It’s tempting to say that the league’s schedule-makers have screwed the Utah Jazz over, seeing as the club is opening their season with eight of their first 10 games on the road — and with seven of those road games coming against Eastern Conference teams. In fact, the Jazz won’t play consecutive games at home until a four-game homestand that stretches from Nov. 28-Dec. 5 (with, graciously, some additional days of rest on either side of the games).
However, I’m sure that head coach Quin Snyder is proposing this busy early schedule as an opportunity in disguise: if the Jazz emerge from this difficult stretch with a respectable record, the team stands to gain a significant second-half “surge” as they play one home game after another. Utah will only play four games on the road against Eastern Conference teams after the All-Star break, and end their season playing six of their last nine games (March 28-April 13) at home.
So far, the Jazz have met the early-season challenge with overwhelmingly positive grades. The team’s season-opening East road trip, in which the team visited the Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers, went even better than Utah’s 2-1 record signifies. The only Jazz loss came in Detroit, where the Pistons have gotten off to an impressive start at home, beating significant playoff contenders in the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls on either side of playing Utah. And even then: this was a five-point loss for Utah (92-87), which preceded a sequence of back-to-back road games in which the team obliterated both the Sixers (99-71) and Indiana (97-76).
While these are far from the league’s most difficult opponents, what’s so encouraging about these final results is Utah’s early establishment of their simply elite defensive personnel. Through games played on Saturday (Oct. 31), the Jazz had the very best Defensive Rating (which measures points allowed per 100 possessions) in the league — and by a pretty gigantic margin. This screencap of the top five defenses through Saturday is from Basketball-Reference:
The difference between Utah’s first-place Defensive Rating (87.1) and the Denver Nuggets’ second-place Defensive Rating (92.1) is much bigger than the gap between Denver and the ninth-place Phoenix Suns (95.9). What’s more, the lone team to defeat the Jazz, the Pistons, are also performing at an elite defensive level — perhaps an early indication that this year’s Detroit team isn’t the lottery-bound squad we’ve recently grown used to seeing.
As a result, the Jazz have quickly rocketed up among the league’s best teams in terms of average margin of victory (MOV). As you can see from the following chart — also taken from Basketball-Reference, also through games played on Saturday — Utah has joined preseason championship favorites among the top five teams in MOV:
Not that Utah is suddenly a championship contender — we’re working with an extremely small sample size here. But the league’s best defense is a virtual lock to make the playoffs, and the Jazz are receiving huge contributions from just about every regular player on their roster. Among all players to average at least 10 minutes per game this season, six of the league’s top 20 defenders (by Defensive Rating) are in Utah:
The best full-season Defensive Rating of the three-point era (since the 1979-80 season) belongs to the 2003-04 San Antonio Spurs, at 94.1. The best Defensive Rating of last season — a time when the three-point shot was much more refined around the league than it was a decade ago — belonged to the Golden State Warriors, at 101.4. This year, Utah certainly has some momentum as they no doubt pursue both marks.