Flex verses Motion: A Comparison

No matter what it is you discuss these days, politics, music, fashion etc. you inevitably end up discussing either derivate forms or digging down deeper and coming to the roots, the foundations of the pertinent topic.  Everything can be broken down to its basic root constructs no matter what it is you talk about. Basketball, of course, is no different.

The game has certainly gone through some incredible transformations over the years and continues to change and morph as the years go along. Though, it could well be argued that without some drastic rule changes in the years to come, the game has perhaps hit what one might call a "physical ceiling" that has put a damper on any massive shifts within the game.  To be sure the players are continuing to get better at younger ages and continuing to grow and get bigger, but with the recent influx of foreign born players into all areas of the game, basketball is once again finding its roots all over again.

Over there years there have been all manifestations and styles of offensive attack in the half court.  Two of the most prominent and two that tend to still be seen the most are the Flex offense and Motion offense.  At their core these two offenses are both continuity offenses in the sense that they either utilize a certain number of "spots" that a player(s) is able to occupy and a definitive set of rules.  Flex is a little more stringent in the application of its continuity rules while motion can take a lot more forms with all kinds of alterations made by different coaches. 

With my comparison of these two offenses I will look to first briefly describe the two different offenses and their relevant characteristics as well as both listing the pros and cons to each.  I will also give examples of different college basketball teams that utilize each of these offenses either as a main continuity offense and or as a means of throwing a different look at their opponents in the half court.

The Flex Offense

Flex offense first started becoming a prominent half court offensive fixture back in the early to mid 60's and along with the UCLA high post offense and Shuffle was one of the dominating offensive choices well into the late 70's.  Flex is an offense that is very simple to teach and back in the days of no shot clock and three-point line was sound enough in its approach and intent to run until a good shot presented itself.  As the years went along and folks figured out how to defend the flex, coaches began to use all kinds of different formations and entry plays that would after a cut or set of screens take the team right into flex without having to re-set.  Flex also had another desired affect by some coaches and that was that it was a talent equalizer.  Flex by the very nature of its pattern and the way in which it turns over that pattern, tends to become compact and tight in the spacing between the players.  In doing this, coaches, whose players were not as athletic or as good as the defenders they were facing did not have to dribble to get the shots they wanted within the flex nor did they have to rely upon one on one offensive moves to get their shots.  The offense by its own design provided the shots and the spots for them thus negating the need for these players to have an abundance of post moves or dribble moves. 

Flex starts out in its basic form with two guards up top at lane's width apart and right inside the three-point line.  There are two big men located on either block, a wing out in the corner about seventeen feet out, even with the two big men on the blocks.  The ball starts out with the guard who is on the same side of the court as the wing player out in the corner area.  The guard passes the ball to the opposite guard. As this happens, the man on that block pops out to the corner spot.  The man who is in the corner, now opposite the ball, will then move towards the man on the block on his side who is setting a back screen for him to come off of.  That corner man will come off of that back screen and replace at the block the man who just popped out to the corner.  That baseline pick is the first option to score as that corner man is looking to get open for that lay-in underneath the basket area coming off of that pick. 

Just as the corner man comes off the pick, the guard up top who just passed the ball to the opposite guard comes down and sets a down screen along the edge of the free throw lane near the block area for that big man who just set the pick for the corner man. When run properly these things literally happen within a half a second of each other. The object is to create defensive confusion and or mismatches.  The second option is for that big man coming off of the guards down pick to get a jump shot usually around and or near the corner of the free throw line or the "elbow".   If neither of the first two options are open then the guard with the ball will then pass it back to the big man up top who has replaced the guard who screened down for him and the same pattern is repeated on the other side in the same sequence.  This is the continuity pattern of basic Flex offense.

Pros: Flex's strong points are that it gives your team two of the most fundamentally easy shots in the game with that underneath lay-in or the elbow jump shot.  It also allows your team to negate height and athletic advantages that the other team might have.  Flex also serves to calm a team down or give them form in structure when perhaps if you ran something else they might not be nearly as consistent offensively.   With an increase of teams playing a very tight man to man defense these days, especially off the ball, flex allows your players to take advantage of the poor vision and positioning of the defense off the ball.

Cons: Flex is one of the most easily defendable offenses there is, if your team is a sound defensive team that communicates and does not play that tight off the ball defense but in fact maintains proper vision and spacing.  Flex also can hurt teams that are more athletic when they play teams that are less athletic because of the tightening effect that the pattern has, thus allowing the less athletic teams to defensively crowd, get into and bump the more athletic and talented players away from desired spots and shots.   It also tends to minimize three point opportunities.

One of the teams who more recently used Flex, and won a national title running it probably 50% of the time during most of the season was Maryland. Coach Williams took a team that with the exception of Drew Nicholas, did not have a lot of real consistent three-point threats but had some very strong inside players and the best finisher in college basketball that season in Juan Dixon.  Mixing in different entry plays to initiate the offense, Maryland would often then flow right into flex.  This offense worked wonderfully in that it masked the fact that Lonny Baxter was only 6'7" on a good day and that all though a great athlete, Wilcox was far from a polished inside post player.  Combining these players with the incredibly intelligent and tough Dixon who really understood how to set up his man in this offense, Coach Williams made the absolutely correct choice in using flex for his team that year.  Maryland's inside players did not have to catch the ball on the low block and make traditional post moves nor did the perimeter players have to catch the ball on the wing and make something happen one on one relying solely upon their basketball and athletic abilities.  Maryland relied upon the total team concept and the discipline brought by using flex to get their offense in the half court.

Motion Offense

Motion offense is probably one of the most misunderstood and most oft misquoted offensive choices spewed by basketball analyst in the game today.  It seems that no matter what a team is running these days inevitably some announcer yells into his headset that they have just gone into motion, when in fact, most of the time they have not.  The roots of the motion offense can be seen in different places all over the country.  Coach Smith first introduced the world to his passing game, which is most certainly a form of motion offense.  Bobby Knight made famous his three man motion at Indiana and now down at Texas Tech while on the west coast teams were adopting and using a form of motion which emphasized spacing and off the ball picks that originated in California at the high school level.   For all of the thinking that flex's pattern took out of the half court offense, Motion in all of its forms put it right back in.  Motion was in many ways, an outcropping of the change in first the shape of the court, then in the size of the players.  Motion looked to take into account the growth in both the height of the players but also in the improved individual skills of these larger players, especially from the perimeter.  No longer could it be assumed that because a kid was 6'9", that he could not handle the basketball on the dribble like a 6'0" player.  

Motion owes much of its origination to John Wooden's UCLA high post offense as well as the old Shuffle offense.  Coach Smith would borrow from these two offenses and along with his ingeniously creative basketball mind bring to the game his passing game. The passing game relied upon spacing, cutting, timing and continual ball movement.  Unlike the Flex offense there was not a tightening effect, but instead there was wider spacing to his offense.  Player's movements would be predicated upon the individual players reading how they were being played by their defenders and what else was going on around them in regards to the other offensive players.  Coach Knight would then come along and pay Coach Smith a visit.  From this visit, Coach Knight would develop his version of the passing game, or motion, that would make a lot more use of off the ball picks and it would designate players for certain roles within the offense all the while maintain that high and wide spacing.   In today's game there are all different kinds of motion offense.  Dick Bennett, now of Washington State University, runs what is called "blocker/mover", which looks to create spacing and scoring opportunities by designating roles for each player within the movement of the motion offense.  There is also Duke's double post, three perimeter player motion that they run when not running entry plays.  This motion essentially keeps a low post and a high post and three perimeter players who pass and pick away looking to maintain floor balance with the high post, at times, popping out around the top of the key to reverse the ball to the other side.

The motion I have diagramed and will describe is what is known as California Motion, the version I am most familiar with.  The basic alignment of this motion is to have two guards up to, a little wider then free throw width away from each other and a foot or two outside the three point line.  The two forwards will be down in the corners, outside the three point line and about 3 to 5 feet up from the baseline.  In this version of motion there will be a center and he will be located at the high post.  Motion can be run with two men inside or no men inside, depending upon what it is you are looking to accomplish and what kind of personnel your team has.  The offense is usually initiated when the ball is passed to one of the forwards.  The forward on the ball side will "V" up as it is called to about the free throw line extended area, outside the three point line to receive the pass from the guard.  As he is doing this, the opposite guard will be moving towards the other forward who is down in the corner in order to set a screen for him.  The big man might be at the high post ball side and will then offer the guard who just passed the ball to the wing the option of cutting off of him towards the basket along the edge of the free throw lane. 

While all of this is going on it is imperative to keep in mind that the reasons these players are doing these things is totally predicated upon how their defenders are playing them.  The lead guard after he passes the ball to the wing player will cut if his defender does not jump towards the pass when he makes it, thus leaving a cutting lane over the top open to him.  If his defender does jump towards the pass, that guard will then go away along with the other guard and set what amounts to a double staggered screen away for that far off side forward to come up off of looking to score or fill up to that guard spot to get the ball from the forward who now has the ball in order to reverse the ball.  The post man once he sets the pick can roll down the lane after the guard has cut off of him or if the guard screens away he can just roll down the lane and look to post up on his own.  The most important things in continuity motion of this variety to keep in mind are this: spacing must always be high and wide and someone must always be filling in or about to fill in to the spot nearest the man with the ball.  

Pros: Motion is both an ideal offense for the modern college game with its shot clock and with its three-point line.  It also tends to be best suited for today's players because it keeps the floor spread and also has constant off the ball movement opening up better lanes to the basket for the man with the ball to dribble drive the ball towards the hoop.  Because of the spacing starting and staying outside the three-point line it certainly also opens up and or allows for more consistent looks from that distance for shots.  Like Flex, Motion also is able to really take advantage of the tight off the ball man to man defense many college teams play today provided players read their defenders and when waiting for a screen(s) to be set for them they do not take off too early.  Motion is also a very hard offense to scout from an opposing coaching staff's perspective, because while there are rules for spacing and spots on the floor that need to be filled, the offense is completely predicated upon the individual player reacting to what his defender does or does not do. 

Cons: Motion offense can often times become very rote in its execution.  Instead of reading their defenders, offensive players will be more concerned with maintaining the continuity and filling into spots and never fully taking advantage of what the defense gives them.  Motion offense also tends to encourage early movement from weak side forwards and guards who are having screens set for them thus first creating an illegal pick situation and also making it easy for their defenders to get through the picks and cut off any path to the basket they may have had.  Motion can also be a harder offense to rebound out of due to the fact that the spacing is high and wide and at times a shot may go up while the forward and guards are busy setting their picks and or coming up off of them. 

There are several teams who use a version of motion offense, but most notably last year Coach Tubby Smith's Kentucky squad would use a motion very similar to the one I described and diagramed above.  Kentucky would use Estill down low and or at times at the high post running guys off of him and getting a lot of double staggered picks away for Keith Bogans, who would read these and make his cuts accordingly.  One of the reason's Kentucky had such success with this offense for most of last year was due to the fact that Kentucky's players were patient within the offense and never looked to hurry it and were especially good at waiting for the pick or picks to be set for them.  Kentucky's guys also were very adept at reading their defenders.  Last years team had guys like Bogans, Fitch, Daniels and Hayes who were all very capable of driving the ball from the perimeter but also really understood what to do when their defenders reacted in certain ways. 

Brett Ayers is originally from the Spokane, Washington area where after playing his high school ball he accepted a scholarship to come east and play at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. After graduating from Fordham with BA's in both History and Economics he accepted an assistant position at Steven's Tech in Hoboken, New Jersey where he assisted Coach Dr. Charles Brown for three consecutive years. Brett left coaching in 1998 to concentrate on his career in the world of finance in New York City. He continues to write about the game and get late night calls from his father who is a head boys basketball coach back home in Spokane at Mt. Spokane high school to go over some X's and O's. Brett can be contacted at bayers@firstbancorp.com

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