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Joe Ingles shoots over Nikola Jokic
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The Utah Jazz Ideal Playoff Bracket

DENVER, COLORADO - JANUARY 30: Joe Ingles #2 of the Utah Jazz puts up a shot against Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The one thing for certain about the Utah Jazz is that they are headed the playoffs. How good they are, who they will play, and what seed they will land in remains a mystery. The team has stretches where they look nearly unbeatable behind a multipronged three-point shooting attack, and a defense anchored by the word’s best rim protector in Rudy Gobert.

Other nights, there are questions about the team’s focus level and intensity. It has not been uncommon to see the team, when pressed, sink below less talented competition. As a result, despite the best record for the organization through 56 games in more than a decade, the expectation for what this team will look like at season’s end remains hard to define.

To make matters worse, the Western Conference Playoffs lineup is going to be a minefield. Other than perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers who appear destined to finish with the top record in the West, no team has shown enough to prove they will unquestionably escape the opening round of the playoffs unscathed.

Even if the Jazz were to go on a tear to end the season and finish with the second-best record in the West, they could be setting themselves up on a date against Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder who have been a thorn in the side of the Jazz this season.

Though it’s unlikely, they could also find themselves matched up with the imperfect, but dangerous San Antonio Spurs whose guard rotation has been a headache for the team in two meetings this season in two Jazz losses.

Understanding the top seed in the West is likely off the table, as is the eighth seed which the Jazz own and eight-game lead over through 56 games, this may the best playoff scenario for the come seasons end.

The Bracket:

  1. Los Angeles Lakers
  2. Utah Jazz
  3. Denver Nuggets
  4. Los Angeles Clippers
  5. Houston Rockets
  6. Oklahoma City Thunder
  7. Dallas Mavericks
  8. Memphis Grizzlies

Despite sitting in the fifth seed currently, the Jazz are just two games behind the Denver Nuggets with two head to head matchups left this season. Both games against Denver have come down to the wire with All-Star Nikola Jokic hitting clutch shots to sink the Jazz.

However, if the Jazz can overtake the three teams (Rockets, Clippers, Nuggets) ahead of them to climb into the two seed, their ideal first-round matchup would be the Dallas Mavericks. The Jazz have beat Dallas in both matchups this year and have a distinct advantage offensively attacking the pick and roll defense of Mavericks big man Kristaps Porzingis.

First Round: Jazz vs. Mavericks

Dallas is talented but young with very little postseason success outside of head coach Rick Carlisle. Though they’ve got the league’s best offense, they also allow the Jazz to operate their own offensive system, and when they are making shots, the Jazz defense is noticeably improved. The Jazz will have one more match-up against the Mavericks this season on March 26, an opportunity to further establish their dominance over the Luka Doncic led roster.

Of the playoff teams likely to find themselves between the fifth and seventh seed, Dallas is the Jazz safest bet to advance. If the Jazz can’t draw Dallas, the second-best bet would come against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Jazz have split the two-game series, both in Salt Lake City, with two meetings in Oklahoma city remaining over the final 26 games of the season. Paul is an unquestionable problem for the Jazz, but Gobert has traditionally gotten the better of Steven Adams in head to head matchups. Additionally, both matchups against the Thunder came before the addition of Jordan Clarkson to the Jazz lineup, a spark the Jazz would need to counter Thunder guard Dennis Schroder.

This first-round matchup would also pit the Rockets against the Clippers in the first round which would be a dream scenario for the Jazz. Though the Jazz have won the season series against the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard has an impeccable playoff history, including two Finals MVP performances already in his young career. The Rockets have eliminated the Jazz in both of the previous two playoffs meetings, so avoiding a matchup with Houston until a potential Western Conference Finals would be ideal.

The second round of the brack, should the Jazz advance, would have the Jazz facing either the Nuggets or Thunder depending on who advanced past the first round. The teams have split their two games so far this season and would likely get bogged down in a long playoff series in the first round.

Second Round: Jazz vs. Nuggets

Assuming the higher-seeded Nuggets were to advance, the Jazz would have to prefer their odds of beating Denver over either the Clippers or Rockets in the second round. Jokic is one of the most unique players in the NBA and put up terrific numbers in the lone playoff appearance of his career last year. However, the Jazz are well equipped to battle Jokic with Gobert who has had terrific success against Denver in head to head matchups and wouldn’t be negated like he has been in playoff series against the Rockets in the past.

The Jazz have lost both Nuggets games by a combined nine points, with both losses coming in a three-game stretch when the Jazz were playing their worst stretch of basketball in the new year. A series win against Denver is anything but guaranteed, but the Jazz would have to feel confident about their chances.

In the other second-round series, the Jazz could sit back and watch the Lakers face either the Rockets or Clippers, a dream scenario for Jazz fans. Though the Lakers would be favored in both matchups, both series would likely drag out for at least six games. The Lakers size should be an advantage over the Rockets, though Houston got an impressive win in LA after committing to playing their radical small-ball approach.

The Clippers have beat the Lakers in both matchups so far this season, both in the season opener and on Christmas day. Leonard’s defensive ability is an ideal fit against LeBron James in the postseason and the Lakers have no answer for Paul George, assuming he’s healthy come playoff time. But just as Eastern Conference felt the wrath of Leonard in last year’s finals run, James may be the greatest playoff player in league history. In his last nine playoffs appearances, James has led his team to the finals each time, including three finals wins. He’s a juggernaut in a seven-game series and whoever emerged from the battle for Los Angeles do so battered and bloodied, before even reaching the Western Conference Finals.

In this scenario, should the Jazz reach the Conference Finals, the season would have to be considered an incredible success. With a new roster in hand, the Jazz advancing through two rounds of the playoffs for the first time since 2007 would be a major building block for a team build around third-year guard Donovan Mitchell.

The Jazz are ill-equipped to slow James in any matchup, so avoiding the Lakers would be a top priority in a Western Conference Finals series. Despite stealing a game in Houston this season, the Jazz just aren’t built to counter the Rockets five-out style of play. Russell Westbrook’s playoff history is shaky at best, but he seems to have found a groove in Houston that would be tough to manage over a seven-game series. Additionally, as was apparent in the Jazz most recent loss to the Rockets, defending James Harden remains a guessing game at best.

Western Conference Finals: Jazz vs. Clippers

That leaves the Jazz with perhaps their best hope of facing the Clippers in the Conference Finals. The Jazz have won two of three meetings with the Clippers this season, though the first victory came against a roster without either Leonard of George in uniform.

In the Jazz lone loss, they held a four-point lead entering the fourth quarter but gave up 40 points in the final period to lose by double-digits.

The Jazz will face the Clippers one final time in the fourth to the final game of the season, a matchup that will hold enormous seeding implications. The atmosphere in Utah should give fans a taste of what the matchup would be like should the two meet at any point in the postseason.

Though the Lakers remain the favorite to represent the conference in the Finals this season, there is no truly great team to emerge int he West through the first two-thirds of the year. With that in mind, advancing through the playoffs will likely rely as heavily on matchups as it does pure playoff seeding and home-court advantage. While playing the majority of their games in Salt Lake City would still give the Jazz an enormous advantage in the postseason, they would be better served to begin a playoff series on the road against one of the Mavericks, Thunder or Nuggets than they would be facing either the Lakers, Clippers or Rockets at any point in the playoffs, regardless of where the games are played.