Prior to the start of the season, oddsmakers and NBA observers alike expected the Utah Jazz to all-caps SUCK after they traded their two top players, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, for a truckload of draft picks and serviceable role players. It seemingly signaled their intent to enter the Victor Wembanyama tank-off.
Also expected to stink: the San Antonio Spurs, whose preseason win total projection, like that of the Jazz, was around 23 at most mobile sportsbooks. But while the 82-game season is still very young, the 9-3 Jazz and, to a lesser extent, the 5-6 Spurs have proven surprisingly competitive, beating expected playoff contenders like Philadelphia, Minnesota, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, Memphis, and both teams from Los Angeles.
“The Spurs, I really expected to be bad and go full tank, so I’d say they’re a little bit more surprising” than the Jazz, David Lieberman, Caesars Sportsbook’s lead NBA analyst, told US Bets last Wednesday, prior to San Antonio going on a four-game losing streak. “I’m not sure their current form is as sustainable, but they do have some good young players who are playing well. I think they’ll come down to earth a little more than I expect the Jazz to.
“Right now, the Jazz are playing really good basketball. They’re certainly not tanking. So far this season, they’ve played a tough schedule and are still winning games. They could probably compete for a play-in spot. Most people expected those teams to tank, but the Jazz are a team that’s typically well-coached, so I’m not too surprised that they’re not full tanking.”
Indeed, the Jazz, who boast the best record in the Western Conference, were well-coached under Quin Snyder and they remain so under the tutelage of rookie helmsman Will Hardy, an assistant with the Boston Celtics last season and the Spurs before then. Hardy is currently the +550 co-favorite (with Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff) at Caesars to win Coach of the Year. His former boss, Gregg Popovich, is at 30/1 to claim that award for a fourth time.
While Caesars had pushed the Spurs’ win total upward to 26.5 as of Monday (the market was temporarily suspended for updating on Tuesday morning), the Jazz, with an o/u of 36.5 (a number that will almost certainly be revised upward by day’s end), have been the market’s biggest mover. That’s up four wins from just last Wednesday, while their odds to win the Northwest Division have been more than halved (from 25/1 to +950) since then.
The secret of Utah’s success
If one were to describe the key to Utah’s surprising early success in a single word, that word would be “depth.”
The Gobert and Mitchell trades fetched a bunch of draft assets, to be sure, but the Jazz front office did a lot more than just cobble together random cap filler in acquiring the likes of Lauri Markkanen, Collin Sexton, Kelly Olynyk, Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt, Talen Horton-Tucker, and rookie center Walker Kessler. Combine those newcomers with holdovers Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, and Rudy Gay, and you’ve got 10 guys who can compete at a fairly high level and complement each others’ skill sets rather nicely.
“In a regular season format, depth and great coaching can win you a lot of games,” read a recent piece in The Athletic. “The Jazz are currently rolling out lineups for 48 minutes that don’t have a lot of drop off. Because of the coaching, they are spacing teams to death. They have so many good shooters that it’s difficult to account for them all. They have so many guys who can handle the ball and get into the lane off the dribble, that it’s difficult for opponents to match up with them.”
Markkanen, for one, has been a revelation, finally living up to the promise he flashed in his first two years in Chicago. In just three more minutes per game than he played in his lone season with Cleveland last year, the 6-foot-11 forward’s scoring average is up seven points (from 14.8 to 21.9 ppg), while his 8.8 rebounds per game are well ahead of last year’s clip (5.7 rpg).
Hence, the 25-year-old Markkanen finds himself a serious contender for Most Improved Player. Currently, he has the second-shortest odds (6/1 at Caesars) behind Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey (+325) to claim the honor, trailed a few rungs down by San Antonio youngsters Devin Vassell (20/1) and Keldon Johnson (25/1).
Jazz poised for play-in berth?
All in all, sportsbooks believe in the Jazz a lot more than they did just a week ago. At -130, the Jazz are favored to make it to the play-in round, trailed by Minnesota (-125), Portland (-120), and the 2-8 Los Angeles Lakers (+150), whom the Jazz destroyed twice in the past few days by a combined margin of 37 points.
The very existence of the play-in market — where oddsmakers must thread the needle in forecasting which teams are probably good enough to finish 10th or better, but not good enough to be among a conference’s top six squads — creates a pretty unique headache for sportsbooks.
“That play-in market is interesting because there are just five or six teams that don’t have enough ceiling to get above that play-in mark, but have a high enough floor to get there,” explained Lieberman. “There should be a pretty wide gap between the top 11 or so in the West and the bottom three or four teams, coming into the season, that just had zero chance to make the play-in. That’s changed a little bit with the way the Jazz are playing.
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