Back in the preseason I felt like a ESPN.com's 51 win season was a disrespectful prediction. Especially off the heels of a 54 win season and a trend in increasing wins over the past few years. This season, though, the Jazz have been a veritable M*A*S*H unit, and at times, a 50 win season appeared only in the heads of Jazz homers. As of today the Jazz are 40-23 (good enough for 5th spot in Marc Stein's Power Rankings on ESPN.com's website), and the Northwest Division lead for the first time since November, it seems. Can the Jazz win 50+ games still this season? Let's take a look:
Utah plays 19 more games, so, statistically, the Jazz should reach the 50 win plateau if they win half of their games (a statistical possibility). If you want to use even fishy-er math, the Jazz are winning 63.5% of their games, which is 12 wins in 19 games. These a nice looking projections if we were playing the average NBA schedule. Utah is not, though, and the race to 50+ wins is much harder than just bland statistics.
Utah Jazz vs. The East: 6 games left, 12-12 record
Utah plays 6 remaining games against the East and Utah is really bad against the Eastern Conference this season, with more than half of their total losses this season (12) coming at the hands of Eastern foes. Utah projects to win half of the remaining games against the East (3), though it's not guaranteed as 4 of the 6 remaining games are on the road. Tomorrow the Jazz face off against a previously unhealthy Indiana Pacers team (Tuesday, March 10th) in the first game of a back-to-back set; then fly down to Atlanta to face the Hawks (Wednesday, March 11th) for a game that will be the 3rd game in 4 nights. The following two games on this 5 game road trip have the Jazz against the Miami Heat (Saturday, March 14th) and then down in Orlando to face the Magic (Sunday, March 15th). The last two games against the East (until the NBA finals, if we get there) will be at home against the Washington Wizards (Tuesday, March 17th) and at home to the New York Knicks (Monday, March 30th). None of these games can be taken for granted as wins. Indiana has beaten all the best teams in the NBA this season on their home court. Atlanta's strengths seem to exploit our weaknesses every season in Georgia it seems. The Jazz are not capable of beating the Heat, as our head-to-head records over the last few years show and Orlando can be crazy good -- they housed us in Utah earlier this season and may want revenge for losing to us on their home court last season. Washington has a bad record and their starting back court (Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson) are both out for the season . . . so this one shouldn't be as bad as it could have been. New York is owed a beat down as well, but I don't know if the Jazz won't be looking past the Knicks in this game as after the game the Jazz fly to Portland for a key Northwest battle the next day. Utah should beat those two teams at home, as they started the season off beating the Jazz. I will be happy if the Jazz win 2 of these games, and bounce off the walls if they win 3.
Utah Jazz vs. The Pacific Division: 5 games left, 10-3 record
The Jazz play 5 more games this regular season against teams from the left coast. Three are at home, and two on the road. If the playoffs started today the Jazz would only face 1 team from the Pacific Division that would be playing in the 1st round. So by appearances this looks like the easiest group of games for the Jazz to add wins to their record. The Jazz play a home and home series against the Phoenix Suns (at Phoenix on TV on Wednesday, March 25; then in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 28th). The season series is tied at 1-1 so far, with the home team winning each time. I'd be fine with the Jazz splitting the remaining games, though you never know how the Suns will be playing like, or what they may be playing for at this time of the season. Utah projects to be healthier than them, so should be able to compete in both games. The next two games are home games, hosting the mercurial Golden State Warriors (Saturday, April 11th, 2nd game of a back-to-back -- their pace may hurt us), and pathetic LA Clippers (Monday, April 13th). Utah has to win both of these games, nothing else needs to be said. The last game of the regular season happens to be in Los Angeles to face the reigning Western Conference Champion Lakers. Utah has a history of losing the last game of the regular season and a history of losing in LA -- so it's hard to see things changing this season. The Lakers may have 1st place all sown up, and the super pretentious dick Phil Jackson may elect to have his team kick our butts just to play a head game / screw us over. As a result, 3 wins are likely, but I would be disappointed with anything less than 4.
Utah Jazz vs. The Southwest Division: 4 games left, 9-5 record
Out of all the Western Conference divisions, this is the one which poses the most problems for the Jazz (or at least, that's what the record shows). The Jazz host the hot, but beatable, Houston Rockets on Tuesday, March 24th. This is the first game of a back-to-back set for the Jazz, but the game is on TNT -- and the Jazz are 3-0 this season on TNT. The last three games of the regular season against the Southwest are road games (you probably know that the Jazz win about 40% of their road games). The first is @ New Orleans (Sunday, April 5th), and is the 3rd game in 4 nights, 4th game in 6 nights and 5th game in 7 nights. On one hand, the Hornets have won at least one game against the Jazz over the course of the CP/D-Will eras. On the other hand, the Jazz have won at least one game in New Orleans each season over that same span, and have won 6 of the last 7 games. Something has to give. The next game on the schedule is against the Dallas Mavericks in big D (Wednesday, April 8th). Utah leads the season series 2-1, with the home team winning each time. Dallas takes care of their home court (24-8), but isn't so hot against the Northwest Division (7-6) this season. It will be crunch time for teams when this game is played, so I don't expect a blow out either way. The last game is against the San Antonio Spurs (Friday, April 11th) down in Texas the night before the Jazz fly back to Utah for a game the next night against the fast paced Warriors. If the Jazz win this game it could be counted as a miracle, and movies will be made about it -- as the Jazz haven't won down there since the last millennium. The Jazz should pick up 2 wins here.
Utah Jazz vs. The Northwest Division: 4 games left, 9-3 record
Utah plays 4 games against division opponents. So far this season the Jazz have the best division record in the Northwest division (9-3), and the division games left are @ Oklahoma City (Friday, March 20); @ Portland (Tuesday, March 31st); @ Denver (Thursday, April 2nd) and the following night at home against Minnesota (Friday, April 3rd). The Oklahoma City game should be a win, especially if the Jazz are still looking for revenge over the beating the Thunder put down on the Jazz earlier this season. Utah leads the season series against the Thunder 2-1. The games against Denver and Portland are going to be much more difficult. Denver is 23-7 at home and Portland is 26-5 at home. The home team has won each game played between the top three Northwest teams this season, and so far the Jazz lead the series' 2-1 against Denver and Portland -- though they could be all tied up after these games are played. The game against Portland will be the 2nd game in a back to back set for the Jazz, and the 3rd game in 4 nights for Utah. The game against Denver will be the 1st game in a back to back set, not as bad, but still the 3rd game in 4 nights for the Jazz and the 4th game in 6 nights to boot. Utah can win both games, but they may be just as likely to lose both. The final game against a division opponent is at home (where the Jazz win 82% of their games) against the hard to kill Minnesota Timberwolves. The Jazz should win this one, but this game is the 2nd game of a back-to-back set, the 3rd game in four nights, the 4th game in five, and the 5th game in seven nights. That is a lot of cumulative fatigue, if you ask me. In effect, there is only one gimmie game out of these four, even if only two of them are against playoff teams. Utah will win 3 of these games -- but it's hard to predict just which three...
Total Record over last 19 games:
If you add up all the numbers in blue you get 10 wins and 9 losses. This gives the Jazz a final record of exactly 50 games, 1 win less than the ESPN.com projection, and 2 wins less than what they "should" get when looking at their season winning percentage (of today) extrapolated over 19 games. There's some give or take in this, without doing any more math, I can see an error range of 2 games on either side form -- so the Jazz should finish the season with anywhere from 48 to 52 wins this season. That's probably not going to get it done when it comes to getting home court in the first round, or winning the division. Last season that would have put the Jazz in the 7th or 8th seed. John Hollinger seems to feel similarly. The Jazz are 1-10 in road games against teams above .500 this season, and the Jazz play 10 more games against such opponents. While I'm penciling them down for 3 wins, and even that may be too generous as the stats say that the Jazz should lose all of them.
50-32 is a pretty okay record for the Jazz . . . if it's 2006-2007 again. It's not. I think the Jazz can win 50 games, but that may not be a good enough position to actually do something in the playoffs. Utah will need to turn it up if they want to win the division and get a 3rd or 4th seed in the West. They can, but it's not going to be easy.