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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Can the Triangle Offense Still Work in Today’s NBA?

During his introductory press conference Tuesday, Knicks President Phil Jackson reiterated his belief in the Triangle offense, as well as in “system basketball.” Whichever coach he pegs to lead the Knicks–the smart money is on Steve Kerr, who played under and has a good relationship with Jackson–will likely run the Triangle, or at the very least something close to it. While Jackson’s hiring has been received mostly positively among fans, there has been some skepticism around whether the Triangle is still viable in today’s modern NBA, where the vast majority of teams center their offense around pick and rolls that lead to drives to the basket and/or three-point shooting rather than mid-range shots and crashing the boards.

Jackson’s love for the Triangle emanates from a set of offensive principles he believes are necessary for winning. He calls them the “Seven Principles of the Sound Offense.” They are:

1. Penetration

2. Spacing

3. Ball and player movements

4. Options for the ball handler

5. Offensive rebounding

6. Versatile positioning

7. Use individual talents

Though they deviate slightly from some of the top offenses in the league today (for example, Miami [and Boston during the KG/Pierce/Allen era] could care less about offensive rebounding) these principles are mostly ones of common sense. Teams that aren’t looking to fit to their personnel and space the floor effectively are teams that probably don’t score very many points. Jackson’s preferred system is the Triangle, and he obviously had a lot of success running it. (COUNT THE RINGZ, YO!)

The Triangle is an offense that primarily operates out of the post. While many think of it as a system that’s slower and more methodical, pace data courtesy of NBA.com suggests otherwise. Jackson’s 10 Laker teams of the 2000s (NBA.com’s data goes back as far as the 2000-2001 season, so the 1999 Lakers were not included) averaged 95.21 possessions a game. That’s not blistering fast, but it certainly isn’t slow. For context, the average pace among the 30 NBA teams each of the last three years (including 2013 as of 3/19) was 96.49, 94.44 and 93.76. The two teams that played in the finals last season, Miami and Oklahoma City, played at regular season paces of 92.97 and 95.89 respectively. Pushing the pace is a key principle of the Triangle, as early offense is universally recognized as an intelligent way to attack defenses.

Another concern with the Triangle pertains to shot selection. Because it mainly operates out of the post – another name for the system is the “Triple Post” – it does generate a lot of mid-range jump shots. With the evolution and increased use of analytics, offenses today are shooting fewer long twos and instead are focusing on three-point shots and securing points at the rim. As defenses have adjusted to encourage offenses to shoot from the mid-range area, long twos are shots that draw a groan from more analytical thinkers. However, those who take a more old-school approach to the game believe the shot still has value. They argue that taking what the defensive gives you is still a good modus operandi.

In comparing the shot selection data for Jackson’s last three Laker teams (2008-09 through 2010-11) and comparing them to last season’s ten best offenses (Miami, Oklahoma City, New York, LA Clippers, Denver, Houston, San Antonio, LA Lakers, Brooklyn, Golden State), the data suggests that in fact the Triangle does result in a team taking more mid-range shots and fewer threes. When looking at the top offenses of 2012, 25% of their shots taken came from the mid-range, while 8% came from the corner three and 19% came from the above the break three. For the Lakers, 29% came from the mid-range, while 6% came from the corner three and 16% came from the above the break three.

For those not so good at math (I definitely fall under this category), the Lakers shot 4% more mid-range jumpers, 2% fewer corner threes and 3% fewer above the break threes. Part of this deviation may be due to the drop the midrange shots league-wide but still, that’s not what you want out of an offense in an NBA where defenses are begging offenses to take these kind of shots. However, not all shots are created equal. Andrea Bargnani hoisting up a long-two with his foot on the line is different than Kobe Bryant shooting one from the elbow while coming off a screen. The Triangle is a system that fosters ball-movement and thus a good portion of these shots are of catch-and-shoot variety. And though this may not be the case by intention, the Triangle counteracts its propensity for generating mid-range shots in other areas of the offense.

For starters, Jackson’s Laker teams were incredibly good at limiting turnovers. One of the downsides of having one or two dominant ball-handlers who do the lion’s share of the creating, such as high usage point guards, is that offenses are susceptible to high turnover rates. Houston, Oklahoma City and Miami are all top-ten offenses this season, but they rank in the bottom-third of the league in protecting the ball. Because the Triangle is a set of options based off what the defense does, the ball is always moving and the offense isn’t overly predictable.  Unless the set falls apart, there isn’t a lot of ISO-ball where a player goes one-on-five with his teammates standing around doing nothing. Each of Jackson’s last three Laker teams recorded team turnover rates below 14%, which is very good.

In addition to producing low turnover rates, the Triangle also places a heavy focus on offensive rebounding, which in turn produces extra possessions and more shots closer to the rim. Many of the top offenses in the league don’t even bother with offensive rebounding – Miami may post the lowest OREB% in league history this season.

There are two reasons for this. One, offenses are playing smaller and more spread out and thus simply don’t have as many big bodies operating in the paint area. Two, they want to emphasize getting back on defense because more teams are playing faster. Four of the NBA’s top ten offenses this season fall in the bottom-third of the league in offensive rebounding. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean good offensive rebounding teams can’t be good offensive teams, as both Houston and Portland are both top-ten in both O-RTG and OREB%. And while the Triangle emphasizes offensive rebounding, it also provides court spacing balance to prevent opposing offenses to get easy buckets in transition – both the 2009 and 2010 Lakers ranked 11th in transition defense, per Synergy Sports.

The biggest issue with the Triangle is that coaches not named Phil Jackson–Tim Floyd, Kurt Rambis, Jim Cleamons–have struggled to successfully implement it. Because it’s a system of reads, it takes a lot of practice time to master. It requires high IQ players with multiple offensive skills. And while it’s sold as being flexible and able to adapt to lesser skilled players, not all players are right for it. JR Smith is a poor fit for the triangle because his first, second, third and fourth inclinations as a basketball player are to shoot the ball every time he touches it. Others, like Carmelo Anthony, are tailor-made for it.

Although the concerns about the Triangle are legitimate, it is still an offense that can be effectively run in today’s NBA (though it certainly wouldn’t be my first choice). In the 2000s, Jackson’s ten Laker units averaged 106.38 points per 100 possessions. That mark would rank as the 9th best offense this season. The 2007 Lakers scored 110.3. If the new coach (or Woodson, but the Knicks don’t want me to hurt myself, right? …right?) can successfully implement the system with Anthony as the centerpiece, New York will be just fine offensively. They won’t shoot as many threes as they have the past few seasons, but at the very least, they’ll move the ball better, grab more offensive rebounds. If it works the way it’s supposed to, Anthony will dominate, role players like Iman Shumpert will thrive in more defined roles and the team won’t be so reliant on one or two key scorers.

The more pressing issue, moving forward, is fixing the defense.

They were the 3rd ranked offense last season and have been a top-five unit since Andrea Bargnani went down with injury. Their inability to stop opposing teams is what has kept them from being more successful. Jackson is more than justified in wanting to turn the Knicks into a system basketball team. San Antonio is the most obvious example for why that’s a good idea. They’ve had guys in-and-out of the lineup all year, yet haven’t missed a beat on offense. However, they’re also a top-five defense. For the Knicks, it won’t matter what offense they’re running if they can’t stop the bleeding at the other end of the court.

19 comments on “Can the Triangle Offense Still Work in Today’s NBA?

  1. swiftandabundant

    As someone who is admittedly not a coach or basketball mind, I am skeptical of an over reliance on analytics and statistics in basketball. I do think it has value but I believe Phil Jackson is right and the Triangle can work in today’s NBA. My thinking is this.

    First, new approaches are used by a team/coach and they have success with it and then everyone copies it. Then its considered an infallible truth until another team/coach comes along and goes against that thinking and has success.

    I get it. A 2 point shot close to the basket is the best shot to take. A 3 point shot is less high percentage but nevertheless good to take because its worth 3 points. So the mid range shot is “bad” because its a lower percentage shot than the close to the basket 2 but worth less than the 3 point shot. But here’s the thing. Statistics and analytics are great, but basketball on offense is still about spacing. If you have a player like Melo or Kobe who can make a mid range shot at a higher rate than most players, that allows you to have that player operate in an area of the court where most players can’t. So that spreads the offense and makes the defense have to work harder. Plus, an open shot taken in the flow of the offense is still the best shot to take, no matter where it is on the court (excluding like a half court shot).

    Plus, we’ve seen it with this team the last few years, even last year when we were good. The offense looked great when the pick and roll was working and the 3s were falling but against a good defense, that offense is rather simplistic. There have been teams that have gone far in the playoffs using this offense but we’ve seen plenty of teams flounder in the playoffs once they face a good defense because the offensive system is simple. You still need strong post play and good mid range shots. Sometimes that’s all you get.

  2. Crumple

    I think as defenses adapt to taking away 3s and close 2s offenses will respond by generating awesome mid range 2 point looks and focusing on ORebs and maybe the Knicks will be ahead of the curve if they install the Triangle post haste.

  3. KnickfaninNJ

    Looking at the data, I can’t say I agree that Shumpert is well suited for the Triangle offense and JR is horrible for it. JR gets more assists than Shumpert and he’s a much better shooter. He also can handle the ball and can shoot from many spots on the floor. Shumpert this year has been mostly a horrible shooter except for the corner three and often when he handles the ball in traffic he loses it. Shumpert does rebound well. I think Shumpert is more suited for D’antoni’s offense and Smith more suited for the Triangle.

  4. swiftandabundant

    @ 2…that is definitely something I believe as well. Something revolutionary in strategy within 3 or 4 years becomes the norm and then someone either does something else that is new or goes against the perceived thinking and does something old school and all of a sudden they are the genius that revolutionized the game and had an advantage over everyone else.

    It also seems like from reading about The Triangle, even when Phil was winning rings with The Bulls and Lakers that a lot of teams just didn’t run it cause it takes a while to teach it, players have to buy into it, coaches don’t have the patience for it cause you might have to lose some games or struggle while your players figure it out. So its this offense that is always a bit outside the box but if a team can learn it and execute it well, they have an advantage over other teams cause other teams haven’t seen it.

    Dantoni’s pick and roll, 3 heavy offense is a thing of beauty to watch when its clicking and you can blitzkrieg teams and get out to a huge lead but I remember even those Suns teams had trouble keeping leads and had trouble in close games and sometimes got creamed by teams when their offense wasn’t clicking. Seems like an offense based on constant movement, mid range shots, etc…is less sexy but maybe more reliable in the playoffs.

  5. johnlocke

    @Knickfan — looking at their brains and style of play — I think Shump is much better suited to play triangle than JR. On style of play, Shump is a better defender and has shown he can be a disciplined offensive player, whose contribution to the court don’t sway with his shooting %s. JR is a maddeningly inconsistent player, undisciplined player, who has flashes of brilliance mixed in with longer periods of mediocrity. Also, and I hate to say it, but the guy is just not the smartest, whereas Shump strikes me as someone that is eager and willing and able to learn. Shump also seems to have this ability to show up in big games, moreso than JR, who almost singlehandedly brought us to a game 7 against Boston last year.

  6. KnickfaninNJ

    I agree that JR is a maddeningly inconsistent player, and not as good on offense as Shump. But on offense Shump doesn’t play any smarter than JR; and given his rate of improvement in three seasons, I am not sure he’s going to break out soon and look like a player who’s learning and getting better. I would love to be pleasantly surprised. On the other hand, I think JR actually learned stuff from Woody and is playing smarter basketball than he used to. This doesn’t fix the inconsistency in his shooting, but it shows he can learn.

  7. Owen

    It would be fun to actually watch Melo run an offense. That’s the thing about the Triangle I would most look forward to seeing…..

  8. yellowboy90

    I don’t know I think the triangle might be good for JR because it gets him moving without the ball and working off screens which gives him the step and separation he needs to drive or shoot.

    Then again Jr is Jr. but Ron Artest was Ron Artest and Rodman was Rodman. Maybe its different because those players were defensive players but I’m sure Ron was still a headache on O with his crazy shots.

  9. ephus

    The most important thing about the Triangle (for the Knicks) is that it totally de-emphasizes the PG. I see that as a huge upside for the Knicks because they do not have an elite PG and they are unlikely to obtain one next season.

  10. JK47

    The most important thing about the Triangle (for the Knicks) is that it totally de-emphasizes the PG. I see that as a huge upside for the Knicks because they do not have an elite PG and they are unlikely to obtain one next season.

    And the other benefit of not needing a pure PG is that most modern point guards are non-entities on defense, and tend to be 6’3″ and under. With the triangle in place, you could theoretically use a guy like Shump as a Ron Harper-esque PG and pair him with another sound defensive guard, and voila, solid defensive backcourt. Jax loves long, ball-hawking guards that are adept at getting into passing lanes, a role for which Shump seems to fit the bill.

    JR is probably gonna have to either sit or get dealt, because I truly doubt he has the discipline or smarts to thrive in the triangle.

  11. mj1

    The triangle can work for JR, if he buys into it. What we forget is that he is a pretty dead eye shot when shooting in rhythm off ball movement. It’s when he dribbles around and around and finally throws up an off-balance fade away is when he has problems. The triangle is based on ball movement and shots resulting from said ball movement. Not to mention taking advantage of open lanes to the basket that will also result from moving the ball. JR is pretty accurate in those scenarios, more so than Shump.

  12. mokers

    I think JR and Shump could both thrive in a triangle setup. A lot of the problem with the offense is that the Knicks only have a few people that can initiate the offense and get everybody else involved. Melo initiates, but mostly off a double-team when he is ISO. Felton can initiate, but if the primary roll man on the PnR is defended well, things break down quickly. JR initiates into an ISO that gives us that wonderful step-back fadeaway two we all love. Etc, etc. I think that is probably where the Knicks missed Kidd so much this year. Even if the Knicks aren’t running triangle on every play, it will be great to have a base set that is more than Melo/Amar’e in the post and wait for a double team to get ball movement.

  13. GoNyGoNYGo

    To evaluate the triangle offense, one must understand it. Stats mean a lot but only in context. My worry is that the Knicks don’t have personnel suited for it.

  14. Donnie Walsh

    Is it a problem that Jackson has been in Dolan’s ear since December, yet Woodson remains the coach? Pretty much every poster here was able to pinpoint Woodson’s decision making– be it lineups, or switching, or predictability, or over-reliance on heavy minutes for Anthony– as the culprit for many of the unnecessary losses this season. It seemed that Dolan was just being his using pig-headed self, hopelessly loyal to CAA and his band of sycophants. And not like it matters a whole lot in the long run, but if Jackson told Dolan to let Woodson coach out the season, then he is, ultimately, the one who is responsible for the Knicks missing the playoffs, because Herb Williams (or anybody in the KB community) would have had a 7 game winning streak in late March actually mean something. As it is, the Knicks are going to miss the playoffs, Denver will be in the lottery, all because nobody had the obvious idea of replacing the one guy that was fireable. (Meet the new Knicks, same as the old Knicks?)

  15. lavor postell

    I don’t get the idea that JR is a poor fit for the Triangle. He has a significantly better handle than anybody on the team other than Felton and is easily the most creative passer. He actually seemed to thrive earlier this season when we ran out units with no pg and instead had him THJ and Shump out there. Putting him in an offense where he’s more than a spot up shooter or an iso specialist would be huge.

    Shump is also not a smart player. He commits stupid reaching fouls all the time, though these have decreased in frequency since the beginning of the year. He takes awful pull up jumpers that are worse than JR’s because they have no chance of going in. He can’t create off the dribble for himself right now and he has zero ability in the post. I think Shump will benefit from being in the Triangle as it will minimize the deficiencies in his game.

    I think JR could potentially thrive in the Triangle and realize his immense potential because it will minimize all the iso, step back jumper shit he does when he’s allowed to freelance.

    Lamar Odom pre-Triangle (5 seasons, 310 games):
    TS% 51.9, eFG% 47.1, WS/48 .089

    Lamar Odom Triangle (7 seasons, 519 games):
    TS% 55.8, eFG% 52.4, WS/48 .140

    I haven’t dug further yet, but Odom was a similarly frustrating player, with immense talent that was prone to awful decisions before being traded to the Lakers. He ended up playing a huge role on those title winning 09 and 10 teams as a ball handling, big capable of taking guys inside and out. Obviously JR isn’t a 6’11 forward, but his talent is not in question as much as his decision making a lot of which has to do with his coaches and offensive systems he’s been used in.

  16. nyk8806

    woodson’s google search history over the last week and a half:

    triangle offense how to run it
    triangle offense how to run it for dummies
    what is zen?
    phil jackson hobbies
    phil jackson favorite food
    what is a 241?
    number of timeouts nba
    verticality hibbert
    goatee waxing coupon nyc
    list of free agent centers by height
    gift to get someone from minnesota to say sorry
    mexico luxury villas

  17. EB

    Why do you compare the Lakers with modern teams? Wouldn’t it be a better comparison to their contemporaries? By comparing them with modern teams you take them outside of the context of the rules and culture of the time.

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