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Rosen: In Defense of the Triangle

Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports

A preponderance of media Muppets have dismissed Phil Jackson’s (and Tex Winter’s) Triangle offense as being anywhere from old-fashioned to being successful only because of the superlative talents of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

To back up these claims, critics point to the poor records that resulted when Winter, Jimmy Cleamons and Kurt Rambis instituted the Triangle during their respective stints as head coaches in the NBA.

It says here, however, that all of these naysayers are wrong.

Let’s start with Winter’s somewhat abbreviated term at the helm of the Houston (nee San Diego) Rockets: From 1971 to 1973, his record was only 51-70. But what the critics overlook is the highly significant back story.

With the Rockets’ relocation, Ray Patterson had replaced Pete Newell as general manager, and was itching to replace Winter with his own man (Tom Nissalke). Winter knew that his every mistake would be noted and that most of his achievements would be discounted.

Come what may, Winter was determined to utilize the Triangle offense. “We had a lot of firepower on that team,” said Winter. “Calvin Murphy and Stu Lantz were my starting guards, Rudy Tomjanovich and a rookie named Cliff Mealy were the forwards, and Elvin Hayes was our All-Star center. And it was Elvin who was my biggest problem. I certainly liked Elvin, he’s a wonderful person, but he’s always been difficult to coach, as many of these superstars are.”

“The Big E’s” pet (and Winter said “only”) move in the low post was to dribble once then launch a turnaround jumper spinning either right or left. “But he was so strong and so quick,” said Winter, “that nobody could stop him. Whenever I asked Elvin to do something else, like pass the ball, he’d just say, ‘I’m an All-Star. Why should I change my game? Asking me to pass the ball is like asking Babe Ruth to bunt.’”

Winter also remembered Hayes as having the worst fundamentals of any player he’d ever coached: “His footwork was terrible, and except for his one dribble-and-spin he just couldn’t handle the ball. We had a lot of basic drills that he simply couldn’t execute. He tried to avoid these drills by making believe he was hurt, or by getting his ankles re-taped. Finally he came up to me and said, ‘Coach, it’s too embarrassing for me to be out there.’ So I excused him, and developed four-man drills. Elvin just planted himself in the low post and we ran our offense all around him. It would piss him off, but if he had really good position, we’d give him the ball and let him shoot.”

(Winter would also piss off Hayes by inadvertently referring to him as “Alvin.”)

During an interview for a article I wrote for Sport magazine (February 1974), Hayes said this: “I know these people now—Jack McMahon, Alex Hannum {his ex-coaches}, plus those sportswriters, and those officials who made bad calls against me — they are the enemies of the Lord.” Of Winter, Hayes said, “He told me to stop shooting completely. I was supposed to become a passer. I could have done more for the team selling peanuts.” Then Hayes told me that Winter was “the anti-Christ.”

No wonder Winter’s Triangle offense flatlined.

Cleamons failed in Dallas (28-70 from 1996-97) simply because two of the starters were sleeping with the same woman and refused to pass the ball to their rivals. “Everybody in-and-around the league knew what was going on,” said an ex-referee. “In fact, the word got around that a third player was also in on the act. Working a Mavs game in those days was a laugh riot. Poor Clem never had a chance.”

Rambis compiled a miserable 32-132 record while coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009-2011, a team with a totally inadequate roster. A Western Conference peer of Rambis’s also notes that “Kurt was plagued by a back-stabbing staff of assistant coaches — all of whom were hired by management without his consent, and all of whom undercut his relationship with the players, and actively schemed to get his job.”

To further rebuke the argument that Jackson’s Triangle won 11 championships only because of the heroics of MJ, Pip, Shaq and Kobe, let’s look at the Bulls’ 1993-94 campaign. That’s when Jordan was playing baseball, and Pippen was the team’s only superstar. However, it should be noted that Pippen was never the kind of go-to point-maker that MJ, Shaq and Kobe were. Indeed, Pippen was always more of a facilitator on both ends of the court.

Even so, the Bulls ran the Triangle to near-perfection and won 55 games. If not for an infamously horrendous call by referee Hue Hollins in the endgame of a crucial playoff game against the Knicks, Chicago would have at least survived into the championship series.

I’ve always maintained that the best job Phil did in his coaching career was with that particular team.

Moreover, it should also be noted that Shaq was ringless for his initial eight seasons in the NBA, Jordan for his first six seasons and Kobe for his initial three seasons. None of these three all-time greats started winning championships until they were triangularized.

Hardly a coincidence.

So, then, why were the Knicks so pathetic last season?

Because Jackson inherited a ball club loaded with ego-monsters and sub-par players.  In truth, the season past was more about the future than winning games in the there-now.

With all of the Knicks’ recreant players replaced with players who will embrace the Triangle, look for the team to take the first steps on the return path to glory.

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