Can Los Angeles Laker Newbies Adapt to the NBA's Most Intricate Offense?

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Can Los Angeles Laker Newbies Adapt to the NBA's Most Intricate Offense?
Bryant explaining triangle to Artest

The triangle offense.  The name alone conjures scores of perplexed looks and furrowed brows creating a general air of confusion.  In truth, it’s one of the most complex offensive systems used in the NBA. 

Synonymous with Phil Jackson, and the architect responsible for its development, Tex Winter, it’s a challenging but proven commodity.  One simply has to look at the Chicago Bulls, who won six championships using the triangle. The latest beneficiaries of the triangles nuances, the Los Angeles Lakers, have won five.

However, it’s not merely the name that causes a stir, but rather its implementation.  

The offense is predicated on the formation of a sideline triangle employing a center in the post, forward at the wing and guard at the corner.  With the other guard at the top of the key, the other forward sets up on the weak side of the floor in the high post creating a “two-man game.”

The triangle offense is read and react.  Fill your spot and the result is great spacing, allowing crisp passing and a variety of offensive options. 

Ideally this becomes second nature, something that Winters dubbed “automatics”—a state where the coaches don’t have to call plays because the players are so well versed in the triangle they simply read the defense and make the cuts and passes to counteract it.

Unfortunately for most players, this is heady stuff.  In fact, it took Hall-of-Famer Scottie Pippen (a dummy by no one’s standards), a year and a half to learn while playing for the Bulls.

As Sasha Vujacic explained, “The triangle is a two-guard front, so it’s a little bit different and difficult to learn, to learn (the) triangle takes a while.  Once you finally learn it, it goes smoothly.  There are just so many options.”

Therein lies the problem.  Options, require intelligence.  An intimate understanding of what your role is and how best to execute based on what the defense is “giving you.” 

Small Forward Luke Walton affirms this point, “This offense is meant to not even call any plays, just move the ball, and depending on how the defense is guarding you, you make the appropriate pass.  Off of every pass, there’s another five options to go from.”

In essence, this creates mini versions of player coaches out on the floor. But as many of us know, not all players are cut out to be coaches.

The learning curve is steep and while the results can be rewarding (i.e. Jackson’s 11 championships), getting there with players who don’t have a clue can be maddening.

Just ask Ron Artest, who in 09-10 was the latest Laker befuddled by the intricacies of the triangle.  Early and often, Ron looked like a deer in headlights.  As with most players who lack understanding, Ron was usually in the wrong position at the wrong time.  The result, Coach Jackson repeatedly pulled Artest from the floor giving him an earful.

On Artest’s progress with the triangle, Jackson explained that he isn’t getting it “as quickly as I’d like.” “Everything he’s trying to do is kind of forcing the action.”

Although Artest looked lost much of the time, by seasons’ end, he showed signs of comprehending the triangle.  His decisions never appeared better than in Game 7 of the NBA finals.  Still, he has work to do.

That said, one has to wonder how the Laker newbies will fare with the triangle.

The good news is that the Lakers starting five runs the triangle as well as anyone.  The bad, the Lakers have no less than five new pieces seeking to learn the triangle this year. And let’s not forget Artest.  With a training camp that lasts approximately two weeks the grading begins in earnest during the exhibition season.

As Derrick Fisher’s backup, guard Steve Blake, is going to have his hands full.  Point guards are the quarterbacks of the NBA, natural extensions of the coach.  And though the triangle doesn’t require a pure point to run the offense, Blake’s understanding of the offense will be every bit as crucial as Fishers’.

While Theo Ratliff, may not get a large amount of playing time, he has a responsibility down low of being the usual recipient of the initial pass in the offense.  This is the pass that most often leads the defense to shift, his reaction sets the course for fluid cutting and passing opportunities.

Matt Barnes will be playing the role occupied by Artest and under just as much scrutiny. The quicker he can grasp the offense, the more time he’ll see on the floor.  The fact that he’s not shot happy should pay dividends for him as well.

If Coach Jackson holds true to form, rookies Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter will ride the pine. However, when called upon, they have to demonstrate their understanding of the offense and execute if they want to see more time.  

In the end, the newest Lakers may struggle with the triangle as much, if not more than those who have come before them.  Integrating that many new faces into a complex system is never easy and not without frustration.  Thankfully, on most nights, they have just enough talent to win while they learn.

The saving grace of course is that this is the deepest Laker team in years and Coach Jackson has the luxury of nearly limitless combinations he can play on the floor.  To that end, the newbies should hardly ever be out on the floor without a veteran with a thorough understanding of the system.

As the season progresses, the learning curve will grow ever smaller and in the process, the triangle might very well lead them to the promised-land again.

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