Is It Time to Retire the Triangle Offense in the Modern-Day NBA?December 11, 2014
It's easy to argue that the triangle offense is an outdated scheme that doesn't work in today's NBA, but don't give up on the system just yet.
The critics say that it features the same, predetermined cuts and little individual variation. It de-emphasizes the point guard—he's buried in the corner after initiating the offense with a quick pass up the floor—in a league dominated by outstanding 1s.
It isn't friendly to analytics either. It probes the defense with multiple post-up opportunities, a low efficiency shot-creation area, according to most metrics. It doesn't lead to very many three-point attempts, as the weak-side action generates mid-range jumpers and elbow play. Its tempo, in a league whose pace is on the rise, is slow.
It hasn't truly worked outside the purview of Phil Jackson and some of the NBA's greatest players—Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. It failed under Jackson disciples Jim Cleamons in Dallas and Kurt Rambis in Minnesota.
With the New York Knicks reviving but struggling within a once-fabled offense, there's only more fuel being thrown onto the fire.
Statistical struggles aside, (the Knicks are 21st in the NBA in offensive rating, according to NBA.com), New York's biggest failure is the eye test.
The real backlash against the triangle really has nothing to do with the particulars of its Xs and Os; it's that the offense is read-and-react, and the Knicks are still disjointed within the offensive framework.
It's the same reason why the Lakers' star-studded lineup of Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol couldn't jell immediately under Mike Brown and the Princeton offense: Read-and-react systems require time and comfort because player movement is dictated by ball movement.
Most NBA offenses consist of a binder's worth of sets loosely related under various series. Maybe the ball is initially entered one way, but the team has 15 calls off that entry. A team might have plays labeled "Elbow 1," "Elbow 2," "Elbow 3" and "Elbow 4," all of which are closely related but ultimately separate wrinkles that help to keep the defense off balance.
The important distinction is that Play X requires cuts "a," "b," "c" and "d." The offense, quite simply, is station-to-station. And when it breaks down and the team is unable to generate a scoring opportunity, it pulls out and plays pick-and-roll or isolation basketball.
The players, in short, are programmed. They run the plays like clockwork. The on-the-fly thinking is kept to a minimum so the players can simply react and play.
The triangle demands a cerebral approach. While the first few cuts are governed by early ball movement, the rest of the play unfolds both naturally and in infinite combinations. No two basketball plays are the same, and in the triangle, each player is expected to "read" the situation and "react" properly.
The problems occur when the player with the ball expects a certain cut and it doesn't come. The movement is supposed to be instantaneous. When it's not, things get bogged down quickly.
Here's an example of a broken triangle set in which Samuel Dalembert and Carmelo Anthony get their wires crossed.
It starts as it should, with Iman Shumpert cutting to the strong-side corner and Dalembert on the strong-side mid-post. But as the ball quickly rotates to the opposite side of the floor, Anthony doesn't pop to the elbow for the pinch post action. (A more in-depth description of these triangle actions can be found here.)
Dalembert is expecting a two-man game off the pinch post, in which Calderon cuts off Melo on the elbow. Because Melo is lifted on the wing, however, Calderon adjusts: He cuts to the corner to form a new triangle.
It's at this point that Dalembert should slide into the elbow/mid-post area, keeping things running smoothly. But he's unable to think quickly and reacts late. Melo has to wait for him to cut, wasting precious time.
By the time Dalembert gets the ball, he's in no position to do anything useful. And with time running down on the shot clock anyway, he has to give it back to Melo so he can create. All continuity is lost, and the result is a difficult isolation shot.
This is the inherent struggle within read-and-react systems: When it breaks down, it really breaks down.
But when it works, the ball pings around and the cuts are sharp. It can lead to some truly beautiful basketball.
What's secretly beneficial about the triangle, however, is that it isn't all about offense. Most NBA offenses have a classic setup of the point guard out top, two wing players on the right and left sides, a big on the elbow (high post) and a big down low (low post).
Smaller teams will go "four around one," but the structure is functionally the same. Even if the point guard is angled off the slot (the edge of the lane extended out beyond the three-point line), there's a player at the top of the key, the opposite wing and buried in the same corner as the ball-handler.
The triangle, however, relies on a two-guard front. This means that at almost all times there are two players lifted out high, protecting against possible transition opportunities going the other way.
In traditional offenses, there is only one player in a favorable defensive position.
Despite the Knicks' struggling defense, this benefit is already reflected in the numbers. The New York defense is the fifth-best in transition by field-goal percentage, according to Synergy Sports, and only 11.9 percent of opponent FGAs occur in transition—also good for fifth in the league.
Unfortunately the offense isn't quite there yet.
Eventually, the Knicks will reach a point where all players are able to adapt instinctually. Time, however, is not a commodity that most onlookers are willing to afford today's NBA teams. Head coaches come and go with regularity, and the pressure to win in the present is enormous.
Luckily, the Knicks have a team president who adores the triangle and has the subsequent patience to let it develop at its own pace.
Even the players have recognized that it is going to be a slow process (via ESPN New York):
"It's going to take a few months," Smith said after the Knicks' 20-point loss to Boston in their preseason debut. "Over the course of the year, understanding where everybody is going to be, [understanding that] 'some like it here, [some] like it like that.' It's going to take awhile."
That's why it's not fair to jump on the triangle quite yet. If after a few seasons and a few personnel upgrades the Knicks continue to struggle, maybe the triangle's viability really will have disappeared.
But for now, nothing about its progress in New York has proven that it can't work.