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Fear the Jazz

1/28/2008

Have you seen John Hollinger's Playoff Odds lately?

That thing is pretty new, so I don't feel like I have a relationship with it yet. But it sure is interesting. I find myself staring at it frequently, wondering what it might see that the regular standings don't.

And if you check it out today, you'll notice something odd: the Utah Jazz are listed as about as likely to make the playoffs as any team in the whole league. At 94.4% certain to make the playoffs, they are fifth most likely to make the playoffs in the West, mere percentage points behind the best teams in the land, and way ahead of the likes of San Antonio, Portland, and Houston.

But if you look at the real deal actual current standings, if the playoffs started today, the Jazz wouldn't be in at all.

So, Hollinger's machine is saying that the team is 94.4% likely to not be where they are now.

What's driving that?

I emailed, and he explained. The first reason is that the team has been playing well lately, and recent games count a lot in his machine's analysis. But that's hardly all, as Hollinger explains:

  • Massive victory margin = much better predictor of future success than Won/Lost record

  • Difficult early schedule = better than record looks

  • Difficult early schedule = easy finishing schedule.

That first point, by the way, has been proven again and again, counterintuitive though it may seem. And the other two are impossible to argue with.

Two things that are not factored in are roster changes, which would seem to help the Jazz even more. Kyle Korver has been a productive addition to the Jazz, while standings rival Los Angeles has been hit hard by injuries lately. None of that can hurt Utah's chances of making the playoffs.

This year the standings are the top of the West are unbelievably tight, with ten teams within eight games of each other in the standings. Several teams have taken their turns at the top, and others have rotated in and out of the playoff picture at the bottom.

What's certain is that two of those teams will fade from the playoff picture at some point. Utah -- tied for eighth at the moment -- is a candidate in anyone's mind. But if the schedule will be smiling on them, and they are better than their current record indicates, then that just means there's one more top team lying in the weeds of the West, and teams like Houston, Golden State, Denver, San Antonio, the Lakers, and Portland have one less spot to share.

This is going to be good.