Why Lamar Odom Is a Good Fit for Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense

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Why Lamar Odom Is a Good Fit for Phil Jackson's Triangle Offense
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Plenty has been said about what impact, if any, Lamar Odom’s signing with the New York Knicks will have on the team, his relationship with president Phil Jackson and, most crucially, the troubled forward himself.

Indeed, it’s easy to view the move purely through the prism of loyalty—how even a simple non-guaranteed contract might be able to help salvage a broken basketball spirit.

All of which ignores the best-cast scenario: that Odom would be a perfect fit for Jackson’s triangle offense.

The first order of business, of course, remains finding a replacement for Mike Woodson. But given the list of possible candidates—Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw, Jim Cleamons and Derek Fisher have all been mentioned—it’s hard not to see the hire as Jackson’s first step toward a full-on organizational overhaul.

Even if Odom winds up being little more than a seldom-used backup, his experience will be critical in helping grease the wheels of New York’s triangle transition.

To see how a player of Odom’s caliber can fit in such a complex system, it’s important to understand a few of the triangle’s key tenets.

In its most basic instantiation, the triangle (or “triple post”) features a center at the low post, a forward at the wing and a guard in the corner, with the second guard being stationed near the top of the key and the second forward at the weak-side high post.

Put to grease board, it’s easy to see how the system got its name, why with the O's constituting no fewer than three distinct triangles. And while the offense can often neglect a full 25 percent of the available floor space, the proximity of the players—each one can readily dish to any of his teammates—makes for a spacing that is at once delicate and dynamic.

Bahram Mark Sobhani/Associated Press

Given its structural principles, it’s easy to see how a player of Odom’s versatility wound up fitting so seamlessly into Jackson’s system.

And fit he did: Under Jackson’s tutelage, Odom authored the most consistent stretch of his 14-year NBA career, capping it off by winning the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award following a stellar 2010-11 season.

Still, playing as he was in the shadows of Kobe Bryant and—to a lesser extent—Pau Gasol, Odom’s contributions to the Los Angeles Lakers’ two titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10 cannot be understated.

Back in 2009, Ball Don’t Lie’s Kelly Dwyer took fingers to key in an effort to help highlight just how crucial Odom was to L.A.’s triangle success:

Sometimes, as we learned with Scottie Pippen, playing the biggest role in the offense means moving the ball in the right direction early in the possession, and eliminating your chance at a nice assist or sweet bucket. And that isn't some cute way of typing "get the ball to Kobe/Michael, and get the hell out of the way, you lucky sod" without actually saying it.

No, because my fondest memories of Odom last season (and Pippen, throughout his career with Chicago) were of him running the offense with the superstar guard on the bench. Those second-quarter runs that Odom was a part of for the Lakers this year were absolute studies in how to play off the ball, how to make yourself a threat without the rock, and how to think team first. The triangle offense helped, no doubt, but it was Odom that made the sacrifice.

In Odom, Jackson had a forward who could shoot and pass from quite literally anywhere on the floor. He was as capable of knocking down the baseline jumper as he was at hitting the weak-side wing from the high post; just as good at dishing early in the set as he was shooting late.

That’s not to say the transition was a simple one, gifted a player as Odom was. The triangle has the ability to turn also-rans into key contributors, but it can also temper the talents of those too stubborn to know what’s called for in a particular situation.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Prior to arriving in L.A. in 2004, Odom—though touting undeniable talent—was a player as prone to bouts of bad decision-making as he was to the occasional brilliant pass or breathtaking play.

For his part, Odom acknowledged this learning process during an interview with assembled reporters ahead of Game 2 of the 2009 Finals:

A lot of us with a lot of ability are used to going one on one. In the NBA, you just clear out a side, use your handle, use our post game to get where you want to go. In the triangle you have to be a lot more patient; you have to understand spacing. You have to have everyone on the same page. If not, if you’re making a move and a guy doesn’t know where you’re supposed to go, he could take your space, and that kills your play…If you got guys that can dribble, pass and shoot, it’s hard to defend, because like I said, a different pass can lead to a different play—a different pass can lead to 20 or 25 different options…

To be sure, whatever versions of the triangle New York implements won’t boast near the degree of prescient poetry exhibited by those Lakers teams—at least not right away.

But if Jackson has any hope of fast-tracking his famed system into the hearts and minds of his charges, Odom’s institutional knowledge—buttressed by thousands of hours of repetition—could prove indispensable.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

How much the 34-year-old Odom has left in the tank is, as of yet, an open question. Ditto the doubts about his playing shape and whether he’s put his recent demons behind him.

Ever the hardwood philosopher, Jackson managed to avoid such platitudes during a recent press conference, choosing instead to couch the Odom signing as a “pretty good risk/reward situation for us” (via ESPNNewYork.com’s Ian Begley).

Deep beneath the surface smug, however, lies a grander recognition: that changing a franchise’s culture, like cultivating long-barren land, starts with a single seed, seemingly small though it may be.

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