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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