New Yorkers are not legendary for their patience.
New York’s tabloid media is not renowned for its big picture world views.
All of which meant Phil Jackson’s effort at a total culture change within the New York Knicks organization and putting the triangle offense out there on the court was bound to see pushback this first season. It was going to take time; it was going to require patience and a big-picture view while this played out.
Of course, this season has been a bigger mess than imagined at Madison Square Garden — a 10-38 record with a bottom five offense and defense. It’s much closer to an unmitigated disaster. Jackson admitted as much in a New York Times piece by Harvey Araton.
“Like nothing I’ve seen before,” he said of the Knicks’ first 41 games, of which they lost 36, a half-season of hell. “So far, my experiment has fallen flat on its face.”
Of course, some New York media seized on that last line.
However, it is too early to scrap the triangle entirely.
Part of the issue is that not only was the Knicks roster filled with not very good players, it was filled with guys who were a poor fit for the triangle. Tyson Chandler is a quality rim protector and can finish with authority on a roll to the hoop, but do you want to make him a passer from the elbow (or low block for that matter)? J.R. Smith might arguably be the least triangle friendly player in the league. The list goes on and on.
This year the Knicks were going to be terrible regardless — and this was the year to do it since they control their first round pick for once. So if you’re going to be bad, why not put the new system in and build a foundation?
The question being asked in New York is if the triangle can work as well in today’s NBA? I think we know where Jackson stands on this question.
But as to skepticism about whether he can make the triangle work in a league in which no one else plays it, Jackson said: “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.”
He also believes that the game, stylistically, moves in mysterious ways.
“I think it’s still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what’s going to win out,” he said, leaving no doubt of his disdain for the point guard dominating concept of “screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two or three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense.”
I believe the triangle offense can work.
Actually, let me rephrase that:
I believe the triangle offense that Tex Winter drew up can work in the NBA. The same exact model of the triangle that the Bulls or three-peat Lakers ran will struggle (they had different points of emphasis, in large part due to Shaq).
Winter’s offensive principles called for things that teams do now, for example push the ball and try to get early offense before the defense sets itself. Plus the triangle is all about spacing and forcing the defense to make choices, and then reacting to and exploiting the choice made. If you have three-point shooters and guys willing to work off the ball, those principles still work just fine. Go watch San Antonio Spurs tape from the Finals last season. The Knicks can’t just isolate Carmelo Anthony anymore (although the triangle allows for isolations when you create a mismatch), you have to play a team game. That can work in New York, you don’t just have to run “floppy” every time down.
If the Knicks are going to make this work, however, they need not just better players but specific kinds of role players. High basketball IQ guys. Shooters for sure. Defenders of course. But what Phil Jackson walked into with those Lakers back in 2000 was a team with couple superstars surrounded by smart veteran role players. (And for the record it took that team a year to figure the offense out, those 1999-2000 Lakers had the same offensive points per possession as the Del Harris/Kurt Rambis coached team as the season before. What Jackson did that first year was improve the defense dramatically, the offense came later.)
The Knicks’ offseason headlines will be about chasing another star, but as important is for them they more of those kinds of role players. And that is going to take some time to put together.
Then Carmelo Anthony needs to do more than just pay lip service to the offense and move the ball, and buy in.
It’s not going to be easy, but no matter what system the Knicks try to install now it’s going to be a long road back.
It’s just too early to ditch the triangle yet.