There are teams in the NBA that are good and get a lot of the attention - almost all of it, really. And there are teams that are so bad, and so overrun with drama, that they get more than they deserve - like the Lakers and the Knicks. Somewhere between those two extremes operate teams like the Utah Jazz.
The Jazz are a good team. Really good. If the playoffs started today they would host a first-round series, and they are relatively secure in that fourth-place position - they likely won't catch the Rockets, but they it's also unlikely that the Clippers will catch them. They are also a fairly invisible team, garnering far less attention and far fewer headlines than their play deserves.
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They have the identical record to the Boston Celtics as I write this, and just one fewer win than Cleveland (The Cavs have two fewer games played), yet Utah gets a fraction of the national attention that those squads get. It's not surprising, of course - the West is very top heavy, and Salt Lake City isn't exactly at the cultural center of the country.
So, what's going on with this team? What can we expect to them? And what opportunities do they present for bettors? Here are seven quick-hit factors to consider when pondering those questions:
Defense: The key to success for this team is their defensive discipline. They have allowed 96.2 points per game. Only San Antonio (98.5) and Dallas (99.8) have also allowed less than 100 points per game in the entire league. Points against is a fairly meaningless stat by itself, but it doesn't accurately hint at what makes Utah so generally effective - they play at the slowest pace in the NBA and are quite good at dictating the pace in the games they play. Teams find it hard to break out and run and gun against the Jazz. When the opponent can score, though, Utah's slow-paced offense is in trouble - only six opponents have scored 110 or more points on Utah all year, and all six have won the game.
Hayward: Gordon Hayward still looks like he is about 12 - albeit a pretty ripped 12 year old - and he only made his first all-star team this year. Make no mistake, though - Hayward is an exceptional player. Because the Jazz play with so little tempo, he scores at a very elite level of efficiency to post the averages he does. He's remarkably versatile, too - he can do most of everything fairly well offensively. He's defensively sound, too, and is a leader of this team on and off the court. He's a dream player for this organization - or most others for that matter. He's a free agent after this year, and he is going to be very rich. Utah has a big financial edge in re-signing him, and they absolutely need to if they want to keep this momentum going. Have the argument with any of your friends about how good Hayward is - if you are on his side you'll win.
Hill: Point Guard has been an issue for this team - Trey Burke didn't work out, and Dante Exum has been very slow to bloom. George Hill was brought in this offseason to address the issues, and despite not too many games, when he has played he has been excellent. He is posting career best offensive numbers - and that's particularly impressive given the pace considerations. There is a huge dropoff when Hill can't play, though - neither Shelvin Mack nor Exum have been much more than serviceable - so Hill, who is currently out with a slight toe issue - absolutely needs to stay healthy to give this team a fighting chance in the playoffs. Hill and Hayward, along with Rudy Gobert, are the three pillars the whole team is built on.
Depth: This team has solid depth. Quite solid. They have had nine different guys start at least nine games. Compare that, for example, to just six guys for Golden State. That flexibility comes as both a gift and a curse. It means that they have several guys with plenty of experience that they can rely on if they need to, but it also means that injuries and the need for experimentation have led Snyder to try more different things than they would probably like.
Coaching: I've addressed this in the past, so I won't dwell on it. When Quin Snyder was hired to coach this team I thought it was a horrible idea. I was dead wrong. He was clearly talented but volatile in his earlier college coaching days, but he has settled down. He has this team bought into his vision, even though that vision is harder to play and less filled with glory than other approaches. He manages games well and has shown flexibility and creativity with roster management. He's an asset. I sure didn't see that coming.
Playoff fate: Things have been largely positive so far in this look at the team, but it gets far bleaker here. They appear to be on track for a first-round showdown with the Clippers. I like the trajectory that Utah is on far more than the Clippers right now, but Utah has a massive deficit in playoff experience, and that could haunt them. The Clippers play a higher-tempo style, but they are very effective at grinding it when playing Utah - L.A. has won both matchups between the teams this year handily, and both have been painfully lethargic affairs. If Utah can get past the Clippers, which could definitely happen, then they would all but certainly run headlong into the Warriors - or the Spurs if Golden State takes too long to shake this current funk. Either way, the Jazz are just not equipped to win that series. The upside for this team, unfortunately, is not high.
Betting performance: You might think that a team that is quietly strong would be able to glide under the radar and deliver nice value for bettors. In this case, though, you would be wrong. Despite their 41-24 record they are a dismal and unprofitable 29-34-2 ATS. Their slow tempo makes it tough for them to be useful on totals, too - they have gone "over" 33 times and "under" 32.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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