The Utah Jazz are 25-6. That’s a .806 winning rate. That puts them on pace for the best record since the 2016-17 Warriors went an absurd 67-15 the year after they went a best-ever 73-9.
Even if they can’t keep up that pace, which would have them finishing 58-14 in this COVID-shortened regular season, the Jazz (who had a preseason win total over/under of 40.5) have a substantial cushion built up in their pursuit of the NBA’s best record. They’re a full three games ahead of the next-best team right now. They’re 4½ games better than the best team in the Eastern Conference.
But the sportsbooks don’t see them as the favorite to win the title. The Jazz don’t have the shortest odds. They don’t have the second-shortest odds. Or the third-shortest odds. Or even the fourth-shortest odds.
No, the NBA’s best team as of Feb. 24 is only No. 5 in the futures betting pecking order, according to every major online sports betting operator.
At No. 1 are the LA Lakers, priced between +250 (William Hill) and +270 (FanDuel Sportsbook). Next are the Brooklyn Nets, between +325 (BetMGM) and +350 (multiple books). Then come the LA Clippers, ranging from +450 (PointsBet) to +550 (multiple). After that we have the Milwaukee Bucks, priced from +650 (FOX Bet) to +800 (PointsBet).
Then, finally, we find the Jazz. BetMGM has them at +850. FOX Bet and William Hill say they’re +900. FanDuel lists them at +950. And DraftKings, BetRivers, and PointsBet all have Utah all the way up at +1000.
In Wednesday night’s marquee NBA game, the Jazz host the Lakers in a battle between the team with the best record and the team favored to win the championship. The Jazz are favored by between 8 and 9 points at all books.
Something doesn’t compute.
Or does it?
Regular season vs. irregular season
Modern NBA history is littered with teams that were built for the regular season but shrunk when the postseason arrived, and it’s natural to look at this Utah squad and anticipate such a dropoff. There are echoes in this Jazz team of the Bucks teams the last two years that posted the best regular season record; the 2017-18 Houston Rockets, who went 65-17 but never stopped being perceived as an underdog to the Warriors; and the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, the top seed in the East with a 60-22 record.
That Hawks team is the one these Jazz are perhaps most reminiscent of, a unit that played beautiful team basketball, was well coached, and lacked a true superstar.
Not that teams like that can’t win; the 2003-04 Pistons captured the title led by second-tier stars Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, and Rip Hamilton.
But that outcome was an outlier, and it probably doesn’t happen if they don’t catch the Shaq-Kobe Lakers in the midst of an implosion.
This Jazz team does have stars — just not MVP-contending superstars. On Tuesday, Utah learned it had two All-Star reserves, shooting guard Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert. That elite offensive/defensive combo is surrounded by solid players who are fitting perfectly so far this season: veteran point guard Mike Conley, sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, steadily improving power forward Royce O’Neal, and the runaway favorite at every sportsbook for Sixth Man of the Year, Jordan Clarkson.
It’s a very good team, playing great basketball through the first two months of the season. But the odds reflect bettors’ reluctance to believe in a team without a superstar when it matters. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Nets have Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Bucks have two-time defending MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That two or three of those teams have shorter odds than the Jazz is entirely logical. But all four, including the 19-13 single-superstar Bucks who have the same mediocre recent postseason track record as Utah?
Points and counterpoints
On the one hand, you should believe in the Jazz because they’ve won 21 of their last 23, including beating several fellow contenders, and are playing the most consistent basketball in the league by far.
On the other hand, the Jazz won 21 of 23 at one point in 2018, and won 19 of 21 for a stretch last season, and neither of those teams got beyond the second round of the Western Conference playoffs.
On the one hand, Clarkson, averaging 18.3 points per game while shooting 38% from three-point land, is a ridiculous weapon to be able to bring in off the bench.
On the other hand, the Clippers boasted the Sixth Man of the Year in 2020 (Montrezl Harrell), 2019 (Lou Williams), and 2018 (again, Williams), and yet that franchise has still never reached the conference finals.
On the one hand, in an increasingly three-pointer-driven league, the Jazz are leading the NBA in threes attempted (42.5 per game) and made (16.8, which would be an NBA record).
On the other hand, there’s more variance in relying on three-point shooting than on scoring from inside, and the game tends to slow down slightly in the playoffs.
Placing a futures bet on the Jazz right now is all about picking a side in the debate, finding reason to believe what we’re seeing now can continue in the playoffs. If you can convince yourself of that, a 10/1 payout on a championship run feels attractive.
In the meantime, Wednesday night’s showdown with the Lakers isn’t quite the clash of contenders some might have envisioned. LA is without Davis as well as Dennis Schroeder, and even LeBron is listed on the injury report as “day-to-day” (though he’s fully expected to play). That’s why the Jazz are favored by more than a touchdown.
That, and the fact that they are, without dispute, a tremendous regular-season team. This is the first game between the Jazz and Lakers in 2021. It probably won’t be the most important.
Photo by Wendell Cruz / USA Today Sports