Can You Really Blame the Knicks’ Struggles on the Triangle Offense?

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One of the big storylines going into the 2014 NBA season was the return of the triangle offense to the highest level of professional basketball, which coincided with former coach Phil Jackson’s appointment as the head of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. The triangle, an offensive system closely associated with Jackson’s assistant coach and mentor Tex Winter, emphasizes passing out of the post from big men and wing scoring, plus ball movement that effectively moves the focus away from the more common type of point guard exceptionalism on which the majority of the NBA relies.

It’s also distinct in that there are no set plays, Joon Kim, a video analyst for the Trail Blazers, describes it:

a “read and react” offense. There is no playbook. There are no set routes or patterns. Instead the offense runs as a sequence of options. Each new pass keys the next set of options. The players are taught these multiple options and asked to simply take the option that the defense is willing to give to the system What sets the triangle apart from other motion offenses is that it asks its players to fill certain positions on the floor.

(If you follow that link you can see what the triangle element of the triangle looks like.) Practically speaking, though, the triangle has a history of failure that is about as comparable as its successes, and while everyone knows about Jackson’s accomplishments with Chicago and the Lakers, it’s worth noting that the Triangle has failed abysmally in Minnesota and as Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman put it in 2012, before Jackson came out of retirement, “If you install Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant into any offense, you’ll win 60 games. The triangle was not the reason the Bulls won six titles and the Lakers won five. But the triangle was what both teams used exclusively. It wasn’t the explanation for their success, but it was central to their operation.” Klosterman goes on to examine why no one was using the triangle, and comes to the conclusion that its complexity brings about unwarranted hostility. A conclusion that the rest of the league has taken up en masse now that the Knicks are attempting to bring it out of retirement and continuing to lose games.

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“I watched the Knicks game last night,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told reporters early on in the season. “Clearly, they’re still learning the triangle, I still don’t understand it. But they’re learning it.” The unspoken implication: That the New York team, who are currently sitting well below .500 early on into the year, are kind of bad — more of a Timberwolves than a Bulls. Currently struggling with an anemic offense, the Knicks of 2014 don’t look much like a championship roster, but they’re largely the same as the team that missed the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference just a season ago. They were never going to seriously challenge for an NBA title this year, triangle or not.

Phil Jackson is aware of this, and we’d wager it’s part of what prompted his curt response to the commish. The Zen Master is right — as far as the potshots that seem to inevitably head his way whenever his favorite way to play basketball isn’t winning rings and selling Nikes, the Knicks should be beyond the triangle at this point. The Knicks aren’t losing games because of the triangle, they’re losing games because their team is not very good. The triangle, though, will offer them a path forward that few other options can, given their roster limitations.