Triangle 101

Kurt —  October 10, 2005

It’s the one offense even casual basketball fans can name, thanks to Phil Jackson and his nine titles with it. But ask those fans what the triangle offense is and you’d likely get a blank stare or an answer along the lines of “Well, your best players form a triangle…”

The offense is more complicated than that, but its basic tenets are pretty easy to grasp. For the record, I don’t pretend to be a professional coach or to have intimate knowledge of the triangle offense, but I’ve played in a variation of it (a dumbed down version a long time ago on a court far, far away), done plenty of reading and watched plenty of games. I’ve got a basic grasp of what’s going on. That does not make this the definitive source of triangle information, there are numerous places out on the Web to learn much more about the triangle, and those sites have graphics to help people who prefer the visual (I am going without graphics here). I think the best is at the site, which has a great explanation using shockwave graphics and more, but Google can take you to countless sites.

The triangle’s primary goal is to create a mismatch or open shot (getting the ball in your best shooters hands, ideally) by keeping proper spacing and creating post, penetration and passing options. That can come in a number of ways through the offense, but for any of them to work the key is spacing and ball and player movement. In the end, if executed properly, you can create 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 situations within the halfcourt offense.

In its basic form, the offense sets up a three-man game on one side of the court (in a triangle, for an example let’s say with one player in the low post, one in the corner and one on the wing) and a two-man game on the other side (one at the top of the key, the other at the weak side elbow or wing). Out of that basic set there are seemingly countless options for cutting and player movement, but when one player moves another must as well to keep the spacing and balance, with players 15-20 feet apart (often a player will run to set a pick for another than take that spot on the floor). When the Lakers offense looks “out of synch” during a game or stretch this season (as is bound to happen), what you’ll notice is the spacing disappears, often because players aren’t moving without the ball.

The triangle, in a sense, is like the New England Patriots offense that won three recent Super Bowls — just take what the defense gives you. Tex Winter calls it a “read and react” offense. The cuts, screens and decisions players make in the triangle are based in part on what the defense does, and there are a myriad of options to choose from. To start with, there are numerous ways to get into the basic “triangle set,” and, more importantly for a team with the flexibility the Lakers have, there are numerous options for what player goes to what part of the triangle. Want to post up Kobe on a smaller guard covering him? The offense is easy to run where he becomes the post player and your center and power forwards are in wing positions. What is key in that scenario is recognition of where Kobe’s defender is — is he between Kobe and the basket or is he trying to deny the entry pass to the post? — then making quick passes around the triangle to get the ball into the position that allows not only an entry pass to Kobe in the post but the chance for him to seal off his defender and get a quick score.

If there is good spacing — and if you have “triple threat” players on the perimeter who can hit a 20-foot jumper to keep the defense honest — then it is difficult to double-team a player in the triangle. When a player is doubled (as Shaq was in the post often) other players should be able to get open shots with just some crisp passing and cutting to correct spaces through screens.

The Laker offense this season is going to look to take advantage of having players who can both shoot from the outside or beat their man off the dribble (Kobe, Lamar Odom and, hopefully, Kwame Brown, for starters). If it is working well no players are “static” for long but rather are moving to create screens or cut to open spaces. For example, picture the basic triangle set up with the ball on the wing (and a guy in the corner and a guy in the post). If the wing player throws the ball into the corner the post player can come out and set a screen for the wing player, who will cut through to the basket looking for a quick pass and a lay-up. Or the corner player could take the shot if the defense sags to stop that pass to the cutter. It all depends on how the defense reacts.

And that’s just one of numerous alternatives. You can have the wing player pass into the post then set a screen for the point (the player at the top of the key), who would then swing into position for an open 16-foot jumper on a pass out of the post. Or get the ball into the post and have the wing and corner players run a “crossing pattern” and hope a defender gets hung up. Or about 100 other choices.

But the ball doesn’t have to go into the post every play, it just did during the Shaq era. The player at the top of the key has a myriad of options to set up plays. One we may see is having the ball out top, having the wing player go down and set a screen for the player coming out of the corner, who runs up a “curl” along the free-throw line and, hopefully, can have a shot or pass inside if the post defender leaves to help.

There are also countless back door, isolation and just about every other type of play available within the triangle offense. It’s strengths are its versatility and its ability to have interchangeable parts — the post player doesn’t have to be a traditional center, it can be whoever — which is why the Lakers are building toward having several players of similar size as scoring options, allowing them to exploit whatever mismatch is found. Hopefully we will see a lot of Kobe getting opened off screens for catch-and-shoots, more like Ray Allen in Seattle.

Part of the beauty of the triangle is it uses a defensive team’s aggression against them — when a defender jumps into a passing lane there are “automatic” counter moves designed to create easy (or at least open) scoring chances. It also allows for a transition or “fast break” game, again wanting spacing, but allows for the player with the ball to pull up and set up the offense if good alternatives are not there. We saw little of this fast break version in the Shaq era, and I’m not sure how much we’ll see now, but it should be more prevalent.

There are two basic defensive ideas you’re likely to see against the Lakers and the triangle this season. One is the “pack it in” idea, where teams will be willing to give Aaron McKie and other perimeter players (except Kobe, most likely) more open outside shots rather than allowing Kwame or a penetrating Kobe or Lamar to get inside the paint and get a better shot. Basically, Laker perimeter players will get a chance to “shoot over” the defense.

The other is to be more aggressive from the start, maybe all the way up the court, and not to let the basic triangle set get into position in the first place. That kind of aggression will open up passing lanes for the offensive “initiators,” often Odom or McKie, and if they make smart decisions with the ball open shots will come.

This offense fits fairly well with the Lakers current talent and should keep them in the top 10 in the league in offensive efficiency this season — if they play smart and key players stay healthy.

to Triangle 101

  1. Nice overview of the triangle. I’ve only ever looked at how it works once before, in one of Phil’s books, but this was easier to understand.


  2. magnific… love the way you xplain it… but its so dificult! haha now i see why phil doesnt play the rookies. I’m at my senior year at high school and i play the starting point . I can’t imagine my self running that offense


  3. Fantastic analysis.


  4. The triangle offense will help this team immensely. Last year’s offense was so choatic, that it frustrated me to no end to actually watch it. It will emphasize ball movement and proper spacing. It may resemble the Bulls version of the triangle without a dominant center (remember him?)


  5. Jeanne Costabile May 1, 2006 at 4:26 pm

    I guess Kobe has really proven to the majority that he is the “bigger” man by taking the high road despite the ambush hurled upon him by his own coach, Phil Jackson. Some of Kobe’s diehard fans that were cheering against the swarm of criticism will know and appreciate what I speak of. So, the Lakers are winning. Any team that has Kobe on the floor will win. Dr. Buss knows this and so do the marketing experts. Ah…but some residual fall-out from Mr. Jackson’s scathing betrayal of a book still remains. The reporters still punisn Kobe at voting time. What a shocker. Not in a decade has a single player accomplished what Kobe has this past year. To not reqognize him as the MVP of the NBA is treason. Nash may be the MVP of the Suns but alas, when it comes to competing with all of the NBA players, he cannot even perform a few of the basic skills. I love Nash but he is a role player as he does not have the ability to play the other players roles. Kobe can and has shown his ability to do it all. How long will Kobe be punished for the errors of bad reporting????? He was not convicted of a crime but yet somehow, he is treated as though guilty. His own coach betrayed the very essence of good coaching-namely, you don’t break trust with your players. Yet, somehow Mr. Jacoson is heralded as a great coach. I don’t think too many coaches would ever have done what he did…..Mr. Jackson is a punk. Pure and SImple. And you know those faint “boos” you hear at the games when your name is called Mr. Jackson? Those are mine. And guess what? The player you ridiculed has risen above you; above the press; and above the nay-sayers. Mr. Jackson’s mantra should be.”Kobe, how can you ever forgive me.” He has a lion’s heart and he will but you should at least recogbize it. Kobe has now risen above sports figure role model to a role model for all people. You mental midget reporters should look out from behind your newspapers and magazines and see just how big Kobe has truly become….in all ways…..request a revote based upon your own short-sightedness. It’s the very least any of you can do to restore your credibility to a public that has waited so long for you to do the right thing.
    Think about it.