The fall of the Utah Jazz is complete: on Sunday, the L.A. Lakers beat the Chicago Bulls to take sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, dropping Salt Lake's team out of the bracket. If you've been looking primarily at win-loss record this season, this might be a surprise. The Jazz were 30-24 at the All-Star break, well ahead of the chasing Lakers, Blazers and Mavericks. When we handicapped the West playoff race, we looked only at win-loss record and projected that Utah would (barely) hold its playoff position.
We should have looked at efficiency differential (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency), because we would have seen that all season long, Utah has been totally average. And as we've noted before, if you ignore wins and losses, the Lakers have actually been above average this season. Not spectacular, but better than average. And better than the Jazz.
Here's a look at the Jazz's efficiency differential over the course of the season. Good teams have a separation in which the blue line runs higher than the orange line. You don't see that here.
Utah has the league's No. 9 offense, but the defense (No. 21 in the NBA) has been rough since December. This is an interesting subtext to Utah's almost stunning inactivity at the trade deadline. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, neither a great defender (though Millsap is considered to be better than Jefferson) are free agents in July. Behind them on the bench are Derrick Favors (a plus defender) and Enes Kanter (considered to be a better defender than the two starters). Jeremy Evans is back there on the deep bench, too. Simply by trading Jefferson, the Jazz would likely have gotten better defensively by freeing up more minutes for a better defender. We're not sure what the market for Big Al was, but if you could spin him off and pick up a usable point guard, the Jazz would at least have had an opportunity for growth.
Instead, Utah's seeing the same thing: a totally average team that can't stop anyone. And chances are Jefferson won't be around after this season anyway.
That Utah didn't move Jefferson (a dinescorer, though inefficient, and a fantastic rebounder) might say something about the offers that floated Utah's way. Maybe the market was so bad that sticking it out was the best path. But it's a pretty rough turn of events based on where Utah was a year ago. The Jazz stunned everyone by competing for a playoff spot in 2011-12, and then nearly nabbed the Warriors' lottery pick. Golden State tanked the end of the season, though, and kept their own pick, used on Harrison Barnes. And now that the pick goes to the Jazz in 2013, Golden State is projected to make the playoffs. So the only lottery pick the Jazz might have is their own.
The Jazz are in desperate need of guard help and wing defense, and it'll be interesting to see whether the team even makes a cursory effort to keep Jefferson. At season's end, Favors is eligible for an early extension that would kick in for the 2014-15 season. Utah may be able to swing a masterstroke by locking up Favors to a sizable but manageable extension, freeing Jefferson and featuring the Georgia Tech product next season. Hope springs eternal, and while Jazz fans never need to be convinced to root hard for their team, beginning anew with Favors and Kanter could be a nice spark.
In the draft, the Jazz won't pick high enough to land Marcus Smart, but point guards Michael Carter-Williams or Trey Burke could land in their range. If they remain behind the Lakers, they are looking at the No. 14 pick and something from No. 17-20 from the Warriors. Pulling off a sign-and-trade involving Jefferson could be difficult given team's new hesitancy to add big salary, and Utah's not typically in the mix for major free agents (of which there are few, anyways). So continuing to build slowly through the draft might be the best bet.
Until then, you can be sure that the team will try to climb back over the Lakers and earn a couple of home playoff games. But based on how the season has gone and what it will take to win the No. 8 seed, it doesn't look very likely.