Phil Jackson: Modern players 'lack the skills to play the triangle'

Ball Don't Lie
Phil Jackson watches the kids just fritter it all away. (Getty Images)
Phil Jackson watches the kids just fritter it all away. (Getty Images)

It’s not an uncommon refrain, among NBA lifers of a certain age, and they’re not always wrong in cuing up the chorus. The game has evolved, or devolved to certain eyes, and players are capable of as many new things as they aren’t capable of older tenets that were at one time integral to how the game was played in decades past.

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Rare is the older observer, however, that pins his perception on a single style of play. In this case, as is usually the case, it’s New York Knicks president Phil Jackson. The man that grew up playing under Bill Fitch and Red Holzman’s pass-heavy offenses prior to falling in love with Tex Winter’s triangle offense during the mid-1980s (after being hired to work alongside Winter as a Chicago Bulls assistant coach) doesn’t think modern players are suited for the offense he’d hoped to bring to New York.

Such a pity, Phil thinks. He spoke about as much with his former CBA assistant coach and confidante Charley Rosen in a discussion from last December, one that was only recently posted on Today’s Fastbreak:

Q – Okay. Let’s turn to the Knicks. There’s been a lot of criticism in the media about how ineffectively the team is running the triangle. Why is this so?

A – Today’s players simply lack the skills to play the triangle. They know how to play one-on-one, catch-and-shoot, and they’ve mastered crossover dribbles, spins, playing off of screens and step-back shots. They don’t know how to execute things like inside-reverse pivots and other basic footwork. They have no sense of timing or organization. They don’t really know how to play five-on-five basketball. It’s strictly generational.

That’s why Fish {Derek Fisher} wants to uptempo the offense. And why he spends a half-hour before practice doing lots of skills work.

Fisher, you’ll recall, was fired in February. The Knicks worked under Jackson’s friend and former Timberwolves Kurt Rambis to end the season prior to (in a move that had just about every Knick fan wiping flop sweat from their brows) hiring Jeff Hornacek to run the team.

Jackson went on to become the head coach of the Bulls and later the Los Angeles Lakers, and player after player from those squads will tell you that training camps and even mid-season practices were mostly spent running drills they hadn’t worked through since high school or college. Or, in many modern players’ cases, drills they’d yet to run through at all; either by eschewing college altogether (or jumping after one or two years) or working in a high school program bent on letting them dominate the action.

The “generational” concept that Jackson brought up exacerbated things through no fault of the players. NBA coaches in the 1990s and early aughts discovered that simplistic screen-and-roll or flattened isolation basketball was often the best way to either stay in games or win contests. This is why Jackson’s triangle-obsessed squads in Chicago and (briefly) Los Angeles stood out so much – in an era that stuck six statues on one side of the floor while a two-on-two game worked on the strong side, Jackson’s triangle was a much needed aesthetically-pleasing respite.

That style thankfully eroded away due to changes in zone defense rules put in place in 1999 and 2001, but as the years rolled along even Jackson’s Lakers moved away from running strict triangle sets – even with two skilled low post passers like Shaquille O’Neal and then Pau Gasol on the squad. Jackson, publicly at least, didn’t seem to complain much about it.

So, yes, it’s true that today’s player might not be adept at considering the idea that giving the ball up early in a possession might result in the ball coming back to him in time for a great look at the hoop after four other passes. Teams in the 1970s and 1980s weren’t exactly running triangle sets and moving the rock with alacrity either, it should be noted, with everyone getting a chance to dip their beak. Perhaps they had the skills, but just chose not to use them.

What’s worth looking into in Jackson’s case, really, is this supposed crew of triangle-ready partners he purportedly readied to change the game yet again.

Jackson’s first big deal as Knicks prez was to deal Tyson Chandler for Jose Calderon. The Knicks badly needed a point guard, as Raymond Felton (who was sent to Dallas in the deal) was an absolute embarrassment for the team (mostly sans Jackson) the season prior, but Calderon seemed to be a poor fit in any triangle’ish offense. He’s a fine point guard, rarely turning the ball over while setting up teammates, but he does need to dominate the ball. Not triangle-friendly.

Jackson then signed center Cole Aldrich and watched as his assist rate climbed steadily while his overall production impressed, prior to letting him go after two seasons to the Los Angeles Clippers (Aldridge recently signed a three-year, $22 million deal with Minnesota).

He also committed to a five-year max contract with Carmelo Anthony. Had Jackson been around for Carmelo’s development stages, it’s possible that Anthony could have developed into a perfect triangle option. Someone that could swing quickly to the post for a score or dish, someone to keep defenses on their heels with movement off the ball, or leave those same defenders scared witless in the triple-threat position at the pinch post.

Entering his 12th NBA season (following one year at Syracuse, where coach Jim Boeheim basically let him play as Melo saw fit), and at age 30? Despite Anthony’s best intentions, the chance to build upon those instincts was long gone (though that isn’t to say Anthony has performed poorly, far from it). Yet Jackson thought he could change things – from a front office position, no less.

Now we have Derrick Rose as Knicks point guard, someone who is more or less useless off of the ball, and a cast of hopefuls. If Joakim Noah can approximate his 2013-14 play, he’ll set Jackson’s heart aflutter. If Courtney Lee can consistently bring his two-way game to work, he’ll be perfect. Anthony is Anthony, there’s a go-to triangle guy in there somewhere. And Kristaps Porzingis is a big, badass mold of clay ready to be molded into something special.

Jackson’s not entirely wrong about when and where fundamentals tell all, but his kvetching isn’t exactly spot on. The recent Warriors and 2014 San Antonio Spurs ran more triangle-based sets than, I dare say, Jackson’s last three champions (including his final one with Shaq) ever did. The issue here is that Phil Jackson has been saying the same thing about a player’s initial instincts decades ago, and this is when the healthy majority of players were running three or four years in college and eschewing AAU ball. Hell, Tex Winter used to ceaselessly complain about the way Scottie Pippen – the leader of Chicago’s triangle – threw his two-handed chest passes.

It’s just more of the same, even as the game changes.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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