Phil Jackson’s grand triangle offense experiment in New York, to put it mildly, is a bit of a sham. As such, it’s hard to wonder about the offense’s prospects in the modern NBA when, if we’re honest, the Knicks don’t really run much of it. More on that later.
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Famously, the offense tosses the role of a typical, ball-dominant point guard off the table. Jackson famously enjoyed his best success employing shoot-first, make-turnovers-122nd types like John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher as his point guards in name only.
This would seem to make any potential free agent point man, especially one that already made his hay putting up big stats while dominating said ball, wary of joining New York. Former Knick and former Carmelo Anthony-teammate Chauncey Billups seemed to confirm as much over the weekend, when talking to Marc Berman at the New York Post:
“I will tell you this about that triangle,’’ Billups said. “If I’m a top point guard and a free agent, I’m not going to want to be playing in that triangle. A point guard needs more pick-and-roll, more freedom. It’s going to be restrictive to my play. I think that would be a good thing — if they are opening it up a little. It’s the only way to get a point guard.’’
Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers usually didn’t need to chase any All-Star level point guards during the teams’ title years, not with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant roaming around. Following Jackson’s first non-championship year in 10 tries, however, the Lakers went out and signed a ring-thirsty Gary Payton to a free agent deal in 2003. GP gave up more money in order to come to Los Angeles and try to win a title.
Phil wasn’t exactly unfamiliar with the All-Star, he had been coaching against him for over a decade and saw his brilliance up close in the 1996 NBA Finals. He knew Payton made his legend by dominating the ball and in the screen and roll but, ever the optimist, Jackson probably considered Payton yet another post-up threat that could mesh with Kobe in a big backcourt. It genuinely was not a bad idea, especially that price, and especially with Derek Fisher always around to run things should the season go sour.
It went sour. Not only did Payton run averse of the triangle after 13 seasons of running orthodox NBA offenses, but the 35-year old’s game fell off an unexpected cliff. He did mildly chafe a few times, but the mismatch had to do more with Payton’s game falling apart (given the ball and some screen and rolls a year later in Boston, the dive continued) than his displeasure with the offense.
By the time May hit, Fisher was running the show down the stretch, with Payton acting as the in-bounder on the team’s highlight of the season. In the Finals, Chauncey Billups wiped the floor with every guard the Lakers threw at him, including Payton.
So, no, flash point guards probably want nothing to do with the Knicks. With that in place, let’s remind ourselves that Phil Jackson probably wants nothing to do with flash point guards. Even if those sorts of players are routinely winning big games for very good teams in the era of the outlawed hand-check. That’s not in defense of Phil or the triangle, that’s just probably how he still sees things.
Still, though, this is all presuming the Knicks even run that damn offense anymore.
Sometimes have to go deep into first and third quarters, times when teams stick to the playbook (though triangle-backers will remind you, “there is no playbook with the triangle”) most, before seeing a notable triangle set:
Going thru half court poss of POR NYK, I don’t see Knicks run ∆ until 1:58 left in 1st
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) March 4, 2016
This wasn’t just a flare-up during the team’s recent loss to Portland. They’ve run this way both this season and last.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a shot at the quality of the Knicks roster, that the players aren’t good enough to run the offense.
Teams in Dallas and Chicago have had terrible seasons with terrible rosters while still running strict adherence to triangle sets. The Knicks have had terrible-to-middling rosters since Jackson (who also stepped away from the triangle a bit in his last two seasons with Los Angeles) took over, and his two hand-picked coaches (including the recently-fired Derek Fisher) just aren’t running his baby.
Look who might to get to ruin run the baby even longer?
Phil Jackson, according to league sources, hired [interim coach Kurt] Rambis as his interim with the hope of keeping him on as his next head coach.
There’s a reason we didn’t list Rambis’ Minnesota Timberwolves’ teams above when discussing awful rosters that played in “strict adherence to triangle sets.” Rambis came into Minnesota off of Jackson’s championship bench vowing to run the offense, and with a low-post playmaker like Kevin Love ready to pass and pound his way into the All-Star Game, it seemed like the right move.
Instead, Rambis barely played Love in his first season with the Wolves, starting him in only 22 games. His sets rarely reminded of the triple post offense, as Minnesota won 32 combined games during Kurt’s two seasons with the team. And, again, really, really bad teams can run a whole heck of a lot of triangle.
The Knicks are 3-7 under Rambis, following Saturday’s out-of-nowhere win against the Pistons. Carmelo Anthony is being hounded for 38 minutes a game during that spell in the months before he turns 32, while last year’s second-prized rookie Jerian Grant is working just over 11 minutes a night over the last ten potential contests (Rambis has sat him in three full games). Cleanthony Forward, the prospect forward who was injured last December in a frightening off-court shooting, was assigned to New York’s D-League team on Monday, but when he returns in a few weeks, will Rambis give the 24-year old a look?
Rambis isn’t sure, yet. From Ian Begley at ESPN New York:
“Is there going to be a point in the season where you just go 'we’re going to play the young guys'? I’m not there yet,” Rambis said. “If management tells me at some point in time that we’re there and they want to make that change, then that’s something that I’ll defer to them. As a coach, I’m not there yet. So I’m going to go with the guys that I trust and have the experience right now.”
If it were just about any other coach, you’d understand where the guy was coming from. Scores of NBA interim head coaches have taken over following the season’s midpoint and played the developing prospects, only to be never heard from again. The Knicks can’t vault up the lottery ranks with losses due to 2012’s Andrea Bargnani deal, so it would seem to behoove Rambis to want to win and earn a full-time gig. To play 30-year old Arron Afflalo nearly 36 minutes a game, as he has.
This is Rambis’ gig, though, and everyone knows it. He’s Jackson’s buddy, Rambis’ wife Linda is buddies with and works for Jackson’s fiancée Jeanie Buss, and he (supposedly) runs the triangle. This is why the Knicks’ president will probably make no move toward luring someone like Tom Thibodeau, even though that pairing under James Dolan would result in several office fires even though he probably should.
With that in place, the only thing that top point guards like more than having the ball in their hands is lots and lots of money. And New York will have quite a bit of it this summer.