SALT LAKE CITY — Three weeks ago, the Utah Jazz season appeared to be a lost cause.
The team sat nine games below .500 and faced seemingly impossible odds of putting together a good stretch of basketball over the season’s final 35 games, let alone a playoff position.
The playoffs seemed so out of reach, I calculated that the team needed to win at least 23 of their final 35 games just to be in playoff contention. At the time, the Jazz had just lost to the lowly Atlanta Hawks by 14 and it seemed the organization would be better served improving their draft position by losing games, rather than trying to stay playoff relevant.
The Jazz have since won 10 straight games, including wins on the road against San Antonio, New Orleans and Toronto, and beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors in Salt Lake by 30. While the win streak certainly has flukey elements, like the team’s red-hot shooting percentages, having shot nearly 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from the 3-point line heading into Monday night’s game against the Spurs, not everything the Jazz are doing is destined to dissipate.
The team’s excellent play coincides directly with the return of Gobert, who appears to be back to playing at an All-NBA level, as he did last season. Additionally, the Jazz are past the toughest stretch of their schedule, with ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projecting the Jazz to finish the season with a record of 44-38 and the West’s sixth seeding heading into the playoffs.
If ESPN’s projections were to hold true, the Jazz would face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the playoffs. It seemed the Jazz's best hopes had they made the playoffs just weeks ago would have been a four-game sweep at the hands of the Warriors.
The team can now set its sights on a competitive first-round series, at worst, and a trip to the Western Conference semifinals with a favorable first-round matchup. From there, matchups and health will determine the Jazz's fate.
It’s a remarkable turnaround, and may change the Jazz offseason plans going forward. Had the team found itself lottery bound, as many expected they would be going into the year, next season would have seen the Jazz hoping to compete for the playoffs while developing another high upside draft pick.
Now, the Jazz must decide when to be buyers on the NBA’s free agent market, as they are still at a talent deficiency compared to the other top teams in the West. The Jazz, however, already appaeart a year ahead of their developmental schedule as a roster due to the breakout play of rookie of the year hopeful Donovan Mitchell.
Having to decide whether to chase the playoffs or position themselves for a better draft pick, the latest stretch of basketball for the Jazz has given them a definitive direction on how to finish the regular season. But now, the Jazz need to be thinking bigger than simply a playoff push, and should be aiming at a first-round series win.