Like it or not, this season is as much about those guys now as it is about Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors or Ty Corbin. Like it or not, the story from here revolves around whether Utah will have turned 2014′s suffering into one of those four guys.
The Jazz have been out of the playoff race since, oh, November, but at some point this weekend, they will be mathematically eliminated from contention.1 Yes, there are still storylines, and some of them are intensely interesting — but all will be a footnote to Jazz history compared to the impact of landing (or not landing) a franchise-level star.
Of course, none of those four guys is guaranteed to be that; conversely, there is some nice talent outside the top 42 that could pan out, too. But at least in theory, the line between “could take your franchise to the promised land” and “might make a couple All-Star teams” is the same as the line between 4 and 5. If the season ended today, the Jazz would be a coin toss away from cross that divide. Heads, you contend; tails, try again. Ostensibly.
So what will it take to get into the top four? There are many ways to get there. Let’s look at all of them, chronologically.
First chronological method of getting to a Top 4 pick: Tank
Likelihood of this option: 0% (Depending on what you mean by tank)
The Jazz could willfully decided to start losing games. Of course, Utah would never openly do this.
There is a more subtle version, though. Once they’re officially eliminated, there’s no pretense anymore, so a team can begin to take the ultraconservative route with regard to player injuries, and give more time to still-developing players.
Of course, in a way the Jazz are already doing this. The early exile of Andris Biedrins, John Lucas III3 and Brandon Rush indicates that the Jazz have been focused on their youth for most of the season. Richard Jefferson is the only player over 27 getting any kind of minutes right now.4 But you could see another round of hip flexors and sore pinkies over the next 34 days. But flagrantly and willfully trying to lose games? Not here.
Second method: Try real hard, but lose anyway
Likelihood of getting to Top 4: 15%
Since the Jazz are a coin flip from the pre-lotto 4 spot at this second, 15% might seem low, but it’s not. Why? The Los Angeles Lakers.
LA is committed to the tank. Already tied in the win column with Utah, they only have one remaining game where they would be considered a contender even if they weren’t trying to lose: their 3/23 contest with Orlando. They do square off with lotto-bound Sacramento, Utah and Milwaukee, but all on the road, and they have a sub-.400 Knicks team visiting Staples, but New York is still purportedly trying to make the playoffs. LA should be able to hold off any aspirants to fourth worst if they want to, and they want to.
That leaves Utah, Sacramento and Boston in an apparent race for 5th-7th worst.5 The Kings have enough randomly good performances that I think they’ll wind up at or above 25, and Boston plays in the weak East. The Celtics have two games left against the woefully bad Sixers, plus four more contests against the sub-.500-crowd in the East. They finish anywhere between 24 and 27 wins.
Utah gets to 24 almost automatically by hosting Orlando and LA, and their next most likely wins are home dates with the Knicks and Pistons. Honestly, the most likely scenario for the Jazz going into the lotto is 5 or 6, depending on what Boston does.
Third method: Lotto luck
Likelihood of getting to Top 4: 15% to 47.7%
Chances are, if you’re here, you don’t need a primer on lottery odds. If you do, click here.
Short version: the Jazz don’t need to be among the four worst teams to get a top four pick. They just need to be the right lucky ducks on May 20.
Here are the 1-2-3 lottery winners from the past eight drafts in reverse chronological order: 3-1-8-2, 4-1-3-2, 8-1-6-2, 5-6-1-2, 3-6-4-1, 9-1-3-2, 7-5-4-1, 5-2-3-1… we could keep going, but you see the point. Only once in that sample did the top four NOT get crashed by a team from outside the four worst records.
But don’t let that fool you into rejiggering the odds in Utah’s favor: their likelihood of a top four pick is still way better if they’re a 1-4 team on lotto Thursday. They have 47.7% odds if they somehow manage to own 4th place outright or 38.5% if they’re tied for fourth worst… compared to 29.2% if they’re 5th, and it goes down from there.
The point is, finishing 5th through 7th worst isn’t necessarily a back-breaker. In fact…
Fourth method: Spend some assets
Likelihood of getting to Top 4: TBD
Even if the Jazz don’t lose enough and the ping pong balls aren’t nice enough, there’s still a way.
For a while now we’ve been talking about Utah being in “asset accumulation mode.” In NBA terms, there’s only one reason you acquire assets: to spend them.
As we’ve covered before in this space, top 10 picks (and even top 4 picks) do get moved under the right circumstances. It usually costs a combination of picks, talented players and cap space to absorb junky deals. Here’s a sample:
The Jazz will go into draft night with a top-7 pick, the Warriors’ 20-ish pick, an early second rounder, their own future picks, a 2017 unprotected from Golden State, a grundle of upcoming cap room and a group of talented youngsters.
The hitch: the Jazz can’t make a draft night deal involving any pending free agents (since sign & trade options require negotiation with the player, and that can’t happen until July 1). They can make deals involving their July 1 cap space, but then they have to wait to consummate until after the July moratorium and hope that their handshake deal holds up.
Situations have to be right on the other end of the equation, too. Trade-down teams pretty much always have one or both of these characteristics: a) they’re conflicted between the high-potential guy available at their draft position and the idea of competing more immediately with the assets they’d get back in a trade; and/or b) the guy they want will still be available a couple spots later.
That’s how Utah got to #9 last year, a trade that my draft trade study had no precedent for. Minny had eight guys they really liked, and after that they just didn’t see that much difference in the next tier. So why not get an extra pick if you are roughly as enthusiastic about the guy at 14 as you were about the guy at 9? Of course, so far that looks like a bad call, but teams think that way.
And hey, it happens, even in strong drafts. To wit, even the tankiest tanksters in LA are allegedly already considering their options if it helps them compete sooner and appease their star. Teams have different needs, and until we know which four teams own those spots, it’s impossible to say. Maybe the team at 3 or 4 thinks they have a shot at one of this summer’s marquee free agents and would prefer some cap help, even at the cost of a couple spots.
In fact, the best argument to defend the possibility that teams inside the top 4 would be willing to deal might be the Jazz. Play along: let’s say Utah won the lottery, but felt like Jabari Parker was absolutely their guy.6 If a trade were available to #3, where Utah could still get Jabari but also pick up an asset or two, wouldn’t they be dumb not to look at it? If you agree that the Jazz would consider that move7, then you have to concede that another team would consider a move from X to Y based on their situation, favorite guys, immediate needs, etc.
So what are the chances the Jazz will make it to the top 4? Hell if I know. There are way to many layers and hypotheticals and conditionals for any of us to know. But as long as there are ways to imagine it can happen, I’ll be interested to watch it play out.