The Basics of New York’s Triangle Offense

When Phil Jackson was hired as the President of Basketball Operations of the New York Knicks, it was assumed that the team would run a form of the triangle offense — the system used by Jackson when he was the head coach in both Chicago and Los Angeles. New York’s transition to the triangle was confirmed when Jackson hired his former point guard, Derek Fisher, to coach the team. Both Jackson and Fisher have emphasized the importance of playing system basketball, as it helps to stimulate a winning culture. With the implementation of the triangle in the Las Vegas Summer League, it is confirmed that the Knicks will be running the system in 2014. What remains to be seen, however, is how New York’s triangle will look, and how the players on the roster will fit into the system.

The triangle is an offensive system relying on both ball and player movement in order to improve players that lack the ability to create their own shot.  Rather than running designed plays, the triangle relies on the ability of the players to read the defense and run through a sequence of actions depending on the defense.  The offense typically involves running the ball through the low post with a variety of cuts, handoffs, and off ball screens. The offense gets its name from the triangular formation made between the center, the wing, and the guard along the sideline as the team attempts to move the ball to the center in the low post.

Sequences usually begin with the lead guard passing to the strong side wing and cutting to the corner, forming a triangle with the low post center and the wing. The primary objective is for either the wing or guard to get the ball into the low post. If the entry pass is made successfully to the center, the center has to read the defense to make accurate passes to cutting guards and wings. While this happening, the weak side wing will station himself at the top of the circle. This allows the ball to be swung back to the top of the circle if the entry pass is denied. If this happens, the guard, often using an off ball screen, can cut across the baseline to the weak side corner, forming another triangle. A weak side triangle can also be formed if the passing lane to the strong side wing is closed, leading to the guard instead passing to the weak side wing and cutting to that corner.

Another option, if the entry pass is denied, is for the wing at the top of circle to pass the ball to the pinch post, where the remaining player is posted at the elbow on the help side.  A two man game can then be played with the pinch post player and the wing, involving handoffs and screens.  Often times, the pinch post player will be isolated to create his own shot, as the majority of the defense will be on the other side of the floor. This is particularly useful late in the shot clock, as it allows for a late post-up situation after all the passing lanes has seemingly been closed. In the past, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have operated in the pinch post for Jackson’s triangle, providing scoring late in the shot clock. This essential aspect of the Phil Jackson’s triangle is why having a great post player and isolation scorer in Carmelo Anthony will be extremely important in New York’s version of the triangle.

The Knicks running the triangle redefines what players will ultimately fit into their long term plans.  There is a very specific skill set needed to fit into the triangle offense.  Having big men with the ability to read the defense and make quality passes is essential, as much of the offense runs through the big man in the post. An ideal triangle big man would also be a threat to score from the post and from mid-range, as it deters the opposing team from jumping the passing lanes. As it currently stands, the Knicks roster lacks an ideal triangle big man as Dalembert will mainly be used as a rim protector, Stoudemire rarely passes from the post, and Bargnani lacks the efficiency and basketball IQ.  Jason Smith and Cole Aldrich both seem to be potential pieces as backup triangle bigs as both have decent passing ability from the post. Aldrich has shown some post moves, particularly in his one summer league game, while Smith has a decent jumper. It will be interesting to see whether Fisher will play Carmelo Anthony at the power forward position, as he has significantly improved in the past few years in his decision making from the post. If the Knicks employed a small ball triangle it could combine the elements of a modern floor spacing offense with the triangle offense. Regardless, Melo’s post play will be a huge part of the Knicks triangle, as he will spend a great deal of his time as both the post player in a triangle and the weakside pinch post.

It is not just the big men that need to be able to read the defense. Because the system involves following a sequence of events rather than set plays, players in the triangle must have a high basketball IQ, making smart basketball plays and taking what the defense gives them rather than forcing the ball. A ball dominant point guard is not needed in the triangle; preferably a triangle point guard will be a good passer (particularly entry passer) and shooter, with the ability to play off ball. Jose Calderon is known for his smart passing and three point shooting (he shot 45% on three pointers last season), so he ought to be an excellent fit for the triangle offense. Pablo Prigioni has proven to be a strong entry passer and often makes the extra pass to find a better shot. These skills will be very important for a reserve guard. Playing with these two savvy point guards should be beneficial for Shane Larkin, who has already shown in the Summer League that he can play within the triangle as a change of pace guard. All three Knicks point guards have shown to ability to hit shots from long range, hopefully helping to provide floor spacing when playing off the basketball. Three point shooting will not be as important to the Knicks as it once was, but having players with the ability to shoot from  long range is essential as the floor spacing will provide avenues for player movement. Without long range threats, the mid-range can become clustered, significantly limiting what the team can do offensively.

The Knicks do not lack players who can space the floor with the shooting guard trio of Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., and J.R. Smith, but it remains to be seen which of these players will ultimately fit best in the triangle. Shumpert has shown potential as a 3-and-D wing, but has been unable to adequately handle the ball and finish inside at the NBA level. Smith has the physical tools to play in the offense, but may not be able to commit to a system that involves patience and high IQ passing. Hardaway can certainly hit from all over the court, excelling with the open shots he got in summer league, but he also must develop the passing ability necessary to be a long term piece.

Deciding if the players on the roster are long term pieces will ultimately be the key to the upcoming season. After implementing a system with a unique skill set, and it was impossible for Phil Jackson to build a team that perfectly fits his system with limited flexibility. The Knicks will likely take some time to find the right rotation, especially with first year coach Derek Fisher, but the triangle will help to provide stability to the team as the team develops. If the players buy into the system, the team will be more equipped to respond to injuries and rotation changes as the offense is less dependent upon finding particular players but making the correct basketball decision. If Coach Fisher can get the players to make intelligent passes and play within the system, the Knicks can become a more consistent and reliable offensive team than they have been in the past few seasons.

For visual aid on the triangle offense, YouTube user BBALLBREAKDOWN has a collection of videos that explains the system.