Understanding Rick Barnes' Texas Basketball Offense: The Flex


A little bit more than a year ago, Rick Barnes worked with Jerry Sloan to revamp his offense.  I have now spent some time studying the Texas offense from last season, and will spend several posts attempting to describe it in detail.  Jerry Sloan's offenses with the Utah Jazz were popularly associated with the pick and roll, but there was a lot more to his offense than ball screens.  Sloan also made heavy use of staggered screens of the sort that I have previously described, as well as an offense known in basketball circles as the Flex

The Flex has been around for a long time.  It is one of the great offenses of basketball.  It is simple enough to teach to middle school kids.  It also threatens the defense in ways serious enough that it is used throughout high school basketball, college basketball, and the NBA.  There are some nice descriptions of how the Flex works on the Internet, but in studying game footage from the 2010-2011 Texas Longhorns season, I noticed that Barnes runs things a bit differently from the "standard" approach to the flex.  The Flex forms the basis for most of what Texas ran on offense last year.  After the jump, I will dive into explaining the Flex as it has been implemented by Rick Barnes.  In a future posts, I will look at other aspects of the Texas offense. 

The "standard" approach to the Flex

Before I describe the version of the Flex that Rick Barnes cooked up with Jerry Sloan, I think it is worth taking a bit of time and describing the way that the Flex is typically run.  If you are interested in the details of what I am calling the standard Flex, then I highly recommend this post by Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook.com.  I won't go into nearly as much depth, and will just cover the single most basic element of this offense.

The standard approach to the Flex creates two really effective threats.  The first is termed the "Flex cut."  To understand this cut, we start with the diagram below.  This diagram shows the position of the five offensive players.  The player with the ball is on the right side of the court, off of center and near the three point line.  One wing stands near the corner on the ball side.  There is another player standing in a position that more or less mirrors the position of the player with the ball.  One player stands at the low block, on the off-ball side, and one player stands in the corner on the off-ball side.  The player who stands in the corner on the side away from the ball cuts across the lane, using the screen set by the player in the low post.  This maneuver is called the "Flex cut."

Flex1_medium

The Flex cut presents a serous challenge to the defense.  While in the diagram above I show the cutter running under the screen, the cutter can actually also go over top of the screen as well.  In addition, as described by Pruiti and as I will show below, the cutter also has a third option -- the curl.  So with all of these options, the defender has a lot on his plate.  He is typically going to need some help from the player defending the person setting the screen.

Flex enthusiasts take advantage of this helping defender by using a tactic known as "picking for the picker."  If we were to study basketball plays, including quick hitting set plays and in-bounds plays, and distill them down to basic motifs that work, I suspect that picking for the picker would come up often.  In the Flex, the pick for the picker comes from the third player on the weak side of the play.  This is shown in the diagram above, as well as the diagram below.  This screen is hard to fight through, particularly after the ball has been rotated back and forth several times.  The standard Flex is a "continuity" offense, meaning that this basic pattern is repeated over and over until the defense breaks down.  After setting the down screen, the screener pops out to the corner, and the whole offense repeats on the opposite side of the court.

Flex2_medium

There is more to the Flex than what I have described.  The ball can also go to the man in the corner, or the man in the corner can come to the wing to catch the ball (which is how Texas runs it most often).  But for all intents and purposes, this is the basic pattern.

Understanding the Texas Flex

The approach that Barnes takes with the Flex (likely on the advice of Jerry Sloan), is different from the standard approach in several ways.  First, Texas does not use the pick for the picker element that I described above.  Additionally, the Texas approach does not follow a simple continuity pattern used by the standard Flex, it is a little bit more complicated.  Rather than simply describing it, let's take a look at it, using snapshots taken from last season's home game against Texas Tech, played on February 5, 2011.

Let's set things up with the first shot, shown below.  On offense, Texas comes down in transition and looks to post up Gary Johnson.  It isn't there, so Texas flows directly into their offense.  Balbay (labeled with the yellow arrow) has the ball.  He is preparing to reverse the ball to the man at the top, while the man on the opposite side is preparing to cut to the wing.  Ultimately, this opposite wing is where the ball is going.

Flex1a_medium

In the next photo, we see what happens when the ball is passed to the top.  I have used yellow lines to indicate where everyone is moving.  Jordan Hamilton is making the Flex cut, with Gary Johnson setting the screen.  Joseph is popping out to catch the pass at the wing, while Balbay is preparing to relocate to a spot near Gary Johnson.  I want to draw your attention to the first big difference between the way Texas runs the Flex, and the standard Flex that I described above.  The spacing is different.  There is no one standing in the corner on the ball side, barely threatening the defense.  Instead, this man is flashing to the wing, preparing to receive a pass.  The ball is also centered in the middle of the court, which doesn't really ever happen with the spacing of the standard Flex.  To be honest, while I grew up with the standard approach, I like the way that Barnes has things spaced here.  What often happens is that the man standing in the corner on offense in the standard Flex doesn't do very much, and his defender can sag off a bit and clog up things for the Flex cut, knowing that he is near enough to close out if the pass goes to the man in the corner.

Flex1b_medium

Now we can jump to the next photo.  Let's take a look at what has happened.  The ball was passed to the wing.  Hamilton ran under the screen, and is coming open on the low post.  When I previously wrote about staggered screens, I spent some time describing how the offensive player should read the screen on that play.  With the Flex cut, it is also necessary to read the screen.  In this case, Hamilton's defender followed him under the screen, so Hamilton made the correct read.  Later in this post, I will show how the man making the Flex cut reacts if the defender attempts to beat him through the screen.  (Pruiti's article also deals with this.)

Flex1c_medium

So far, aside from the spacing, things are looking more or less like the standard Flex.  But here is where things get a significantly different.  If we were in the standard Flex, Balbay would be setting a screen for Johnson in the photo above.  This is not happening.  Instead, Tristan Thompson is preparing to screen for Balbay.  So the pick for the picker action that is one of the central threats of the standard Flex is missing.  What is up with this?

As I said above, the down screen pick for the picker is very hard to defend.  But not every Flex coach uses it.  In fact, one of the most well-known Flex practitioners, retired Maryland coach Gary Williams, does not really like to use the down screen.  This down screen often results in a mid-range shot, whereas Williams prefers to work the ball inside.  Additionally, in Texas' case last year, this down screen would have often taken Tristan Thompson or Gary Johnson away from the basket if Texas had been setting this screen.  Rick Barnes' has historically gotten much of his offense on rebounds.  A down screen in this set would take one of the best offensive rebounders on the court out of good rebounding position.  So while Texas gives up the pick for the picker, the rest of this set will look quite nice when we see some of the other options below.

One to what happens next.  In the next photo, we see that as Joseph makes the entry pass to Hamilton, Tristan sets a screen for Balbay. 

Flex1d_medium

You can watch the whole play here.

Often the entry pass to the post is not available, or for whatever reason the player with the ball on the wing chooses not to make it.  In the standard Flex, the ball would reverse and the basic Flex pattern would just restart from the other side of the court.  Texas does not do this.  Instead, they flow directly into a sequence that uses another of Jerry Sloan's favorite tactics, the staggered screen.  Let's reset, and look at a different sequence from the same game.  In the photo below, the ball is at the top, labeled with the yellow arrow.  The pass is preparing to go to Cory Joseph on the wing, while the Flex cut is also taking place.

Flex2a_medium

In the next photo below, the ball has been passed to Cory Joseph on the wing, and a screen is being set for Balbay.  In this case, instead of making the post entry pass, Joseph will reverse the ball to Balbay.

Flex2b_medium

Now is where things start to get interesting.  The ball has been reversed to Balbay (labeled with the yellow arrow).  The man making the flex cut sets a back screen for Joseph.  This back screen isn't really meant to free up Joseph; it is just the first of three screens that his defender will have to run through.  Recall from my previous article that Sloan's offensive sets can call for this sort of initial nuisance screen prior to taking the same defender through a nasty staggered screen.  And a nasty staggered screen is coming.  On the opposite side of the court Wangmene and Johnson are preparing for a staggered screen.

Flex2c_medium

The next image is the critical one.  The staggered screen is set, and Joseph is running through it.  This time, I have labeled Cory Joseph and his defender with yellow arrows.  Joseph is running under the screen, while his defender is fighting over the top.  In my staggered screen article, I also wrote about how the offensive player reads this screen.  If the defender goes over top the screen, the offensive player pops out towards the the corner.  That is where Cory is headed, which is the correct read.

Flex2d_medium

If you watch the entire play, you see that Cory Joseph ends up with a pretty good shot.  It just doesn't go down. 

In the second half of that game, we see a similar sequence, except that the defender attempts to follow Joseph through the staggered screen, rather than fighting over top.  I have again labeled both Joseph and his defender with yellow arrows in the image below.  Notice that his defender is following him through the staggered screen.  Joseph curls off the screen, which leads to an easy shot at the rim.  Unfortunately that shot was missed.  You can watch the entire play here.

Flex3a_medium

 


Different reads off of the Flex cut

There are several other reads that can occur off of the Flex cut in the Texas offense.  Let's set things up with the photo below.  Joseph has the ball on the near side wing (labeled with a yellow arrow).  Hamilton is in the opposite corner, preparing to make a Flex cut (also labeled with a yellow arrow).

Read1a_medium

In the next image, Hamilton is starting to make his cut.  I have labeled both Hamilton and his defender.  Hamilton's defender is working to beat him through the flex screen.  Hamilton will notice this as we see below.

Read1b_medium

In the next shot, I have only advanced the video by a small amount.  Hamilton is not making a Flex cut.  Instead he makes a nice fake, and will be working off the naturally occurring staggered screen that is being set by Balbay and Johnson instead.  Notice where he is relative to his defender in the photo below.

Read1c_medium

After Hamilton works off of the screen, we get the image below.  Look where Hamilton is relative to his defender now.  Another defender will help out to try to pressure his shot, but Hamilton ends up getting a pretty good look from the three point line.  The shot just doesn't go down.  You can watch the entire play here

Read1d_medium

Let's take a look at one more read that can occur off the Flex cut.  This time, we will see what happens if the help defender guarding the screener overplays on help.  In the photo below, Joseph is the cutter.  I have labeled him, as well as his defender (being screened by Tristan) and Tristan's defender (helping).  In this case, the screen is very good, and the defender is trying to fight over the top of it.  The help defender has effectively switched assignments, at least temporarily, to guard the Flex cut.  This won't end well for the defense.

Lob1_medium

Look out, Pat Knight.  In the photo below, you have two guys trying to guard Joseph, and no one on Tristan.  This wasn't a straight switch, but even if Joseph's defender had decided to stay with Tristan, it would be quite a mismatch.  Although not as much of a mismatch as Tristan vs. the rim.  Hamilton sees it all, and throws a nice lob.  Watch the whole play here.

Lob2_medium


Summary

If I wanted to sum this entire post up in five words, those words would be:  Flex cuts and staggered screens.  Rick Barnes implementation of this Flex set puts significant emphasis on reading screens.  It also stacks a couple of serious threats back to back, making it tough on the defense to defend everything at once.  In a future post, I will write about another set in the Texas offense, the 1-4 set.  It is a mainstay of Jerry Sloan's system, and it also makes heavy use of Flex cuts and staggered screens, but with a few additional wrinkles.

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