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Were the 1995 playoffs the Utah Jazz’s best path to winning a championship?

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Utah Jazz center James Donaldson, left, and Houston Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon jump center to open the third game of their first-round NBA playoff series, Wednesday, May 3, 1995, in Houston, Texas.

Tim Johnson, Associated Press

The Ringer’s Zach Kram recently published an article introducing a new metric — expected titles. He describes the math behind it here:

To get our results, we’ll weigh a variety of factors: the aforementioned team quality, opponent quality, and homecourt advantage, plus others like series length and byes. Using teams’ Pythagorean records — which are based on their point differentials, rather than straight wins and losses, and are thus a better predictor of future success — and the Log5 method pioneered by Bill James, we determined the chance that every team would win every playoff series against its opponents (or the potential opponents it would have played, for a team that lost before the Finals). From there, it was a simple next step to figure out every team’s odds of navigating its playoff path to raise the trophy.

Those final odds become the team’s expected titles count for that season, and each player on the roster receives the same count. In the above example, all the players on the 1989-80 Bulls (2% odds to win championship) earn 0.02 expected titles, and all the players on the 1990-91 Bulls (53% odds to win championship) earn 0.53 expected titles.

The expected title count for the 1990s-era Jazz, which the Ringer defines as beginning in the 1988 playoffs and ending in 2001, was 1.0 expected championships over that span, writes Kram:

Yes, Stockton and Malone should have won a title at some point. It wasn’t just losing to the Bulls, either; Utah’s expected Finals (appearance) count during this stretch was 2.5, versus two actual trips to the Finals, so they were on the low end of expected performance in the West, too. Houston’s upset wins in 1994 and 1995 — the latter when Utah had the league’s best Pythagorean record — really messed up the plans of a whole lot of teams.

The Ringer’s algorithm actually rated Utah’s best championship chance entering the playoffs as the 1994-95 season, with 25% title odds. Michael Jordan was still retired for much of that season, though he would return for the 1995 playoffs and the Bulls would lose to the Magic in the second round. Utah had just posted its best record in franchise history at the time with 60 wins. The Jazz were in top form with the second-best record in the league — behind the 62-win Spurs — and were the No. 3 seed in the West, despite having a better record than the 59-win Suns, due to the Suns winning their division.

Utah had won three straight games over the Rockets in the regular season, including two games in the week before the playoffs. Utah’s road to the Finals would be tough, but it wouldn’t have to face the No. 1 team in the conference until the Western Conference Finals. The Jazz’s path to the Finals would start with defending champion and No. 6 seed Houston, then would face No. 2 seed Phoenix in the second round and take on No. 1 seed San Antonio in the conference finals. The Jazz had won the regular-season series against the Rockets 3-2, split the regular-season series with the Suns 2-2 and had been edged out 3-2 in the regular-season series by the Spurs. The Jazz should have been competitive in all those matchups, and waiting on the other side from the Eastern Conference would be someone other than the unbeatable Jordan for once.

Karl Malone and John Stockton were near top form, with Malone scoring 26.7 points per game and grabbing 10.6 rebounds a game while Stockton averaged 14.7 points per game and 12.3 assists per game. Other key contributors included Jeff Hornacek (16.5 points per game), David Benoit (10.4 points per game) and Felton Spencer (9.3 points per game).

The series got off to a promising start for Utah as Stockton made a game-winning layup with just seconds left to lift the Jazz to a 102-100 Game 1 victory before the Rockets rallied in Game 2 with a resounding 140-126 win at the Delta Center. Utah quickly regained the series lead with a 95-82 win on the road, but failed to close out the series when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon combined for 81 points for a 123-106 win to send the series back to Salt Lake City in a winner-take-all Game 5.

The Jazz led 71-64 going into the fourth quarter and were up by seven points with 5:40 remaining. Houston was running on fumes after a season of turmoil and Olajuwon’s middle finger was swollen.

Then it all started to unravel for Utah.

The Rockets outscored the Jazz 20-9 from 5:40 onward with Olajuwon scoring 10 points in the last five minutes to total 33. Drexler added 31 and the Jazz were sent packing.

Houston would go on to claim its second straight title, beating Utah, Phoenix, San Antonio and sweeping Orlando in the Finals. They were the lowest seed ever to win an NBA championship, a record that still stands.