After the New York Knicks opened the season with four losses in six games, often looking like a team struggling to find its footing on offense and struggling even more to find the opposition on defense, the predictable story popped up. Team president Phil Jackson was frustrated that his charges, under the leadership of new head coach Jeff Hornacek, weren’t running his preferred triangle offense nearly enough for his liking, to the point where he’d taken to showing New York’s players how to run it himself. (Here’s your reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun.)
four more years (of this exact story)
four more years (of this exact story) https://t.co/LV5Kbb8TRd
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) November 8, 2016
Barely a week into the season, Knicks star Carmelo Anthony had already proclaimed himself “tired of hearing about the triangle.” It’s hard to blame him, what with the relative merits and faults of the triple-post offense having been a constant topic of conversation (and source of frustration) ever since Jackson rode back into town in March of 2014 to lead the team with whom he won two NBA championships as a player back to, if not glory, then at least relevance.
And yet, despite the widely held view that Jackson’s more interested in doing things his way than in finding the best way, the Zen Master insists he’s not out here trying to force Hornacek and the Knicks into his preferred scheme like a round peg into a triangular hole. From a post-election chat with ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan:
JM: There have been reports you are frustrated that (Knicks coach) Jeff Hornacek isn’t employing the triangle offense enough. Is that the case?
PJ: No. But when they run it I want them to run it the right way. If you are going to do it, use your skills and run it the right way. I’m not frustrated at all. Derrick Rose missed three weeks of training camp (because of a civil trial). It’s totally understandable where we are as a ballclub. We have guards that do a lot of stuff off the dribble. I want them to understand they can do things off the pass. It has to be a combination.
JM: Can the triangle still be effective in today’s game, which has gone the “space and pace” route?
PJ: If you want to learn the fundamentals of the game, you don’t bypass any of the basics, like how to make a post pass, how to set up a screen, what pivots you can use to escape pressure and force defenses to react. What are the passing lanes? You have to acknowledge that. You have five players on the floor. If you are going to drive you have to know where players will be on the court. If you are going to make a pass you need space between players and have a certain amount of lanes open. Appropriate space between players is 12-to-16 feet. Eighteen-to-20 feet is a little long to make an appropriate pass. We’ve extended that to create long lanes to allow players to roll to the basket and stretch the floor.
JM: So, is it safe to say the Knicks will not be a “space and pace” team any time soon?
PJ: It’s my feeling when everybody does the same damn thing it becomes, ‘Who has the best Rolls Royce? Who has the best, fastest stock car in this race we are running?’ So if you have LeBron, wow, we’re going to do the same thing even though we don’t have the Rolls Royce? You have to be unique. You have to have something no one else is doing to have genius in this game. It becomes an ownership. I don’t care about the triangle. I care about systematically playing basketball. If the spacing isn’t right, if guys are standing on top of each other, if there aren’t lanes to be provided, or rebounders available to offensively rebound the ball, or we don’t have defensive balance when a shot goes up, all of these things are fundamental basketball. I follow it. I’m not railing, ‘This is inadequate’ or ‘This isn’t right.’ Just show me what will work. Are we running around for no reason? Can we hit the first cutter? Do we have the ability to hit the second option or are we just bypassing plays so someone can hit a 3-point shot? It doesn’t make sense to me.
Jackson’s aversion to the game’s move toward the 3-point shot notwithstanding, and setting aside the far-more pressing issue of a Knicks defense that enters Monday’s action dead last in points allowed per possession, Phil does have a point when it comes to seeking more pop, urgency, execution and egalitarianism in New York’s offense. From Maxwell Ogden of Daily Knicks:
The triangle offense may or may not be the answer, but Jackson is fair with his evaluation. 11.1 percent of the Knicks’ possessions have ended in isolation, which is the third-highest percentage of any team in the NBA.
For perspective on Jackson’s criticism: New York is shooting 40.6 percent from the field in isolation sets, which ranks No. 19 in the NBA.
Yes: the Knicks go ISO at the third-highest rate in the NBA and convert with the 19th-best efficiency.
For what it’s worth, Jackson has consistently insisted that he cares less about the triangle than he does about New York playing an identifiable “system of basketball,” dating back to his introductory press conference as the Knicks’ new personnel boss:
And then, of course, there’s the matter of determining a style of play on the court: “developing the system so that balls are moved, and passes are made, and people make cuts to create open opportunities for teammates.”
“I know you all know about the vaunted Triangle offense, and it’s been maligned in the past few years, but I believe in system basketball,” Jackson said. “Steve Mills came out of Princeton. I came out of a system that we ran here in New York in which team ball was an important aspect of playing, and we believe that’s what we want to get accomplished as we go forward from here.”
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And yet, throughout his tenure with the Knicks, it has always felt like, as Jason Concepcion of The Ringer put it, Jackson “seems genuinely more interested in rehabilitating the triangle offense’s reputation than he does in building the Knicks into a sustainably successful team.”
It has felt that way, in part, because Jackson has copped to wanting to show the world — after wildly unsuccessful attempts at running the triangle by former lieutenants Jim Cleamons in Dallas and Kurt Rambis in Minnesota, and after years of spread pick-and-roll and motion-based attacks transformed the state of NBA offense — that the triangle can still matter. From a February 2015 sitdown with Harvey Araton of the New York Times:
By last spring, James L. Dolan, the executive chairman of Madison Square Garden, had offered Jackson a reported $60 million over five years, autonomy in running the Knicks as team president and — for the sake of his legacy beyond wins and losses — the opportunity to plant the triangle in the heart of another premier N.B.A. market.
“It was part of my thinking,” he said of — once and for all — popularizing the system he learned from its innovator, Tex Winter, when both were assistant coaches in Chicago. “There are some principles of the offense that I did feel were being overrun, or disregarded.” […]
But as to skepticism about whether he can make the triangle work in a league in which no one else plays it, Jackson said: “I’m not daunted by the number of people who have commented that this way of playing is arcane, that the game has moved on. The game has moved on.”
He also believes that the game, stylistically, moves in mysterious ways.
“I think it’s still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what’s going to win out,” he said, leaving no doubt of his disdain for the point-guard-dominated concept of “screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two or three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense.”
Squint and you can see the method to the madness — subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion, zag when everyone else zigs, look for talent and opportunities in areas where other teams aren’t, and force opponents to deal with an attack they’re ill-equipped to defend. And hey, if you manage to burnish your legacy as a result, so much the better, right?
The issue, though, is that Jackson — who just last year lamented how “today’s players simply lack the skills to play the triangle” — says he wants his point guards to understand they can do things off the pass rather than off the dribble … but went out this summer and added Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings, two ball-dominating lead guards with iffy-at-best long-range strokes who entered this season with seven-year NBA track records showing that they’re the kind of playmakers who struggle to contribute much when they’re not working around a screen and heading downhill.
It’s certainly possible that with time, repetition and willing sublimation, both Rose and Jennings can adjust accordingly; players in their late-20s can absolutely learn new things and develop different aspects of their talents. It’s also possible that a team leaning heavily on diminished or disinterested versions of Rose, Anthony and Joakim Noah in the starting lineup will suddenly begin to credibly defend opposing offenses. It’s just not likely, though, and as our Kelly Dwyer wrote last week, “you don’t blame the players or the coach for these sorts of things, you blame the person that supplied him with the materials.”
Jackson’s right to note that it’s not surprising for the Knicks to be unsettled and under .500 at this stage in the game, what with Rose missing nearly all of training camp as he stood civil trial before being cleared of rape charges, Noah still working his way back into form after losing most of last season to injury, and a new head coach trying to figure out a rotation on a roster featuring 10 new faces. That’s why a lot of us expected the Knicks to be roughly below average this year. Phil, though, looked at what he put together this summer and thought he had a team with a shot at contending in the East.
With a home-heavy slate over the next three weeks, it looks like the time is now for the Knicks — whatever system the play — to develop some consistency and prove that Jackson had just cause to be that optimistic. Like Phil easing up on his commitment to the triangle, though, we’re going to have to see it to believe it.
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