May 18th, 2020. This was the day that Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted out the news that Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic would be undergoing season-ending wrist surgery, and the Utah Jazz title chances would go from slim to none. At least that is what most top national sports analysts would lead you to believe.
The Utah Jazz are currently in fourth place in the Western Conference. Sitting three games behind the L.A. Clippers, 1.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets, one game ahead of both the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder and 2.5 games ahead of the Dallas Mavericks. The Jazz have a Mount Everest type climb to reach the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2007.
Things could not have gone worse this season for the Utah Jazz. Mike Conley has looked like the Monstars zapped his basketball playing abilities in the offseason, averaging his lowest points per game in 8 seasons. The Jazz stumbled to end the season going 9-10 in their final 19 games. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, the two best players on the team, have been rumored to have a very strained relationship before their COVID-19 diagnosis and it has since been reported by Shams Charania, Sam Amick, and Tony Jones that their relationship might be “unsalvageable”. The cherry on top of the train wreck season was the year-ending injury diagnosis to the Utah Jazz’s starter and key contributor Bojan Bogdanovic.
There is no way that the Jazz will win a single round in the Western Conference playoffs, let alone win two rounds to make it to the Western Conference Finals, right?
The Utah Jazz were 13-1 favorites to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy back in October. They are currently 66-1 (meaning, if you were to bet $100 on the Jazz to win the NBA title, and they did, you would profit $6,600). Even though bettors have cooled off on the Utah Jazz, I have not and here is why:
Most people (me included) loved the recent summer acquisitions of Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, and Emmanuel Mudiay among others even though it meant saying goodbye to Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and Derrick Favors. However, most people could spot a potential problem with the multiple offensive talents that all demanded the ball. Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson all need the ball in their hands a certain amount of times to be their most effective offensively. I am not sure that when the Jazz went on their 19-2 run back in December and January that it was purely a coincidence that they did it without Mike Conley in the lineup for 16 of those 21 games. When a key player goes down for the Jazz, it opens up the offense and allows players to play more freely. I could see the same thing happening with the subtraction of Bojan Bogdanovic in the 2020 playoffs.
First, let’s look at their current seeding and remaining schedule compared to other Western Conference teams to determine their most likely final seeding and playoff route. When the Jazz return to play on July 30th they will face the New Orleans Pelicans, followed by the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, and San Antonio Spurs will wrap up the regular season for the Utah Jazz. Those 8 opponents have an average winning percentage of .556, with exactly half of them being under .500.
The Denver Nuggets, who are currently 1.5 games ahead of the Utah Jazz, have an average opponent winning percentage of .619, with only 2 opponents under .500.
The Houston Rockets, who are currently 1 game back of the Utah Jazz, have an average opponent winning percentage of .587, with 3 opponents under .500.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, are currently 1 game back of the Utah Jazz, have an average opponent winning percentage of .583, with 3 opponents under .500.
Right off the bat, the Utah Jazz have the easiest remaining schedule compared to the 3 teams within 2 games of them in seeding. This is good news for the Jazz who hope to maintain a top 4 seed in the playoffs. Let’s keep going.
A top 4 seed after the “train wreck” of a season? Too good to be true, right? Since it is impossible to perfectly predict how the remaining 8 regular season games will go for the Utah Jazz, let’s start assuming a few things. With the Jazz playing 6 regular season games against teams with lesser records, and only 2 teams with better records it is probably fair, although slightly optimistic, to assume that the Jazz will go 6-2 to close out the season. The Denver Nuggets, on the other hand, only play 5 games against teams with lesser records, one of those being the Utah Jazz. Let’s assume that the Nuggets lose against the teams with the superior records (Lakers, Clippers, Raptors), and then also lose to the Utah Jazz finishing the season 4-4: all very possible. This would give the Utah Jazz the 3 seed in the Western Conference.
With the 3 seed locked up, the most likely first round opponent would be the Oklahoma City Thunder (currently in a tie for 5/6 with Houston but have a much more difficult remaining schedule). The Jazz know their conference rival well, playing them already twice this season with one more remaining. The Jazz matchup well with Oklahoma City because their big man Steven Adams allows Rudy Gobert to stick around the rim and do what he does best: block shots. When the Jazz can allow Gobert to do what he does better than anyone else in the world they are practically unstoppable. The Utah Jazz have had the best offensive rating in the NBA since the Jordan Clarkson trade occurred. The trouble for the Jazz has been on the defensive side of things, so getting the defense perfect could pay huge dividends in the playoffs. While Chris Paul does give the Jazz some problems, I think this would be a very winnable series and the Jazz should be favored, even without Bojan Bogdanovic.
Once they get passed the Oklahoma City Thunder, they would most likely have the Los Angeles Clippers awaiting them in the second round. The Jazz lead the season series 2-1, and matchup surprisingly well with a team that many picked in the preseason to win the title. Donovan Mitchell had one of his best games of the season during their December 28th matchup with them. Donovan put up 30 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds in a 120-107 win. Getting Donovan Mitchell going could be key to the Utah Jazz upsetting the L.A. Clippers and making a Western Conference Finals appearance. The Los Angeles Clippers, like the Thunder, also have a big man in Zubac who allows Rudy Gobert to stay close to the rim and when Rudy can do that, the Jazz are a very tough team to beat. While some might call me crazy, I think that the Jazz match up incredibly well with the Clippers and could see an upset happening in the 2nd round.
Next up, the Los Angeles Lakers. Avery Bradley has decided to opt out of the NBA restart due to family reasons and without the Lakers having their best defensive guard I could see Donovan Mitchell getting some very easy baskets. While they haven’t matched up as well with the Los Angeles Lakers this season, I do believe that they can extend the series to 6-7 games and once you get there all you need is a couple of bounces to go your way.
Well, that’s it. Easy enough, right? There is the road map that the Utah Jazz will need to follow to make their first trip to the NBA finals in 13 seasons, oh and remember, 5,294 people have climbed Earth’s highest mountain, known as Mount Everest. That is right. Something that seems like an impossible task has been done over 5,000 times.