Which Key NY Knicks Will and Won't Fit in Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense?
For a team still without a head coach, we seem to have a pretty good beat on the New York Knicks' offensive philosophy for the foreseeable future.
With Phil Jackson dictating the franchise's direction, one would assume the team will take after the 11-time championship winning former coach's image. And though Jackson has said he won't nudge his new coach to run the triangle offense, his list of rumored candidates—mostly disciples of the system—seem to indicate otherwise.
Under the assumption that New York does run some variation of the triangle next season, we can begin to separate current Knicks that fit into the system—i.e. players that Phil may look to hold on to—from those who don't. Jackson will surely look to move the latter if adjustments can't be made.
To help forecast Jackson's potential roster moves this offseason and beyond, we'll break down players who seem to have clear roles in the triangle and those who may not.
Won't Fit: Andrea Bargnani
More bad news: His immobility and unwillingness to move the ball go against both of the triangle's core principles.
The good news: His contract expires after the season.
Whether slotted at a forward or at center, Bargnani's past does nothing to convince Phil Jackson that he's a suitable triangle player. He was a black hole on offense last season, rarely involving his teammates once passed to in the mid-range. According to Basketball-Reference, he was one of four Knicks (minimum 400 minutes) to post a usage rate higher than 20, while posting the fourth-worst true shooting percentage on the team at 51 percent.
In Jackson's triangle, a system that depends on players finding the best available option, Bargnani's shortcomings would only be more noticeable.
He may have the slowest feet on the team, which surely shows up on the defensive end, but it would also immediately impact the offense. Comprised of several series of cuts and screens, the triangle is no fit for Bargnani.
If lined up at center, he wouldn't be able to move the ball sufficiently. If lined up at a forward, he wouldn't be able to move himself sufficiently. Even if we're ignoring how much scoring he gives back on the defensive end, Bargnani shouldn't have a role on Jackson's Knicks.
Will Fit: J.R. Smith
Yes, J.R. Smith often lacks the maturity and discretion needed to handle a prime role in an NBA offense. But at his best, he has shown the ability to buy into a system and act as a piece to a bigger puzzle.
We're a bit removed from this most recent display, but in 2012-13, when Mike Woodson's offense was uncharacteristically imaginative, Smith was seen in plenty of action pertinent to the triangle conversation.
In a few different pick-and-roll sets, like the one SB Nation's Mike Prada detailed last year, Smith was seen setting effective screens and motioning to a specific spot. Not only on the ball, like in the linked example, but also away from it, like he did here and here.
Smith is also a reliable shooter from distance, particularly in the corners, where he didn't pull the trigger as often but nailed 43 percent of his looks. He shot close to 40 percent from deep altogether.
Many of the ways that this system would help Carmelo Anthony could also apply to Smith. This obviously isn't to say Anthony and Smith are of the same caliber, but the triangle could accomplish the same thing for both: finding more practical ways of getting open looks.
Under Woodson, both players were simply given the ball and a wide open side of the floor. The rest was up to them. In the triangle, that type of stagnation wouldn't be the norm and shots would be a result of action that works to disorient the opposition.
To be fair, the triangle is very dependent on decision making, which Smith has struggled with over the course of his career. Improvements in this regard will be necessary, and that would presumably start with strong leadership, spearheaded by Phil Jackson himself.
Won't Fit: Amar'e Stoudemire
On the surface, Amar'e Stoudemire might seem capable of filling a Pau Gasol-type role in the Knicks' triangle. Both can be fed the ball near the rim and both have range on jumpers that extends near the three-point line.
But the similarities begin and end there.
Big men that can pass effectively are important in the triangle, and Stoudemire just isn't that kind of player. He has posted an assist percentage of seven over his career, compared to Gasol's 16. STAT has averaged 1.3 assists per game in the NBA, while Gasol has tallied 3.3.
So as not to make this an arbitrary comparison of two similar players, here's more context: Amar'e averaged 17.7 passes per game this past season, according to NBA.com, which includes all passes—even ones made in the backcourt and to set up plays early in the shot clock. That ranked second-lowest on the team (minimum 14 minutes per game), only to rookie Tim Hardaway Jr.
It's both obvious and noteworthy that Stoudemire, at 31 and after several surgeries, isn't the most mobile Knick. In a system of movement, it's unlikely that he'd be able to supply it—no matter how effective a scorer he could be in the post.
Will Fit: Iman Shumpert
Months into the 2014 season, Iman Shumpert may have been the one NBA player in most dire need of a fresh start. Thanks to Phil Jackson, he now has the chance to begin anew under a coach not named Mike Woodson and under the basketball discretion of someone other than James Dolan.
Woodson's coaching staff failed incredibly at developing young players, and Shumpert was a victim. As he enters Year 4 of his pro career, he remains an unpolished collection of raw, promising talent.
But unlike anything Woodson had to offer him, the triangle could be just what Shumpert needed all along.
Jackson has repeatedly named Shumpert as a Knick he wants to get a better look at moving forward, and it's easy to see why. The 23-year-old is athletic enough to make an impact on cuts to the rim, if he can improve his ability to finish there. He shot just 51 percent within five feet in 2013-14, while the league average was better than 59 percent, according to NBA.com.
However, per NBA.com: Shumpert finished third on the team in total distance ran on the court this year (138.9 miles), while only averaging 27 minutes per game. Combined with his impressive 4.7 offensive rebound percentage and a 39 percent clip on corner threes, Shumpert has the potential to grow into a difference maker on the offensive end. His ball-handling ability remains suspect, but with a system more reliant on sharp passing than out-dribbling the opponent, Shumpert may find a niche in the triangle.
Won't Fit: Tyson Chandler
Though not as dominant as he was at the time he arrived in New York, Tyson Chandler can still be a very good center on a team with the right surrounding cast and system.
Three years into his four-year deal, the Knicks just aren't that team anymore.
Even before Phil Jackson broke ground on his new Knicks project, the writing was seemingly on the wall for Chandler. When he signed with New York after the 2010-11 season, he was thought to be joining two All-Star-caliber scorers in Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Stoudemire's health would quickly derail those plans, and two years later, Chandler specializing in defense hardly meant anything to the poorly constructed Knicks.
With the triangle looming, Chandler's fit on the Knicks could transform from bad to non-existent. Though not necessarily a requirement, Jackson's system benefits from a center who can play with his back to the basket and is a threat to score on his own. While Chandler plays a very important offensive role—he has led the league in individual offensive efficiency three of the last four years—he can't be relied on to create much offense on his own.
While Chandler's scoring limitations make a working triangle slightly more hard to construct, it's his overall ineptitude with the basketball that make this a poor match.
Among centers, Chandler was one of only four to turn the ball over at least once per game while posting a usage rating under 13, according to Basketball-Reference.
Playmaking out of the center position isn't in Chandler's arsenal, and there's nothing wrong with that; he's made a fine career out of the skills he possesses. But as the Knicks' most attractive asset, Chandler's non-triangle-compatibility makes him an even more likely trade candidate this summer.
Will Fit: Carmelo Anthony
All he has to do is sign on the dotted line.
Of course, it'd be hard to blame Carmelo Anthony for leaving a Knicks team that just handed him his first career playoff-less season, especially with more promising options like the Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets lining up offers. But Anthony surely knows by now that the triangle was tailor-made for scorers of his approach.
Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Carmelo Anthony?
The system, in part, brought championship greatness to both ball-dominant wing scorers. Before Jackson introduced the triangle to Jordan, in particular, he'd spent the first five years of his career searching for the right combination—averaging 32.6 points per game for his career, but without a championship ring.
Red Kerr, former NBA coach and Bulls broadcaster during Phil Jackson's coaching tenure with the Bulls, spoke in 1992 about the triangle's effect on MJ's young career. According to an article found in an April 1992 edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:
"When Michael came into the league, every coach Chicago hired tired to get him the ball and get out of the way," Kerr said. "The last couple of years, the team has gone to the triangle that spreads the offense and makes Michael a better player."
The system is designed to avoid double-teaming and to open up passing and cutting lanes. It has taken the pressure off Jordan and given other Bulls more shots.
"They were all longing for the right system," Kerr said.
And they found it when they found the right coach.
If that doesn't hit close to home with Anthony, who has escaped the second round of the playoffs just once in 10 years despite illustrious individual accomplishments, then nothing will.
In the triangle, Anthony would be able to get his traditional isolations as a fallback option, with the difference lying in his teammates. Instead of acting as lifeless spectators, there's actual motion to curtail the defense's effort and focus while 'Melo goes to work.
It also gives Anthony the ability to hit various open teammates, an area of his game that has gone supremely underrated during his Knicks tenure.
Per Synergy, Melo's passes to spot-up shooters out of double-teams have led to an 77.3% effective field-goal rate -- best in the NBA.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) January 26, 2014
The triangle can do for Anthony what Mike D'Antoni never got the chance to, and what Mike Woodson never could: implant 'Melo's individual talent as a segment of a multi-faceted attack.
If Anthony bolts New York this summer, few would question his motives, at 30 years old with no meaningful hardware in the trophy case. But watching 'Melo operate out of the triangle would be captivating, to say the least.