The New York Knicks are practicing the triangle offense again, likely per president Phil Jackson’s wishes. This follows months in which head coach Jeff Hornacek ran parts of the triple post without fully committing to much more beyond its precepts and broader goals. The Knicks will also probably start playing the triangle offense in actual games, for stretches at least, because even triangle-specific teams (both good and bad) in Jackson’s past have strayed away from the offense for huge scads of games, weeks, or seasons at a time.
All of this was wholly expected at any time of year, whether the Knicks were around .500 and battling for a playoff spot (something the team would likely spin as unsatisfactory) or struggling as the squad is – at 24-36 and embarrassing its way through all manner of off-the-court tumult involving ex-legends, missing starting point guards and the passive/aggressive unrelationship between Jackson and star player Carmelo Anthony.
The team’s hoped-for one-day All-Star, second-year forward/center Kristaps Porzingis, has largely remained above the fray. Played well, played tough, dealt with injuries, had fun during the All-Star weekend, and mostly kept his hands clean.
On Wednesday, after a second consecutive triangle-specific practice performed in Orlando, Porzingis appeared to welcome the flow of the triangle into his waiting hands in a talk with the media:
“I like the triangle,” Porzingis said. “My first season, the whole first season we played nothing but the triangle so I know it pretty well. I like the offense. It can only work if everybody believes in it and everybody executes it the right way.”
“We’re starting to learn it now the way we should,” Porzingis said before the Knicks’ Wednesday morning shootaround. “We should have been playing from the beginning of the season. So we’re a little behind. But every game we’re getting a little better. Hopefully, I don’t know when, we can start using it properly and making some impact playing it.”
Hornacek, on Tuesday, was also effusive in his open approach to the triangle’s return, and how far the Knicks (currently ranked 14th out of 30 NBA teams offensively) have yet to go:
“We’ve gotten better,” Hornacek said in Tarrytown after the Knicks prepared for Wednesday’s game in Orlando. “As time goes on, you say, ‘Can they get it? Are they getting better at it?’ If they’re not, you go, ‘OK.’ End of the year comes and we’re having our discussions and you say, ‘Can this guy play this offense?’ We’ll say either ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ or ‘he’s getting it, he’s getting better.’ So I’m sure that’s part of evaluations.”
These evaluations will last the rest of the Knicks season, which currently places them five games out of the Eastern Conference’s playoff bracket with 22 to play. The Knicks, who were taken over by Jackson around this time in 2014, will once again be running an extended training camp for the triangle offense.
Let’s hope they get it right this time.
The Knicks have tried this before, without Jackson coaching, in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The first of those seasons, as coached by Derek Fisher, began as a drive for the postseason before tailing off almost immediately into what turned into a rebuilding year, replete with deals meant to clear the decks of holdovers presumably unfit for the triangle (Tyson Chandler in the offseason, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert midseason). Last year, with Porzingis working as a rookie, featured limited expectations.
This 2016-17 season, for whatever reason, was supposed to be different. Just after finishing off the second year of his five-year deal, Jackson dove in on a series of triangle-averse vets meant to vault the Knicks back into the playoff picture: Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Joakim Noah. Rose and Jennings do not fit the offense because they are ball-dominant point guards. Noah runs afoul of it, and every other offense, because he mostly can’t play anymore.
Jennings is gone, Noah out for the season, and Rose (a free agent this summer who started complaining about the offense after the regular season’s first game) was nearly dealt before the trade deadline and could be waived before the regular season’s end. All of the anti-triangle guys are being eased out of the picture, with 60 games already having been spent in the third year of Anthony’s five-year contract.
Anthony, as Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman noted on Wednesday, was a notably slouched participant in team huddles following all the triangle catch-up work, as partially run by Fisher’s eventual replacement and Phil Jackson buddy, assistant coach Kurt Rambis.
Rambis and Jackson especially would no doubt take some offense at Weitzman harmlessly referring to the triangle as an “attack.” But in defense of Weitzman, and every other similarly confused NBA observer, Jackson and Rambis haven’t exactly done a whole heck of a lot when it comes to teaching us punters about what makes a Triangle Man a Triangle Man, indeed. Both Rambis in his time coaching the Knicks last year (and in fitful attempts while losing games with ham-fisted rotations in Minnesota) and Jackson with his personnel work in New York have clouded our view of who, exactly, would work in this offense.
And Jackson’s work in full has us wondering, despite his team’s gifting us with the Porzingis Presence, just how committed to the offense he truly is.
Porzingis would work well in the triangle, but he’d work in any offense. Jackson, for whatever reason again, sees the 7-foot-3 forward as a Horace Grant-type taken to the extreme, curling his way from the weak side into good looks and a fair amount of attempts (because the ball must move). Porzingis, hopefully, sees himself as the triangle’s center of the future – creating havoc once the ball dumps into in the low or pinch post, acting as a bulkier Kevin Durant on one play, and an Andrew Bogut gone mad(der) on another possession out of the center position.
Then why, oh why, did Jackson outfit his team with Rose last July?
Rose is a dud in any offense, as the play-a-day stylings of Fred Hoiberg proved in Chicago during 2015-16. His solid personal box score stats are no boon to the New York offense (we, like the Knicks, are not even getting into the 25th-ranked Knicks defense), and his again-solid pick-and-roll stats with Porzingis were hardly helping anyone within a middling Knicks offense during Derrick’s lone year in New York.
Not only has NBA history proven that pound-foolish, general manager-to-coach interplay is a loser in the end (even the Celtics were tanking in 2007 to build up asset hype before they landed Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett), but Jackson himself seemed to drive the point home repeatedly during his time as the coach.
Phil Jackson loved being the martyr. He would delay on calling timeouts in order to let his players “play through it” during lulls in cohesion, confidence and competency. He was seen clipping his nails on the bench as his favored team frittered away a loss in Dallas. He’d stick to reserves for long stretches of losing play during the regular season in order to fashion some mettle for some unexpected rotation shifts during the postseason.
For the longest time, it all worked – in actual, identifiable instances. Two points taken far too long to actually get to helped push the 2004 and 2011 Los Angeles Lakers into too-catastrophic or too-early postseason losses. Since then, especially in New York, the whole martyr thing just hasn’t worked out for him.
It used to help the guy even when he was out of a job. Jackson wanted very little to do with coaching the Chicago Bulls past the 1997-98 season, and he told the Bulls as much entering what would be his final year with the club. The Chicago front office was complicit in creating the atmosphere that helped encourage Jackson to want some time away, but the stated pact before the season was that the two would amicably part ways – prior to Jackson spending the entire season laying the weight of the entire Last Waltz on the shoulders of the forever-enemy Bulls front office, as characterized and led by general manager Jerry Krause.
That worked to the point of basketball deification and a gig in sunny Los Angeles alongside Shaq and Kobe, while Krause is still laden with the burden of the breakup of the Bulls to the point where he’s repeatedly denied induction into a Basketball Hall of Fame that will see fit to induct the Nike campus’ longtime favorite omelet chef, Gary, at some point in 2020.
Jackson has an ego, we know, but why couldn’t he used the earned parts of that gravitas to fully commit to his favored offense from the beginning? Why was Jose Calderon, a fine point guard but one not fit for an offense that would have him playing off the ball for the bulk of a possession, brought in as Phil’s first significant trade for the Knicks? Couldn’t there be another triangle-obsessed coach out there to take over ahead of Fisher, who was clearly not ready to lead a pro team, or Rambis? Why the 2016 attempt at a relevant half-measure, as if such a thing could ever exist? Why wait until March in this season?
Larry Brown, who is always quick to offer his own services as a coach (even while technically being paid to coach another club), thinks Jackson should coach his damned Knicks if he wants to saddle the club with this dastardly offense:
“I can’t figure out how you can hire a coach and tell him how you want him to play,” Brown told Sirius XM NBA Radio on Tuesday. “I can’t figure out how you can draft players for a coach that you know coaches a certain a style, and was successful doing that style, and get him to play a style that you feel comfortable with. Then you coach. You’re talking about one of the greatest coaches in the history of our sport. Let him coach. If he wants to do the triangle, put it in and let him coach it, and then teach everybody around and get the players who are comfortable playing it.”
Jackson is never going to coach the Knicks, or any other team. Searing back and leg pain, combined with distaste for the road life at age 71, will overcome even the most exhausting of egos. Those days are over, and what Brown should be begging (if he has the Knicks’ best interest in mind, which was certainly not the case during his own time spent coaching the team in a failed 2005-06 coup attempt) is for Jackson to actually start managing the club as the triangle sees fit.
I mean, if this is your damned Viking Death Ship, Phil, plug the holes long enough to let it get in a few rows. The least you could do is go out the way everyone already thinks you’re already going out. If you don’t desire acceptance from a culture you despise, why continue to skulk amongst (what you deem to be) its slums?
He hasn’t, from deals both big and small, come close to working as the sort of triple post-obsessed general manager that he wished Mitch Kupchak to be in Los Angeles, and (shock horror) as Jerry Krause so expertly was in Chicago – continually finding cheap or costly additions that fit perfectly in the triangle. Any ill-fitting parts – like two-time Bulls training camp cut, and current Knicks assistant coach Corey Gaines – were at times dismissed by Krause and Jackson in tandem.
Phil Jackson knew he needed a Krause and even a Kupchak in his previous coaching stops, as he never tried to officially take over as personnel chief. He understands that he can’t run both gigs in New York, and any late-contract turnaround would have to start with him acting as the sort of triangle-obsessed general manager that too many often paint him as. He’s failed his own ideals, heretofore.
The inventor of the triangle offense is Tex Winter, who was unremarkable in his modern (post-lane widening) coaching stints at both Northwestern and with the NBA’s Houston Rockets. Winter, forever snarling on the sideline, badly needed Phil Jackson to not only adopt his offense when charged with coaching the game’s greatest player in Michael Jordan in 1989, but he needed a basketball and competitive marvel in Jackson to modify the message, while holding true to its ideals.
Jackson, whose current relationship with the triangle’s principles has already been discussed, needed to take the baton in order to keep the offense alive, but Winter needed his younger disciple to adapt it to an ever-changing game. One that, out of nowhere, started making stock point millionaires out of Nike employees named “Gary” due to the worldwide ubiquity of superstars like Jordan.
The question as to whether Phil Jackson needs to find that update within himself or his own younger disciple is up to time to decide, but in the three years since Phil has taken over the Knicks, we’ve seen only wasted opportunities, lost seasons and, as is the New York custom, improperly spent money.
A lone basketball practice in Orlando shouldn’t change all this, but Jackson has for too many years believed that it is basketball’s role to overcome the meddlesome outside influences of the many who look to make their livings off of the game itself.
As one of those making a good deal of money and wielding a good deal of influence, Jackson has betrayed his belief in the triangle offense to this point. Unless he creates some late-period turnaround, he’ll somehow manage to save the offense from its total NBA damnation (merely sustained irrelevance) just due to the overwhelming specter of how ineffective and wasteful his time as president of the New York Knicks was.
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