For those who have followed the New York Knicks since at least after the All-Star break, you should have been aware that the team officially committed to the Triangle Offense during that period of the season. This transition to the triangle caused quite a stir in both the locker room and in the press. Here is a taste of what both parties are saying about the Triangle. Here is Ian Begley of ESPN New York in his “Phil Jackson’s Knicks anniversary” report where he mixes both his opinion and sourced claims:
Jackson may eventually be able to find players who excel in — and appreciate — the triangle. But the majority of current Knicks aren’t comfortable in — and don’t care for — the offense, according to sources.
These players often point to the number of midrange shots the offense produces (the Knicks lead the league in mid-range attempts, per NBA.com) and the tight spacing, which makes it difficult to drive. They also question the amount of contested shots taken (New York ranks in the top 10 in contested 2-point field goals, per NBA.com).
If the dysfunction continues, no one should be surprised if Porzingis and Hernangomez leave the franchise in free agency. That, of course, would be the biggest black eye of Jackson’s presidency.
The majority of the Knicks roster would mean that at least seven players do not like the offense, yet only Carmelo Anthony (see quote further down) and Derrick Rose have voiced any sort of public, on-the-record criticism against the offense. On the contrary, Kristaps Porzingis, the future of the Knicks franchise, likes the Triangle: “I like the Triangle. My first season, the whole first season we played nothing but the triangle so I know it pretty well. I like the offense. It can only work if everybody believes in it and everybody executes it the right way.”
Here is Matt Moore of CBS Sports commenting on the triangle in two different reports (report 1 and report 2):
Here’s a quick question. What current players actually espouse a love for the triangle? The guards that have played in it hate it, with a blinding passion. But no player comes out and says “the triangle is the best.” It’s only former players who won with it, or sycophants who worship at Jackson’s altar after his 11 rings.
The idea behind the Triangle, according to the Post, is that Jackson claimed it would help improve the defense with how it’s designed, to limit transition scores for the opponent. The head of the Knicks’ defense, of course, isn’t Hornacek, but longtime triangle disciple Kurt Rambis who, by the way, was installed specifically by Jackson. As I wrote about in February, the Knicks’ problem isn’t offense, it’s the defense.
So how has moving to the Triangle the past two months helped the defense? Here’s a shocker, it hasn’t.
It should be noted that Moore’s “2 months” was 14 games played when his article was published. During that stretch of games, the Knicks defensive rating for was 109.4 and the team’s defensive rating pre-All-Star break was 108.7, per NBA.com. So, when Moore tweets that the Knicks defense has gotten worse since implementing the Triangle, he is talking about a difference of 0.7.
“I think everybody was trying to figure everything out, what was going to work, what wasn’t going to work,’’ Anthony said in the locker room at the former Delta Center. “Early in the season, we were winning games, went on a little winning streak we had. We were playing a certain way. We went away from that, started playing another way. Everybody was trying to figure out: Should we go back to the way we were playing, or try to do something different?”
Anthony suggested he liked the Hornacek way.
“I thought earlier we were playing faster and more free-flow throughout the course of the game,’’ Anthony said. “We kind of slowed down, started settling it down. Not as fast. The pace slowed down for us — something we had to make an adjustment on the fly with limited practice time, in the course of a game. Once you get into the season, it’s hard to readjust a whole system.”
Anthony’s pace and speed comments are odd given that he had the slowest offensive, defensive, and overall average speed on the team; it wasn’t like Anthony was participating in the pacing/fast-paced offense. Moreover, the “little winning streak” Melo referenced was during a stretch of 20 games between mid-November and right before Christmas Day where the Knicks went 13-7. Despite the good record, the Knicks had an overall net rating of -0.7 and a road net rating of -3.9 (with a defensive rating of 109.1) over that 9-game sample, per NBA.com.
The timeline Anthony mentions also does not align with the reports. The Knicks did not officially switch over to the triangle until after the All-Star break. The Knicks were 11 games under .500 entering the break and they were running a “faster and more free-flowing” offense during that stretch — it clearly wasn’t working nor overcoming their atrocious defense.
Because of this recent wave of harsh criticism for the Triangle Offense, which has been going on since Jackson became the Knicks President of Basketball Operations near the end of the 2013-14 NBA season, it only seems both relevant and important to provide a guide to the Triangle offense. The system faces a fair amount of criticism, with the main talking points being “it generates too many long 2-point shots”, “it is too rigid and isn’t free-flowing”, “it’s antiquated for today’s NBA game”, and “certain teams run aspects of the triangle but not the entire offense”.
Are these criticisms fair? Is the triangle truly a relic from the past? Does George Church have a better chance of resurrecting the wooly mammoth to help Nikita Zimov save the world from climate change than Phil Jackson does trying to resurrect the Triangle Offense? Instead of simply accepting the criticisms at face value, let’s examine all aspects of the offense, to determine if this system of basketball truly has no place in the NBA.
First and foremost, what is the Triangle Offense? The system is possibly the most recognizable offense by name for any casual NBA fan, yet very few people outside of Phil Jackson’s coaching pyramid can describe the intricacies of the offense with any sort of clarity. Almost everyone knows the basics, but the people who know more than the system’s basic player placement on the court are few and far between.
It is an offensive system that promotes and encourages the same basic tenets of any motion or “free-flowing” offense: quick passing, constant off the ball movement, careful and specific spacing, and efficiency. This combination of ball and player movement allows for all five players on the court to be interchangeable in the offensive spots. This sort of flexibility the Triangle creates allows a team to present different offensive looks and sets to the defense. When executed properly, the offense is quite difficult to predict and scout, as the offense is not forcing the defense to react, but rather the offense reacting to what the defense is presenting.
Don’t just take my word for it, this is how an unnamed coach — he wanted to remain anonymous because he “fears being perceived as a ‘Triangle coach’ could marginalize his reputation” — described the offense to Chuck Klosterman in a 2012 Grantland article about the Triangle:
The Triangle is considered a “flow offense,” in which player movement is the most important detail (set plays are rare). It’s also considered a “mirror offense,” because the same things happen on each side of the floor. Neither of these qualities is unique or even uncommon.
The strength of the offense is that all five players are interchangeable and that anyone on the floor can occupy the post (assuming that player has the best post matchup).
There are passes players are automatically supposed to make if they receive the ball at certain positions on the floor against specific defensive alignments. These decisions are called “automatics”. Those automatics are what the players need to mentally internalize.
What are the positions on the court and what are these “automatics” players must know? Player positions in the Triangle are simple. There is a strong side and a weak side, with the strong side consisting of one player in the post, one player in the corner, and one player on the wing and the weak side having a player above the break and other in the high post, or “pinch post” as it’s commonly referred to, with all players spaced out between 15 through 20 feet apart (ideally 18 feet) from one another, forming a … you guessed it, a triangle!
Image via BBallBreakdown with added lines
To initiate the offense traditionally, the player bringing the ball up the court will pass to the player on the strong-side wing and cut to the corner. Once this is completed, this begins multiple sequences of “automatics” in the Triangle, which are predetermined reactions to what the defense is showing. As Doug Eberhardt explains in his 2014 article on the offense, “Think of them as personal algorithms, the computations of which are drilled relentlessly in practice.”
As seen in the video clip below, an entry pass to the post player is given by the player on the wing. Then, both the wing and the initial ball handler in the corner cut to the weak-side. Once those cuts are complete, the players set a screen for the weak-side post player for him to potentially receive a pass at the top of the key, which in turn create for another set of cuts and passes.
This example, of course, does not work out this 100% of the time, but the main takeaway from this should be the first automatic being the pass to the post. Here are two examples of the Knicks executing variations of the basic Triangle actions well against the Wizards:
If the initial pass to the strong-side post player is not there, then the wing looks to swing the ball back to the weak-side wing to run pinch post actions with the weak-side post player. The wing at the top of the arc passes it to the weak-side post player and then cut to receive a handoff.
This is to one of the prevalent “aspects of the triangle” executed by teams in the NBA: a two-man game between a player above the break and the man at the elbow with plenty of space to operate on what was once the weak-side. This area of the court is where Carmelo Anthony likes to isolate.
If the pass to the post and the pass to the wing atop the break are not available, then the next automatic initiates, which is the weak-side post player comes to the top of the key to receive the pass to initiate a “blind pig” action
Blind pig is when a player comes from the post to receive a pass and then the wing on the perimeter nearest that post player cuts to the basket in order to be in a position to receive a pass with momentum. This action does not have to be executed in the center of the court, but then we are getting into a semantics issue with “pistol actions.” In any event, for the sake of uniformity, here is Kristaps Porzingis and Derrick Rose running a blind pig against the Rockets:
Porzingis comes out to receive the ball in the high post from Willy Hernangomez and pitches it to a cutting Derrick Rose, who almost misses Porzingis wide open behind the 3-point line because he was too concerned trying to get into the restricted area. Despite Rose’s poor timing, this clip does show the importance of having a dynamic guard who is a driving threat.
The other and final primary automatic discussed is the other option when the passes to the post and weak side wing are denied: the pass to the corner to initiate pick and roll actions.
Once the ball is passed to the corner, the wing player receives a screen from the post player to help free up a cut to the basket. If that pass isn’t there, then the corner and post players run a pick and roll. The wing player “bananas” out of the way to the other side of the court in order to create more space, which in turn flips the initial spacing — the “strong side” is now the “weak side” where the 2-man game is initiated and vice versa.
(Note, the main triangle automatic clips came from a BBallBreakdown video demonstrating how the triangle offense is alive and being utilized by a number of different teams in the NBA. The video is 15 minutes longbut very informative, so I recommend you taking the time to watch it and see other teams execute these actions.)
The basics of the Triangle seem easy enough, right? Phil Jackson thinks so. This is what he told Mr. Klosterman in the aforementioned Grantland article:
“‘The Triangle is extremely simple,’ Jackson insists. ‘You just need enough energy to get up and down the floor, because it’s a 94-foot offense. Everything happens in 4/4 time, like rap music. That’s how I always described the tempo to players.'”
Mr. Klosterman then mentions that, after saying this, Phil went on to detail the approximately 35 different options that can be performed when the ball is reversed to the top of the key. Just image how long this article would be if I detailed examples of those 35 options just off of one ball reversal. Is the Triangle actually more complicated than Jackson is letting on? “Having taught it at the high school level to players much less skilled than the pros, my feeling is that it isn’t that hard,” is what Coach Nick of BBallBreakdown told Holyfield. “You have to know the offense inside and out and more importantly, have to be a good teacher.”
The one common factor in both the Bulls’ and Lakers’ championships other than Phil Jackson and elite talent was assistant coach Tex Winter. Winter is the mastermind behind the Triangle Offense. As Coach Nick explained, Winter’s “attention to detail was as important as anything Phil did. Without him, other teams have struggled to adhere to its principles properly — hence dooming it to fail.”
Those failures of other teams are truly notable. Jim Cleamons did not even reach 100 games coached during the mid-90s with the Mavericks and has a 28.6 winning percentage, while Kurt Rambis coached 229 games with the Timberwolves and has a worse winning percentage of 28.4, per Basketball-Reference. And what usually is blamed for these failures, including those of the New York Knicks under Jackson, is the Triangle offense. This then creates a stigma for the system around the league, the media, and the fans that are not necessarily true.
“The Triangle generates too many long 2-point shots” has been one of the newer criticism levied against the system — as demonstrated earlier via Ian Begley. The issue with this criticism is its causal direction. Is the Triangle creating long 2-point shots for the Knicks because those are the shots the triangle generates or are the Knicks using the triangle to create long 2-point shots because it suits the strengths of the roster? As you can see, we have a chicken versus the egg scenario.
New York does currently lead the NBA in midrange shot attempts, per NBA.com, but that isn’t because of the Triangle. Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, and Kristaps Porzingis, the three players with the highest usage rates on the team, combine for 17.7 mid-range field goal attempts per game with Anthony taking 9 FGA, per NBA.com; since 2010, Carmelo Anthony has been in the Top 5 of all players for midrange FGA. There also is nothing inherently wrong with taking midrange jump shots if a team is converting those shots at a high percentage (the Knicks are 7th in midrange FG%). As I detailed in another article, converting midrange jump shots at a high percentage is quite important to the success of an NBA team.
Furthermore, what makes this “long 2s” claim even more problematic is that the Los Angeles Lakers under Phil Jackson were consistently a Bottom-10 team in mid-range field goal attempts. Check out the chart below detailing the Lakers field goal attempt locations (field goal percentage ranking in parentheses) during Jackson’s second stint with the team. As you can see, the Laker’s shooting zone figures mirror the findings in my study, where they were in the Top-10 in shooting efficiency in the restricted area and in the paint more often than not, as well as always in the top half of 3-point shot attempts above the break. Even if you look at the shooting zone numbers during Jackson’s first stint with the Shaq & Kobe Lakers, the numbers are similar.
Figure One: Los Angeles Lakers Shooting Rankings
Keep in mind that this is still a time before the significant emphasis on 3-point shooting above the break. The Orlando Magic lead the league in 3-point shot attempts above the break during the 2010-11 season with 18.9 FGA. That figure would rank 18th this year, slightly ahead of the New York Knicks and Oklahoma City Thunder who both average 18.7 FGA from above the break. And the Lakers’ 23rd ranked 24.2 FGA figure would be 5th this year. With all of this being said, within the context of eras, the Lakers were not taking as many midrange field goal attempts as most teams.
So, if the Triangle offense does not generate midrange shots, what type of shots does it generate? “The Triangle Offense is designed to generate OPEN shots,” according to Coach Nick. He continues to elaborate on this topic with the following:
“Where those shots come from relies a lot on the individual abilities of the players running it. It also requires a coach who can shepherd the players to certain spots on the floor to generate their shots. The 3 point shooters the Bulls and Lakers had never had issues getting their 3 pointers, and with so many more players able to shoot the 3, it wouldn’t be a problem for them either. It’s simply a matter of choosing which route to run in the offense — rather than cut to a spot that is 22 feet away, they simply cut to the spot behind the 3 point line.”
Therefore, if a team like the New York Knicks have players who primarily take their shots in the midrange, they are going to run actions out of the triangle to ensure that they get shots in their preferred places.
Yet, the most recognizable critique of the Triangle offense is that the system is antiquated — a relic of previous NBA era, so to speak. This criticism also is not entirely fair nor true, given that the majority of NBA teams run many of the basic actions outlined previously. If you do not want to use the Knicks as the example of the modern usage of the Triangle (and understandably so), then look no further than the Golden State Warriors.
Now, it should be noted that the Warriors do not run the Triangle offense like the Knicks, Lakers, or Bulls. They are the epitome of a team that runs “aspects of the triangle” (they also have a roster with elite talent and that talent buying into what Steve Kerr is selling, something that cannot be overlooked). One may even say that the Warriors run the Triangle Offense 2.0 since the offense they run adheres to all of the same principles of the triangle, uses many of its actions, but is not as bound to its structure in terms of player placement on the court.
Here are the Warriors setting up what appears to be the basic and initial triangle setup:
Steph Curry brings the ball up the court, passes to Andre Iguodala, and proceeds to cut to the corner with the assistance of a Draymond Green screen, who came up from a post position to set it. As Curry continues to the corner, Iguodala then passes to Green. Instead of going all the way to the corner like the traditional Triangle dictates, Curry comes back to set a screen on Iguodala’s defender, freeing up a large cutting lane. Green gives a cutting Iguodala an amazing bounce pass leading to an easy dunk.
It’s these little wrinkles and adjustments to the Triangle that make the Warriors such an elite offense; not constricting themselves by having their players set up specifically in spots on the court frees them to run more Triangle-kosher actions. One of these wrinkles that the team uses frequently is initiating the offense via a Green or Durant weak side post up, but not crowd the lane with another player in the post on the strong-side.
The Warriors also run good ole pinch post actions, as well as traditional weak-side post up actions with another player in the post area with Green and Durant.
What makes the Warriors such a difficult team to defend is their consistent off-the-ball movement and screens to free up their players. In all of these clips, players on all sides of the court are moving to help free up a player to get a high-quality shot.
Golden State has also found excellent balance amongst their transition, early, and half-court offense, which is a result of executing the Triangle at an elite level. “With the triangle, there’s a flow that happens,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told Mr. Doug Eberhardt in his aforementioned Triangle article. “There is often a grey area between transition and half court where a lot of teams get lost. With the triangle, you keep that rhythm going.” The Warriors lead the NBA in transition frequency and points per possession, per NBA.com. And the team’s ability to create early offense is equally as impressive.
In the clip above, Curry brings the ball up the court quickly and passes to Zaza Pachulia to initiate a high post action (another aspect of the Triangle). Curry cuts to the basket and leads Rose into Pachulia, who does a great job sealing Rose off of Curry, and receives the pass from Pachulia for the easy layup. These quick, early offensive actions either from high post actions or a basic pick and roll keep defenses guessing and bring balance to their offense.
Now, let’s compare the Knicks off the ball movement on basic triangle actions. In this first clip, Anthony initiates the Triangle via the weak-side by passing the ball to Lance Thomas and setting himself up for a face-up isolation. Anthony gets the ball back, turns around, and hits the long 2-Point shot, but look at the players on the strong-side. Everyone is completely stagnant, with Rose looking lost as he tries to figure out what he needs to do.
In this second clip, here is Anthony receiving the ball on the weak-side elbow for an isolation post up against Danny Green. Again, zero off the ball movement from the Knicks as three of the players on the court are just standing around the perimeter watching.
And would you be able to tell the difference between the second clip and this third one if I did not tell you that they are different?
This lack of movement from the Knicks is one of the main reasons why their offense can look stagnant, especially when Anthony decides to isolate. As Coach Nick explains, “[Anthony’s] isolations and catches tend to grind the offense to a halt — so much that his teammates anticipate it and they stop cutting as well. The defense can shift over to Melo making his driving lanes impossible and limiting his passes to potentially open teammates.” Anthony is 3rd in the league in isolation frequency, per NBA.com, and despite putting up a respectable 0.99 point per possession on those isolation possessions, the lack of ball movement is doing more harm to the overall offense and success of the team.
The issues with the Triangle are not solely on Carmelo Anthony and his isolation, as many of times, the offense is specifically running isolation for Anthony.
And even when New York does execute the offense well, it looks a bit off.
As you can see in the clip above, the attention to detail and execution are not there. Rose and Hernangomez set awful screens for Lee, who still has his defender on his hip when he releases the shot. “They don’t get into proper spacing and angles, they don’t set good off ball screens, they don’t set their men up with a jab step in one direction before cutting in the other” explains Coach Nick when asked the question of why aren’t the Knicks executing the Triangle actions well. “They also lack proper timing of the cuts — arriving at spots too early or too late, causing the offense to grind to a halt.”
These issues with the Triangle for New York are primarily when the starters are playing, and by starters, primarily Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. The Knicks bench tends to execute the offense with better spacing, pacing, and flow compared to the starters. This difference does not show up in the statistics, as the Knicks simply stink, but their bench does have a higher assist percentage and play better defense, according to NBA.com. With that being said, New York’s starters are at most marginally outperforming the bench.
Figure Two: Knicks Starters vs. Bench Statistics
When the Knicks were on TNT last week, Shaquille O’Neal, who played in the Triangle during his years with the Lakers, was calling the game and shared a similar sentiment. Here is what he said on the broadcast via an Ian Begley report:
“If you look at how the [Knicks’] second team runs the triangle, guys who don’t have a lot of experience in the game and a lot of habits, they ran a lot of it late in the fourth quarter and got a couple of backdoor plays,” O’Neal said. “It definitely does work. Look at the guys, when Phil put this team together, I was liking it: [Kristaps] Porzingis, Carmelo, Rose, [Joakim] Noah. I said, ‘OK, it’s going to work if they embrace the triangle. I like it.’ But again, the ball can never stop.'”
The offense appears to look better because everyone is in constant motion and embracing the system.
The ball sticks to no one and players like Hernangomez and Ron Baker the Shot Maker know when and where to make the correct pass.
The bench also executes Triangle actions well. Here is Kyle O’Quinn operating in the high post and hits Justin Holiday in rhythm for an open 3-point shot after coming off a screen.
And here is Chasson Randle resetting the offense as everyone gets back into Triangle positioning. He beats his defender along the baseline and finds a cutting Derrick Rose who makes the acrobatic layup.
The Knicks do have some young players in Porzingis, Hernangomez, Baker, and Randle who appear to thrive and execute the Triangle offense well. Unfortunately, as much as I love guys like Ron Baker and Chasson Randle, their ceilings do not appear to be any higher than solid rotation players off the bench. If the Knicks can manage to develop two undrafted rookies into being the main backup guards coming off the bench on a competitive team, it would be a huge success for the team and their scouting department. New York simply needs more talent, especially young talent willing to embrace the Triangle and willing to continually improve upon their fundamentals, like passing and cutting.
Much of the mainstream criticisms of the Triangle Offense may not be as legitimate as originally thought, yet the offensive system is far from infallible. The Triangle essentially needs the right mixture of players, the right coaching staff, and the right environment that allows players time to get acclimated to the system. The offense itself is not necessarily the issue, but rather having to be placed in an edenic environment in order for a team to reap its fruits.
Moreover, Jackson believes that the offense is difficult for an impatient person to teach to modern athletes. As he told Mr. Klosterman, “The problem with the Triangle is that you have to teach the most basic, basic skills: Footwork. Where you stand on the floor. And if you have the kind of player who wants to attack and score every time he touches the ball, he will hurt this offense.” Comments like these are where the stigma of the offense being rigid derives.
In order for this system to work, a team needs the right type of players in terms of both skill set and willingness to buy into the structure of the Triangle. Porzingis may be willing to accept it, Hernangomez may have the necessary skill set to thrive in it, and Randle may have played in it during his college career. But when Anthony is not buying into it and Rose doesn’t have the basketball IQ to grasp it, should the Knicks even be trying to implement the Triangle in the first place?
If players are having difficulty understanding its concepts, do the Knicks have both the right players to execute it and the right coaching staff in place in order to teach the Triangle? If learning the Triangle takes time and relies on players knowing all of the potential actions as well as teammate tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, does Jackson and the front office consistently turning over the Knicks roster help encourage this? These questions and issues are all legitimate concerns surrounding the organization.
Phil Jackson wanting to the Knicks to run the Triangle in and of itself isn’t a problem; running the offense played a part in winning 11 championships. The Knicks having larger systematic and roster issues are preventing them from being a competitive playoff team, not the offense. Jackson inherited a roster that should have been blown up before the 2013-14 trade deadline, as the team was wildly underperforming after winning 54 games in the previous season, Carmelo Anthony becoming a free agent during that 2014 offseason, and down two 1st round draft picks over the ensuing three drafts. He was offered far too much money for a position he was not qualified to have and was tasked to clean up years of gross incompetence. How can anyone legitimately expect Jackson to “fix the Knicks” by year three?
With that being said, Jackson has not made easy on himself in the slightest. Many of his decisions have prevented the Knicks from both truly initiating a true rebuild, such as not being able to secure a deal with Steve Kerr to be the team’s head coach, underwhelming trades like the Tyson Chandler trade, everything related to Derek Fisher, and the entire Carmelo Anthony saga — subtweets, press conference, and no-trade clause all included. When the Knicks entered this past offseason with a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek, a good rookie season from Kristaps Porzingis, and being in position to maintain roster continuity, Jackson decided to take a gamble on a contract-season Derrick Rose and signing Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee to long-term deals in what can only be understood as a calculated risk to allow Porzingis to develop on a playoff team.
This offseason gamble clearly backfired, and if you were to find just one silver lining from this season, it is that the failures on the court and of this past offseason reinforce the notion of committing to a rebuild around Porzingis and the Triangle. As awful as Noah’s contract is, it does not hamstring the Knicks cap, especially if they commit to bringing in young players to run the Triangle. Rose is a free agent this summer, let him walk. And instead of being petty with Anthony, Jackson and Carmelo need to discuss a trade that works for both parties. It would be best for Knicks, Carmelo, and Jackson if Anthony was no longer on the team moving forward; the press conference made that clear.
Having the 7th pick in the draft, financial flexibility, and a potential franchise player willing to set the tone and embrace the Triangle offense, Phil Jackson and the New York Knicks are in a position to Jackson’s vision into a reality. “In the end, the Triangle concepts are just basketball,” Kerr told Mr. Eberhardt. “Run, cut, spacing, dribble hand-offs. Lots of ball movement and player movement. With the right talent, those concepts are always going to give you a chance at success.” More than anything else, New York simply does not have the talent on the roster nor their players collectively buying into the Triangle. Without this, arguably the most successful offensive system the NBA has ever seen has no legitimate chance of ever finding that same success again.