SB Nation

Doug Eberhardt and Mike Prada | October 23, 2014

The triangle's holy war

The offensive system that won Phil Jackson 11 championships is back, but can it silence a growing legion of critics?

The world's foremost apostle for the Triangle offense does not coach in the NBA. He doesn't coach in college or American high school, either. He doesn't coach in the United States at all.

His name is Tim Cone, and he is speaking into a cellphone months after securing his 18th Philippine Basketball Association trophy. The victory marked the second time his team won a Grand Slam, which refers to sweeping the three major PBA tournaments in a single season. Only three other coaches have done it even once.

Cone's schooling in the way of the triangle began with grainy footage of Phil Jackson's Chicago Bulls during the early 1990s. A young PBA coach then, Cone had an apartment on the bay within antenna distance of both the U.S. Army and Navy bases, allowing him access to NBA broadcasts that other Filipino natives didn't possess. While many marveled at Michael Jordan, Cone saw something else: a system that perfectly captured the way he wanted his teams to play. He taped every Bulls game on his trusty Sony Betamax and went over the footage endlessly, learning the various triangle intricacies by osmosis.

"I went full bore on the offense in 1993, but unfortunately, I was teaching it at the same time I was learning it," he says. "It was our worst year ever. But the next year, 1994, was our best year ever. I've been running the triangle ever since."

The offense that produced 11 NBA titles never caught on like many believe it should have.

It's because of this success that Cone proudly calls himself a disciple of Tex Winter, the legendary college and assistant coach that passed the wisdom of the system technically known as the Triple Post Offense to Jackson. Eleven NBA championships followed, two more than any coach in league history.

And because of that, a groundswell of support for the Triangle Offense rose up, one that believed it was full of true believers spreading the gospel of Right Way Basketball.

"We didn't have a preset idea of what the league should be, was or what is. That's speaking a little bit to the culture of Phil Jackson," says Rick Fox, the NBATV analyst who thrived under Jackson as a player and is a Triangle true believer. "We don't have an expectation. We don't fit into what everybody else says. We don't fit into what everyone else thinks about where the league is going."

But as Jackson returns to the NBA to use Derek Fisher and the New York Knicks as vessels to implement the system, he's finding an entirely different climate. The NBA is a league of copycats; plagiarism is the highest compliment one coach can pay another. And yet, the offense that produced 11 NBA titles never caught on like many believe it should have.

Why aren't there any Tim Cones in the NBA?

***

Indeed, the NBA had all but abandoned the Triangle Offense as a primary system. Experiments with Jim Cleamons in Dallas and Kurt Rambis in Minnesota, among other places, failed miserably. Jackson's coaching tree, which should have been the biggest of any great coach, is stunted and withered; the only two viable candidates to coach Jackson's Knicks while using his system were a pair of his former players, neither of which had any coaching experience. Fisher, who played in the NBA just last year, eventually took the job when top choice Steve Kerr picked Golden State instead.

This season offers the potential for a Triangle renaissance. The Knicks will run the purest form of the offense since Jackson retired as Lakers coach, while Kerr's Warriors and, ironically, Jackson's old Lakers team under Byron Scott have experimented with some Triangle sets within their base offense during the preseason.

To some of Jackson's associates, these experiments are the best chance to prove what should have become self-evident through all of Jackson's success: if given enough time to work, the system instills the concepts needed to achieve the ultimate success at the game's highest level.

They must answer to a growing legion of critics that believe the system is outdated.

But they must answer to a growing legion of critics that believe the system is outdated. Some say it deemphasizes point guards and three-pointers, both of which are more important than ever given recent rule changes. Some, like former NBA coach George Karl, say it's too slow-paced. Others say it's too hard to learn. And then there's the most burning criticism of all, the one recently parroted by Jackson's former Lakers star Shaquille O'Neal: it only works with multiple superstars and the kind of skilled players that simply don't exist anymore.

"I know what people say," Cone admits. "'You need a Michael [Jordan] or a Kobe [Bryant].' 'It's too complicated.' 'Management isn't patient and it's difficult to commit to.'"

Jackson's Knicks, a team with just one big-name player in Carmelo Anthony and not much else, will ultimately offer the best answer to either side.

***

What is the Triangle Offense? At its core, it's an offensive system that champions the same ethos of many others: unselfishness, quick passing, team play, careful spacing and efficiency. It just goes about that familiar work in a way that differs sharply from other, trendier styles of play.

It's built on a combination of ball and player movement, both predicated upon ideal spacing. That spacing not only works for the offense, but also sets up perfectly to allow teams to get back in transition off missed shots. Since the five players are basically interchangeable in the offensive spots, the triangle also allows a team to adjust their called sets appropriately and present a very different look to the defense. That flexibility makes the system exceedingly difficult to scout when it's run properly.

Out of a high two-guard alignment, an initial pass is made into the post or to the wing, with a cut into the corner forming the initial triangle formation The wing, mid-post and corner-three man are spaced (wait for it) like an actual triangle, ideally with 18 feet between them. The other two players shape up at the top of the three-point line and on the opposite wing or high post. (Or, "pinch post," if you prefer NBA jargon).

triangle

After the initial first pass, the triangle is set in motion by a series of what are called "automatics." These are predetermined reactions to what the defense is giving. Think of them as personal algorithms, the computations of which are drilled relentlessly in practice. The first read: a pass into the post player.

triangle 1

If the defense denies this, the wing moves down his mental checklist like an NFL quarterback. The next automatic is a reversal pass back to the man in the middle of the floor above the three-point line. This player is in the "defensive balance" spot. After making the pass, the wing player moves down to set a pin-down screen off which the corner guard can run and shoot.

The next automatic leads to one of the strongest NBA features of the triangle: a two-man game between the high middle player and the man at the elbow, with plenty of room to work on what was once the opposite side of the floor. This can and will be turned into an isolation too, especially when Carmelo Anthony is the man in the pinch post, like this.

The final noteworthy automatic involves the wing player passing back to the player in the corner that initiated the offensive sequence, then cutting away off the post player to clear the side. The post player then moves to execute a unique corner pick and roll.

There are more reads, but these are the basics.

But while those reads may seem easy in theory, they are what make the Triangle so challenging for players and coaches to learn. Players and coaches have all grown up running and designing plays that force the defense to react, not the other way around. In both its insistence on patience and the way it inverts the traditional relationship between offense and defense, the Triangle is counter-intuitive. This is a big part of why it works, when it works. It is also why making it work can be so difficult.

It's an especially hard system for stars because they require the most reprogramming.

It's an especially hard system for stars because they require the most reprogramming. These are players that can score on any defense -- this is, in a basic sense, their job -- and have played for coaches that design systems specifically to get them ball in their preferred spots multiple times every game. When they come to the Triangle, they suddenly are required to perform multiple tasks depending on the defense's alignment.

Some learn and become even more dangerous players. Others never do. It'll be Fisher's job to manage Carmelo Anthony's transition without overwhelming him initially.

"When Pau [Gasol] first came to the Lakers, they'd run some specific sets while he was learning. I think the Knicks will do the same thing with Melo," Cone says. "Eight to 10 times a game, they'll run something where he knows he's getting the ball."

Fine-tuning the system begins with very basic drills that are like the kind you teach seven-year-olds. One the Knicks did, per the New York Times, simply required them to stand in two lines and throw chest passes to each other. That seems elementary, but precise passing is essential to the system's success because the reads build on each other. As players move up the youth system, they spend less time perfecting those fundamentals.

"It's like awakening joints, bones and tendons, except in this case, it's awakening basketball skills that laid there a long time ago," Fox says. "You still need those skills, [but] as you get better and better and more proficient at the game, you get more careless with those things. You do things a little more effortlessly and easily than you did earlier. So it's all about a reset."

As these skills build up, the reads eventually become second nature. The system's spacing provides structure for role players and a means to get star players the ball in advantageous positions after tilting the defense with ball reversals. Best of all, the transition game is controlled by the offensive spacing.

"With the triangle, there's a flow that happens," Kerr says. "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."

***

There is one key enemy that conspires against all that: time. Even the system's biggest advocates agree that it takes at least a year for players to be reprogrammed. But a year is an eternity for increasingly impatient owners. Consider: a whopping 22 coaching jobs have turned over since the end of the 2013 season.

Combine a willingness to suffer through that transition year with long-term roster stability and extreme patience from management, and maybe a team can succeed going all-in on the Triangle. That is what the Knicks, under Jackson's tutelage, will be hoping to accomplish. But that's a tough sell for any owner, general manager or fan base; New York, of course, is not noted for being laid-back.

Triangle advocates believe previous coaches failed because of that lack of patience, and not any inherent problem with the system. They believe Jackson's assistants that have received head coaching chances, from Cleamons in Dallas in the '90s to Rambis with the Timberwolves several years ago, didn't receive enough of a commitment from management. They were hung out to dry when bad results came as a result of the slow transition needed to pick up the system.

"If you're not Phil Jackson," Fox admits, "you don't tend to have the same leeway."

"You can save your job to play an up-tempo style of basketball. You're not going to win a championship, but you won't get fired."

Jackson's success combined with his assistants' failures creates tension when the phrase "Triangle Offense" is mentioned. There's a feeling one must be a devout Triangle evangelist to produce the system's best results. Friends of The Triangle have unlocked the secret to playing the game at its very best. Triangle skeptics are enemies that merely copy the latest fad to stay employed, whether it's stodgy isolations or spread pick and roll.

"You can save your job to play an up-tempo style of basketball," Fox says. "It's entertaining, you probably win 41 games, 45 games a year, and you won't get fired. You're not going to win a championship, but you won't get fired."

But the noise obscured a more nuanced reality. The Triangle Offense has the same goal as any other system: to turn five individuals with competing selfish motivations into a team. The success of the San Antonio Spurs' Motion offense -- a different system, but one that shared more Triangle principles than most realize -- was far from a threat to Jackson's baby. It was, in a way, more like a tribute: proof that a style of play that fosters teamwork, unselfishness and sharp execution is still possible despite teams churning through rosters and coaches faster than ever before.

"In the end, the Triangle concepts are just basketball," Kerr says. "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."

With Jackson back in the league, patience shouldn't be a roadblock. The Knicks won't execute perfectly right off the bat and Kerr's Warriors will not be seen as a pure "Triangle team." But for the first time in a long while, there's optimism that Jackson's system will actually have staying power this time.

"[Gregg] Popovich started it all with his motion last year. People are more willing to accept things now with great ball movement but also great player movement," Cone says. "It was a hybrid of four out and some of [former Phoenix Suns coach Mike] D'Antoni's stuff with player movement. The triangle gets that player movement.

"Plus, Phil getting back in the league will lead to a resurgence of the triangle."

That resurgence won't happen overnight, but now's the best chance the system has. The Triangle has never been about rushing.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: David Roth | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

A lifetime passion for basketball has lead me from player to entrepreneur to chasing the coaching dream; high school; ABA; Summer League and training camp coach with the Knicks and Grizzlies; skills coach for various NBA'ers. As well, I spout off NBA opinions on "Sportstalk with Dan Russell," on CISL AM650 (Vancouver). Big fan of Coke Zero Cherry.

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