The Triangle Is Dead, Long Live The Triangle

Darius Soriano —  July 12, 2011

The other day in some Fast Break Thoughts, I mentioned I’d been watching an old Bulls game and had this to say about the Triangle offense:

I’m going to miss the Triangle Offense. Watching the Bulls zip the ball around, run all the actions of Tex Winters’ sets, and get the type of looks that allowed them to erase a huge first half deficit was a sight to see. With Phil retiring (again), the only team left running the Triangle is Minnesota. But with Ricky Rubio coming over and Rambis’ job security twisting in the wind, that won’t last long.

Well, Kurt Rambis’ status as the Timberwolves’ head coach is no longer uncertain. Reports say that he will be fired today. And with his dismissal, there’s not a single coach in the NBA that will run the Triangle offense.

I may have been raised on the fast break play of the Showtime Lakers, but I came of age as a basketball fan during the Bulls’ run to six championships and the Lakers stampede to five more in the last decade plus. And while there was beauty (and success) with both styles, I’ve come to love the half court wizardry of the famed triple post sets.

Watching a once in a lifetime player like Magic Johnson orchestrate a full court offense was glorious, but there was something soothing watching the interchangeable parts of those triangle teams move from the wing to the low block; from the low block to the elbow; from the elbow into the two guard front. I loved seeing players read and react to what the defense was doing and still find a high percentage look.

The flexibility the offense offered was also stunning. Both the Bulls (Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc) and the Lakers (Shaq, Kobe, Gasol, Bynum, Odom) had great isolation players and the triangle allowed those players to get to the positions on the court in which they’d be most successful to break down a defense. Whether running center opposite actions to get post players the ball in the post or running the countless elbow actions to free up players to work from the mid-range, this offense offered a variety of options at every turn to get great players the ball in positions where the defense was most compromised.

And it wasn’t just stars that benefited. Role players also found their niche moving into the open spaces of the offense, freeing themselves where they could best take advantage of their (more limited) skill sets. Whether it was Ron Harper finding space on dive cuts to work the interior against smaller guards, Rick Fox operating at the elbow where he could look for his own shot or use his underrated passing skill to pick out a teammate, or shooters like Fisher/Shaw/Paxon/Armstrong/Rice/Horry hovering around the three point line, the triangle continuously worked the defense over to create quality looks.

And while the common thread was smart players, the tools they used were spacing and cohesion.  They were handed a blue print of principles and options – not scripted plays – and told to go make it work on the floor. Players would be 10-15 feet apart at all times. They’d play in a two guard front with the strong side flooded with three players to form the famed sideline triangle. Out of those sets we’d see options of every aspect of basketball teamwork – with post ups, pick and rolls, and pressure releases all readily available to execute. The ball could stay on the strong side or easily rotate back to the weak side where cuts and screens combined to free up players and form other triangles seamlessly. When run correctly, it looked effortless while proving deadly all at the same time.

Of course, it didn’t always work. Ball stopping and an over-dependence on shot making could grind the offense’s flow to a halt. Dribbling in lieu of passing to the open man – something we’ve seen too often in recent years – often turned what should be a beautiful choreography into a disjointed mess. Too many times the smartest players with the most talent (that means you, Kobe and Michael) could manipulate the offense by dictating where passes went in order to get the desired outcome of a certain shot from a certain part of the floor. This rendered the “read and react” aspect of the O useless and turned the triangle into something scripted and predictable.

Not to mention that we’ve only seen the offense work with some of the league’s most transcendent talents. Michael, Shaq, Kobe – all historical legends that served as lynchpins to the offense’s success. All were heavily leaned on to be shot makers and creators, using their otherworldly ability to defy the shot clock or position on the floor to still produce two points when they were most needed. Many could successfully argue that those players could succeed in any offense and elevate teammates regardless of what the greaseboard’s X’s and O’s dictated. And then of course, there’s Phil Jackson and Tex Winter pulling the strings to it all. It surely helps when hall of famers are the guys doing the teaching and barking out the orders.

All that said, the proof is in the success of the offense and how it was able to take on the burden of accommodating such stars while still maximizing their gifts. The offense gave them room to grow as players while also giving structure. Would we have ever seen Michael and Kobe develop their post games without the triangle offering the opportunity to work the low block? Would Shaq have ever become the deadly passer that he evolved into without the spacing, cutting, and angles built into the offense of his prime years? I suppose there are arguments either way but I’ll happily take my chances with those guys growing in the triangle and using it as a conduit for expanding who they could become as players.

And now, there’s no one left to run it. No coaches to teach it and no superstars to hone their games learning it. Maybe it’s for the best as the league goes back to a fast breaking style with pick and rolls dominating the half court action. I’ll miss it dearly, though. When firing on all cylinders, the movement and options that sprung from it inspired a beautiful brand of basketball.

Darius Soriano

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12 responses to The Triangle Is Dead, Long Live The Triangle

  1. The Lakers used to run the triangle?

  2. Off topic: Is there a free, reliable place to stream the All-Star game tonight? Thank you in advance.

    @Chris J….Indeed

  3. Is the lockout killing traffic this bad?

  4. What triangle? Mike B. said his new offensive thrust will allow only 4 seconds in bringing the ball from back court to front court. No more wasting time but run and gun to the open man. This will be a good test for Bynum’s, Artest’s, Fisher’s and Gasol’s legs. Last season, they lost a lot of games from defensive transitions.

  5. Rusty Shackleford July 12, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Good article. I’m all for any offensive system as long as it wins titles. The two titles they won were teams that preached defense after the 2008 defeat to the c-words. That 2008 team seemed unstoppable on the offensive end until they ran into Tom Thibidou. I believe the decline in offensive dominance has been a combination of the rest of the league growing wise to the game plan when facing the Lakers in a playoff series, how to build a roster to compete with them in a playoff series and the Lakers fizzling out . . . Goes to show how tough 3-Peats really are to pull off.

    This season the Lakers, at times, looked like a bunch of Ron Artests trying to execute the offense. Issues that plagued them throughout the entire season were still blatently hampering them in the 1st round against NOLA and weren’t corrected by the time that series was over. Was this the product of Phil being ready for it to be over along with the majority of the team being checked out? I can only speculate that but I do know that the Lakers ran in to the team playing the best basketball in that round.

    I’m still digesting the Mike Brown hire and I really wish we could get some real information as to why and what went on with this team during this years playoffs but the fact is that we probably won’t. I think either they sought out Brown for his background with San Antonio, a system which utilizes big men, or Mike Brown put on his used car salesman hat and sold Jim Buss some we are yet to see if it’s a lemon or not. Maybe the Lakers were looking for change but nothing drastic. Analygous to baseball, pitchers and batters alike have more success before the scouting book on them fills up. Batters who get jammed up by fastballs on their hands have to learn to turn on them to get the bat head on it. A lot of power hitters either have to learn plate discipline or how to hit the off speed stuff. Trying to think positive, I hope the Lakers have something, anything, like this in mind. If they plan on keeping their current core in tact they can’t afford to go into with as many questions that they seem to be facing now. Dun-Dun!!!

  6. No, lockout isn’t killing traffic on this board. Just an increase in asinine reactionary posts based on half truths with lack of logic and calmness.

  7. I agree. No doubt this will be a dumber, less interesting league to watch, whenever play is resumed.

    I hate seeing five guys play one on one basketball – all the time…

  8. #6 – don’t be so snippity, haha.

  9. @8, I wasn’t even drunk when I wrote that. Haha!

  10. your use of the traditional monarchic proclamation in the title is wrong.

    “The King is dead. Long live the King” means that the sitting King is dead, and wishes the new King a long life.

    When I read the title, I assumed you would be talking about how one proponent of the triangle offence had left the league, and then about where it would be used next.

    Just sayin’

  11. #10. I know it, but I used it anyway. ;) It’s people like me that make others believe the other, non-accepted interpretations of that phrase. Ha.

  12. That offense helped get a team with Kwame Brown, Smush Parker, and Luke Walton as starters into the playoffs.

    It’s better than football’s west coast system…
    R.I.P. to the triangle lol