What's the secret?
SALT LAKE CITY -- It's something you hear frequently when talking to people inside the Utah Jazz organization and opponents around the league:
Jerry Sloan has been running the same stuff for more than 20 years, yet most defenses seem powerless to stop it.
"You know flex in high school," Jazz point guard Deron Williams said last month. "Wisconsin ran the heck out of flex when I was in college. You play at any level, you're used to it."
The most basic description of the flex is a five-man motion offense that relies on a series of back screens, hard cuts and other off-ball actions. If the defense responds well to the initial actions, there are natural counters built into the system. Ever notice how Utah gets a disproportionate number of really good looks late in the shot clock? That's because Jazz players are so well-versed in what those late options are -- what Carlos Boozer referred to yesterday as "C, D, and E." C.J. Miles describes this feature well:
We’re making basketball plays -- plays made off screens or made off cuts. Maybe this time it’s not a back door cut this way. Or, if I set the screen, then the play should work because if they overplay the screen, there’s something that’s going to happen as a consequence to every reaction. If you trail Kyle Korver off a screen, then he’s going to make the shot. If you shoot the gap, then you throw the ball into the post. There’s always something that can be done off whatever the defense counters with.
Call it the Malcolm Gladwell theory or the Stockton-and-Malone maxim, but Sloan maintains that one of the reason the system has worked so well for so long in Utah is repetition:
You react to situations you’ve seen over and over again. That’s why we’re very repetitive in what we do and try to make it so guys can get an idea of what’s going on in the game instead of throwing them loose and letting them play and run all over the place. I think that teaches them how to take advantage of those situations.
Sloan doesn't champion structure for structure's sake. Rather, he advocates repetition as a means to achieve fluency. There are a bunch of teams that run elements of the flex around the league. Chicago's hasn't been terribly successful over the past couple of seasons, nor has New Jersey's (though both the Celtics and Spurs incorporate smart flex sets to get the ball to the wing). Jazz sniper Kyle Korver's feels, as Sloan does, that you have to go in whole hog with the flex to get the results the Jazz have:
It’s kind of like a full-court press. If you don’t believe in the press and you don’t go do it 100 percent, it’s never going to work. Most teams that run a flex will run it two or three times a game…Here, we know we’re going to run the flex a whole ton, and we know if we run it right, I know that I may not get the ball the first five times. But the sixth or seventh time, I know I will.
Since coming over from Philadelphia, Korver has completely bought in. He says that if he decides to coach, he'll fully implement the flex. Boozer also subscribes to the value of repetition in the team's mastery of the system:
We run things over and over and over again, so when we see it during the course of a game as it’s happening, we know what to do right away…Your reactions are quicker. And when your reactions are quicker, you usually have more success.
In some sense, the Jazz have to be fluent in the system. As both Korver and Boozer imply, every team in the league knows that the Jazz are going to set up in their 1-4, then go to work. Unlike Denver, which runs a very unstructured offense, Utah operates predictably -- at least in its early actions. The Jazz also don't have many guys who can create shots for themselves. So, as Boozer points out, unless their reactions are quick, the Jazz have the potential to stagnate on offense. Fortunately for them, they've worked through these scenarios a zillion times in both practice and live games. As Miles mentions above, the Jazz offense knows how to read every defensive response and has something ready to execute accordingly. Miles also attributes the success of the system to the relative stability of the Utah roster over the years:
Repetition is definitely a positive. You don’t see a lot of trades made. We’re a younger team, but we’ve been together for four years now. Everybody knowing each other’s games, knowing our offense so well, knowing where guys like to be.
With the exception of their cap-conscious exports this season, Utah doesn't swap players in and out of their organization very often. The Jazz build around a core group of young players -- often second-round picks and castoffs -- and invest a great deal of training and expertise in those players. It's one thing to run these sets over and over again to achieve full command of the offense, but quite another to do it with the same core of personnel.
Given the Jazz's success over the past two decades, it's surprising more organizations haven't committed to the flex and sought out players whose talents can be cultivated to maximize the system. Then again, it's not what you do, it's how you do it -- and, more often than not, who's doing it for you.