The Jazz stand on the precipice of both.
Utah's elimination number has dwindled down to one with seven regular-season contests to go. Either a Jazz loss or Memphis win during the combined 14 games that remain for the teams will automatically end Utah's playoff bid, disbanding the 2010-11 Jazz ahead of schedule and preventing the small-market franchise from receiving a postseason payday for the first time in five years and just the fourth in 28.
Utah's primary goal when the year began was to win the Western Conference. Through 20 games, it was possible. Through 40 just one removed from the season's midway point it was still possible. Meanwhile, making the postseason was not just a hope it was automatic.
"I don't think there was a doubt in anybody's mind we were going to make the playoffs," Jazz guard Raja Bell said Thursday prior to practice. "At that point in time, we were trying to figure out if we were one of the top few teams in the West. We were in that next tier of teams that you were trying to figure out if any of us could compete with your [Los Angeles Lakers] and maybe San Antonio."
Thirty-five games and a full season's worth of change, turmoil and frustration later, Utah is barely competing with anyone. The Jazz (36-39) have only claimed nine victories during the last two and a half months, and just two of those wins have come against teams with records above .500.
Utah has recorded three losing streaks of at least five games during the stretch, topped by an ongoing six-game slide that saw the Jazz suffer a 100-95 overtime home loss Monday to an 18-win Washington team playing without four key injured players.
The plummet began Jan. 17.
After soaring to a 15-5 start and pulling off a series of thrilling comeback road victories, the Jazz reached 27-13 following three consecutive wins the last of which was a 22-point home blowout of Cleveland on Jan. 14. Jerry Sloan's team held a share of the Northwest Division lead with playoff-bound Oklahoma City, as well as the fourth-best winning percentage in the Western Conference and sixth overall in the league. Utah was statistically better than Chicago, Orlando, New Orleans and Memphis teams that would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended Friday and nearly as good on paper as Kevin Durant's Thunder. And while the Jazz clearly had problems, the issues appeared be fixable, not disasters waiting to explode.
"We had a lot of things that we weren't doing right and we were still wining games," Utah forward Paul Millsap said. "So, the sky was the limit for us at that time."
Then everything went black. An 0-4 East Coast road trip from Jan. 17-22 started the downward spiral. Coaches Sloan and Phil Johnson resigned Feb. 10. All-Star guard Deron Williams was shipped to New Jersey on Feb. 23. And Utah quickly fell apart as three of the premier pieces in an organization long associated with stability and consistency suddenly changed their lives. The Jazz collected just three wins in 14 games from Feb. 9 to March 12, soon falling from a contender to a team on the brink.
Now, the franchise is rebuilding on a scale not seen since Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone left Salt Lake City. The playoffs are a near-impossibility. And two spots in a record book devoted to infamy are one game away from becoming a certainty.
"We definitely believed that we had a chance to win the West. … There was never a doubt in my mind that was our goal," Jazz guard Earl Watson said. "Where that kind of changed? The season's almost like a collage of images, and so much goes together that you kind of figure that out after the season."
The Jazz started the season 15-5, then moved to 27-13 on Jan. 14. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Utah will become the first team in NBA history to post either mark and not make the playoffs. The Jazz's elimination number is down to one heading into a home game tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The 1970-71 Detroit Pistons and 2001-02 Milwaukee Bucks started 26-14 and failed to make the playoffs. Several teams begun the year 13-7 and did not qualify for the postseason, most recently the 2004-05 Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic.
Western Conference standings
1. San Antonio • 34-6
2. L.A. Lakers • 30-11
3. Dallas • 26-12
T4. Oklahoma City • 27-13
T4. Utah • 27-13
5. New Orleans • 24-16
6. Denver • 22-16
7. Portland • 20-19
8. Memphis • 18-21
1. San Antonio • 57-18
2. L.A. Lakers • 54-20
3. Dallas • 53-22
4. Oklahoma City • 50-24
5. Denver • 45-29
T6. New Orleans • 43-32
T6. Portland • 43-32
8. Memphis • 42-33
9. Houston • 39-36
10. Phoenix • 36-38
11. Utah • 36-39
On Jan. 14 the Jazz …
• Were tied with Oklahoma City for the Northwest Division lead
• Led Denver by four games and Portland by six
• Had won 27 of 40 games
On April 1 the Jazz …
• Trail Oklahoma City by 141/2 games
• Trail Denver by five and Portland by six
• Have lost 26 of 35 games
Sunday at Sacramento
Tuesday at Lakers*
April 9 at San Antonio*
April 11 at New Orleans*
April 13 Denver*
*Would qualify for playoffs if season ended Friday