Archives For October 2005

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 bbhighway.com 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.

Fast Break

Kurt —  October 7, 2005

Just a few thoughts as the Lakers slave away in what likely aren’t fun practices. Of course, they are doing that in Hawaii and they’re well paid so you can’t really feel bad for them.

• The Lakers cut Vlade Divac loose yesterday, something that was not a surprise. He told the LA Times his back hurt him after every hard workout, a sign that he could not play even the back-up minutes the Lakers need out of him. Which is too bad, I hope he gets to play a little more in Europe.

• If you want an update on where the lack of Vlade leaves the Laker roster, Eric Pincus at Hoopsworld has it.

• The biggest news in the NBA was the recent trade of Eddie Curry to the Knicks. There are some great breakdowns out there, I think the best is up at 82games and was done by friend-of-this-site Kevin Pelton, and he thinks this could work out in the long run for the Knicks. Personally, I tend to side with Knickerblogger, who isn’t so sure:

Isaiah’s obsession with other team’s players has led him to acquire guys like Jamal Crawford, Jerome James, Tim Thomas, and now Curry. Jerome James came from a playoff team, but since he barely played, his contribution to their success was dubious. The 2004 Bulls won 23 games, and Isaiah has 3 of their starters (including Antonio Davis) on his roster. Do these sound like the players you would be targeting if you were a GM?

I like the idea of a Sweetney/Tyson Chandler front line in Chicago, I think they can do damage in the East. Sweetney is certainly a scoring dropoff from Curry, but a full year of Luol Deng and the maturation of other young players on that team should make up for the offensive loss. But, the Bulls get a better rebounder and defender, and they stay young.

(By the way, ESPN.com said the Lakers offered Chris Mihm, Vlade’s expiring contract and a pick for Curry, which the Bulls might well have taken, but the Lakers were only offering Curry himself three years at $7 million per, while the Knicks gave his six years at $10 million per. Frankly, I’m glad we missed out on that one.)

• One thing I’ve always admired about Kobe is how he comes to camp in incredible condition every year. This time he’s dropped about 10 pounds and worked on his quickness in the offseason, and since he (hopefully) will spend less time creating the Laker offense through penetration, he will take less of a beating and the added quickness will be a bigger help than bulk.

• Phil Jackson said it is possible Andrew Bynum could spend some time in the NDBL this season. This may well be Jackson doing some through-the-media motivation, but I can see Bynum spending some time down there — at some point the kid needs to get in games and that’s not likely to happen, at least much, at the NBA level. If you send him down for a month and let him get some time on the court it will help his development. As he can go up and down a three times this season, one stint down there is understandable.

• Those of you who live in the Bay Area will be able to catch the Lakers first preseason game against the Warriors from Hawaii, it’ll be on Fox Sports Bay Area at 10 p.m. Oct. 11. For those of us who live in Los Angeles, we can read the box score the next morning.

• In case you haven’t seen it, just in time for the season the official Lakers web site has a new and improved look.

Thoughts On The First Day Of Camp

Kurt —  October 5, 2005

It didn’t take advanced statistics — or half a brain, for that matter — to see that the Lakers biggest problem last year was defense. Which is why the first notes I’m reading out of training camp in Hawaii make me smile.

Chris Mihm told ESPN that two-third of the early practices focused on defense, something rare in the NBA.

Out of the same Ric Bucher ESPN.com report, during practices the Lakers are working on full-court pressure each time the ball comes up. In some cases the pressure may be relatively token (you run a higher risk pressuring, say, Steve Nash than his backup), but the basic idea is sound — make the opponents take some time in getting into their offensive set. Less time in the set offense slightly lowers the percentage of getting the shot they want. This is not the answer, but it is a small step in covering up the Lakers defensive weaknesses.

It also appears they are going to work to keep the point guard position fresh — Phil Jackson told the Daily News he wants to keep Aaron McKie at about 28 minutes a game. That means Sasha, Smush and just about everyone but Mihm may get their shot to prove they should play point. We just need one person to step up in the backup role.

It may not be “sexy,” but will be plenty more talk about defense in the next few weeks (the Laker preview on this site will be broken down into two parts, offense and defense.) I think the NBA’s two biggest markets — Los Angeles and New York — are interesting test cases this year to see how much improvement on defense a coach can have.

Remember, last time Phil Jackson took over the Lakers their offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) remained exactly the same as the year before, but what won them the title was their defense improved from 24th to the best in the league. This time Phil doesn’t have an in-shape and motivated Shaq in the paint to intimidate, but I’m curious to see what he can do with the pieces he’s got.

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Just based on the comments, apparently some people thought the “ifs” post was a little too negative in tone. I’m actually pretty positive about this Laker team, both short and long term. This season, if they can keep the key players healthy and commit to defense, the Lakers are a playoff contender, which is a huge step forward. And having Phil Jackson back gives the franchise something it lacked last year — direction. I said at the end of last season front office direction was the thing the Lakers needed first and foremost, and they got it.

In the long run, I think they have the core of a very good team but they need to use the cap space coming in a couple of years wisely — just counting on LeBron or Carmello to jump ship and come to LA is not wise, just wishful. The Lakers are on the path to build a team more along the lines of San Antonio with one superstar (Kobe/Duncan) and a bunch of good players around him who buy into a system and can play good defense. That style of team wins championships.

That gives me a lot of hope.

If They Can Keep Their Head…

Kurt —  October 4, 2005

This season’s Laker team has more “ifs” than a Rudyard Kipling poem.

As training camp starts today, no team in the NBA is harder to forecast than these Lakers. That is due to so many “ifs”, so many unanswered questions. They could be a solid playoff team, they could make us fondly remember last season.

So, for the first day of practice, here’s a list of the on-the-court ifs — how good the Lakers will be this season will depend largely on how many of these the Lakers can turn into positives:

If Phil Jackson’s focus and coaching can get this team to play average — not great, just NBA average — team defense (improving from last season’s 29th in the league in defensive efficiency, when they gave up 108 points per 100 possessions);

If Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown can combine into a solid defensive front line;

If the drop off along the front line isn’t too big when Slava, Brain Cook and Corie Blount enter the game;

If Aaron McKie can defensively stay in front of anyone at the point (or will the parade to the basket we saw last year return for an encore?);

If the Lakers can create some turnovers on defense (they were last in the league last season with just 12.5% of opponent possessions ending in turnovers);

If Kwame’s reputation as a poor help defender was not accurate or is something he can overcome;

If Kwame’s reputation as a “sometimes” player is something he can overcome;

If Kwame can pass out of the post;

If Sasha can play any effective backup point guard;

If anyone can play quality backup minutes at the point, or starting point for that matter;

If more time in the triangle will help Lamar Odom and Kobe play more comfortably with each other;

If Scottie Pippen can help Lamar understand how to work within the offense as the second option;

If Odom’s shoulder is close to 100% and does not limit him dramatically;

If the Lakers can find a three-point specialist for crunch time (Jermaine Jones?);

If Phil can manage the backlog of small forwards coming off the bench (does Luke Walton play the two? How about Devean George, putting him and Lamar on the court at the same time?);

And maybe the biggest if out there: If the Lakers can stay healthy.

If they can do most of these, then theirs will be the playoffs and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – they’ll be a real team, my son!

Fast Break

Kurt —  October 3, 2005

Getting in the flow of the season, today is a “travel day” to Hawaii for the Lakers, then training camp will start tomorrow. That’s when we’ll start taking a closer look at this team, until then here are a few traveling day thoughts:

• Update: The latest Carnival of the NBA Blogs is up at 120 Proof Ball, so here’s an easy way to catch up on what’s going on around the league as training camp opens.

• According to the Daily News report from last week’s Phil Jackson press conference, second round draft pick guard Von Wafer could be headed to the NDLB. First off, this is not certain as Wafer will get his chance in training camp to prove he is more deserving of a roster spot than Smush or other guards, or of playing time than Sasha and the rest. He can make the squad if he earns it.

But let’s say he does get sent down — this may be exactly what he needs. The developmental league is a great place for players who have game but need to learn professionalism. There’s no doubt Wafer can shoot the ball (he had an eFG% of 60% and shot 48.1% from three-point range in the Summer Pro League). But, as I’ve looked around this summer for more information on him, the reports that came out of games at Florida State on him were that he took games off, quarters off, didn’t like to play defense night in and night out, and all that is what led to problems with the his coach. That attitude was not evident in the four games I saw him play in the Summer Pro League, but there he knew it was an eight-game audition. Will he carry that work ethic over if he makes the roster? Maybe, or maybe he gets comfortable and reverts to form. The NDBL is perfect for players like him who need to mature and prove they can play hard every game at the next level. He does that at the NDLB and he’ll be up with the Lakers — everyone needs a guy who can shoot.

• Update: If you can’t wait for a Laker preview, Kelly Dwyer over at SI.com has his up at the site and he thinks this will be a more fun and interesting version of the Lakers and the triangle this year, but that we still need more in the post.

Last season couldn’t have gone much worse for the Lakers, but they should rebound nicely this season. They won’t contend for anything better than the seventh seed in the West, but it will be a solid start to the second Jackson Era. We’ve always suspected that a Kobe Bryant-led team would play more to the Triangle’s idiosyncrasies than a team with Shaq on the roster, so this season will be an interesting experiment.

• I still think that if long-term one of the two big men the Lakers brought in this summer — Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum — pan out they will have done well. Here are a couple of interviews with those players, Brown in the Washington Post and Bynum in the LA Times.

• By the way, I missed Phil Jackson on the Sunday Conversation on ESPN. Did anyone catch it? Anything of interest?