The Triangle offense has won 11 championships since 1990. It has produced hundreds of wins. It’s produced the greatest player, the greatest coach and the greatest team ever.
Phil Jackson’s Triangle has been one of the most successful offensive systems ever in basketball. It worked with the Bulls and it worked with the Lakers. Some have wondered if it was the players or the system or a perfect combination of both, but the results don’t lie — the Triangle worked.
At Grantland, Chuck Klosterman was wondering why no one uses it anymore and had this little nugget in there:
“‘When I look at Oklahoma City,’ the anonymous coach said, ‘I see a team that is built to run the Triangle. They are so designed to run the Triangle that it’s almost a joke. Imagine them running a two-man game on the weak side with [Kevin] Durant and [Russell] Westbrook. Who the f— is gonna stop that?’ In theory, no one. In practice, everyone, because Oklahoma City doesn’t run the Triangle. Nobody does. And that reality is more complicated than the offense itself.”
OK, so how exactly does the Triangle work? Three main keys:
1. Anyone can score from anywhere.
2. Knowing your “automatic” passes. In some places there are passes that are supposed to happen as a function of the offense, kind of like they are set off by a situation.
3. Spacing, timing and movement.
Watch this video:
The main principles of the Triangle are this though: Spacing, moving, passing and multiple shot options. The problems for the Thunder currently in Scott Brooks’ offense: Not enough spacing, moving, passing or enough shot options. Some like to blame Russell Westbrook for that, but I’ve often felt it was the system. Not because it’s a bad one, but because in basketball, plays don’t always work, even when they’re designed really well.
We all watched as the Thunder offense bogged down in the later stages of games last postseason because teams were able to easily take away Kevin Durant’s ability to move around screens and free himself. When Durant did get the ball, he was quickly bracketed and was forced to give the ball away to Westbrook who then found himself with a hot potato basketball and six seconds on the shot clock.
So it’s a legit question: Why don’t the Thunder run the Triangle? I asked Scott Brooks exactly that.
“I have a lot of respect for Phil Jackson and all the success he had in the Triangle offense,” Brooks said. “I think we have a good enough team to run a lot of different things because Kevin’s a pretty special player that he can play multiple positions and spots on the floor.”
OK, so would it be possible to just insert it into certain situations, almost like you might call a motion offense or something, you could bust out the Triangle? Probably not, because it’s just too complicated to really get the full effect of it.
I think the Triangle is a lot like the Wishbone. It seems like it should work. It’s innovative, puts a ton of pressure on the defense and has multiple options, all which lead to success, especially in the past. It’s been extremely successful over time and teams have won titles with it. Except nobody uses it anymore. Why?
“I haven’t been around it enough to really know, other than scouting against it,” Brooks said. “Like any offense, it’s more important when you diagram the plays who are the O’s you have on the floor and the X’s you have against them. And then the offense, you could have a Triangle offense and have bad players and that offense isn’t looking good … you have to have an offense that suits your players and we feel pretty comfortable that our guys are doing a good job establishing that.
One problem with the Triangle in Oklahoma City though: It’s sort of designed to eliminate the point guard. Because everyone can be a point guard. Everyone can feed the post, everyone can make a play. That’s good when your point guard is Derek Fisher or John Paxson. Not as good when Russell Westbrook is a wild playmaker than you do wonderful things outside of a system.
Because that was a major frustration for Kobe within the Triangle. He loved breaking it. He loved going rouge and doing things on his own. It worked a lot, and it didn’t a lot. You’re telling me that Westbrook wouldn’t see a weakness and attack like a rabid dog at the rim? Westbrook would break it like he was Gilbert Brown jumping on some box springs.
Here’s what Triangle mastermind Phil Jackson said about that:
“The problem with the Triangle is that you have to teach the most basic, basic skills: Footwork. Where you stand on the floor. And if you have the kind of player who wants to attack and score every time he touches the ball, he will hurt this offense.”
Well… that’s a problem in OKC. The Thunder have one perfect Triangle player and he’s got a giant beard. Durant would work relatively well in the system because he could score 30 if the offense included four whitetail deer running four-corner stall ball. It’s just how it is. But Westbrook, that’s a different story. He’s not built like Fisher. Hold it right there, I’m not saying he’s not a point guard. I’m just saying Westbrook’s not the type of point guard that can suppress the urge to attack.
Fact is, the Thunder might have too much offensive talent for the Triangle to work. That sounds absurd, I know, but pieces need to fit in the Triangle. It’s why players like Steve Kerr, Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Bill Wennington, Jud Buechler and others were so valuable. The keys like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Scottie Pippen drive the car, but the role players keep it running.
The Triangle attempts to sort of put creative players in a cage and force them to play mini-games within the game. Like Klosterman said, in theory, it’s a wonderful thing. You get Westbrook and Durant and Ibaka in a triangle isolated on the left wing, splitting off with Russ and KD working a little two man game as Harden cuts off the weak side. It could be a beautiful thing. But the Triangle is a commitment. It’s complicated, it’s frustrating and installing it is difficult. It’s about getting players to buy in completely and with all this offensive talent in Oklahoma City, that’s hard to see happening.
Besides, it’s not like the Thunder suffered offensively last season. This was a top five offense in both points per game and in offensive efficiency. Sometimes that didn’t show, but it’s hard to know if that was more a product of the offensive structure or more a product of a young team having a hard time figuring out to do when the pressure and moment really mattered.
Does the Triangle sound like a perfect fit in theory? Sure it does. It seems like it would fit everywhere in theory, but in the end, it often isn’t practical. Ask last season’s Timberwolves. Well, maybe that’s not the best example.