The New York Knicks will not win a championship this year, and their hopes for acquiring a second or third star to place alongside Carmelo Anthony may have been scuttled by Kevin Love’s trade to Cleveland, and the rising salary cap that will allow several other teams to vie for free agents in the years following 2015. They are heading into this campaign mindful of the idea that this is a placeholder season, one meant to once again lean on Anthony in his prime, while launching Derek Fisher’s coaching career.
Jackson and Fisher have decided to change former coach Mike Woodson’s staid isolation offense, which drew influence from Bob Knight’s sometimes laughably-titled motion offense, to the triple post or “sideline triangle” attack that Basketball Hall of Famer Tex Winter created decades ago. That was the driving offense for each of Jackson’s 11 NBA titles as coach, the offense that helped Fisher to five rings as a player, and most importantly to Knick fans, a variation on the spacing and ball movement that helped the Knicks to their two titles in the 1970s.
It is also an offense that is rarely used and often derided by NBA head coaches, even though its precepts stand as the pillars for great pro offenses, utilizing many of the elements that the San Antonio Spurs ran with last spring. Attempts in the mid-1990s in Dallas (twice) and Phoenix to adopt the triangle failed miserably, and the tired go-to joke being that the triangle was a good enough offense just as long as you have Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant on your roster.
Carmelo Anthony isn’t on their level as an overall player, but he’s not far off as a scorer. Though Anthony turned in a career year last season, his ball stoppage was the reason the Knicks finished 28th in assists per game and 28th in pace last season. He is in some quarters still regarded as a selfish player, but it’s also true that the Knicks badly needed Anthony to look for his own shot at every given opportunity just to stay competitive.
Though exhibition output is to be gargled with a grain of salt, the Knicks have started poorly thus far – averaging just 86 points along three games, with two losses. The team has looked downright terrible offensively, leading that noted NBA sage J.R. Smith to point out that the squad could need quite a bit of time to feel fully comfortable in this offense. From the New York Post:
“It’s going to take a few months. Over the course of the year understanding where everybody is going to be,” Smith said about getting a team to feel comfortable in yet another new system. “It’s going to take a while.”
Jackson’s first Bulls team started out 5-5 before rallying for a strong finish (ranking fifth overall offensively), and his first Lakers team began the season with a 15-4 mark (and eventual championship) even with an injured Kobe Bryant out of the lineup at the beginning of the year.
In the days since, though, Anthony is stressing that he is seeing some improvement after a few marathon practice sessions:
Anthony said he’s still “adjusting’’ to the new sets, which require constant cutting and passes instead of isolation. Anthony has moved the ball well, though sometimes teammates are not expecting the pass, perhaps because of his history.
“They don’t know where the ball is coming from,’’ Anthony said. “You got to be alert. If you don’t have something in 1 1/2 seconds, the ball is out. No holding. It’s a lot of ball movement — got to be ready for it.
“It’s much better than where was the first day from now.’’
Even early, there’s a lot to take in as we attempt to anticipate where Anthony and his team go from here.
If the Knicks had hired a coach with even a basic pick and roll-based, drive and kick system, this team would still be adjusting. Woodson’s offense was so notoriously stagnant that any amount of movement would be uneasily worked into by players used to standing around. Fisher, who did meet with an ailing Tex Winter on his way to New York, is also coaching for the first time at any level. He may have learned from the best in Jackson, but no amount and/or type of experience can fully prepare you for something like this.
The unique situation is why filmmaker and longtime Knicks fan Spike Lee is filming a documentary about the team’s growing pains with the offense. In a recent interview with the Wall St. Journal, he admitted to some growing pains of his own:
“Everybody says a junior high-school team can run it,” Lee said. “Proponents of the triangle offense say it’s simple. If you’re not a proponent, you don’t know what’s happening.”
Jackson on Spike Lee producing an MSG Network documentary on the triangle: “Spike’s an avid Knicks fan who doesn’t know anything about basketball.’’
Jackson went on to remind reporters that running the offense is “not rocket science,” and the man is right. The triangle offense has earned its vaulted status, but it should be demystified at this point.
Spacing, ball movement, penetration, and awareness are all paramount keys. It’s true that three players will develop an imagined triangle on the strong side of the floor, but with the ball whipping around things could quickly shift to the weak side as the play relaxes and the parts move individually and yet in unison. The offense may have been created during the atomic era, but it doesn’t ask that you pass five times before thinking of shooting – one of Winter’s principles stated that taking a shot (to either go in or miss and create an offensive rebound opportunity) was an important form of the penetration needed to run the offense, though penetration by passing is far more preferable.
More important than that is the ability to lose yourself in the action and not fall prey to basketball instinct. Those instincts tell even the most selfish player to shoot the ball the first time he touches it or the steadiest defender to jump at every pump fake, but one has to buy into something bigger if they want to work on Jackson’s team.
He talked about as much with reporters on Sunday, relaying that he will be establishing “mindfulness training” with his new team:
"There's a mindfulness training program that's very logical and very calm, quiet, and we've started the process with this team, and [first-year head coach] Derek [Fisher is] all for it. He's a proponent of it," Jackson said Sunday. "And yet I think that it's kind of what I am inserting in here as part of what I think has to happen because I know what effect it [has]. I think it's very difficult sometimes for a coach to do this because it's so anti what we are as athletes.
"We're about action; we're about this intense activity that we've got to get after. And this mindfulness is about sitting still and being quiet and controlling your breath and allowing you to be in the moment, and yet it's so vital for a team to have this skill or players to have this skill. To be able to divorce themselves from what just happened that's inherent to them -- a referee's bad call, or an issue that goes on individually or against your opponent. You've got to be able to come back to your center and center yourself again."
There are your stated goals. The larger questions remain, though. Is the triangle the right fit for New York, and how well will Carmelo Anthony take to it?
To hear Jackson – and other triangle advocates like yours truly – tell it, the triangle is right for every pro offense. You don’t need a low post demon like Shaq, scoring champ like Michael Jordan or all-around studs like Scottie Pippen or Kobe Bryant to share the ball, anticipate well without over-committing, and be ready to receive a pass and do what you’re best at. Jackson could have taken over in Milwaukee or Chicago (in essence, the perfect current team to run the triangle with), Orlando or Houston – the triangle would be in place.
Carmelo Anthony, meanwhile, is in a lot of ways the absolute perfect offensive threat for the triangle. His ability to lure defenders toward him away from the ball will help tilt the floor toward him and upset the defense’s balance. His adeptness at flashing quickly to the post or finishing along the baseline is tailor made for this offense, and his preference to curl over from the weak side to gather a pass and shoot from the elbow extended area of the floor is a triple post mainstay. Anthony wasn’t assisted on many of his buckets last year, but Raymond Felton also won’t be manning a Mike Woodson-inspired offense this season.
He’ll have to commit, and play proper basketball – and we don’t mean giving up shots or passing the ball more. Phil Jackson wouldn’t mind in the slightest if Anthony matched or even topped his 21.3 shot attempts per game mark from last season if Carmelo was going about those shots properly. Jordan routinely averaged more shots per game in the triangle, and Kobe even more than that (though Bryant strayed away from the triangle far more often).
No, what Anthony needs to do is keep moving, keep cutting, and keep thinking three moves ahead with the knowledge that the first move could change in an instant and that he better be ready. The beauty of the triangle is that when it clicks, and you start to understand how to work within, the opportunities seem endless.
Endless opportunities for Carmelo Anthony? No wonder he re-signed in New York.
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