The Utah Jazz are in a situation they’ve not been in since the late 1990s — prime position to earn the top seed in the Western Conference. They’re also in a great position to prep for the playoffs and invest in youth.
With the Lakers free-falling sans Anthony Davis and LeBron James, the primary competition for the west crown is out of the picture. The Phoenix Suns have made a run to the top, but are three games behind Utah and have the fifth-hardest strength of schedule remaining. The LA Clippers could make a push if Rajon Rondo gives them a spark, but they’re even further back at 4.5 games.
Being crowned the best in the west is a goal Utah should shoot for, ending a 21-year drought of finishing atop the standings. But there’s also the greater goal of not winding up like the Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Atlanta Hawks; teams in the last few years that finished atop their conference but couldn’t convert that regular-season success to playoff wins.
There are multiple ways to avoid being like the above teams. One tactic used by many teams that have found playoff success is resting players, decreasing the amount of wear and tear star players take on during the regular season. Utah has not yet tried this tactic, at least not this year.
Five of Utah’s players have appeared in every game this season (Rudy Gobert, Royce O’Neale, Bojan Bogdanovic, Jordan Clarkson, Georges Niang) while a few others (Donovan Mitchell, Derrick Favors, Joe Ingles) have only missed a handful of games. The Jazz are one of just two teams in the NBA with four players in the top 50 of total minutes played (Phoenix is the other).
Utah needs to be careful to not burn itself out chasing a goal that doesn’t bring them to the ultimate prize.
The argument for resting players doesn’t just come from the desire to keep legs fresh. Utah has several young players sitting on the wings — namely Miye Oni, Juwan Morgan, Jarrell Brantley and Elijah Hughes — that would benefit greatly from some meaningful playing time.
Finding out what these players are made of can only help Utah going forward. If they aren’t NBA material, the Jazz can move on from them without investing more valuable development time. But if any of them show great flashes, that gives the front office a fallback if things go wrong in free agency or perhaps even a useful trade piece.
Tonight, the Jazz are without Mitchell, and though it isn’t a result of Quin Snyder strategically sitting guys, it might behoove Utah to consider having guys sit out a little more often.