What the Chicago Bulls can learn from the Utah Jazz
July, 28, 2010
By Kevin Arnovitz
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images
The Bulls would be smart to use these former Jazzmen to install the flex offense in Chicago.
The Utah Jazz feature one of the longest-tenured, most consistently successful offensive systems in the NBA. Jerry Sloan has been running the flex for a quarter of a century and despite the predictability of the scheme's early actions, the Jazz's tactical plan causes opponents fits. You know what's coming, but most nights you're powerless to stop it.
The effectiveness of the flex in Salt Lake City prompts the question: If it's so productive, why haven't more teams adopted it as their offensive blueprint?
The most common answer you get from coaches and scouts around the league goes something like this:
On paper, the system is artful and ingenious. But if you don't have the personnel to run the flex effectively, you're setting up your team for failure. You might be able to incorporate a few flex sets into your playbook, but installing the system as the foundation of the offense is trouble.
What kind of personnel are we talking about? What skills does a player need to have as part of his game to be an effective player in that system? The simplest way to define the qualities of a good flex player is the ability to multitask. In the flex, each player on the floor is a screener and a screenee, a passer and a cutter, a guy who can make plays in a variety of ways by instantaneously reading the defense. Ballstoppers and early-shot-clock freelancers need not apply.
This brings us to the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls.
Last season, the Bulls finished 28th in offensive efficiency. Over the past month, the Bulls have bolstered their roster with a collection of nice pieces, including Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer -- each of whom started the 2009-10 season as a veteran member of the Jazz. Whether it was their primary intention or a serendipitous unintended consequence of the frenetic free agent market, the Bulls have assembled a group that, with the exception of the point guard spot, is more Jazzy than anything Jerry Sloan will put on the court this fall.
In short, the Bulls have a tailor-made roster for a full-fledged flex attack:
- In Boozer and Joakim Noah, the Bulls' starting frontcourt tandem will feature two of the best passing big men in the game. Boozer is fluent in the flex, while Noah's game couldn't be more suited to achieving the same kind of expertise. The two big men in this system are tasked with passing the ball from the high post to cutters, but they're also required to set back picks, cross screens and baseline actions for shooters. Even more important, they should have the ability to come off pin-downs and drain those mid-range elbow jumpers Boozer has made a living off of in Utah. What about Noah, though? He's a better mid-range shooter than you think. His 43 percent clip from 16-23 feet puts him in the company of Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan and Brandon Roy.
- The Jazz incensed Deron Williams when they dealt Ronnie Brewer to Memphis in a cost-cutting deal at the trade deadline last February. Wesley Matthews and C.J. Miles assumed Brewer's role in Utah's offense on the wing. When the playoffs rolled around, Matthews and Miles each made huge plays down the stretch of crucial games in the Denver series -- mostly by reading the defense, making back door cuts and sealing the baseline. When Williams was asked about his young wings' smart plays, Williams responded on more than one occasion, "Those were Ronnie Brewer reads." Although Brewer isn't much of an outside shooter, he's a master at executing the counters that allow the flex to succeed even after the defense has taken away the first two or three options.
- Korver knows how to play the 3 in the flex, a position that requires knocking down shots from the wing, and working off the ball in the power swing sets. While many sharpshooting small forwards merely set up shop in the corner, the 3 in the flex is constantly in motion, looking to fill open space when the defense reacts to ball side and moving quickly to flare out along the arc when the opportunity presents itself. His sweet stroke aside, Korver doesn't get all that many shot attempts, but he more than compensates for that as an intelligent player who always seems to know where he's most useful.
- If ever there was an existing Bull who could benefit from the installation of the flex offense in Chicago, Luol Deng is the guy. Deng has never been a dynamic one-on-one perimeter player, something that's plagued him in the Bulls' stagnant offenses. Isolations simply aren't Deng's strength, but he's a selfless player, a very underrated passer and, most of all, money on the pin-down and the cut-and-seal. For the lithe, agile Deng, a flex system that maximizes his mobility and capacity to make reads could reinvent his floor game.
- What about Derrick Rose? Does asking him to orchestrate the flex offense at the point compromise his strengths? Not at all. As we've seen in Utah, there are more than enough opportunities to create early offense, both in transition and with the high screen-and-roll. Brewer, Deng and Noah can run the floor and fill the lanes with the best of them. And anyone who watched Williams and Boozer work up top early in the shot clock knows there are plenty of chances for Rose to get space and/or dish off the ball to his big men for easy jumpers, particularly the pick-and-pop with Boozer. When Mehmet Okur was healthy, Utah ran a set called "Double-C" -- similar to what Boston runs with Garnett and Perkins. Both big men set a high pick on either side of the point guard, giving Williams multiple options up top. Rose would flourish in this kind of scheme, especially since Boozer and Noah are master screeners, rollers and readers. Early offense aside, Rose's strength and power are two of his most underrated assets and can be exploited in the half court. Rose should take cues from Williams, another big guard who often makes his best plays coming off screens and brutalizing smaller guards in the post with Utah's "Power 1" set (similar to what Baron Davis does from the elbow when he's locked in). Defenses tend to be most successful against the flex when they're effectively denying high post entires. Rose's athleticism should allow him to execute counters to that denial by creating for himself (when necessary). And with the help of Brewer and Deng, he should also be able to find his wings as they cross beneath the hoop and put themselves in a position to go to work. Was Rose born for the flex? Maybe not. But with enough reps, Rose should be able to use his size and quickness off the ball to perform as both initiator and as an off-ball menace in a system that rewards versatility -- something Rose has in spades.
The Bulls' personnel offers Tom Thibodeau a unique opportunity to install and execute a dependable offensive system, one that takes full advantage of his roster's attributes. Three of his top six players know the flex inside and out from their days in Utah. Two others -- Noah and Deng -- embody the right instincts to blossom in the system. At first blush, Rose might not seem like a natural fit, but with some work, his versatile talents will transform him into a capable quarterback, especially when you consider the amount of help he'll have.
If the Bulls ultimately decide to adopt the flex as their primary game plan, some would call it an experiment. Given the confluence of talent and experience on their roster, they'd be crazy not to bank on it.