On the triangle offense

March 2, 2017

 

 

The Knicks, apparently, are bringing the triangle offense back. That means something, I think. It sounds like it means something.

 

Only, in 2017, it's hard to really conceptualize what, in a real and concrete sense, that would mean. Jeff Hornacek, transparently at the behest of Phil Jackson, wants to play a "more traditional" triangle system. They want to, in the words of Hornacek, be able to "say either yay or nay" on a player fitting into the system.

 

All of this presupposes the triangle is a system. That it is a functioning, self-contained blueprint for making basketball points.

 

Forget, for a moment, about how outdated it is, about how it treats the three as a pleasant accident. Let's not even think just yet about what it is not. Just think about what it is.

 

Yes, it requires multiskilled players, floor-wide passing and shooting. It requires high basketball IQs and spatial intelligence. It requires intricate teamwork.

 

It also requires an incredibly talented invidual to make it all tick. It requires a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant.

 

I learned, at 29, how to drive a stick-shift for the first time recently. Getting that timing right between the clutch and the gas so that the car may move forward and you don't bloody stall a seventh straight try? That's the triangle offense. The stick that changes gears and makes the car actually, you know, perform? That's Michael.

 

Go back and watch some old Bulls possessions. Look at how often their sets just initiate out of a couple screens to get Mike the ball between the eblow and the block. Then they'd clear out and let him work. He could hit his man with a turnaround jumper, back him down into the post or face him up and beat him off the dribble. Sometimes he would curl out of an off-ball screen and take the ball up around the three-point line, where he could shoot or tear toward the hoop. But the concept stayed the same: clear out and let him work.

 

 

 

All the vaunted passing and motion of the triangle was designed to set Michael up with the ball and a one-on-one situation. He rarely lost those. The cycling, the triangling, if you will, was usually Plan B, if they couldn't get Michael the ball out of the first set. Or, if he did get it and, for some reason, was too smothered to work, he could move the ball and they could reset.

 

Kobe liked the ball down more at the baseline or up by the elbow instead of that sweet spot at the edge of the middle of the paint Jordan liked, but it worked more or less the same for him too.

 

This isn't about Phil Jackson's ongoing failure to step into the 21st century, or even about how anachronistic the triangle is in and of itself. 

 

This is about how the triangle has always been something of a myth. If you and I and three of our closest friends go over to a park and run the triangle, what we'll mostly do is run around a lot and pass a bunch and eventually someone will take a shot. If we execute it perfectly, if our cuts are precise and our positioning is pristine and our passes are crisp and decisive, the end result will be an open shot.

 

And there is use in that. If you are playing high school basketball or even lower-level college ball, there is much that is useful in that. But it'll still just be a dude taking a shot.

 

What only ever made the triangle more was that otherworldly ability of a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to hit shots others couldn't and own one-on-one match-ups. To attack gaps and exploit vulnerabilities barely detectable. The triangle was an efficient manner of setting up a talent like that to break everything down.

 

Without that, though, the triangle is, even in its best implementations, a lot of highly organized running and passing.

 

In a world when the game was played mostly within the three-point line, it was as good a system as there was at creating the pockets of space a player like MJ or Kobe could grab the ball and wreak havoc in. But the game is no longer played that way, and there aren't really players like that anymore.

 

To be fair, I can almost kind of see where Jackson is coming from. Carmelo Anthony is in his way the last true triangle stick shift. He loves to get the ball and face guys up for a jumper, or back them down into the post, or, maybe a little less these days, beat them off the dribble and get to the rim.

 

He did have his best seasons as a pro in that 2012-13 stretch, back when the Knicks were actually pretty good for a little bit under Mike Woodson. Had a career best in PER and win shares/48*, his usage rate in 2012-13 was a career-high, league-leading, MJ-esque 35.6.

 

The triangle the Knicks were running a few years ago brought out the best in Melo and coincided with their best run maybe in the last 15 years. So yeah, I can see what Jackson might be thinking on some level.

 

The problem is defenses can see a mile past that these days. They can play zone, they can double the point man in the triangle, and Melo's never been a good enough or willing enough passer to break that down. They'll park a rim protector in his way, and he doesn't have that LeBron kind of explosiveness to beat it. 

 

And then, yeah, the triangle offense is still not as efficient as a spacey three-and-dunks 2017 offense, and as that Deadspin article linked to at the beginning noted, offense isn't even really the Knicks' problem. And even if offense were their problem, they're currently one of only two teams in the league (the other being Dallas, inspired by Harrison Barnes doing his most earnest MJ-Kobe impression) in the top 10 in the NBA in shot attempts from 10-14, 15-19 and 20-24 feet. They lead the league in 10-14 foot attempts.

 

If they're not running a pure enough triangle, the output sure is pretty triangle-y. 

 

But that's kind of the thing with the triangle, isn't it? It is not and never has been a product purely of its own making. 

 

It has been a product of Michael, or Kobe, or Melo's making. Even in 2017, Phil Jackson evidently is still clinging to the belief that it is otherwise. 

 

*24.8 in 12-13, 24.4 in 13-14; .184 12-13, .172 13-14.

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