What Lies Ahead for the Utah Jazz Following the All-Star Break?

The Utah Jazz are at a much better point than they were last season, but still have a tough road ahead as they close out the 2015-16 season.

At this point last season, the Utah Jazz were well out of playoff contention, but their best basketball of the year was still to come. Roughly a year ago, Utah traded away Enes Kanter, allowing Rudy Gobert to break out as the starting center. A move that would transform the Jazz into a stingy and relentless defensive force. Over that stretch, the Jazz went 19-10 over their last 29 games and established relatively high expectations for themselves this year.

This season got off to a bit of a rocky start given all the injuries, but the Jazz’s seven-game winning streak just before the break pushed them to a solid 26-26 record, good for 8th in the Western Conference. A playoff spot is obviously well within reach for the Jazz considering they are currently in that final slot in the West. However, taking a look ahead helps paint a much clearer picture of what the Jazz can expect moving forward.

Last season, the eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans qualified for the playoffs with a 45-37 record. If 45 wins turns out to be the cut-off this year, then the Jazz would need to win 19 more games. This means they would have to put up an essentially identical streak to their finish last season. Now with the Western Conference being noticeably weaker this time around, it’s quite possible that the cut-off could be closer to the .500 mark, but to give the benefit of the doubt to the rest of the teams fighting for playoff position, we’ll assume the mark will be about 45 wins.

Looking ahead at the Jazz’s schedule, the closing stretch won’t be easy. Of the 30 remaining games, exactly half are against teams that are currently in the playoff picture. That’s a pretty steep number, especially considering that it includes the Warriors twice, the Spurs twice, as well as the Thunder and Cavs once each. Yet when looked at another way, if the Jazz can take care of business in the 15 games against non-playoff teams, that means they’ll only need to win 4 out of the 15 games against playoff teams. This seems a much more manageable task considering that these match-ups include games against the likes of Portland, Dallas, Memphis, and Boston, which are certainly teams the Jazz can compete with.

Feb 10, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Utah Jazz guard Rodney Hood (5) shoots over New Orleans Pelicans forward Dante Cunningham (44) during the second half of a game at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Jazz 100-96. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

But as mentioned, for it to be this simple the Jazz have to win the games that they’re “supposed to win” over weaker opponents. Unfortunately the Jazz hold just a 9-16 record on the road so far and just over half (16 out of 30) of their final games will be on the road. If the Jazz continue as they have so far this season with an average .360 road record over their last 30 games, then they’ll only win about six more away games to finish 15-26 away from their home court. This would mean they would need to win 13 out of 14 of their remaining home games to hit that magical 45-win mark – a tough task given that San Antonio, Golden State, and Cleveland will all be coming to Salt Lake City.

This becomes even more worrisome as there only five away games that can be classified as potential “gimmes” (if there is such a thing in the NBA particularly for an up-and-down squad like the Jazz) remaining on the schedule. These include visits to Milwaukee, Minnesota, Phoenix, Denver, and the purple and gold in LA. This isn’t to say that the Jazz face teams that they can’t beat on the road, it simply means that the Jazz will have to play much better on the road down the stretch than they have in the first 52 games so far.

Feb 10, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder reacts during the second half of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Jazz 100-96. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Yet of course a lot of this is hypothetical, including the magic 45-win mark that just happened to be the cut-off last season. Of course, basketball is a sport where teams will both beat and lose to teams that they perhaps “shouldn’t.” So to analyze the Jazz’s fate over the final stretch of the season, it’s important to take a look at the outlook for their competition as well.

It appears most likely that the Jazz will be battling for the final two playoff spots with the Trail Blazers and Rockets, however it is possible that a team like the Pelicans or even Denver or Sacramento could get hot and make a push. The Jazz currently have the same win percentage as the Blazers, but the Blazers have one more game in the win column while also holding a 2-1 lead over the Jazz in the head-to-head season series.

Many people are surprised to see the Blazers playing even remotely as well as they have been, making their fate hard to predict. While it’s possible that their luck could run out, with their incredibly solid backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blazers turned out to be the real deal.

The slumping Rockets fell out of the playoff mix right before the All-Star break and are only a half game behind the Jazz. They are one of the teams at the forefront of several trade rumors and those impending changes could have a lot to do with whether Houston rises or continues to drop. Despite all his faults, there’s no questioning James Harden‘s All-Star prowess (at least on the offensive end). With him leading the charge, it would be very unwise to count Houston out at this point.

Above the Jazz and Blazers in the sixth spot is the Dallas Mavericks who Utah recently defeated in overtime in what was hands down the team’s most exciting victory so far. Dallas is just 1.5 games ahead of the Jazz, so very much in reach especially if the Jazz can mimic their hot finish from last season. While it’s possible that Dallas slides slightly, it seems unlikely that such a tough veteran squad would fall out of the playoffs entirely.

Feb 9, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) hits the game winning shot in overtime to defeat the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Three games ahead of Dallas (4.5 games ahead of the Jazz) stands the Memphis Grizzlies. One wouldn’t think that the Grizzlies could slide that far, but with Gasol’s foot injury that could potentially have him sidelined for the remainder of the season, the Grizzlies might find themselves in danger of a slump. A potential and perhaps plausible scenario that would put the Jazz ahead of the Grizzlies would be if Memphis struggles without Gasol and goes 13-16 over their final stretch of games while the Jazz get hot and go 19-11. This would put Utah one game up on the Grizzlies. Considering the Jazz went 19-10 to end last season, this isn’t completely unrealistic.

So in essence, the Jazz undoubtedly have a tough road ahead, but are leaps and bounds ahead of where they were last year at this time, meaning that a playoff spot is well within reach. While making a charge at the fifth seed and playing the Clippers in the first round rather than one of the elite top three teams is likely a pipe dream, it certainly isn’t out of the question, especially considering how well Utah played heading into the All-Star Break.

Yes, the competition wasn’t the greatest, the wins weren’t always the prettiest or most convincing, and yeah, the loss to New Orleans was a bit of a let down but the Jazz put together an impressive seven-game streak unlike anything we’d seen this season. The best news of all is that the team is finally healthy and especially with the extra days off for the All-Star Break, the Jazz should be ready to go right out of the gates starting with their game on Thursday against Washington.

Not to mention, Hood has been much more consistent as of late, Neto and Lyles are slowly but surely improving, and as a whole this Jazz team has looked much more cohesive. If the stretch before the All-Star Break was any indication of what Utah can accomplish this season, then there’s no reason they can’t qualify for the playoffs with plenty of breathing room despite the stiff competition and number of road games.

So now to my prediction for the close of the Jazz’s season. While it would be impressive to see them replicate last year’s finish, Utah no longer has the advantage of flying as an “under the radar” team. It’s quite possible that many teams overlooked the lottery-bound Jazz last season. Now that Utah is clearly vying for playoff position and has built a well-known reputation as a defensive powerhouse, teams aren’t going to let the Jazz slide past them. They are undoubtedly in for 30 tough games.

Thus my prediction is that the Jazz will go 16-14 over the final 30 games, winning 9 of the 14 remaining home games and 7 of the road games. While that will put them short of the “magic 45-win mark,” fortunately, due to the weakened nature of this season’s Western Conference, 42 wins will be enough for the Jazz to claim the seventh or eight seed in the playoffs sending them headfirst into a David vs. Goliath match-up against either the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs.

So there you have it, that’s my take on what lies ahead for the rest of the Jazz’s season. But I want to hear what you think. Hit me up on Twitter or comment below with your predictions for the Utah Jazz’s final 30 games of the 2015-16 season!