Back in September, oddsmakers put the Utah Jazz’s win total line for the 2016-2017 season at 47.5.
The number marked a significant leap for a team that went 40-42 last season, but it was reflective of the confidence many had in the squad that was injury-riddled in 2015-2016 and added veterans George Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw.
Fast forward nearly four months as the Jazz get ready to reach the halfway point of their season, and they have 24 victories (against 16 losses) despite experiencing many of the same injury woes that plagued them last season.
How have head coach Quin Snyder and his players done it? Here’s a look at some of the key storylines, both positive and negative, that have brought Utah to this point. We’ll start with the positive ones first.
At the end of last season, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey made it clear he’d be bringing in “reinforcements” to bolster a young but talented core that saw Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert miss a combined 174 games during the campaign.
Lindsey made a splash by trading the 12th pick in the draft to the Indiana Pacers for George Hill, then he signed seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson in free agency, and he finished things off by trading former second-round pick Olivier Hanlan to the San Antonio Spurs for Boris Diaw.
Once the acquisitions were made, many touted the versatility the trio would bring to Utah. As fate would have it, Snyder hasn’t been able to test many different lineup combinations thanks to injuries, but those three have been upgrades over options the head coach had a year ago when the maladies arose.
In particular, Hill has been marvelous despite multiple injuries of his own. He’s played in just 16 games so far but is averaging 18.2 points and 4.4 assists per contest. Besides the numbers, he has brought a higher level of play to the point guard position than the Jazz have had in a long, long while.
Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert
While the three offseason additions have been a big boon for Utah, two of its homegrown players have taken significant leaps forward.
Gordon Hayward has gone from one of the better players in the NBA at his position to a possible All-Star, while Rudy Gobert has become incredibly effective on the offensive end to go along with the elite defensive prowess he’s displayed over the last few seasons.
Hayward has upped his scoring average from 19.7 points per game last season to 22.2 this year and he's also grabbing 5.9 rebounds and dishing 3.5 assists per night. He wants the ball in important moments and has been successful in those situations.
Gobert came into the season as a known commodity on the defensive end and currently leads the NBA in blocks per game with a 2.53 average, but his progress on offense has been excellent.
He’s much more sure-handed in the post, which has gone a long way in helping him average 12.3 points per game on 65.6 percent shooting. That mark is second in the league, and his 12.3 rebounds per game is fifth.
Early in his first year as the Jazz’s head coach Snyder realized he had a team that could be special on the defensive end, and Utah continues to be one of the better teams in the league there.
The Jazz are surrendering a league-best 94.9 points per game, and their 3.5 point differential average (they’re averaging 98.4 points per contest, which is just 28th in the NBA) is seventh in the league.
Although Utah sits in a tie for fifth place in the Western Conference, there is a sense of “what might have been” among fans through the opening 40 games of the year.
In addition to the 24 contests Hill has been out, Favors has missed 15, Exum 11 (some of which have been coach’s decision) and Diaw nine. That’s not to mention Burks, who saw the floor for the first time last week but has played just 13 total minutes. Entering Friday, the Jazz are 2.5 games out of fourth place and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Occasional offensive struggles
Utah’s offense is better than it has been in recent seasons, but it still has run into significant ruts during the first part of the campaign. Partly because the Jazz like to make sure their defense can get set, they play at a slow pace offensively (they're last in the league in pace), which means the opposing defense also has a better chance of getting set.
This has led to Utah occasionally getting bogged down in its preferred half-court offense. It's essentially a tradeoff the Jazz have chosen to have given their defensive strength, but it does put some pressure on the defense to perform.
With the second half of the season on its way, the Jazz are in good position to not only make the playoffs for the first time since 2012, but they can also make a run at home-court advantage.
Entering Friday’s games, Utah is tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the fifth seed in the Western Conference but is only a half game out of the seventh seed (Memphis Grizzlies). On the other hand, the Jazz are just 2.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers and homecourt advantage.
Seeing as Utah is now as healthy as it’s been all season, it stands to reason the team could make a real push at that fourth seed. The third-seeded Houston Rockets are 6.5 games up on the Jazz, which will likely be too much ground to make up. The eighth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers are 6.5 games back of Utah, meaning the Jazz should make the playoffs barring a disaster.
After Utah officially crosses the halfway point of the season tonight against Detroit, 21 of its remaining 41 games will come against teams that are .500 or better entering Friday. Of those, 11 will be against Western Conference opponents. Seven of those will be on the road, and four will be at home. The Jazz have three games left against the Clippers and Thunder and one against the Grizzlies. Of those seven, four will be at home and three will be on the road.