The Triangle offense. Amongst players and coaches alike, the name itself evokes strong, polarizing emotions in the basketball community. The few who champion it claim Triangle is responsible for 11 NBA Championship titles under coach Phil Jackson, while the masses who scorn it claim it’s effectiveness should be credited to the talented players that implemented it. The main question surrounding Triangle concerns the basis for its success: is it the coach, the players, the franchise, or the system itself that creates champions?
Triangle relies on the mechanized movements of all five players who are viewing the court and anticipating actions in precisely the same way, utilizing a fast, effortless passing system that allows any player to open up for a pass or shot at any time while confusing the defense and forcing mistakes from opponents. It is a cocktail of ingredients, combining the selfless cohesion of teammates and a strong foundation of fundamental skills blended with an encyclopedic knowledge of the infinite number of options that are possible during each possession.
The name “Triangle offense” stems from coach Sam Barry’s initial use of the system at USC and his player Tex Winter’s subsequent 228 page book titled “The Triple-Post Offense,” which explains hundreds of scenarios and their following actions according to Triangle. Quantifying the offense is nearly impossible, and as ESPN analyst Jay Williams claims, “Me, I study the game everyday… I’m breaking down games every night. You hand me a piece of paper and say ‘Jay, define the Triangle for me,’ it’s like kind of like a kid with Magic Markers drawing a cartoon… So many series of actions, I get lost trying to explain it.”
“The Triangle didn’t win crap! Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant!… Winning means you had the caliber of players capable of winning a championship.”Mike Krzyzewski
For Triangle’s success to reach fruition, countless elements must forcibly come together in one perfectly coordinated, 24-second possession. Only through the lens of Phil Jackson’s 19 seasons as a coach can the immense potential of Triangle can be quantified.
After a successful NBA career as a player and over a decade as a coach, Jackson was hired as head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Jackson became a close friend and follower of Tex Winter and his Triple Post Offense, and chose to implement it with his team with Winter by his side. Jackson’s unwavering support provided the first key ingredient to the cocktail: an experienced coaching staff committed to making Triangle a success.
Perhaps the most frequently questioned element of Jackson’s success is that of the phenomenal talent that he was given to sculpt. Over his two decades coaching the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson’s roster included three members of the 1996 NBA’s 50 Greatest Players: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Shaquille O’Neal, as well as Kobe Bryant, who is believed to not be on the list simply because he broke into the league that year. Players who thrived under Jackson also included Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr, and Derek Fisher, to name a few. Time and again it has been argued that this parade of All-Stars have reached the same tremendous level of success using other kinds of offense, and that Jackson’s stack of rings can be attributed more to the individual players than to Triangle.
Weighing in on this claim, coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University confidently boasts: “The Triangle didn’t win crap! Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant!… Winning means you had the caliber of players capable of winning a championship.” While the talent on Jackson’s teams certainly contributed to his reign of success, even his All-Star players claim it was the offense that gave their teams the final push. Bryant gives a fiery response to naysayers by claiming “It baffles me to hear people talk about how this is a team sport and then say the triangle was only successful because Phil had great players. We were successful because we played in such a beautiful system.” Both sides seem to hold the same fervent beliefs.
The next essential element of Triangle is glaringly apparent: the players themselves. A specific combination of players is necessary to maximize the effectiveness of triangle, requiring a team that is not comprised of the standard point/shooting guard, power/small forward and center positions. Instead, the ideal Triangle team is filled with multifaceted players that bend these traditional positions and are talented all around the court.
“It baffles me to hear people talk about how this is a team sport and then say the triangle was only successful because Phil had great players. We were successful because we played in such a beautiful system.”Kobe Bryant
Jackson created the perfect combination of these players with both existing team members and draft picks who were carefully selected to fit the Triangle mold. Even true disciples of Triangle will acknowledge that it is not always possible to implement the system successfully due to the inability to assemble the necessary combination of players. Stanford women’s basketball coach Tara VanDerveer claims: “with Triangle you really have to drink the Kool-Aid. It’s a little all-or-nothing,” before continuing to describe her love of the system she adopted in 2002. VanDerVeer was recently forced to let go of Triangle because she, “…can’t draft players the way the Knicks can. I am at the mercy of the Dean of Admissions,” although she maintains “It was really hard for me to let it go.” Ultimately, the “mix” of players is so crucial to the success of the Triangle that when her players were no longer suited to Triangle, VanDerveer was forced to relinquish the system that helped her team reach great heights for over a decade.
In addition to having players with talents that are suited to running the offense, players must also be willing to relinquishing their previously ingrained playing styles that contradict Triangle’s main principles. It is incredibly hard for most players (although apparently not Dennis Rodman) to turn their mind away from constantly searching for crowd-pleasing money shots and instead gear their brains towards relearning fundamentals and sharing ball possession.
The return to fundamentals such as passing, cutting and screening was hard for players to commit to, although learning to trust and love Triangle was a nearly insurmountable task.
Horace Grant, who earned four Championships while running Triangle with Jackson, remembers he and his teammates “…thought it was Stephen Hawking talking to us. If you never, ever spoke Mandarin in your life, it was trying to learn Mandarin in the first year.” The transition was clumsy, a time where “We were stepping on one another’s feet, falling down. Everybody thought Tex was crazy, and we thought Phil was crazy for listening to him. In the beginning, we all rebelled.” This lethargic adoption of Triangle was never tolerated by Winter, who once had to sternly reprimand Shaquille O’Neal by screaming “Do it right!” while physically imposing his much smaller figure over the 7’1’’ player.
“Everybody thought Tex was crazy, and we thought Phil was crazy for listening to him. In the beginning, we all rebelled.”Horace Grant
Despite the great hesitations players felt when beginning the system, they are always converted to staunch supporters of the system. As a missionary spreading his firm belief in the unconventional offense, Jackson created believers in every corner of the NBA he reached.
In addition to assembling players and coaches who were fully on board with Triangle, arguably the hardest part about implementing the system is getting an equal commitment from the franchise end of NBA teams who become impatient with the lengthy process. VanDerveer describes the implementation by claiming “with Triangle you might take your lumps early, but it’ll pay off later.”
The problem is, owners of NBA teams do not enjoy waiting for “later”. To the business side of basketball, it is a nightmare to knowingly take on an offense that is expected to fail in the first year or so. Owners and managers have a tough time being idly parked while climbing the hill to success, at times feeling like Triangle is a waste of time and energy.
Due to this frustration and impatience, coaches are highly reluctant to even consider implementing Triangle. NBA TV analyst and firm Triangle supporter Rick Fox claims “You can save your job to play an up-tempo style of basketball. 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.” By drawing from the same play book that every other team in the league is, risks aren’t taken, as franchise owners would prefer, but championships aren’t earned. Having a strong and supportive franchise backing the transition to Triangle is an essential piece of the puzzle contributing to it’s effectiveness.
Of all of the elements that must work together in concert to make Triangle a success, there is a common thread linking them all: patience. It takes a long time to build a roster tailored to Triangle. The learning curve for players picking it up is steep. Convincing a franchise that success will come in due time is a difficult battle to fight. Even fans must have faith that after suffering through a season or more of bad records, an oasis of rewards will be lying at the end. Hard work is required at every level of an organization to put each of these elements into place.
Since Jackson left coaching in 2011, no team had made a serious effort to fully implement Winter’s strict version of Triangle. There are a handful of teams that successfully embody the guiding principles of the system, emphasizing cohesion and team play while flawlessly executing a multitude of passes. The San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors are two that have been praised for their team-oriented style, and have succeeded in recent years due to their selfless attitudes and versatility off the bench.
The most obvious juxtaposition of team-oriented versus individual-oriented basketball is the 2015 NBA Finals, where the Golden State Warriors took down the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games. Steve Kerr, Warriors head coach and past Triangle offense player with the Bulls, makes his support for Triangle-style fundamentals well known. Kerr believes “Today’s game is so ball dominant. So many one-and-done guys are incredibly gifted, but they’re not seasoned fundamentally. In Triangle, they’d be completely lost.” In his first year coaching, he decided to implement a “faster, more freelance version of triangle” in which he emphasizes the basics which propelled him to fame. Kerr began every practice with push passes and toss-backs just as he used to, and the Warriors reacted similarly to how Jackson’s Bulls did: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Although skeptical, their hard work paid off. In addition to winning a Championship, Golden State led the league in defense and assists, and were second in field goal percentage overall. As league MVP and arguably the best shooter ever in the NBA, Steph Curry was not the Warriors highest scorer every game of the Finals. Curry tied twice for that title, and was actually the second highest scorer on the team once. When he was the highest scorer, the second place slot rotated between All-Star teammate Klay Thompson, runner-up Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. This broad and deep distribution of scoring is ample proof of Kerr’s commitment to make it a priority for every player to be involved in the team’s success.
Without a token “big man” and a starting line up all under 6’8’’, the Warriors were able to stifle LeBron James and the significantly bigger Cavaliers to win three straight games after falling behind 1-2 using a traditional line up, another example of Kerr’s “team first” philosophy. By returning back to basics, Kerr has proven there is room in the NBA for a modified reincarnate of Triangle offense.
“I think anyone that believes he’s a total basketball player is going to want to do it. I’m not daunted by the number of people who have commented that this way of playing is arcane, that the game has moved on. The game has moved on.”Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson is now making a substantial effort to re-establish his beloved philosophy in a team he was a part of for twelve years, the New York Knicks. Jackson became the franchise’s President after signing a five-year, $60 million contract and immediately recruited past player Derek Fisher to implement Triangle during a 3-5 year reconstruction. To counteract this, the Knicks adopted a ‘hard to get’ approach to players, spearheaded by Jackson challenging, “I think anyone that believes he’s a total basketball player is going to want to do it. I’m not daunted by the number of people who have commented that this way of playing is arcane, that the game has moved on. The game has moved on.” And according to the 11-time Champion, he and the Triangle offense are going with it.
The reintroduction of Triangle recently became closer to Horace Grant than he initially imagined, when his nephew Jerian Grant was drafted by the New York Knicks after Jackson made a draft-day deal to secure the 6-4 Notre Dame guard, seen most recently pushing Kansas to a near upset in the NCAA Elite Eight. Phil Jackson now has the opportunity to work with another extremely talented Grant, after what Horace describes as “one of the best trades in New York history.”
Jackson claims he and Fisher are “not interested in guys who are just interested in the money and in their branding. They have to have a little more to their life than just those selfish desires.” By acquiring Grant and fourth pick Latvian player Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson is still fighting a difficult battle against fans who seek immediate gratification from such a high draft pick. Porzingis is predicted to flourish in the NBA after a few seasons of adjustment, working perfectly in concert with the long term plans Jackson has made.
“To play in Phil’s system, you have to have a high basketball IQ and feel for the game. Jerian Grant has the highest basketball IQ and is the most polished player in the draft.”Mike Brey
Jerian Grant is entirely on board with learning the offense, claiming “the Triangle is for high IQ players and I feel I’m one of those. I’ll pick it up quickly and help the guys around me.” Mike Brey, Jerian’s coach at Notre Dame for the last four years, echoes this sentiment, claiming “To play in Phil’s system, you have to have a high basketball IQ and feel for the game. Jerian Grant has the highest basketball IQ and is the most polished player in the draft.” In contrast to Porzingis, fans are immediately on board with adding another Grant to their struggling franchise, and the Grant family is just as enthused. His father Harvey claims “It was a surprise– but it was a good surprise… I guarantee the fans in New York, once they see him work, they’ll fall in love with him.” Horace’s main advice to his nephew is “Time to study up that Triangle!” before reminding him: “I guess all those clinics we’ve been running for years have finally paid off.”
Regardless of the future, the Triangle offense will live in infamy as an essential element to the immense success of Phil Jackson’s career. Over time, the system may become extinct in the NBA, meaning future generations may find that it’s magic is non-transferable from Tex Winter, now 93 years old. However, it is now clear that core tenants of Triangle can be successfully implemented, as proven by the Warrior’s Championship this past season.
The bottom line: If you have the patience to trust the process, a willing and able franchise, and a legion of talented team players, you have all the pieces of the perfect Triangle equation that can, without a doubt, produce winners. If there is one thing to be learned from Triangle, it is that good things take time, and as Jackson claims: “The risk is great, the reward is great, too.”