The Jazz are off to a hot start… again. So of course there is no way we can keep from comparing this run to the one last year, where the Jazz got off to an amazing 27-13 start, before falling off a cliff and missing the playoffs. During some of the amazing comebacks during this period of time (which were awesome fun, by the way), there was constant discussion about the fact that falling behind by huge amounts and coming back miraculously was not sustainable, could not last. Somehow, someway, the Jazz kept proving them wrong.

Until they didn’t, of course.

I really don’t want to rehash all of what went into the bizarre year last year. Suffice it to say, there are legitimate reasons to doubt the legitimacy of the Utah Jazz’s 10-5 record right now. It perfectly matches their 10 at home, 5 away spread. Their strength of schedule of 0.522 seems impressive, but I would argue that it is a little inflated too, and we can really only point to one highly impressive win—on the road in Denver—out of the ten. However, I would argue that if you are going to go that direction you have to acknowledge how close two of their losses at home were against great teams.

Regardless of whether or not this year’s team is for real or not, or whether this nice 10-5 record is smoke and mirrors, this is a completely different situation than last year, if you are willing to take two assumptions for granted:

  1. The first four games of the year are total outliers and you have to throw them out to in all considerations of this team.
  2. Much like margin of victory is considered important by stat-guru’s such as John Hollinger, I would argue that the largest deficit in each game (and to some extent, the largest lead) are also important and tell a deeper story of a team.

Currently, no one really tracks the largest lead/deficit in each game and puts them all in one table. In fact, @pmgameflows—people I cannot talk up enough—didn’t even put that in their game flow charts until I asked them (they only listed the largest lead total, not the one each team had). I had to go back and enter these values manually from the update @pmgameflows tables. The blue line charts the largest lead that the Jazz had in each game, while the red line charts the largest deficit that they faced. Since I am only comparing this season’s hot start to last, I only charted the first 40 games, through which the jazz were 27-13. During this period, their average-largest lead was 10.5, while their average largest deficit was 11.8.


Figure 1. Last season's largest lead/largest deficit through the first 40 games, in which the Utah Jazz went 27-13

Some interesting things pop out visually from this graph. First off, no wonder we are all so stressed! The Jazz were on a constant rollercoaster ride. There were 4 games in which they trailed by 25 of more, 5 games in which they trailed by 20 or more, and a staggering 17 games where they trailed by 15 or more. The Jazz literally trailed by 15 or more points in 4 more games than they lost during that period of time.

The same graph for the first 15 games of this season paints a totally different picture. Even if you keep the first 4 games in the equation, the average-largest deficit was still only 10.67 (less than 11.8 of last year) while having an average-largest lead of 11.13 (more than 10.5 of last year). However, if you throw out the first four games of the year, as I propose you must do, these numbers go to a 5.8 deficit and a 13.5 lead!


Figure 2. Current season's largest lead/largest deficit through the 15 game, in which the Utah Jazz are 10-5

The first and most obvious thing is, man did the Jazz get killed the first 4 games of the year. Since then, they have been down 10 in one game and 13 in another, and besides that have not trailed by double digits. The most amazing game to me, the one that inspired me to look into this stuff and start writing it, was the Los Angeles Laker game, in which neither team lead by more than 6 points for an entire 52 minutes of basketball, which to me is just an incredible feat.

We often hear about “being in the game at the end.” This is obviously a big deal, and winners make plays down the stretch. The Jazz had some stars on the team last year (Williams and Millsap, among others) that made winning plays down the stretch. However, there is a reason Hollinger gives as much weight to margin of victory as he does, because he has found it to be a better predictor of future performance—and I would argue, total talent—than simple records do. The Miami Heat, curse they black souls, were a great example of this. They were fourth in the east, and yet their margin of victory was so much better that Hollinger predicted them to win the finals (which they almost did, by the way).

All I have done here is to try and extrapolate that to the whole game. Rather than being down and out most of the game and coming back through a series of good plays, luck, and an opponent playing to their lead, and being in the game at the end, we have been in these games from start to finish. I’m not going to go into all the impacts that has (such as the improved pressure you put on your opponents—the Lakers never got a chance to breathe!), but I would argue it is a greater indicator than record, or even margin of victory at the end.

As a side note, I am hoping to expand this thinking to a few other areas if I can find the resources to create the stats.