NBA Betting: Analyzing the Utah Jazz
One of the biggest questions facing a sports bettor is when to start fading a team that has been playing at a very high level. As the wins pile up, the lines start to adjust, and eventually, there will be a correction. Determining when that time will come can lead to serious value for a bettor who manages to get ahead of the curve. However, this remains one of the most difficult moves in handicapping. The Utah Jazz are perhaps the hottest team in all of basketball. Let’s take a look at Utah’s season so far, and consider whether the time has come to make this move.
In what has become an annual tradition, the Utah Jazz got off to a slow start, only to reel off a ridiculous number of wins in a short space of time. In 2017-2018, Utah was 28-28 SU through 56 games, before winning 20 of its last 26. A year later, the trend continued, as the team went 20-21 through the first half of the season. Utah turned it on again, going 30-11 in the second half. This year, the Jazz have righted the ship much earlier. After struggling to adjust to life with off-season acquisition Mike Conley, the Jazz found their groove when he went down with an injury. Conley missed a month of action, and in that time, Utah went 12-2. The team’s only defeats were a three-point loss at Miami, one of the best home teams in the NBA, and an overtime loss at New Orleans, a game which they led by three with less than 30 seconds to play. Once Conley returned, he assumed a bench role, and the Jazz continued to roll. In his first five games back, the team has won four, three of which they prevailed by at least 22 points.
The improvement is borne out in the underlying numbers. In each month of the season, the offense has made substantial improvements. Utah’s offensive rating was a brutal 101.8 in the month of October, and in January the Jazz have a ridiculous offensive rating of 121.2. The Jazz have gone 11-2 SU and 9-3-1 ATS in the first month of 2020, compiling a net rating of +12.4, easily the best in the league. That the second-best team in net rating, Milwaukee, has gone 10-1 SU, with a net rating of +9.7, shows just how well Utah is performing.
While it is unfortunate for Mike Conley that he has had to take on a seriously reduced role with the team, there’s no denying that the new starting lineup is vastly superior. For starters, without Conley on the floor, young superstar Donovan Mitchell has had the ball in his hands far more. Mitchell has risen to 13th in the NBA in usage rate, at 31.2%. For January, Mitchell is averaging 24.2 PPG to go along with 4.3 APG. The improved floor spacing offered by a lineup featuring Joe Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic has really opened up the offense for Mitchell. After shooting 31.4% from distance in December, Mitchell has been spectacular from three-point range in January. The guard is taking a whopping 7.8 threes per game, and is connecting on 39.4% of them. Bojan Bogdanovic has also thrived in the new setup and is even generating some All-Star buzz. He’s averaging 22.8 PPG for January, a solid climb from the 18.9 PPG he was putting up in December. The defense has also improved, behind Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert.
There’s really nothing that’s not working for Utah right now. The Jazz lead the league in True Shooting Percentage and Rebounding Rate for the month. Utah has also drastically cut down on its turnovers. In December, the Jazz ranked 29th in the league in TPG, at 16.4, and in January that number is all the way down to 12.5, the seventh-best mark in the NBA.
All that said, the Jazz had their worst performance in 2020 on Monday, losing at home to the Houston Rockets. The Jazz were beaten soundly, 126-117 as 14-point favorites. The fact that the defeat came against a Rockets team without duo James Harden and Russell Westbrook has to be cause for concern. The Rockets were on the second night of a back-to-back, and had just come from playing at altitude in Denver. The Jazz, meanwhile, had a rest advantage and were playing their second home game in a row. The Jazz were out rebounded by a tired and depleted Houston team, the first time in five games that Utah failed to dominate the glass. While Houston did get 50 points from Eric Gordon, the Rockets did not win because of some fluky shooting night. Houston shot 46.9% from the field and 37.5% from distance. While there’s every possibility that this is just an outlier, and much of Utah’s recent form would suggest that, the degree of difficulty is going to be raised over the next week. Starting on Wednesday, Utah play three road games in four days, including a back-to-back at San Antonio and Denver. This road trip is a rare time zone change trifecta, and requires a lot of travel in a short space of time. There will be little practice and preparation time during this run, and while San Antonio and Portland are clearly inferior teams to the Jazz, they are both desperate to win, as they both are lurking outside of the playoffs, with the eight-seed still in reach. The Jazz have lost two straight at San Antonio. While the Spurs have lost three straight, those losses have come by a combined nine points. Prior to that, San Antonio had won three straight games, against Miami, Phoenix, and New Orleans. The Spurs should have some urgency here. Denver, meanwhile, are a solid 18-6 SU at home this season, and playing in Denver on the second night of a back-to-back is generally considered to be one of the toughest spots to deal with.
Despite Utah’s defeat on Monday to Houston, the Jazz have been so good for so long, that the lines will likely be a touch inflated, at least for awhile. Utah will probably be favored on the road against both San Antonio and Portland. Since 2017, the Spurs are 16-8 ATS as a home dog, with a solid average cover margin of +4.5. However, Portland are 0-5-1 ATS when getting points at home this season, with an average cover margin of -7.3. Portland also will be facing Utah on the second night of a back-to-back, after having to travel to Los Angeles to face the Lakers, in what will be an incredibly emotional night, given that it is set to be the first Laker game in Staples Center since the tragic passing of Kobe Bryant. However, fading the Jazz against both the Spurs and Nuggets, while not easy, seems like an intriguing idea at the least.