In horse racing, the race is measured by poles, four of which are placed around the track. The race announcer’s list off who is leading at each pole.
Race enthusiasts note horses all have different ways they attack each pole, some preferring an early lead while others are more comfortable in the pack, and some even waiting until the final stretch to make their push for the finish line.
The Utah Jazz are at the first quarter pole of the NBA season, and are in the middle of a crowded pack of teams all jostling for position. After 22 games before Wednesday’s matchup against the San Antonio Spurs, the Jazz sit at 12-10, a respectful record considering the number of road games (13) the Jazz opened the season with. In the Western Conference, that record is good for sixth, an even six games behind the lead horse, the San Antonio Spurs.
Just like any horse race, it is nearly impossible to predict with certainty where teams will finish. Different conditions such as injuries and number of home and road games favor and hinder different teams much like weather conditions in a race.
Nearly all projectors knew the Spurs and Oklahoma City would be leaders at this point of the season, but most had no clue Memphis Grizzlies would push their way to the top. The Lakers, expected to contend for the Western Conference title, now sit near the back of the field as injuries to Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are affecting their cohesion.
With how strong the lead horses are in this race, it will be difficult for the Jazz to catch up. But if the Jazz keep doing what brought them to the middle of the field early, the gap between the leaders and the Jazz will shrink a significant amount heading to the playoffs.
At the quarter post last season, the Jazz sat at 10-6 in the lockout-shortened season, a better winning percentage than this season. It may seem as though the Jazz took a step backward, but a closer look at the schedule reveals the Jazz only had five road games at the start of last year.
They finished the rest of the season slightly above .500, barely capturing the final playoff spot.
Several changes between last year’s team and this year’s give hope the Jazz will finish better than last year. Not only do the Jazz have a higher ratio of home games, but they have improved in several metrics.
The most documented change has been the vast improvement in shooting this season. The past few seasons the Jazz seemed allergic to the 3-point shot, placing last or near the bottom in almost every category. Now the team is in the middle of the field in attempts and makes, and eighth overall in percentage made.
The team is scoring more than last year as well, averaging almost three more points per game. Nevertheless, it has kept the average scores of competing teams relatively unchanged. The road struggles are still there, but after winning in Los Angeles against the Lakers, a team that at one point owned a 17-game home win streak against the Jazz, Utah showed the team is gelling enough to at least stay competitive on the road.
So where does all this put the Jazz? Barring any unforeseen setbacks, the Jazz appear to be contenders in the West. But to think the race is already won at the quarter pole would be a fatal mistake.
Teams like Minnesota and Golden State are already playing at a better pace than last year and both are expecting the return of key players: Andrew Bogut for Golden State and Ricky Rubio for Minnesota.
The Lakers will not sit at the back of the pack all year and Houston, with the additions of James Harden and Jeremy Lin, is showing signs of jumping into the race as well.
The Jazz need to keep their foot on the gas, and push their way to the playoffs. Next week begins the annual pre-Christmas road trip, which will include visits to Brooklyn and Miami. In fact, five of the next six games are on the road, with the one home game Saturday night against Memphis.
The Jazz will need to keep their head above water during this road swing.
Should the team maintain a .500 winning percentage after the road trip, the games will start evening out, giving the Jazz a chance for a final push down the backstretch. As long as you are within grasp of the lead horse, anything can happen.