Schedule Ups and Downs: The Jazz Embark on a Tough Early Slate

October 16th, 2018 | by Ken Clayton

These six are ready to go. (Photos ESPN)

Congratulations, Jazz fans! You have endured the offseason and been intrigued by the preseason, but now it’s time to get your game face on. The regular season is upon us.

Now that the start of the real season is imminent, let’s take another look at the ins and outs, ups and downs of the 2018-19 Utah Jazz schedule. I took a deeper look at what lies ahead over the next six and a half months. What stood out? Glad you asked.

Graphic gripe

The color of confusion

Why must the Jazz’s printable schedule show the home opener in a different color than all other home games, and in a dark green that is nearly indistinguishable from the navy blue road games? It’s confusing. My general rule of color coding: if the game isn’t really any different (a home game is a home game) and if it only applies to one game out of 87 on the calendar, it doesn’t warrant its own color1.

Despite the complaint above, kudos to the graphic designers for distinguishing the preseason games from the regular season, using an outline instead of a filled format. That didn’t happen last year, which made it hard to tell when the games changed from meaningless to meaningful.

Back-to-backs and more

One of the first things fans look for in an NBA schedule is the number of back-to-back games their team plays. In the past, Friday-Saturday back-to-backs were a common occurrence, due to the fact that few teams play on Thursdays and the Jazz don’t play home games on Sundays. This factor alone usually propelled the Jazz toward the high end of the back-to-back rankings, and some fans complained of a conspiracy to wear the Jazz out.

This season, the team will play 14 sets of back-to-back games (and only seven of the Friday-Saturday back-to-backs), which is about par for the course around the league. Only three teams will play fewer back-to-backs than Utah, and every team plays between 13 and 16. There’s no reason to complain about just 14 back-to-back sets2.

As in the past few seasons, the four games in five nights schedule is gone. Thank league commissioner Adam Silver for this, and for other related schedule changes, like a shorter preseason and the earlier October 16 start to the regular season.

Give me the bad news first

If you loved how the season started last year, with tough games, road games, and tough road games aplenty, you are going to love this season.

Five out of seven October games and ten of sixteen November contests will be played outside the friendly confines of the Viv. In fact, the season will barely be two months old when the Jazz play away game number 21 of 41, passing the road schedule’s half way mark before Christmas. A couple of weeks later, road game 25 coincides with game 41, or the halfway mark of the season.

On top of difficult a road schedule, the early season also features a slew of games against projected top teams. Based on averages of several preseason projections, six teams will win 50 games or more: Golden State, Houston, Utah, Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto (Oklahoma City’s average lands just below 50). That gives the Jazz 13 games against the top teams in the league, and 11 of them will be played in the first half of the season (the first 38 games, to be exact).

The Jazz will do the bulk of their work against elite teams early in the season.

If anything can redeem that early season schedule, it’s that 10 of the road games (plus five at home) are against projected sub-.500 teams. Those 15 games (and especially the 10 at home) will be very important. Every team drops a few contests against potential cellar-dwellers, but the Jazz can’t afford missteps, as it will be challenging to make up for those losses against winning (or elite teams), especially with that travel schedule.

When does it get better?

In short, right after the tough stretch above.

After playing their 21st road game in two months, the Jazz will have nearly four months to play the remaining twenty. And after the 25th away game (at the end of a 2019-opening, four-game eastern swing), the final 16 will be played over a three-month period (January 16 to April 10).

When the road-heavy first half of the season ends in game 41, the home-road discrepancy starts evening out immediately in game 42. That game kicks off a big home stretch from January 9 to February 9, when the Jazz host 12 opponents while only hitting the road 3 times. If the record is suffering at all from the difficult schedule to this point, this is where the team can make up for it. On the other hand, if the record is good or better at the season’s midpoint, it will be time to get really excited.

If the Jazz can remember how to drive to Vivint SmartHome Arena by this point, they’ll get some much needed respite at home.

Starting the very next game (February 12 at Golden State) the Jazz play an even home/road schedule, with 13 home and 13 road games remaining. During this stretch, there are only three multi-game road trips: a four-game eastern swing and a pair of two-gamers. The remaining eight road games are all single game trips, which generally means just a single night in a hotel.

That’s decent news, but the best news is the strength of the opponents to close the season. The schedule softens again later in the year, and you may recall how the Jazz took advantage last season3.

So how soft is the stretch run? If you were paying attention earlier, you know that the Jazz play 11 of 13 games against expected 50+ game winners during the first half of the season. Anyone with a limited knowledge of story problems should be able to calculate that only two games remain after the halfway point: a home game against the Rockets, and a trip to the Bay Area to face the Warriors.

After those two contests, the schedule bottoms out. During the final 25 games of the regular season, the Jazz don’t play a single game against a team projected to win 50 games or more. About half of those games are against teams expected to be over .500, but that leaves 13 games against lottery-bound teams.

The downhill stretch.

In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lighter month than February 2019, when the Jazz will play only 9 games. By contrast, last season included an 11-game February slate. If guys are banged up, this will be a good time to get healthy. Prepare yourself for articles alternating between “rest is good” and “we’d just as soon play every other day.”

Put simply, the second half of the season should be a good time to be a Jazz fan.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

There’s even more good news on the schedule. With a nod to the recently deceased Aretha Franklin, the 2017-18 Jazz seem to have earned some well-deserved respect from the league and its broadcast partners.

The Christmas Day game is the surest sign that the Jazz are being noticed. Of course the league needed a Pacific or Mountain time zone location for the nightcap, which limited the options. The headline team (Warriors) and headline market (LeBron James’ Lakers) were likely already on the schedule. That left Portland, Utah and Denver as potential hosts, because let’s just say the Kings, Clippers and Suns are not ready for prime time. Still, it’s good news: the league could have easy picked a solid matchup like Denver @ Portland or San Antonio @ Denver, but went with Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and your Utah Jazz. Plan ahead to get those presents unwrapped, stuff your face, sleep off the food coma, and wake up in time for that 8:30 p.m. MST tip off.

Still seeking a sign of respect?

  • The Jazz were scheduled for five real national broadcasts4 last season, but get 11 in the upcoming season. That’s nothing compared to the top draws, but doubling the national presence indicates the league believes in the product the Jazz put on the floor.
  • The home opener was considered enough of a marquee match up to garner an ESPN broadcast and a pre-announcement before the rest of the league’s schedule was made public.
  • While not a marquee match up, the Mexico City game against the Orlando Magic is still a high-visibility event in which the Jazz are lucky to participate.

What’s missing?

The rotating conference schedule, which allows each team to “skip” a fourth game against certain conference foes, works in the Jazz’s favor this season. The headline is the Jazz only playing the defending champion Warriors 3 times, with 2 of those contests in Salt Lake City. When the schedule allows you to skip a game in Oakland that could easily be a loss, that’s a big deal. There’s also a skipped road game in San Antonio that could be helpful, although the Spurs feel less scary now than in the past5.

The Jazz will also skip home games against the Pelicans and Clippers, so local fans will only get one chance to see Anthony Davis and whoever is the face of the Clippers play in person this year.

Given that three of these four teams are expected to post winning records, this improves the Jazz’s win projection marginally.

Bottom line

How will the schedule affect the 2018-19 Jazz?

The first half of the season is similar to last year’s, and it will certainly take a toll in one way or another. That said, the team should have the opportunity for a better record, despite the schedule. Based on preseason play, it feels like Dante Exum should help the team add a few wins, and the same can certainly be said if Rudy Gobert avoids another lengthy injury absence. Last year, Ricky Rubio struggled in the first half of the season, so any improvement should also help in the win column, although in fairness Rubio hasn’t looked his best in the preseason.

The second half of the season should be an opportunity to improve playoff positioning, but it’s unrealistic to expect another 29-6 finish (a 68-game winning pace), and insane to expect an improvement. Massive improvement will need to come in the first half of the season, because it’s tough to improve on only six losses.

Ken Clayton

Ken's connection to the Jazz started in the mid 1980s in the old Salt Palace and hasn't really missed a beat since. Ken lives in the Phoenix area, where he and his wife operate their own business. Ken tweets at @k_clayt.

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