The Utah Jazz have been a “Yeah, but… “ team for a few years now. And while it’s better than just being butt, it’s frustrating. You can tell how much of a pretender a team is by how mad their fans get when the media disregards their relevance despite the team winning 50-plus games every year.
I’ve been there, too, that’s why I want to write something new that’s not “The Jazz are a great organization with a great team, let’s see if they can get over the hump” puff piece. However, the “let’s try again but play even harder” method has worked for teams in the past. The Spurs were a Ray Allen miracle away from winning the Finals and returned next year even more focused and ended LeBron James’ run in Miami.
The Jazz haven’t been out of the second round since Donovan Mitchell replaced Gordon Hayward as their small-market savior, so it’s a far reach to say they ever came that close to a title as constructed, but maybe a Western Conference Finals. Phoenix showed last year that it’s not always how good your team is, it’s how healthy you and the guys on the other side are. A little seeding and injury luck could propel Utah a long way.
OK, let’s break down how the bracket would have to break so the Jazz don’t have to break up their core. As it stands, they’re the three seed at 17-7. I doubt they’ll catch the Warriors or Suns because those two teams look like the best in the NBA, not just the West. Now to the gap behind them because they don’t want to play the Warriors in Round 2 or whoever turns out to be good enough to earn the five spot.
Already 3.5 games up on fourth-place Memphis (-0.2 point per game differential), Utah (+10.1 point differential) looks to be the heavy favorite for the 3 seed. There are only 1.5 games separating the fourth seed and the eighth seed in the West, so out of the Grizzlies, Clippers, Lakers, Mavericks, and Nuggets, who would the Jazz like to see most?
In the playoffs with Mitchell, they beat the Grizz in a series, split two series with the Clippers and lost another to the Nuggets. As a rule, you don’t want to see Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, or James in the first or any round. So, I would say the Clippers are the Jazz’s best bet, because Kawhi Leonard should still be recovering from a torn ACL, or Memphis because they’re still so young.
On to Round 2, which is easy. You want to play Phoenix because Golden State seems to grow stronger the more they embarrass Rudy Gobert, and even though Mitchell was a rookie and this year’s Warriors are not the 2016-17 team that swept Utah, it’s a bad matchup, and one you want to put off as long as possible.
The Suns won’t be easy, but it’s not a style difference like it would be against Golden State. You can keep Gobert on the floor because of D’Andre Ayton; Devin Booker and Mitchell hopefully cancel each other out; maybe Chris Paul gets injured or Mike Conley doesn’t, and then your depth simply has to outplay their depth. What you also have working for you in this round is everyone will be rooting so hard for a Phoenix-Golden State WCF that the NBA gods simply won’t let it happen. We haven’t even got a Lakers-Clippers series since Kawhi went to LA.
This is where it gets hard because I don’t think you can avoid the greatest shooter of all time forever — or can you. The longer you can wait to face Steph Curry the better the chances are of him getting injured. It doesn’t even have to be serious, just nagging to the point that people make excuses for him.
I’m on my third hypothetical series analysis of a playoffs that are still five months away, and if Jazz fans reading this haven’t typed out their “Fuck off” tweets already, they surely will, but I’m only being half an asshole. I genuinely think Utah is good enough to make a conference finals run and maybe even a Finals albeit with some luck.
They’ve surrounded their best player with a really good team and coaching staff, and are currently maximizing the talent on their roster, which is more than I can say for a lot of organizations in the NBA. That’s what’s cruel about sports, though, even when your team does everything right, it still might not be enough, and teams like the Lakers can repeatedly careen off a cliff and still end up with LeBron and AD.
Whatever. Good shit, Utah. I hope the ball bounces your way in the postseason.