Raptors assistant Gleeson brings flex and winning pedigree to coaching staff

By coming out of an offseason with major roster turnover, the Toronto Raptors’ training camp will feature a bunch of fresh faces for both the fans and the organization to get familiar with. While the arrival of players like Scottie Barnes and Precious Achiuwa is worth getting excited about, a more obscure but equally interesting signing could help turn the tides for the franchise heading into the new season. Enter new assistant coach, and master of the Flex offence, Trevor Gleeson.

A native of Warrnambool, Australia, Gleeson took to coaching as a young man, taking over local clubs and coaching the Griffith University men’s basketball team before kicking off his professional career. His first opportunity in the pros came as a development coach for the Brisbane Bullets of the NBL, Australia’s premier basketball league. Over the last 20 years or so, the 53-year-old’s career has taken him around the world, as he spent time in the NBA’s G League and the Korean Basketball League before returning to the NBL, with a short stint as a skills coach in the Australian Football League in between.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 18: Trevor Gleeson, coach of the Wildcats acknowledges the supporters after being presented the 2021 NBL Coach Of The Year trophy by former Wildcats head coach Alan Black during game one of the NBL Grand Final Series between the Perth Wildcats and Melbourne United at RAC Arena, on June 18, 2021, in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Trevor Gleeson, coach of the Wildcats acknowledges the supporters after being presented the 2021 NBL Coach Of The Year trophy by former Wildcats head coach Alan Black during game one of the NBL Grand Final Series. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Gleeson’s biggest success has come with the Perth Wildcats, the NBL team he coached between 2013 and 2021. In eight seasons as head coach, Gleeson led the Wildcats to five championships in six finals appearances, winning NBL Coach of the Year for the second time in his career following the 2020-2021 season.

Much of Gleeson’s success in the NBL was attributed to his use of the Flex offence. Originally known as the “Cha Cha,” the Flex is believed to have been invented by coach Rene Herrerias at Cal-Berkeley in the 1960s. It’s been used to varying degrees of success in North America, most notably guiding coach Gary Williams and the Maryland Terrapins to the 2002 NCAA National Championship.

According to Basketball For Coaches, “the Flex offence is a 4-out, 1-in continuity offence that primarily uses down-screens in a screen-the-screener action and the famous ‘flex cut’ to get open layups or jump shots around the high post. It’s primarily a man-to-man offence, but can be used against a zone with some slight adjustments.

It’s a slow-down, patient offence that requires good spacing, ball-movement, passing, shooting, cutting, and screening by all players.”

Many variations of the Flex offence are seen at both amateur and professional levels, mostly due to the fact that it is a relatively simple and easy system to learn and implement. It is often featured in many sets that today’s NBA teams run on offence, but it is rare to see a pro basketball system predicated almost exclusively on the Flex offence like Gleeson’s was in Perth.

The Flex offence is designed to find the best possible shot in the half-court scenario, moving players around the court swiftly, confusing the defence and giving any of the five players on the floor the chance at scoring. It is used to both open up shooters on the perimeter and create lanes for players to cut to the basket for layups and dunks. The equal opportunity and ball movement between all players are ideal for a club that doesn’t rely on one prominent scorer and shares the offensive load amongst the whole team, just as the Raptors are expected to do this season.

Toronto’s current roster might not be the strongest in recent years, but it is certainly shaping up to be a versatile one. The Raptors have the seventh-highest player-height figures in the NBA, averaging around six-foot-five for a lineup that includes seven players standing at six-foot-nine. While this abundance of size will surely pay off on the defensive end, it will also be used to constantly create mismatches on offence. The fluidity of the Flex offence can ensure that Raptors’ lineups are exploiting these mismatches, both on the perimeter and in the interior.

“Coach (Nick) Nurse has a great offensive system in place already,” Gleeson told the media last Friday. “Hopefully we can add a couple of elements to that [system], which the guys are already familiar with.”

The likes of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby will likely take on most of the scoring responsibilities, but the lack of a standout superstar makes this season a good opportunity to experiment with an equal-opportunity offence. Toronto’s roster boasts a relatively healthy balance of shooters and cutters, giving them the freedom to put up shots from virtually anywhere in the half-court. The squad’s adept shooters - VanVleet, Gary Trent Jr., Svi Mykhailiuk - can be freed up on the perimeter with pin-down screens and get open three-point shots. The team’s more suspect shooters - Barnes, Achiuwa, Khem Birch - can otherwise use their athleticism and size to cut to the basket and finish emphatically.

If the Raptors are indeed going to run Flex this year, Nurse has been careful about divulging too much of his plans for the offence.

“We might run Flex; I ran it in 1985 in high school,” Nurse joked at Raptors Media Day. “[Gleeson] will be in charge of the offence, so if you see some Flex, you can talk to him about that.”

Toronto’s proficiency on the fastbreak has been well-documented and appreciated over the last few years, and will likely be front and centre once again this season with the plethora of big, athletic players on the roster. Nurse’s squad struggled in the half-court in 2020-2021, and there is no doubt that Trevor Gleeson was brought in with the hopes of fine tuning the offence to make the Raptors a force once again. There may be no better place to start than with the simplicity of the Flex offence.

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