It’s a schedule so tough even opposing coaches are talking about it, without any prompting.
“With Utah, I just think everybody’s overlooking something that nobody wants to hear about: Their schedule has been outrageous," Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said last week. “They’ve basically lived in a hotel for the first six weeks of the season. Come talk to me in two months and we’ll see what their record is. I think they’ll be climbing up that Western Conference pretty quickly.”
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said the same.
“The Jazz have had a hellacious schedule. Let me repeat that, a hellacious schedule,” he said. "When I watch them on film, they look like the same team as last year.”
It’s true, the Jazz have had a very difficult start to the season. Not only have the Jazz played the hardest schedule in the league in terms of the strength of their opponents according to ESPN, they’ve also played more road games (19) than any other team.
The good news about that is this: Not only do the Jazz have the most home games left of any team, but their schedule is the only one in the Western Conference that faces opponents with an average of a below .500 schedule remaining.
That easier stretch of games doesn’t begin soon, though. In fact, the Jazz’s upcoming stretch of games might be their hardest yet from a strength-of-opponent point of view. The Jazz play the Rockets in Houston Monday, then fly back home to play the champions Golden State on Wednesday. A Friday/Saturday back-to-back against Portland and Oklahoma City follows, then the Christmas Day game against Portland before a matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 27.
Only when Utah plays the Knicks on Dec. 29 do the Jazz get any kind of difficulty break, though as Jazz fans who watched the Jazz lose to the Magic on Saturday can tell you, an easier opponent does not necessarily translate into victories.
Here’s the real question to consider with all of this: How much of the Jazz’s poor start to this season has been due to their schedule, and how much has been due to poor play?
Statistics can help us figure that out. In short, we can adjust the Jazz’s current 14-16 record and ask, if they had an average NBA schedule to this point in the year, what would we expect?
Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System (SRS) does just that. The Jazz have outscored opponents this season by an average of a measly 0.13 points per game. But, their schedule difficulties have put them at a 1.50 point disadvantage compared to average. Add those totals up, and the system says the Jazz are 1.63 points above average, and the Jazz rank 11th in the NBA, seventh in the Western Conference. Teams with similar SRS' have won between 46 and 49 games in recent years.
That seems to be a pretty common kind of result among projection systems that take into account strength of schedule. ESPN’s RPI system, developed by John Hollinger, also has the Jazz ranked 11th in the NBA. FiveThirtyEight’s game-by-game calculations put the Jazz in ninth. TeamRankings.com’s system has the Jazz ranked eighth, USAToday’s rankings developed by Jeff Sagarin have Utah in 10th. Kenneth Massey’s calculations put the Jazz in 13th.
So how poorly have the Jazz played? Taking into account their difficult schedule, they’ve been somewhere between the eighth and 13th best team in the NBA.
It is absolutely fair for Jazz fans to be disappointed with the team’s play so far: After all, they were projected to be a top-10 team in the league, and many even projected the Jazz to be a top-five team, including winning the second seed in the Western Conference. The Jazz have played below that lofty standard, to be sure, including some baffling losses.
But even if they continue to play like this over the aggregate, the smart money says they’ll be able to move up the standings in the second half of the season. The current compressed West helps, too: The Jazz stand just 2.5 games out of a playoff spot, and four games out of having a top-four seed.
As Spoelstra said, let’s talk in two months.