SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – With just 14 games remaining in the regular season, the Utah Jazz own the best record in the NBA. The team sits 1.5 games ahead of the Phoenix Suns with the reward of homecourt advantage throughout the postseason if they were to finish with the top record.
But what seed would benefit the Jazz the most?
Currently, the Jazz are projected to finish the season with the best record and win the West by a comfortable four games according to FiveThirtyEight. The site projects the Jazz winning 11 of their final 14 games to finish with 54 wins, while the Suns, who own one of the league’s most difficult remaining schedules, are projected to finish with just 50 wins.
The Play-In Tournament
Due to the NBA’s redesigned playoff format, the Jazz won’t know who they will face in the playoffs when the regular season concludes.
Adopted last season, the postseason play-in tournament will now determine the final two seeds in both the Eastern and Western Conferences.
Here’s how it works:
Game One: The seventh seed (currently the Dallas Mavericks) will host the eighth seed (currently the Memphis Grizzlies) in the first game of the play-in tournament. The winner of that game will own the seventh seeth in the postseason, and play whichever team ends up with the second seed.
Game Two: In the second play-in game, the ninth seed (currently the Golden State Warriors) will host the tenth seed (currently the San Antonio Spurs) with the winner getting an opportunity to play the loser of game one.
Game Three: In the third and final play-in game, the loser of game one will host the winner of game two, with the winner earning the eighth seed and the right to face the top overall seed. The loser of game three heads to the NBA draft lottery along with the loser of game one.
As long as the Jazz don’t fall to the third seed in the West (FiveThirtyEight projects the Los Angeles Clippers to finish 49 wins), they’re destined to play one of the four play-in tournament teams.
Based on FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the Mavericks are expected to jump the Portland Trail Blazers for the West’s sixth seed and avoid the play-in tournament. The Blazers would then host the Grizzlies for the seventh seed while the Warriors would host the Spurs for a chance to compete in the final play-in game.
According to the site’s playoff odds, Portland is most likely to win the seventh seed by way of winning game one, and the Warriors are projected to earn their way into the eighth and final playoff seed.
With that in mind, here’s what the first round of the playoffs would look like:
1. Utah Jazz vs. 8. Golden State Warriors
2. Phoenix Suns vs. 7. Portland Trail Blazers
3. Los Angeles Clippers vs. 6. Dallas Mavericks
4. Denver Nuggets vs. 5. Los Angeles Lakers
In the opening round, by finishing with the best record, the Jazz would face the Warriors including the suddenly red-hot Stephen Curry. The superstar guard leads the NBA in points per game at 31.4 and is currently in the midst of the greatest shooting stretch in league history.
Over his last five games, Curry has made 46 three-pointers, including four games where he’s connected on 10 or more. During the stretch, the guard is averaging 44.8 points per game, grabbing 5.2 rebounds, and handing out 5.0 assists. The Warriors are 4-1 in the stretch.
The Warriors will host the Grizzlies in the final game of the regular season, which may determine who plays for a chance to earn the seventh seed in the play-in tournament, and who will have to enter the postseason needing to win two games to earn the eighth seed.
On the other side of the bracket, the second-seeded Suns would host the Trail Blazers who have struggled as of late, winning just three of their last 10 games.
If the Jazz were to survive the hot-shooting Curry, they’d earn the right to host either the Denver Nuggets or the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round. The Lakers have dropped down in the standings without either LeBron James or Anthony Davis who have been out of the rotation with injuries for the last several weeks.
The Nuggets meanwhile are suffering after guard Jamal Murray tore his ACL, sidelining him for the rest of the season. As every Eastern Conference team has learned over the last decade, meeting James in the postseason is an invitation for an early exit.
James’s teams are 32-5 in playoff series since 2011 and haven’t been eliminated earlier than the NBA Finals in any subsequent postseason run.
If the Suns were to advance past Portland, they would host the winner of the Clippers and Mavericks in round two.
Finally, should the Jazz end James run atop the NBA, they’d face the winner of the series between the Suns (assuming they win their first-round series) and either the Clippers or Mavericks with a chance to open the NBA Finals in Salt Lake City for the first time since 1998.
Ultimately, whichever team emerges from the West will have proven their worthiness as their run inevitably ran through some combination of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, LeBron Janes, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and Rudy Gobert.
While it’s far too early to try to manipulate the playoff standings, the Jazz ability to advance through the West may come down to the final conference seeding, and the best record in the NBA might not guarantee the easiest path.