By Al Iannazone, Newsday
Michael Jordan didn’t fully commit at first and needed some convincing, but Phil Jackson got through to him that fully embracing the triangle offense would make him a better player and a champion.
The offense requires player and ball movement, trusting your teammates and your instincts, a high basketball IQ and reading and reacting to the defense. Jordan bought in, and the rest is NBA history. He led the Bulls to six championships and Jackson became arguably the greatest coach of all-time.
“Michael Jordan had to make serious changes in his game, in his thinking, and actually in his being,” said Johnny Bach, an assistant coach for the first Bulls three-peat. “Michael in it found that he could make people better. He himself solved some features of it. He found different ways to attack.”
Bach said Jordan would not have been a six-time champion if not for the triangle, also known as the triple-post offense. Tex Winter is the brains behind it and was an assistant with Jackson with the Bulls and Lakers. The triangle helped Kobe Bryant win five rings and Shaquille O’Neal three with the Lakers.
Jackson plans to bring the triangle to the Knicks. In his role as president, he won’t be coaching, but he will make sure whoever is on the sideline — and former Bull Steve Kerr is a name that keeps coming up — has complete knowledge of the offense and can teach it to the players.
“Developing a system so that balls can move, passes are made and people make cuts and create open opportunities for teammates, these are things that are important to me,” Jackson said last week during his introductory news conference at Madison Square Garden.
Bach, 89, said if Jackson wants someone to help teach it, he’s ready and willing. Some of Jackson’s other disciples and potential candidates to join the Knicks include Kurt Rambis, Ron Harper, Bill Cartwright and Brian Shaw.
“I don’t think Phil would sign up for this task amid his 20 years of success of committing himself to the triangle to have it not be expressed fully with his mentorship or have a person who has been a part of it,” said Rick Fox, a three-time champion under Jackson with the Lakers. “I agree with what Kobe said that he sees Phil getting the Knicks to a place where they are a full expression of his beliefs and his championship experiences, and that’s always having a form of the triangle, a form of a system of selfless basketball.
“I think his willingness to pass that on through someone will be a gift to that person, but also a gift to the players and that organization.”
The offense consists of a three-man triangle on one side of the court with a big man in the post, a player in the corner and one on the wing. On the other side, one player is at the top and the other on the weak-side wing. The players are interchangeable and having the right personnel is critical. When it’s run correctly, the triangle offense creates scoring opportunities for all five players on the court.
It involves spacing, cutting, passing in and out of the post and reacting to the defense. There is a sequence and rhythm to it. It’s intricate, yet easy when the players fully understand it. No plays have to be called in this free-flowing system, and when executed properly, its proponents believe it’s harmonic.
“It’s a dance,” said Fox, who is a SiriusXM NBA Radio host and NBA TV analyst. “It’s a group dance and everyone’s moving in sync. When you see it, you just see something beautiful. You can’t explain it, but you know the people that are doing it know what they’re doing and they’re in support of each other while they’re doing it, and it’s beautiful. When people watch it and see it, it’s spiritual. It’s on another level. It’s nothing more gratifying than to be a part of something that’s selfless. Yet everyone feels a part of it and everyone is rewarded for their selflessness.
“When we would flow up the floor, we’re constantly exploring the defense. That was the fun of it: knowing that everyone was orchestrating to stop us from doing something, they’re trying to stop actions. At the same time they’re only telling us what our next move is. We’re all going to move together because the five guys in front of us defensively are telling us exactly how to beat them.”
Jackson will have to find the right personnel with the Knicks, but Carmelo Anthony could flourish in it, playing the role of Jordan or Bryant. Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Pablo Prigioni would seem to fit it well; J.R. Smith would need some reining in to be effective.
Bach said the offense also leads to proper positioning on defense if the players accept complete responsibility. In Jackson’s 11 championship seasons as coach, his teams finished in the top six in points eight times, in field-goal percentage five times and in fewest points allowed seven times.
The triangle has its detractors, though.
Some teams may use principles of it, but few NBA teams run it. The Spurs are one of the few that have “a system.” The triangle is used more in the college game, and particularly on the women’s side. In the NBA now, isolation and screen-and-roll are the most popular plays.
“Right after the national anthem is played, screen-roll begins,” Bach said. “Almost every team now runs screen rolls.”
Fox believes the NBA has gone away from the triangle because many owners and general managers aren’t patient enough to wait for the development of a system or players. It’s a star’s league; teams are looking for the next Big Three to match the Heat’s LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Bach said fewer coaches are giving the triangle the proper attention and thus the players aren’t fully grasping the ins-and-outs and nuances the way Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers did.
“The parts fit when you teach the skills necessary to play that offense,” Bach said. “I’ve seen some of my best friends lose their jobs over it. They expect instant success. They say ‘the triangle,’ but it’s a hell of a lot more than a triangle. Are there triangles in the offense? Yes. But you have to get into them. You have to get out of them. Your team has to be able to play defense from this offense.
“They’re looking for it like it’s a bottle of aspirin and this is going to solve all my damn headaches. Not so. You have to do an awful lot of basic teaching, and you better have personnel that want a five-man game.”
Photo: Bridget Samuels via Flickr