Thursday, March 13, 2014

Overview: A look at the triangle offense

According to reports, Phil Jackson will join the Knicks to become the president of basketball operations. In that position, he will oversee the entirety of the team's basketball decisions, likely including the team's next head coach. That is assuming Mike Woodson is a short timer.

We are still so early on in the process and Jackson hasn't spoken publicly about his plans for New York yet. Or with this organization, it's unclear how much you will ever hear from Jackson. But many people are already wondering if Jackson will attempt to bring the Triangle Offense to New York. The very same offensive strategy that has put eleven rings on his fingers. A system that served Jackson so well and led to such much success, but has more or less fallen to the wayside since Jackson retired in 2011.

So what is the triangle offense and what are the core concepts that go into the offensive strategy? Well, I've decided to write a very brief overview. First, let me start off and say that I'm no expert. I have been following the NBA as a fan for more than a decade and over the past few years I've gotten really interested in the triangle. I've watched Lakers and Bulls games under Phil Jackson and I've read books by Tex Winter. Above all else, I've learned that the Triangle Offense, isn't just a group of set plays, it's an ideology. To run it, everyone on the court has to understand their positioning and the reasoning behind their movements. It's also revolves around passing as a fundamental way to penetrate, rather than pure dribble penetration (as you tend to see in today's NBA).

The Triangle

The system gets it's name from the basic form of the set. On one side of the court, one player stands at the wing, another in the corner and the final player on the block. This forms the traditional triangle. The two remaining players are placed on the opposite or weak side of the court. One player is near the weak side wing or close to the top of the key. The other is near the weak side elbow area. The chart below kind of outlines the formation and show you the spacing formed in the set.


Typically the two big men on the court are the ones occupying the 4 and 5 spots, whereas the 1 and 2 wing spots are usually wing players (SG and SF) with the PG traditionally moving to the corner. However, one big part of Phil Jackson's strategy is the idea of flexibility and interchangeable parts. In a perfect world, any player could be put in any position in the triangle. For instance, it was not unusual to see Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant get shoved into the 5 spot on the block for a post-up play.

Spacing

As the chart above shows, the key part that goes into the triangle offense is the concept of spacing. Every player should be at least 15 to 18 feet apart. The reasoning behind that distance is that it makes it difficult for teams to double team. If a team does try to double a player, the 15-18 feet distance gives enough space for a pass out and clean look by the open player before the defender is able to rotate/close out.

Forming the triangle

As you would expect, there are a number of ways to form the triangle and start the set play. Rule number one is that the triangle can be formed on either side of the court. If the defense is denying the right side, you can swing the ball over and try to set the triangle on the left side.

Photo via nba.com


Every play begins with a player, typically the point guard, bringing the ball up. The point guard (#9 in the pic above) will typically pass to the wing player (#7) on the strong side and then after the pass, the point guard will then move to the corner. The diagram above differs from the tradition formation, because it's set around Kobe Bryant in the low post. This kind of shows how the triangle can be formed in different ways. Kobe cuts across the paint as the pass and corner cut is made. Now we have the triangle and now the play can begin.

Triangle options

After the triangle is set and the ball is in the hands of the player on the wing (typically), at that point, there are five options. The primary option is typically getting the ball to the low post player. Whether that player is a traditional center, like Shaq or Andrew Bynum, or if it's like the play above where Kobe is in the low post spot. The closer to the rim your player is, the higher his FG% will be.

photo via http://thetriangleoffense.blogspot.com/
The next two options are moving the ball to the weak side for perhaps a pick and roll by the wing player and bigman or a pass to the bigman for a Princeton-like backdoor cut/pinch post play to the basket by the weak side wing player. You could also pass to the corner player or the ballhandler could keep the ball himself and run a play, but this is not preferred since the core concept of the triangle is passing the ball.

From this point, their is any number of plays or sets that you can run. As I said, a pinch post weak side play (example below) is a popular choice as is getting the ball to the interior low post player. Whatever the play, if a defense is able to stop it, a good team should look to reset the triangle and try something else.

Examples

Alright, there's only so much I can do to explain the triangle, so why don't we look at some examples. Before we do, I recommend checking out Triangle Offense blog and Coaches Clipboard both do good jobs at outlying the offense.

Example 1

Low post isolation




My first example is from a non-Phil Jackson source. This is a play from earlier this season, where the Pacers ran a triangle play. The Pacers have integrated parts of triangle into their offense after Brian Shaw came on as assistant coach. Shaw has since left the team, but the triangle is still a part of their offense. And they definitely have the parts to run it. The play above, is not your traditional set, but the top goal remains the same. Get the ball into the low post.

The play begins with CJ Watson bringing the ball up and an initial triangle is formed on the near side of the court. The amount of dribbling is a little unusual, but Watson dribbles across the perimeter as Lance Stephenson cuts around the back side to the strong side wing. Effectively, all that has happened is Watson and Stephenson have switched spots. Watson passes back over to the Stephenson at the wing and Stephenson swings the ball over to Paul George in the corner.

George makes the entry pass to Roy Hibbert in the post and then watch as he cuts back across the perimeter. Now you'll see that once again, another triangle has been formed, with Hibbert and Stephenson on the weak side. This new triangle also creates an isolation that allows Roy Hibbert to back down his man (Noah) in space for a turnaround jumper near the rim. You can see Stephenson's defender is wary to leave him and the 18 foot space makes it difficult for him to easily disrupt Hibbert's back down.

Example 2

Weak side pinch post




Alright, the play starts with Kobe bringing the ball up the court and passing to Gasol in the wing. Now, watch as Kobe cuts to the corner on the opposite side of the court, rather than moving to the near side corner close to Gasol. What this effectively does is form the triangle on the opposite side of the court and Gasol's side becomes the weak side, even though they have the ball.

In this formation, Bynum is also on the weak side in the post and Gasol is looking for the entry pass, but his defender is playing off of him and denying Bynum the ball. This is because they don't respect Gasol's perimeter jumper. Once Gasol realizes the entry pass won't work, he swings the ball back out to Derek Fisher, who's playing further out from the wing. He's so far out that he's actually closer to where the weak side wing player should be. Bynum shifts over to the opposite side of the paint and forms another triangle on the far side.

Fisher passes to Ron Artest on the strong side wing and Fisher moves over to Gasol, who has shifted closer to the basket. Artest quickly passes back to Fisher, who in turn passes back to Gasol. Then Fisher and Gasol run what is referred to as a pinch post play, where the bigman (Gasol) has the ball and the guard (Fisher) runs around him, effectively using Gasol as a screen. This is a play you will see over and over again in the NBA. Gasol passes back to Fisher as he moves around him and Fisher cuts to the basket.

Bynum's defender helps, leaving Bynum open under the basket. Fisher pulls up and alley-oops a pass to Bynum who puts it in. A great read by Fisher, who was probably hoping to get to the rim, but once he saw Bynum's defender rotate over, he instinctively found a way to get the ball to the open man.

I think this set shows you the countless ways you can set the triangle. The play started off with an unusual set, with two bigmen on the same side of the court. But with a couple of passes, the set switched over to a more traditional look.


Example 3

Weak side iso


This video is a great example of  how the offense continues to try to reform the triangle after every stalled play. The play starts with Fisher bringing the ball up and passing to the Kobe at the wing. Fisher than reverses and goes to the opposite corner. This is similar to example 2, where Kobe moved to the opposite corner. This again forms the triangle on the opposite side of the court and puts Kobe on the weak side. But in this case, Lamar Odom is out of position at the top of the arc.

Kobe passes back to Lamar and Lamar passes to Artest. Kobe then cuts across the paint to the low post and the triangle is finally formed. Artest looks for Kobe, but doesn't like the positioning and passes the ball back to Odom who has now shifted onto the weak side with Gasol. They run a pick and roll and Odom looks for the low post pass, but it's denied. Odom has also picked up his dribble, so he is stuck.

Kobe cuts back across the formation and occupies the weak side wing. Odom passes Kobe the ball and then moves to the corner while Gasol shifts back over to the other side of the paint. Artest and Fisher shift back into place and the triangle is formed once again with Kobe again on the weak side. With just a few seconds left on the clock, Kobe is forced to beat his man on the dribble and pull up for a jumper near the basket.

If there was more time on the clock, you might have seen Kobe opt to pass to Fisher, who was open along the top of the key.

Concerns

I think the triangle is a phenominal offense that has worked for two of the greatest teams in NBA history, the Jordan Bulls and the Kobe-Shaq Lakers. But there are a couple things you should realize. The system worked, but it's not a miracle worker. It's not going to turn an average player into a god. If you don't have good players, if you don't have the right players and if you don't have smart players, it's not going to work.

For example, Kurt Rambis attempted to install the triangle in Minnesota in 2009. His top players at the time were Al Jefferson and then-rookie Kevin Love. Two players that fit in the system, no doubt. But outside of them were Ryan Gomes, Jonny Flynn and Corey Brewer. Not quite Kobe or Jordan.

Rambis had an abysmal time in Minnesota. Over the next two seasons, he compiled a 32-132 record and had one of the worst offenses in the league. He was fired in 2011 and returned to the Lakers as an assistant in the summer of 2013. Now, Love was a really good player, especially by his second season, but this is a case in point that any good triangle team has to have a competent wing player.

At this point, it's not clear if the Knicks have that piece. Is Melo good enough to get it done on the wing, or is he better used in the post (as Woodson has used him in the four spot the past two seasons). If the pieces the Knicks have now don't work in the triangle, will Jackson and his front office cronies be able to help? These are major questions/concerns, but I think, as long as he is allowed to work freely, Jackson is a smart man and a great basketball mind. If there is anyone that understands the type of players that are needed for the triangle, it's him. And I think he knows right now exactly how Melo should be used in the system. Or else, I don't know if he would have joined the Knicks. Jackson has always been a man that knows when to join a team at the right time.

Hopefully this is New York's right time.

5 comments:

  1. This is a great article. I also agree that the knicks do not have the right personnel for the triangle right now outside of Melo and maybe Shannon Brown. If possible maybe you could write an article on the possible players who could be realistically acquired that fit the triangle?

    The only upcoming FA who to me looks like he could be a great fit is Marc Gasol.

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    1. Thank you. I agree Marc Gasol would be a great fit in 2015! He wasn't on my radar, but he has all the qualities that Phil Jackson loves.

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