It was late September of 1999 and the Los Angeles Lakers were engaged in their first preseason practice session, an occasion that also marked Phil Jackson’s official on-court debut as the team’s coach. I happened to be sitting in the otherwise empty stands next to Jerry West, who was then the Lakers’ general manager, and who had a well-documented angst toward Jackson.
As we watched the media swarming around the players and the coaching staff, I said this to West: “Don’t expect much from the team at the start of the season because it’ll take a while for Phil to get his guys comfortable in the triangle offense.”
West huffed, nodded vaguely to where Jackson was surrounded by the media, and said, “He’s got six weeks.”
Turned out that Jackson lasted longer in LA than did West, and also led the Lakers to five championships.
Now, as then, there are several relevant triangular questions as the New York Knicks prepare to begin their third season under Jackson’s administrative control as well as their initial campaign with Jeff Hornacek as coach.
1. How, in general terms, can the triangle be described?
Basically, it’s all about systematizing fundamental basketball principles, with the main one being to move the ball and the players in coordinated sequences that provide optimal spacing. When properly executed, this constant movement results in open shots, takes full advantage of any double-teaming, gets all players involved, and also provides defensive protection against fastbreaks. Since it’s a “read” offense, players have to be extremely alert to what the defense is doing, what their teammates are doing, what options every movement creates, and also to be patient and unselfish.
Screen/rolls, screen/pops, give-and-goes, double-screens, baseline snakes, pin-downs, two-man games, isos, low-post action, et al — every conceivable situation is possible in the triangle.
And, contrary to the pontifications of know-nothing observers and observers who should know better, the triangle will remain relevant as long as basketball fundamentals are important.
2. How much triangle will the Knicks utilize?
The official word from Hornacek is that they will use “aspects” of the triangle. That’s like a woman saying that she’s partially pregnant.
Indeed, the triangle should be an all-encompassing system and not merely a collection of plays. That’s why Tex Winter used to describe the triangle as a “philosophy.”
It’s understandable that Hornacek wants to uptempo his offense. In Derrick Rose the Knicks finally have a point guard who can successfully run, slash, finish and make appropriate passes in an open field. Courtney Lee can also operate efficiently on the run. So can Kristaps Porzingis, Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah (if his body parts are in working order), as well as the various youngsters at the end of the bench.
Carmelo Anthony is the major variable here. At age 32 and with a recent history of leg ailments, it remains to be seen if, and for how long, he can keep up with his quicker, younger teammates. Also, how much will Melo’s all-out full-court running deplete his energy on his already sub-par defense?
Okay, the Knicks’ plan is to run and, when their hot-footed attacks fail to produce an acceptable shot, to then go into their triangular mode. The problem here is that, whereas the triangle needs time to work, after the fastbreak and early-offense sequences are executed, the Knicks will be faced with an abbreviated shot clock. Theoretically, there might be time for only a handful of options in the resulting half-court sets — which is a plus for the defense.
So, moving quickly from a full-speed attack into triangularized alignments will take even more time to learn than West’s allotted six weeks. Moreover, given the difficulty of New York’s early schedule (they open against the Cleveland Cavaliers), Jackson might not be able to recognize his pet offense until Christmas.
3. How well-suited is the roster to playing the triangle?
Porzingis, Lee and Anthony are perfect fits. Because Noah is a terrific passer, he can excel as the low-post hub of the offense. The only worry is that the 6’11” Noah weighs only 230 pounds, so it’s questionable whether he can routinely establish and maintain the on-the-box position that’s so crucial to the offense’s success. The 7’3” Porzingis currently weighs in at 240 and has worked to improve his core and lower-body strength. However, his extremely high center of gravity presents the same low-post problems.
Even so, the triangle can also be executed with a big at the high instead of the low post — which is what the Lakers often did with Karl Malone.
Otherwise, the triangle is mostly a shooter’s offense, a design that fits Lance Thomas, Sasha Vujacic, Justin Holiday, Anthony, Lee, Jennings and especially Porzingis (perhaps even Noah if he can regain the confidence in his mid-range J). Too bad Rose is at best a mediocre shooter.
Another consideration is that teams that look to run must necessarily limit the playing times of their starters. Unfortunately for the Knicks, their bench is one of the shortest in the NBA.
So, then, the Knicks are faced with having to resolve major problems with their offense — to say nothing of their problematic defense.
4. How will this all work out?
It will certainly require time and diligence, but the eventual outcome is a complete mystery.
Watch this space for further developments.