All across Jazz communities both real and virtual, the Kool-Aid is freely flowing.
The Utah Jazz, 32-23 since mid December and 19-10 since the All-Star break, have create some real believers. They have an identity, the beginnings of a blueprint, and momentum going into next year.
Consequently, player love is at an all time high, and it’s easy to see why. The current team members are all likable guys who have had their respective moments to shine, and without exception they all have chances to get better. That’s why there’s a sizable “stand pat” contingent that thinks that this same group — more or less — can start to make postseason noise just by relying on internal improvement.
The hope is understandable, but it remains to be seen whether Utah can push elite teams on a nightly basis. They had some quality wins peppered into their second-half transformation, but largely had one of the league’s softest schedules over the final 20-30 games. As we enjoy the Western Conference Playoffs, it’s fair to wonder whether Utah could pose a real threat in a series with any of those teams.
Just how ready is Utah for that crucible? If we use recent history to guess how the Jazz would do in a seven-game series against the rest of the WC field, the moral of the story is that they may need some upgrades if the goal is to do more than show up next April for a playoff participation trophy1.
Let’s imagine today’s Jazz crashing the playoffs against those eight teams as constituted today. Could they make any of those teams sweat? The exercise will mostly serve to venture an estimate as to how real Utah’s second-half surge is relative to competing with playoff teams, without accounting for potential offseason improvement.
#1 Golden State (3-1 vs. the Jazz)
The Jazz had one really nice win against the Dubs, a 10-point home victory that predated the trade. It came a couple of weeks after the point guard lineup change, and that helped in executing a clever game plan against Steph Curry screen-rolls that kept GS from ever making a sustained run.
But Utah lost the other three by an average margin of 13 points, including a 15-point wire-to-wire loss that came well after Utah’s renaissance. In that one, Andrew Bogut essentially played free safety in the restricted area, as the Warriors were completely unafraid of any non-Derrick Favors big, with or without the ball.
Based on that, it’s hard to imagine that the Jazz could do much better than what the Pellies did: they might catch lightning in a bottle behind a good game plan, as NO did in getting out to a 20-point lead in G3. But it wouldn’t matter much. Even the second-half Jazz we all fell in love with probably wouldn’t have the tools to give Golden State a lot of concerns. Result: Warriors in 4, maybe 5.
#2 Houston (3-1 vs. Jazz)
Three of Utah’s four matchups with the Rox came after December 17, the date we’ve been unofficially using as when the season turned around. And yet, even so, the Jazz managed little success against them.
When the Jazz beat Houston on March 12, they were facing a team with no Dwight Howard, and Houston was coming from a late game the night before in Portland. James Harden shot 1-for-6 on uncontested jumpers and the team as a whole shot 35% on 34 shots where the Jazz weren’t within 3.5 feet. In the other three games, the Jazz posted ORtg of 104, 81 and 83. They weren’t even in the ballpark of competing with the Rockets in Houston, where they had a -23 net rating.
And against this version of the Rockets, with the healthy and springy Howard that has tormented the Mavs, it could be even more lopsided. Dallas lasted five games despite injury problems and the Rajon Rondo drama, but they’re clearly working with more than the Jazz. In the playoffs you probably won’t get an unfocused Harden, and you definitely don’t get them on the second night of a back-to-back, so I’m not sure the Jazz even replicate their March 12 win. Result: Rockets sweep?
#3 LA (4-0 vs. Jazz)
The Jazz have had zero success against the Clippers this season, and in fact have played worse at home, where they’ve been beaten by 13 points per 100. Utah just hasn’t had an answer for Blake Griffin, who posted 25 a game in four dates with the Jazz. Only three teams suffered a higher per-game dose of Blake.
Sure, all four contests came before the break2, including two November outings where Utah allowed an alarming 120 DRtg. But we don’t need to spend a lot of time here: I’ve watched more Clips-Spurs than any other series this year, and it’s the one that more than any other makes me think the Jazz aren’t near that type of relevance yet. Result: Clippers dominate.
#53 Memphis (2-2 vs. Jazz)
Jazz fans earnestly believe Rudy Gobert holds some kind of Gasol Kryptonite powers, and there’s some truth to that. He managed just .523 True Shooting against Utah, his eighth lowest opponent split. But to be fair, Marc was hurt by Zach Randolph’s absence in both of the Grizzlies’ losses to Utah. The Grizz at full grit-and-grind strength are a completely different matter.
Portland has an All-NBA anchor and another offensive All-Star in Damian Lillard, and yet could only squeeze out five game in that series due to an injury-depleted depth chart. The Jazz have a lot less than Portland, so it’s hard to imagine them forcing a fifth, especially when you consider how much they’ve struggled with Mike Conley, who in the alternate reality where they’re playing Utah, maybe doesn’t sustain a facial fracture. He scored 18.7 on the Jazz this year with 54% shooting from downtown. Result: Grizz in 4 or 5.
#6 Spurs (1-2 vs. Jazz)
The Jazz enjoyed some success against portions of the Spurs’ roster in two of their three outings. In December, they narrowly defeated a Parker-less and Mills-less squad despite actually losing on a per-possession basis. Their February win was a higher-quality win largely because of another smothering defensive outing (82 DRtg).
But we’re all seeing right now that a plugged-in Spurs team is different, and when the Jazz met SA at full strength in January, they managed only .73 points per possession. The Jazz also only had to deal with 29 minutes of Tim Duncan per outing, and he’s on a whole other level right now. Again, the Spurs are in a whole different class of NBA team. Result: Jazz might still one with the progress they’ve made at scheming away a team’s open looks from 3, but SA gets this.
This part of the conversation might be moot since the Jazz won’t likely find themselves in a position to face a WS underseed. But just for fun, let’s guess how they might do against the rest of the West.
#4 Portland (2-2). The Jazz dominated their three post-ASB meetings with the Blazers, winning by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions. This is one team that the Jazz may have figured out, thanks to Gobert’s defense on LaMarcus Aldridge, who posted his 2nd lowest TS% against the Jazz. Utah could probably make this series competitive, but when it came down to it, the battle-tested Blazers would probably bring their playoff experience to bear against a team of postseason virgins. Result: Portland in 7.
#7 Dallas (3-1). The Jazz beat the Mavs in April after their playoff seed was locked in, and outside of that gimme game, it wasn’t pretty. Utah managed just 96 points per 100 possession while allowing 115. Maybe the Jazz could capitalize on some of Dallas’ injury woes and headaches, but the gap between Dallas and Utah was pretty clear this season. Result: Dallas in… 6?
#8 New Orleans (2-1). Anthony Davis missed the Jazz’s only win over the Hornicans. In the other two, Utah had no problems scoring on the Big Easy, but just plain couldn’t stop the Pels. Their offensive efficiency jumped from 105 on the season to 119 versus the Jazz, and their 3pt percentage from 37% to 46%. Result: As of today, NO wins.
This is certainly not meant to be a funeral dirge. It’s just reality that a 38-win team — even one with momentum over the latter part of a season — would come up short against the West’s best.
But this exercise also seems to make clear that today’s Jazz probably aren’t built to give playoff teams major problems. We’ll see how much ground they can cover based on internal improvements, but these playoffs remind me that the Jazz have a long road ahead.
Maybe the short term goal is just to make the playoffs as a stepping stone and a learning tool. If it’s anything more than that, the Jazz probably need to make changes to close the gap on those eight teams.