Potential Coaches Who Could Instill Triangle Offense for Phil Jackson's Knicks
With a press conference that attracted enough media light to draw even James Dolan out of hiding, the New York Knicks made official their hiring of Phil Jackson as president of basketball operations Tuesday morning.
Now that the preliminary pomp and circumstance have subsided, the focus of both franchise and fanbase shifts to whether or not Jackson will look to outfit his newfound charges with the much-hyped triangle offense—something he explicitly hinted at during his introduction.
Per ESPN New York's Ian Begley: "This isn't ground-breaking, but source says Phil is strongly committed to implementing the triangle & will shape the roster w/that in mind."
When your new boss won 11 championships using a single offense, you tend to be receptive to the idea.
And while Jackson waxed diplomatic when addressing the fate of embattled Knicks skipper Mike Woodson, most believe a change on this front to be imminent.
Curiously, Jackson’s coaching tree doesn’t boast the bounty of branches one might expect, particularly when compared to someone like Gregg Popovich.
Still, there are plenty of acolytes—and even a few relative unknowns—he could call on, if instituting the triangle indeed becomes culture-changing priority No. 1.
Today, we’ll examine the five best fits for New York’s possible triangle transformation.
Here’s your dark horse, folks.
Fresh off guiding his Virginia Cavaliers to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, Bennett’s stock has never been higher. And while his offense features qualities of both the Princeton and triangle offenses, it’s safe to assume Bennett would be a quick study under Jackson’s expert tutelage.
Logic suggests Jackson might not be willing to take such a gargantuan gamble on his first big front-office decision. At the same time, what better way to begin the process of transforming the culture than by playing kingmaker to a coach on the rise?
If Carmelo Anthony ends up leaving in free agency and the Knicks decide to go the route of rebuilding, Bennett—like Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics—could be the perfect fit for a project that demands patience and perspective.
Not the most popular of Knicks currencies, we know.
Jackson spent years advocating on behalf of Shaw—a steady bench staple on some of Jackson's early Los Angeles Lakers teams—before the former point guard was finally tapped by the Denver Nuggets this past summer.
There’s just one small problem: Shaw still works for the Nuggets.
For how much longer, we’ll just have to wait and see. Writing at the Denver Post back in January, Mark Kiszla lent some insight into what had been—and in many ways has continued to be—a trying inaugural campaign for the triangle disciple:
Already under pressure to replace NBA coach of the year George Karl, dumped after being upset by the Golden State Warriors in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs, Shaw now faces the first real crisis of his brief tenure on the Denver bench. With an offensively challenged roster feeling the strain from injuries to starters Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee, Shaw's authority has now been rudely questioned by [Andre] Miller, the team's most respected veteran.
Miller is now gone, of course—he was dealt to the Washington Wizards in a three-team deadline deal. But the challenges remain prickly for Shaw, who has struggled to mold his personnel according to his offensive principles.
Might the Knicks and Nuggets work out some kind of buyout to bring Shaw to New York? Considering how much money Dolan has already thrown at Jackson, it might be a Franklin too far.
It's safe to say Fisher probably doesn't have many more miles left in the basketball tank—playing, anyway.
Those five championship teams that Jackson marshaled in Los Angeles? Fisher was a part of them. Of all the guys who are currently in the NBA, no one knows the triangle offense better than Fisher, with the possible exception of one Kobe Bean Bryant.
Fisher has also served as head of the NBA Players Association, which gives him a unique brand of clout amongst his peers—something that will be indispensable if and when he ever joins the coaching ranks.
Intricate knowledge of the triangle aside, there would most definitely be a learning curve with Fisher at the helm. But if Jason Kidd's tenure with the Brooklyn Nets is any indication, when a rookie coach is surrounded by the right pieces and given the right system, things eventually work out.
A Jackson assistant with the Lakers from 2006-2011, Cleamons—as detailed in a profile of the triangle offense that was written by Harvey Araton of The New York Times—is a strong supporter of his old boss’ seminal system.
Cleamons serves as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, which means it would be much easier for the Knicks to reel him in than it would an already entrenched head coach.
The bad news: It’s been almost 20 years since Cleamons held his last coaching gig, a disastrous 24-58 campaign with the constantly feuding Dallas Mavericks. He attempted to install the triangle with little success.
It's unclear how much clout 64-year-old Cleamons would have beyond his triangle expertise, but if Jackson is looking for a means of keeping the closest tabs possible on his new subjects, you know the former would oblige.
For his part, Cleamons provided a bit of insight to Marc Berman of the New York Post on the speculation swirling around his possible candidacy: "Phil is bright. He understands the game. He’s going to put good people around him. That’s my feeling. I know nothing else…. I know the offense, but I don’t know what his plans are. I’m worried about the Milwaukee Bucks. You have to ask Phil that question."
Like Cleamons, Rambis' run with the triangle was shaky. During two full seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2009-2011, he compiled a woeful 32-132 record.
And, as with both Cleamons and Shaw, part of Rambis’ problem was in having a group of players either too inexperienced or ill-fitting to make the system work.
By this point you must be asking: If none of these guys was able to use the system to NBA success, what makes you think any of them would be good fits with these Knicks?
During his press conference on Tuesday, Jackson made clear he sees Anthony as an ideal fit for the triangle. Assuming the Knicks can keep their star attraction under the Garden lights, it’ll be up to Jackson to figure out who else on the roster might be a fit and who needs to be cut adrift.
Hear me out now! Yes, Jackson has stated he has neither the interest nor the energy to return to his sideline perch.
But let’s say he rolls the dice on a low-risk coach like Cleamons and assembles something approximating a contender within the next two or three years, but them he doesn’t feel his old protege is getting the biggest basketball bang for Dolan’s buck. At that point, is it that crazy to think he might not give it one more go for a 12th coaching ring?
Jackson’s admiration for Red Holzman—the fiery motivator of men who helped steer the Knicks to their lone championships in 1970 and 1973—is well-known. As is the Zen Master’s affinity for the concept of a circle.
If he were to lead the Knicks to a title, he wouldn’t merely be putting an exclamation point on an unrivaled NBA career; he’d be giving generations of fans the most poetically perfect closure imaginable.
We’re obviously a long way off—years of more pain, perhaps—from that ticker-tape parade. But if you think Jackson accepted this position without at least entertaining, to however minuscule a degree, the thought of pulling off the impossible himself, well, I have a Chase Bridge to sell you.