With Christmas Day come and gone, the Utah Jazz don’t appear to have taken tangible steps forward in their multi-year rebuilding process — if, that is, all you’re looking at is the current standings. At 12-15, the Jazz have only a loose grasp on the Western Conference’s eighth seed, a single game ahead of the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings, who are tied at 12-17. Utah’s 44.4 percent winning percentage is actually worse than their 46.3 percent winning percentage last season, or a 38-44 record.
So why do I feel confident in predicting, right now, that the Jazz will end the regular season somewhere between the fourth and sixth seed in the West? Because the team has played what’s easily the most difficult schedule in the whole league thus far. Since the Jazz have made it through this brutal part of their schedule in okay shape (and without Rudy Gobert for part of it), expect the team to begin to rise up the standings as they begin to move through some easier portions of their schedule.
Let’s split it up this way: how many games have the Jazz played against the five teams who currently hold the best records in the league? Those teams are the Golden State Warriors (28-1), San Antonio Spurs (25-6), Cleveland Cavaliers (19-8), Oklahoma City Thunder (20-10) and Atlanta Hawks (19-12). Utah is a combined 1-7 against those teams, with the lone win coming in Atlanta against the Hawks. That’s a pretty bad record, and it does illustrate how the Jazz aren’t yet a true championship contender.
However, playing the very best teams in the league for eight of a team’s first 27 games is a very tall order! In the remaining 55 games that the Jazz have to play, Utah plays those same teams a combined eight times. The team is a third of the way through the regular season, but already halfway done with their most brutal matchups.
Let’s flip it around and look at when the Jazz play the current bottom five teams in the league: that’s the Portland Trail Blazers (11-20), New Orleans Pelicans (9-20), Brooklyn Nets (8-21), Los Angeles Lakers (5-25) and the good ol’ Philadelphia 76ers (1-30). The Jazz are a combined 2-2 against those teams so far. No, not a great mark — but what’s more important is they’ve only played four total games against the league’s lottery contestants. Utah still has twelve games against these teams yet to play. (Interesting to note: the Pelicans and 76ers have also played top five most-difficult schedules so far.)
While Utah is currently very close to falling out the back of the playoff picture, what’s also true is that they’re very close to the fourth seed, or having home-court advantage in the first round. The Los Angeles Clippers are currently fourth in the West with a 17-13 records, or just 3.5 games ahead of the Jazz. That’s not a huge margin, and the small handfuls of games that the Jazz have against poorer teams — along with fewer contests against the league’s elite — could be enough to close the gap entirely.
No, the Jazz have yet to make a huge impression on the casual fan this year. But in truth, the rebuilding project is charging triumphantly forward. Quin Snyder’s team has emerged intact through a brutal schedule, and while frequently starting two rookies in Raul Neto and Trey Lyles. Utah could start to turn a lot of heads as they ascend up the standings, but know that the talent and the hard work has always been there — and now the team’s schedule should finally help them showcase their skills.