This stuff is not nuclear physics. "You don't have to be an Einstein," says one Jazz coach. But NBA coaches really coach, players actually run plays and, no matter what appearances suggest, teams usually have a genuine plan to work for a shot in 24 seconds.
Complicated? Rookie Scott Roth learned the Jazz's plays in one day, and he plays three different positions. "It was really nothing for me," he says. "I think it's a shame if you don't know your own team's offense."Yet, this business is tricky enough that players like Karl Malone and Mel Turpin have cost themselves playing time by taking too long to learn the offense. Malone, understandably, came from a college system that called for a fairly simple procedure give the ball to Karl. Malone says of the Jazz's plays, "It took me my whole rookie year and some of last year to really get 'em down."
After coming from Cleveland, Turpin had to learn new numbers for similar plays, and was frequently mixed up during at least the first half of this season. "Now, I don't have any problem with them," he insists, although Jazz insiders may question that.
In some cases, opponents may know a team's plays as thoroughly as a team's own players know them. Curiously, NBA teams make little effort to hide their plays from opponents. By attending games and watching videotapes, scouts learn the hand and voice signals for a team's plays, and the exact patterns. Once, a Jazz official was alarmed when he saw an opposing coach recognizing the Jazz's play calls and responding with defensive instructions. He later excitedly told Coach Frank Layden, "They know our plays!"
Layden still laughs about that, and assistant coach Jerry Sloan says, "You should still be able to execute your offense, even if they know what's coming."
Proof of that is the Dallas offense that Coach John MacLeod has kept since replacing Dick Motta, and with which the Jazz are very familiar. "You know what's coming," says David Fredman, who does most of the Jazz's advance scouting, "and they're still hard to defend, because they're so good at it."
Actually, Fredman says the hardest teams to scout are those with players having trouble learning the plays, making the patterns harder to recognize. But throughout the NBA, the basic offensive philosophy is the same spread out, work one side of the floor or the other with a triangle formation, and get the ball to the right people.
"It's like with football you want to see where you have the best advantage and make sure that guy has a chance to get the ball," says Sloan. "The percentages usually work out for you."
The Jazz's offense evolved when assistant coach Scott Layden and former assistant Phil Johnson spent a summer watching tapes and taking plays they liked from almost every team in the league. They still run much of the Dallas offense, stemming from Johnson's days as an assistant to Motta, who also coached Sloan in Chicago.
Like every team, the Jazz have added their own twists. They'll add to and subtract from the offense every season, using five basic series with options for each. And although the Jazz and other teams like to run a free-lance fast break as much as possible, the coach still has to call upwards of 30 set plays every game.
Says Fredman, "There's a lot more coaching on the NBA level than you really think."
A chief difference between the Jazz's offense and others is fewer plays calling for shots over screens. "It's predictable, and you can build selfishness with it," Layden says of calling plays for certain players.
Instead, the Jazz have their players spread the floor and spot up for open shots. All considered, they're trying to do the same thing as everybody else in the NBA. They're looking for openings and mismatches and trying to shoot from as close to the basket as possible against a defense that usually knows what's coming even if their own players sometimes don't.