A Breakdown of Jerry Sloan’s Offense and Its Impact

October 22nd, 2013 | by Ben Dowsett

If you missed part one of this two-part series, we covered the amazing impact coach Jerry Sloan had, not only on the Jazz teams he coached but on the city in which he coached them.  Here in part two, we’ll focus in more detail on how ahead of his time Sloan was with his offensive system, and how his innovations have helped shape the modern game as we know it.

NBA offenses, almost like fashion, have gone through many trends and fads over the course of league history.  In the 60’s and 70’s, nearly all legitimate offenses ran through the center; the game’s first greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and George Mikan all occupied the middle.  Offense was very deliberate in this era, with the goal of advancing the ball up, getting the center in position on the block, and either feeding him the ball there or finding the open man if defenses double-teamed the center.  For various reasons (lack of popularity of the game and racial inequality, to name a couple), players like Wilt and Russell – and later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others – had very few peers in terms of sheer physical ability.  Wilt, especially, was a physical specimen never before seen in the league.  As a result, the center-focused offense remained the staple of most successful teams all the way up through the late 70’s and even somewhat into the 80s.

But with the turn of the decade in 1980 came a new wave of players, and with them some advancing strategies.  Some coaches had started to realize the advantages of the fast break, and teams like the Showtime Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, started pushing the tempo more often after opponent misses.  It was a slow shift away from the style of the 60’s and 70’s, however, as the teams who dominated the decade (Lakers with Kareem, Celtics with McHale) still employed some of history’s finest post players.  But the landscape had begun to shift, and it continued to do so with the increasingly guard-oriented styles pioneered by teams like the Bad Boy Pistons, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and Dominique Wilkins’ Hawks.  By the time the 90’s rolled around, teams around the league had fully embraced the fast break as a successful strategy, and half-court offenses began to lean more on isolation plays for guards and wing players.  Everyone, it seemed, had found the new formula.

Everyone, that is, but Sloan and his Jazz.  But far from being a step behind the rest of the league, Jerry was a step (or several) ahead.  Instead of continuing the center-dominated offense that had reigned during his playing days, Sloan implemented his own version of the “flex” offense, a system developed in the 1970’s.  The basic flex involves constant movement from all five offensive players, with down screens and cuts utilized in multiple areas of the floor.  While the basic system itself is quite simple, the variations are nearly endless, part of what makes it such an effective system.

When working properly, the flex is designed to maximize good looks at the rim via passes off cuts.  While neither results in a basket, let’s look at a couple very basic examples of the flex as run by the Jazz:


Note the variety of actions taking place all over the court, even when the ball is nowhere near the players involved.  The second clip, in particular, is quite informative; look at how the Jazz rotate through three different screen actions just to free up Al Jefferson with good position on the block.  This sort of attention to detail and layering of actions is incredibly confusing to defenses.  Even when they know what’s coming (and folks knew what was coming from Sloan’s Jazz for two solid decades), the amount of variation makes it nearly impossible to stop when executed correctly.

The staple, of course, is the pick-and-roll.  While he didn’t invent the play type, Jerry’s Jazz teams perfected and popularized what is now the simplest and most frequently-run form of offense league-wide.  Credit Sloan an incredible amount here: he understood the makeup of his roster, kept it that way, and engineered a variation of the flex which would best maximize the talents he had.  For a plethora of examples of how good of a job he did, watch the magic that was created between Stockton and Malone (and thanks to Jazzbasketball1 for making the video)

So what were the results?  Well, beyond the obvious lasting success the Jazz had running this system while everyone else was relying on isolation game and post-ups, there are some fairly incredible data points to show just how innovative this offense was within the NBA.

The key to Sloan’s system was assists.  When it was humming, the Jazz had opposing defenses scrambling all over the court, confused by all the various actions, which would inevitably lead to a passing opening for the ball handler.  Naturally, with most other teams running systems centered more around individuals, you’d expect the Jazz to frequently be at or near the top of the league in assists…but the results exceed even the most adventurous expectations.

In Sloan’s 23 years as head coach (including the partial season of his departure), the Jazz finished in the top three league-wide for total assists a staggering 15 times.  They were first overall in seven different seasons, and it would have been nine if not for Steve Nash and his “seven seconds or less” offense in Phoenix.  Finally, out of all 23 seasons with Jerry on the bench, the Jazz finished outside the league’s top seven for total assists one time.  This instance was the 2003-04 season, the first in nearly two decades that Stockton and Malone were not on the roster after Stockton’s retirement and the Mailman’s move to Los Angeles…so you can understand the temporary downswing.

Taking this a step further, let’s look beyond the raw numbers and into where the assists were coming.  Remember how we noted that the flex is meant to open up looks to the rim?  Well, with an assist (see what I did there?) from hoopdata.com, we can analyze the field goal and assist percentages for various distances from the hoop, one of which is “At the Rim.”  Unfortunately, this information is only available as far back as the 2006-07 season, but we still have some good data to work with.

And once again, the results are remarkable.  Hoopdata tracks attempts, makes, and percentage of makes assisted on for each distance range.  For the “At the Rim” category, from 2007-2010 (excluding the year Sloan left, throwing things into turmoil) the Jazz ranked in the top three league-wide for all three areas measured.  What this means is that not only were they creating open looks at the hoop and converting them at a high rate, they were doing so via the passing game more than anyone else in the NBA.  And keep in mind that these were the years at the tail end of Sloan’s tenure, with the most lethal pick-and-roll combination in history no longer on his roster – one could easily assume that the advanced assist numbers might have been even more lopsided during the Stockton to Malone days.

The numbers are hard to believe, but after watching tape they start to make more sense.  Take a look at this 10-second clip, and see how many Jazz screens you can count:

If you missed a couple, don’t feel bad; NBA defenses spent 20+ years doing the exact same thing.  By my count, the Jazz set five picks during that simple 10-second sequence.  Try stopping that for an entire game, every possession.

Before too long, the league had taken notice of Sloan’s innovations.  As the millennium came and went, teams started incorporating more and more of the flex into their own systems.  As the Internet and advanced metrics gained steam, still more teams and coaches started noticing how effective some of the basic flex principles were, whether used on their own or incorporated into a more elaborate scheme.  One thing led to another, and now, in the year 2013, we find ourselves in an NBA where over half of the offensive plays run involve some kind of pick-and-roll action.  Things like down screens, double screens, and back cuts – all staples of the flex – aren’t even considered part of a specific system anymore, rather simply a part of the game.  There is no longer an NBA offense that operates without these simple actions.

They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery, right?  So what’s it called when not only is everyone copying your system, but it’s become so popular that it’s not even a system anymore, just a part of the game?  Maybe Jerry can invent a new word for us, too.

From an emotional and sentimental standpoint, there’s no arguing that Jerry Sloan impacted the Jazz and their fans in a series of incredible ways.  But from a strategic angle, his contributions to the league as a whole may have exceeded even those; Jerry Sloan changed the basic way in which the entire game of NBA basketball was played.  He was running a system in 1990 that well over half the league wouldn’t even begin to adopt until 15 years later, and the league as a whole wouldn’t fully embrace until nearly 20 years after he began running it.  What a coach.  What a man.  It’s great to have you back, Jerry.

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a life-long Jazz fan and general sports fanatic based in Salt Lake City. He also writes for Nylon Calculus (Hardwood Paroxysm/Fansided Network), and can be heard on the airwaves for the SCH podcast and appearances with ESPN AM 700. With a strong background in both statistics and on-court fundemantals, he writes primarily as an in-depth strategic analyst. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.
Ben Dowsett
Ben Dowsett

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One Comment

  1. PremiumChicken says:

    Thanks for this article. It almost made me shed a tear. Watching the first half of last night’s preseason game against the Clippers, it’s so fun to watch when everyone is grooving. Sloan’s offense truly makes the game a team effort.

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