Following the Knicks disastrous 2014-15 season, the triangle offense that is a major staple of Phil Jackson’s philosophy has become somewhat of an enigma in New York. Everybody knows the Hall of Fame coach has won 11 NBA Titles using it, but only yielding 17 wins in the Big Apple has some in the local media treating this offense as a running joke.
It’s a different brand of basketball than the more popular run and gun you see in the NBA today, but if the triangle is ran effectively, it can be quite the weapon. Additionally, without Carmelo Anthony for most of last season due to injury and the rest of the roster not being a great fit/buying into the system, the failure is no surprise. The Knicks’ offense looked stagnant and quite frankly unnatural at times last year, but as Phil’s full rebuild and culture change at the Garden is underway, now’s no time to give up on the triangle.
Originally created by HOF coach Sam Barry at USC in the 1940’s, one of his former players Tex Winter honed the triangle offense at Kansas State and helped Phil Jackson perfect it in the NBA with Chicago and L.A. For someone like me that’s yet to hit their 30’s and has watched the league evolve into an offensive free-for-all, its tough to really remember and fully appreciate this famous system.
Let’s take a closer look at the basic fundamentals and strategies of the triangle offense and how this Knicks’ squad already looks better suited to run it than last.
The offense gets its name from the shape it creates when players are in the ideal position. If the ball handler can’t penetrate off the fast break, a big man goes to the block, another player heads to that same wing extended while the man with the ball passes and cuts through to the strong side corner, creating a triangle formation. The other two players are actively cutting to the weak side elbow and top of the key, looking for the skip pass.
Since this strategy is heavily predicated on sharing the ball and spacing, all five players should be about 15-20 feet apart at all times. This allows for everyone to be within a pass of each other and creates a problem for the defense. If a defender decides to double team anyone, it would bring him off his original man by 15 feet or more, creating plenty of open jump shots. If the defense plays the big man straight up, he has the opportunity and room to go to work.
That’s how the triangle offense works; the defense takes away one option, so you go with the next. And there’s supposed to be a plethora of options, as every player is constantly moving with a purpose and getting touches. Whether it’s a post up, a kick out three, a back/front cut, a weak side skip pass or the pick and roll, every single guy should have multiple opportunities to make a play on any given possession.
While all five positions are theoretically interchangeable and each player actively moving in the offense allows superstars to connect with their teammates, you also need to get your best player the ball. Tex Winter said he learned this extra principle from coaching Michael Jordan, a guy who was able to freely use his enormous talent and benefit from the offensive strategy at the same time. New York’s Carmelo Anthony can hit from anywhere on the court, and consistently looking for mismatches in the post or sending him flashing on the weak side elbow should pay immediate dividends for this offense.
Besides not having the right personnel, an issue with the triangle is that it takes patience, discipline and an all-out commitment to the system to be successful. Players entering the NBA with that repertoire intact are rare nowadays, as they are more accustomed to heavy dribble drive and pick and roll basketball. There’s nothing wrong with productive dribbles and putting your defender “on skates”, but the most efficient offense is one that moves the ball unselfishly and takes what the defense gives them. If your team doesn’t buy in, (cough cough last year’s Denver Nuggets) it can be tough sledding.
Remember the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and how everyone marveled at their ball movement during that championship run? Or even the most recent NBA champion, Golden State Warriors and how they swung the rock around the floor? New York is a far cry away from either of those franchises, but a good offense starts with the willingness to effectively move the ball and make selfless, quick decisions.
Something that would immediately help this Knicks squad score the ball is being able to hit from deep. The signing of free agent Aaron Afflalo should provide that and Phil Jackson did a great job of flipping chuckin’ shooting guard Timmy Hardaway Jr. for 6’4’ rookie point guard Jerian Grant.
Like Hardaway Jr., Grant is from NBA bloodlines but is a better passer who is more capable of running the triangle offense. Additionally, the former Notre Dame standout can hit the three ball and is a natural play maker that should make a nice back court combo with Jose Calderon.
The Knicks front office is also probably anxious to see what their biggest acquisition, Kristaps Porzingis is capable of doing in the triangle. The 19-year old Latvian big man shoots from all over the court with ease and is tall enough to be an effective passer. His development, along with the production of other free agent signees like C Robin Lopez, F Kyle O’Quinn and F Derrick Williams are hopeful to boost this New York Knicks team as a whole.
There are various principles of the triangle offense used all over the NBA today. Whether or not Jackson or head coach Derek Fisher will exclusively use this offensive strategy remains to be seen. What we do know is that the Knicks current roster looks to be a better fit for this style of play as of right now. If this young New York team can learn the nuances of the triangle, it’s offense may take a big jump in the right direction this season.