teams have injuries, missteps, and off nights. But it requires Utah to play great, consistent ball for the rest of the season. This is why pointing to strength of schedule when losses pile up early is somewhat of a weak excuse. The reason for that is other teams like the Clippers, Lakers, and Mavericks have all faced difficult schedules to start the season as well. Fans thinking the Jazz would rocket up the standings once the season eased up will be disappointed. They’ll rocket up the win column, but standings? They may not be able to keep up. Denver and Houston are the only teams who have difficult schedules that could trip them up and provide the opportunity for Utah. That requires Utah to win when they’re not favored, stay healthy, and continue to find ways to bolster their bench unit. They can do it, but like we’ve said the past two seasons, they have not done themselves any favors with their early season play.

If we play out this scenario to the end of the season, there is irony in the projected playoff matchup. The first projected playoff matchup is the Houston Rockets who knocked the Jazz out last year. Utah would be the 6 seed to their 3 seed. What better way to get revenge than upsetting Houston while they have home court advantage? The other possible opponent is another familiar foe, the LA Clippers. Another rematch between Joe Ingles and Paul George? I have to admit it would be fun. A win would also knock a major title contender out of the playoffs. Whoever the opponent is, the further we get into the season, the more it looks like the Jazz could be without home court in the playoffs.