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Utah Jazz mailbag: What seeding order in the West would be best for a Jazz playoff run?

Jazz beat writer Sarah Todd fields fans’ questions as the Jazz brace for the home stretch

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Jazz coach Quin Snyder talks to his team in the final moments of a game against Memphis in March 2021.

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder talks to the team in the final second of the game against the Memphis Grizzlies at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021. A Jazz-Grizzlies first-round playoff matchup could be in the cards this season.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Soon we are all going to be looking at the calendar and realizing that there is just a month left in the regular season, which wraps up for the Jazz on Sunday, May 16.

Before we make it to the home stretch, it seems like the right time to check in with the fans and see what’s on everyone’s mind. It’s time for a Utah Jazz mailbag.

Obviously there are a lot of things that could happen between now and the end of the season and the Jazz are not guaranteed the top seed in the West. But, here is what I think would be the most advantageous Western Conference seeding situation for the Jazz as well as being something that is plausible and entertaining at the same time.

1. Utah Jazz
2. Phoenix Suns
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Denver Nuggets
5. Portland Trail Blazers
6. Los Angeles Lakers
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Memphis Grizzlies

This seeding order would mean that the Jazz would face the Grizzlies in the first round and the Jazz recently beat the Grizzlies three times in a six-day span, so I feel pretty confident they would win a seven-game series against Mike Conley’s former team.

After that the Jazz would face the winner of the 4-5 matchup between the Nuggets and Blazers. The last time those two teams met in the playoffs, in 2019, the series went to seven games and included a Game 3 that went into quadruple overtime.

The Jazz could certainly hope that the Mavericks and Suns end up in the fourth and fifth spots, which would offer potentially an easier matchup in the second round, but that seems less likely to happen and I think it’s a little too hopeful to end up with an easy path all the way to the Western Conference finals. The second round is very likely to be tough, but manageable.

With any luck for the Jazz’s side of things the Blazers and Nuggets would wear each other out in a long series that would be fun for the rest of us to watch. Maybe the Nuggets get the best of the Blazers this time around and we get a rematch of last year’s playoff matchup between the Nuggets and Jazz, which would give the Jazz a chance to prove that losing a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets was a fluke.

On the other side of the bracket the ideal situation is to have the Clippers and Lakers face one another in the opening round, promising that one of the L.A. powerhouses is knocked out. The winner of that series (most likely the Lakers, as long as Anthony Davis and LeBron James are healthy) would then face the winner of the Mavericks and Suns series.

Again, so long as the Lakers are able to field their full squad at mostly full health, they are very likely to end up in the Western Conference finals. It’s hard to imagine any team getting out of the West without having to face the Lakers in the end. There is a chance that the Lakers could limp into the playoffs a bit without a fully healthy squad, and the Jazz could end up in the West finals facing the Clippers, Mavericks or Suns.

I personally think the Clippers would be the toughest opponent for the Jazz so avoiding that matchup at any stage would be ideal. But honestly, a series against the Suns or Mavericks in the Western Conference finals wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as one against the Clippers or Lakers and beating one of those teams to make it to the Finals would be incredibly sweet for Jazz fans.

I guess that your rooting interest has to choose the side of either the easiest path to the Finals, or beating the best to be the best.

There are a few ways to look at answering this, so I’ll just come at it from every angle.

As far as the schedule is concerned, the Jazz play the Lakers twice in Los Angeles on April 17 and 19, the Suns on April 30 and the Nuggets on May 7. Those will be the final regular-season games against potential playoff opponents through the last stretch of the season and they’ll be really important as far as building confidence goes.

That said, the more abstract challenge might be maintaining confidence no matter what happens during those games. The Jazz could be facing a depleted Lakers roster, they could lose to any one of those teams in their final regular-season meetings, or they could win all of the games. No matter what, it’s important for the Jazz to go into the playoffs focused on themselves and the road ahead, not on what happened in April or early May.

Schematically, the Jazz still have some things they could address or change. What will they do if faced with a team that presents a size problem on the perimeter. Does that mean that Joe Ingles gets more minutes and is used as a defensive tool? Is Quin Snyder going to stick with a nine-man rotation? How do substitutions and rotations change if the Jazz need to play Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors together through long stretches? If there are injuries or illnesses, who is the next man up?

Those schematic and rotational issues are of course already being planned for and thought about behind the scenes, but being ready and confident in the plan is always a challenge in the lead-up to the playoffs.

The Jazz are not going to be adding someone to the roster that’s going to take the place of the main rotational players that you’re already familiar with, so the honest answer is that the Jazz just have to execute what they do with greater precision.

Donovan Mitchell, Conley, Ingles, Royce O’Neale and even Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson have to all be incredibly focused on the defensive end and committed to the Jazz’s scheme of staying in front of their man while funneling toward Gobert or Favors.

At that point, I don’t think anyone is concerned about Gobert doing what he needs to do, but Favors has to strive to play with the same fierceness. Then, on the back side of things, when someone gets beat or when Gobert comes over to help, the defensive rotations need to be on point.

Doing what they do better is probably not the answer that anybody wants right now, but there aren’t any other options. The Jazz could certainly move around some of those players and look for some mismatches or more advantageous switches with Ingles on a long player rather than Bogdanovic, but even then, the scheme is the same and they have to execute it in order to win.

Conley making the All-Star team could certainly give his team a tiny bit of leverage at the negotiating table, but not much. Maybe it gets him a friendly option or a bonus clause in his contract.

It’s not likely that Conley makes another All-Star team. If this had happened earlier in his career it might make a difference as far as bonuses or salary are concerned but now it probably doesn’t hold a ton of weight or really matter.

The Jazz have Conley’s Bird rights since he came here in a trade, so they can re-sign him even if it puts them over the salary cap. The real question, and one that we’ll address on another day, is how much is Conley worth next season?

At what point will the national media think the Jazz are contenders? Before or after we win the title? #JazzMailbag —@kathyballardwvc

I’m sorry to say that the Jazz will only be considered a legitimate contender if they are literally contending for a title. So unless they are in the NBA Finals, it’s unlikely the national media, analysts and pundits give them a real look.

And that’s OK. The Jazz are to this point, unproven as far as a deep playoff run or real title contention are concerned. But, this could be the year they enter that conversation.

If you would like to have your question answered, send it to stodd@deseretnews.com with “mailbag” in the subject line, or send it via Twitter @NBASarah with the hashtag #UtahJazzMailbag.