Dissecting Utah Jazz playoff hopes heading into the new year

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 30: Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz brings the ball up court against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second half of the 104-101 win by the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on December 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 30: Ricky Rubio #3 of the Utah Jazz brings the ball up court against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second half of the 104-101 win by the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena on December 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images) /

Despite a rough December and currently sitting five games under .500, the Utah Jazz are better posed to make the playoffs than many might suppose.

My oh my, have the last 31 days been a rush or what? The tough slate that the Utah Jazz would face in the month of December had been talked about almost nonstop ever since the schedule was released and now that it’s over, I still feel like we aren’t any closer to figuring out who this Jazz team really is.

The month started out with the highest of highs. Donovan Mitchell put up a career-high 41 points in a comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans, then the Jazz turned around and dropped a 47-point beat-down on the Washington Wizards the very next game. It was absolutely the best possible way the Jazz could have started December.

But things turned pretty sour from there as Utah went on to lose 10 of their next 12 games, many of which came in blowout fashion. Of course, the two they did win – against the Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs – were exhilarating and exciting performances, but overall, December was tough sledding just as we all predicted.

Fortunately, Utah managed to end the month on about as high of a note as they started by defeating the reigning Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, handing LeBron James his seventh straight loss in Salt Lake City. It was an amazing game which saw the Jazz erase a double-figure deficit, finally have a solid third quarter and, as expected in a big win, benefit from Donovan Mitchell going off. He finished the night with 29 points on 10-of-17 shooting.


So, all told, Utah ended up going just 5-10 in December. This isn’t far off from the 6-9 I had pinned them at leading up to this tough stretch, but regardless, the overall struggles they had during the month have dropped their record to 16-21. Five games under .500 isn’t necessarily insurmountable, but it’s going to be tough for the Utah Jazz to get back in the running.

As the standings currently sit, the Jazz are in 10th place in the West and 2.5 games out of the eighth spot which is held by the 18-18 New Orleans Pelicans. Fortunately, though, with the toughest part of their schedule out of the way, Utah’s competition eases up significantly from here. Thus, if they can go on a bit of a run in the upcoming months, they could very well make a significant climb up the standings.

Don’t forget that to close out November, the Jazz were punishing opposing teams that weren’t as formidable as the foes they faced all throughout December, so if the Jazz can get back to that mode of taking care of business against inferior teams, a playoff push won’t be at all out of the question.

What exactly will it take for the Jazz to make it? Well, as I mentioned, the current eighth place Pelicans are exactly at .500 at 18-18. Last season, the eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers also finished the season at .500 to sneak into the playoffs. So Utah will need to find a way to get at or slightly above .500. For this exercise, let’s pretend that in order to be a playoff team, the Jazz will need to overachieve slightly to edge out some other squads and finish the year at 42-40.

That would mean that they’ll need to go 26-19 the rest of the way, a win percentage of .578. That sounds doable, right? For reference, Utah’s overall record last season of 51-31 was a win percentage of .622, so even though this year’s team hasn’t been as formidable as last year’s, with an easier schedule ahead, that still seems plausible.

A couple relevant examples of such a turn-around include last year’s Portland Trail Blazers and the 2014-15 Utah Jazz. Last season, the Blazers were just 24-35 heading into the month of March. That’s 11 games under .500 with under two months left in the season. However, from there they managed to go an incredible 17-6 to close out the year and finish dead even at 41-41 to make the playoffs.

In Utah’s 2014-15 season, they obviously didn’t end up qualifying for playoff contention. However, they proved themselves as one of the most promising young teams in the league by turning a 17-30 start into a 38-44 record, which required them to close out the season on a 21-14 run. That exact run was a win percentage of .600, which isn’t far from what they’ll need to replicate this season.

The fact that they did it before in 2015 with a less talented team bodes well for them being able to do it again this time around.

But to decide whether or not it will really be a possibility, let’s take a look at Utah’s remaining schedule and see just what they’re up against in the new calendar year:

  • 1/3 vs. New Orleans
  • 1/5 at Denver
  • 1/7 at Miami
  • 1/10 at Washington
  • 1/12 at Charlotte
  • 1/15 vs. Indiana
  • 1/17 at Sacramento
  • 1/19 vs. New York
  • 1/20 vs. LA Clippers
  • 1/22 at Atlanta
  • 1/24 at Detroit
  • 1/26 at Toronto
  • 1/30 vs. Golden State
  • 2/2 at Phoenix
  • 2/3 at San Antonio
  • 2/5 at New Orleans
  • 2/7 at Memphis
  • 2/9 vs. Charlotte
  • 2/11 at Portland
  • 2/12 vs. San Antonio
  • 2/14 vs. Phoenix
  • 2/23 vs. Portland
  • 2/24 vs. Dallas
  • 2/26 vs. Houston
  • 3/2 vs. Minnesota
  • 3/3 at Sacramento
  • 3/5 vs. Orlando
  • 3/7 at Indiana
  • 3/9 at Memphis
  • 3/11 at New Orleans
  • 3/13 vs. Detroit
  • 3/15 vs. Phoenix
  • 3/17 vs. Sacramento
  • 3/20 vs. Atlanta
  • 3/22 at Dallas
  • 3/23 at San Antonio
  • 3/25 at Golden State
  • 3/28 vs. Boston
  • 3/30 vs. Memphis
  • 4/1 at Minnesota
  • 4/3 vs. Los Angeles Lakers
  • 4/5 vs. LA Clippers
  • 4/8 at Los Angeles Lakers
  • 4/10 vs. Golden State Warriors
  • 4/11 at Portland Trail Blazers

That 45-game stretch includes 22 games against current non-playoff teams. Assuming Utah were able to take care of business against all of those, they’d only need to win four other games to earn our presumed mark of 42-40. Surely, they’ll slip up against a few of those squads, but this sounds relatively doable.

The scary thing is that 22 of Utah’s remaining games are at home while 23 are on the road. The Jazz just so happen to be a league-worst 3-15 on the road. In other words, the first step they have to take in making their playoff dream a reality is to start figuring out how to win away from home. If they maintain their .167 win percentage in away games, they’d finish the season at about 7-34 on the road.

That would mean they’d need to win all 22 of their remaining home games to hit the magic number of 42 overall wins. Considering that they’ll host the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets before season’s end, I don’t think that’s a likely outcome at all. Fortunately, their road opponents get significantly easier than they were in December, so I foresee them finishing with more than seven road wins.

In an exercise similar to one I did leading up to the tough December slate, I’ve marked each of Utah’s upcoming 45 games with my projection of whether it is more likely to be a (W), loss (L) or simply a toss-up (T). Let’s see how that plays out.

  • 1/3 vs. New Orleans – T
  • 1/5 at Denver – T
  • 1/7 at Miami – T
  • 1/10 at Washington – T
  • 1/12 at Charlotte – T
  • 1/15 vs. Indiana – T
  • 1/17 at Sacramento – W
  • 1/19 vs. New York – W
  • 1/20 vs. LA Clippers – T
  • 1/22 at Atlanta – W
  • 1/24 at Detroit – T
  • 1/26 at Toronto – L
  • 1/30 vs. Golden State – L
  • 2/2 at Phoenix – W
  • 2/3 at San Antonio – L
  • 2/5 at New Orleans – T
  • 2/7 at Memphis – T
  • 2/9 vs. Charlotte – W
  • 2/11 at Portland – T
  • 2/12 vs. San Antonio – L
  • 2/14 vs. Phoenix – W
  • 2/23 vs. Portland – T
  • 2/24 vs. Dallas – W
  • 2/26 vs. Houston – L
  • 3/2 vs. Minnesota – T
  • 3/3 at Sacramento – T
  • 3/5 vs. Orlando – W
  • 3/7 at Indiana – T
  • 3/9 at Memphis – T
  • 3/11 at New Orleans – T
  • 3/13 vs. Detroit – T
  • 3/15 vs. Phoenix – W
  • 3/17 vs. Sacramento – W
  • 3/20 vs. Atlanta – W
  • 3/22 at Dallas – W
  • 3/23 at San Antonio – L
  • 3/25 at Golden State – L
  • 3/28 vs. Boston – T
  • 3/30 vs. Memphis – W
  • 4/1 at Minnesota – T
  • 4/3 vs. Los Angeles Lakers – W
  • 4/5 vs. LA Clippers – T
  • 4/8 at Los Angeles Lakers – W
  • 4/10 vs. Golden State Warriors – L
  • 4/11 at Portland Trail Blazers – T

Looking at it this way, I have Utah pinned with 15 likely wins, eight probable losses and 22 toss-ups. If a game was on the road or on the second night of a back-to-back, I was pretty quick to call it a toss-up or a loss in most circumstances. However, even having those 15 likely wins feels pretty good as it leaves the Jazz with just 11 more victories to go get. That would require them to win exactly half of their 22 toss-up games, which fits the namesake and feels very much doable.

Especially considering that several of the ones I’ve marked as toss-ups are against significantly inferior teams, but just happen to be on the road, as long as Utah can somehow figure out a way to harness the energy and intensity that they played with against Cleveland on Saturday throughout the remainder of the season, they could very well still be in good shape.


However, if you take a close look at my projections above, you’ll see that Utah starts out 2018 with six straight so-called toss-up games. That stretch could very well make or break their hopes for the rest of the season. If they were somehow able to get hot and earn victories in each of those, they’d be all the way back above .500 just like that. However, if they drop them all, an 11-game hole suddenly becomes extremely daunting.

Luckily, they have time to rest up before that slate, and even a 3-3 record in those games won’t be the end of the world. The Jazz enjoy some nice home stands in this second half of the season and they’ll have plenty of opportunities to make big strides forward.

In short, I believe that a 26-19 finish for the Jazz is an appropriate and attainable goal. It’ll take some improved play over what we saw in December, to be sure, and some big wins, but Utah has stepped up to knock off some incredible teams already this season, and I see no reason why they can’t continue to do so.

The fact alone that 22 remaining games are against non-playoff teams is an encouraging sign as well. As I mentioned, if Utah largely takes care of business, they’ll only have to come up with a few upset wins in order to earn that 42-40 record by season’s end, which very well ought to be enough to sneak into postseason action.

Next: Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert out at least two more weeks w/ PCL injury

December was a tough slate, to be sure, but there’s plenty to be excited about ahead, Jazz fans. Whatever you do, don’t give up on Quin Snyder, Donovan Mitchell and the rest of this hard-nosed Utah Jazz squad.