January marks a new calendar year, the midway point of an NBA season, and usually is the point when playoff bound teams really separate themselves from the pack, able to see the postseason in clearer view than back in October when the season began.
It’s an exciting time in the basketball world, but this January is going to test the Utah Jazz in ways that they may not have been tested in recent years, and what happens over the next few weeks could determine a lot about the Jazz’s future.
The Jazz started off the month of January with a New Year’s Day matchup against the Golden State Warriors, followed by a grueling five-game road trip in which the team was finally exposed to COVID-19 after having lasted longer than any other team in the league in keeping players out of the league’s health and safety protocols.
The Jazz lost to the Warriors, then went 2-3 on that road trip, earning their first three-game losing streak of the season. But the team knows that things aren’t going to get any easier.
The Jazz came out of that early January road trip clinging to the third seed in the Western Conference by the skin of their teeth. And, to that point the Jazz had put together a respectable 28-13 record.
But that record includes a lot of wins over lesser opponents. Against the top teams in the league the Jazz only have one win to their name, and it was an early-season win against the Milwaukee Bucks, who were playing without two of their starters — Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.
The one thing that has seemed consistent with the Jazz this season has been their inconsistency on the defensive end and the frustration that has bred with the players. So when the Jazz look ahead at the schedule that awaits them, they know they have their work cut out for them.
“We’ve got to do it,” Donovan Mitchell said in reference to the team finding itself on the defensive end. “This month is not easy for us, the schedule is not going to be easy for us. So it’s like, yeah, we’ve got to go out there and do it every night because teams are coming at us.”
And it’s the powerhouses that will be coming this month.
By Feb. 4, the last Jazz game before the NBA’s Feb. 6 trade deadline, the Jazz will have to face the West-leading Warriors (Jan. 23) and Phoenix Suns (Jan. 24 and 26) and the Eastern Conference juggernaut Brooklyn Nets (Feb. 4).
But the competition doesn’t stop with just top-three teams. The Jazz will also be facing the Los Angeles Lakers (Jan. 17), the Denver Nuggets (Jan. 16 and Feb. 2), the Memphis Grizzlies (Jan. 28) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (Jan. 30) — all Western Conference teams that look to be playoff bound.
It’s a brutal schedule, and it comes just as the team is experiencing a string of positive COVID-19 cases on the roster and across the coaching staff. January, no matter on the court or off, is not going to be forgiving.
That said, no matter how forgiving or not, this month is hugely important to see how the Jazz stack up against the top teams in the league and especially against the competition out West.
But it’s not all wins, losses and testing the mettle of the team. There could be massive implications from the result of each of the games that lay ahead for the Jazz.
The Jazz could very well decide that they don’t want to burn out by trying to get the No. 1 overall seed as they did last season. But the two teams ahead of them in the standings are playing at elite levels that don’t seem to have been matched by anyone else in the NBA through the 2021-22 season. If the Jazz could manage to rack up enough wins to earn the top seed, they could avoid having play the Warriors or the Suns until the Western Conference Finals.
Earn the No. 2 or 3 seed, and the Jazz could end up having to face one or even both in order to move on in the postseason.
Additionally, since the Jazz are playing so many Western Conference contenders this month, those games could end up being really important in tie-breaker situations that could end up determining seeding.
“Obviously those games mean a little more, because of the rankings,” Rudy Gobert said. “If we win those games, we’ve got a chance to be the first seed in the West, which is pretty good in the playoff picture. But at the same time, if we lose those games, we always learn. Whether we win or lose, we learn — and we know very well that being the first seed doesn’t mean that you’re going to win championship.”
The trade deadline
In order to be at the level the Jazz want to be, which is contending for an NBA title, they’ll have to be nearly matchup proof, which is what they were hoping they would achieve through the most recent offseason moves.
But the Jazz’s small-ball lineups haven’t panned out quite as they’d hoped and perimeter defense remains the Jazz’s most glaring imperfection. The Jazz already look poised to make a move, with two open roster spots, but how they perform in the weeks to come could push Jazz brass to move in a more serious way.
Last month, when the Jazz hired Danny Ainge as CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball, he and general manager Justin Zanik promised that they would be unafraid of changing things if they felt they could improve the team.
“What I can guarantee you is that this organization will — and already does but will continue to — know everything that is an opportunity for us to get better,” Zanik said. “A lot of that can be very, very gray. Some of the simple (moves) that are black and white usually mean either they’re not available, or they’re not worth doing. It’s the gray ones where, as Danny said, you have to give up something to get something good.”
Zanik explained that the Jazz view improvement this season through three lenses; they can get better internally, with the team organically raising their level under the current roster construction or by development of other players; they can make small moves that improve the team on the margins of the roster; or they can make a seismic move that changes the main rotation.
The Jazz front office likely already has an idea of the kind of move they would like to make, what they would be willing to part with, and what they want in return. Those conversations have been ongoing all season.
But what happens through the brutal upcoming schedule, and how the Jazz are able to perform, adapt, and survive will likely have some weight once it’s decision-making time for the powers that be.
This could end up being the most difficult and most important stretch of the Jazz’s 2021-22 schedule, and it’s here.