Never Mind the Triangle Offense, It's the Knicks Defense that Needs Fixing

The triangle offense is a red herring. Phil Jackson, Jeff Hornacek, and the New York Knicks can run whatever offense they want—it won't matter a lick unless they fix their abomination of a defense.

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Apr 12 2017, 2:00pm

Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Later this evening, the New York Knicks will wrap up another season that can only be described as a smashing success. A campaign that began with point guard Derrick Rose declaring, "They're saying us and Golden State are the super teams" will end with the Knicks having won either 30 or 31 games—fewer than they did last season, either way. This will be their fourth straight season missing the playoffs, and 12th in the last 16.

As has become custom over these last few years, there has been a metric ton of hand-wringing about the famed triangle offense down the stretch of the season. Team president Phil Jackson pushed Jeff Hornacek to adopt the offense full-time after the All-Star break (at which point the Knicks were 23-34 and had the NBA's 15th-best offense), and the coach has done something resembling that over the past two months. The team has limped to a 7-17 record with the 25th-best offense in the NBA since then.

Read More: How Kristaps Porzingis Can Make the Triangle Offense Work for Him, and the Knicks

And yet, because the triangle has been imbued with some mystical quality by Jackson and his biographers/thought chroniclers, it's all anyone can talk or think about in New York (along with the latest Melo-drama, of course). It dominates back pages and press conferences. It dominated Shaq, Brent Barry, and (former Lakers player and Knicks coach) Derek Fisher's conversation when the Knicks were on one of those "Players Only" broadcasts on TNT late in the season. It was the subject of the second question asked to University of Washington point guard Markelle Fultz when he attended the Knicks' penultimate game of the season on Sunday.

Here's the thing, though: the triangle offense is a red herring. It just doesn't actually matter all that much, because you can score efficiently running any offense. It's true, I swear. If you have good enough players and get them to buy in and run through the sets diligently to pursue the best possible shot as often as possible, even a system heavy on post-ups and mid-range shots (the major criticism of the triangle) can be efficient. The San Antonio Spurs rank fourth in post-ups, third in mid-range attempts per game, and seventh in offensive efficiency this season, for example.

So, the Knicks can run the triangle or the spread pick-and-roll or the flex or Dean Smith's Carolina four corners or the goddamn Rhombus Offense (which I invented on Twitter one day to make the point that's about to be made at the end of this parenthetical) and it won't matter a lick unless they fix their abomination of a defense. And it is, once again, an abomination this season.

When you're considering the Rhombus Offense. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Whether the Knicks were running their "aspects of the triangle" offense, as Hornacek called it before the season, or the full-blown thing, one constant throughout the year is that familiar, dreadful defense. Per Basketball-Reference, the Knicks allowed their opponents to score 112.2 points per 100 possessions prior to the break, and 112.2 points per 100 possessions after it. That is a recipe for losing basketball, no matter what offense you run on the other side of the floor.

This is also not anything new in New York. It has been going on for a good, long while now. Jeff Van Gundy's last full season coaching the Knicks was the 2000-01 campaign. Not at all coincidentally, that was the final season of a 14-year playoff streak for the Knicks, as well as a 14-year streak where they had an above-average defense in each and every season—including two of the four best defensive seasons since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976-77.

Rank

Season

Team

D-RTG

LG AVG

wDRTG

1

2003-04

Spurs

94.1

102.9

91.45

2

2007-08

Celtics

98.9

107.5

92.00

3

1992-93

Knicks

99.7

108.0

92.31

4

1993-94

Knicks

98.2

106.3

92.38

5

2003-04

Pistons

95.4

102.9

92.71

In 16 post-JVG seasons (including the 2001-02 campaign during which he coached only 19 games before abruptly resigning), do you know how many times the Knicks have had an above-average defense? One. It was during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, when Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler led the Knicks to the fifth-best defense in basketball.

It should come as no surprise that across those 16 seasons the Knicks have the worst overall defense in the NBA. Worse than the Kings, worse than the Wolves, worse than the Suns. They rank 21st in opponent's offensive-rebounding rate, 23rd in opponent's turnover rate, 28th in opponent's free-throw rate, and dead last in opponent's effective field-goal percentage. In other words, they have done exactly nothing well for 16 years, up to and including this year, and people are still out here talking to Markelle Fultz about the triangle offense like that's what matters.

The brief periods of success that the Knicks have seen have been built almost entirely on a strong defensive identity. In the seven seasons where the Knicks have gone to the Eastern Conference Finals or beyond, they had a defense at least 2 percent better than the league average; in only four of those seven seasons did they have a better-than-average offense, and the best of those was just 2 percent better than average. So, one would think that the horrifying defense that team has played for the better part of two decades would get a bit more attention. But alas.

Media focus and franchise focus are two different things, of course, but it's not like the team in its current iteration has focused its efforts on the less glamorous side of the floor. Jackson has been pushing the triangle at the exclusion of nearly all else, after all. He's the one who re-signed Anthony to a near-max contract, traded for Derrick Rose, and has limited both of his coaching searches to candidates at least willing to incorporate the triangle into whatever offense they run, before ultimately firing Fisher for not running it enough and pushing Hornacek to adopt it full-time after only half a season.

Hornacek, to his slight credit, straight up came out and said that Jackson needs to sign some better defenders over the summer. "I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players," Hornacek said in the understatement of the century, per ESPN's Ian Begley. "[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and Phil and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there."

"We know we need some help there," Hornacek has said. Photo by Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks are more than a mere personnel change or two away from turning themselves into a top defense—which is still essentially a prerequisite for real contention in the modern NBA—but that would certainly be a start. Asked if he's considering altering his defense scheme (which is run, as it has been for the last two years, by assistant coach Kurt Rambis) in conjunction with those asked-for personnel upgrades, though, Hornacek demurred. "We probably just need to make it the same for a while," he said. "And then once they get that, we can probably expand a little bit, team-to-team and make adjustments that way."

If the Knicks pivot toward a younger roster centered on Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez, and their top-ten draft pick, as has been rumored recently, they'd be wise to simplify things. Introducing an entirely new system with players that young would practically be asking them to take a step backward, but if the system is basic enough, they should be able to get it down. As Sixers coach Brett Brown once said of his young team's defensive success (they finished 12th in defensive rating during the 2014-15 season), "I think that because we've gone into it with just vanilla [concepts], trying to hang our hat on something so simple, and trying to do something simple extremely well, that has served us well."

New York should heed that advice, but even then, getting back to the top of the league in point-prevention is not likely to be a quick process. Quick process and cutting corners has basically been the Knicks' mantra during these last 16 miserable years, and, well, it hasn't worked at all. Unless and until that changes, and unless and until the team focuses its efforts on stopping the opposition from scoring whenever it wants, it won't matter how many flashy names Knicks put on the marquee or how well those players can fill up the hoop. They won't go anywhere special.

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