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.