In the midst of yet another tragic farce loosely disguised as a basketball season—one that began with a rape trial and more recently featured a franchise legend being carried off by security during a nationally televised game—fans of the New York Knicks could at least take solace in the fact that they hadn't heard much about the Triangle offense in a while. The pride and joy of former coach and current Knicks team president Phil Jackson, the Triangle had been debated endlessly during his first two full seasons in New York, when the Knicks finished 29th and 24th in offensive efficiency, respectively.
Whether they considered the offense a plodding, stone-aged strategy that was doomed to fail in today's pace-and-space NBA or they defended it as simply misunderstood, Knicks fans could agree on one thing: they were sick of hearing about it. Most fans were relieved when Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek, who had relied on a much more modern scheme as coach of the Phoenix Suns, and supposedly gave him the freedom to run the offense as he pleased. The Knicks have been terrible since starting the season 14-10, and Hornacek hasn't inspired much confidence, but for most of the season that three-sided monster had been banished from the conversation.
Oh how naive we were. The Triangle is back in New York headlines in a big way, as the Knicks have officially spent much more time running the triple-post since the All-Star break. It's not simply that the coach (or the front office, or both) has decided to go back to the old offense; they have also unleashed a maelstrom of pro-Triangle propaganda. In a time where the line between real and fake news is being blurred, Phil Jackson and company have run a bizarre PR campaign that might even make Donald Trump blush. Consider all that has gone down in the past few days:
1. Jackson finally returns to his ever-controversial Twitter account to wish his former mentor and Triangle architect Tex Winter a happy birthday. A few hours later, Hornacek announces that the team is indeed running more Triangle. Happy birthday, Comrade Tex! May your Triangle wisdom bring harmony to the basketball proletariat for 10,000 years!
2. Hornacek gave a somewhat Orwellian explanation that the decision to include more Triangle in the offense (ranked in the top half of the league in efficiency at the time) was made to help the Knicks' defense:
"We thought maybe it could help our defense a little bit, and getting positioned a little bit better. When Derrick drives to the basket and we're stuck in the corners, we were having a hard time getting out of those corners, and teams were running back on us in transition," Hornacek said. "So we thought the more we run it that way, you typically have two guys up higher, we should be able to get back better defensively."
Never mind the fact that every other team in the league—including the top defensive teams—shoot corner threes and still somehow manage to get back on D. It was also reported that assistant coach and Triangle acolyte Kurt Rambis, whose stint as interim coach last season was pretty damn horrible, had taken more control of the offense in practice. Rambis was named the Knicks' defensive coordinator back on November 8, and strictly judging by the results, he has failed miserably. But in the reborn Triangle, offense is defense!
3. Charley Rosen, the sportswriter turned Jackson minister of propaganda who had already stirred a feud this season between the team president and Carmelo Anthony, wrote a piece on February 26 ripping backup point guard Brandon Jennings as "another player who resists the triangle." The next morning, Jennings and the Knicks surprisingly parted ways.
4. In the same article, Rosen commended ancient shooting guard Sasha Vujacic, who rarely gets off the bench except in case of a blowout:
"Vujacic is mostly incapable of creating his own shots, but would be a key weapon if the Knicks would ever learn how the run the triangle—which is something that Vujacic has already mastered.
It says here that Vujacic should be in the rotation and play more—at least fifteen minutes per game."
Wouldn't you know it, Vujacic was put into the next game in the second half as the Knicks struggled to hold a lead against the Toronto Raptors. He played three minutes, missed two open jumpers, and somehow finished -10.
5. The following day, Hornacek appeared to indicate that the Knicks were basing their future evaluations on players' ability to master the offense:
"As time goes on, we say: 'Can they get it? Are they getting better at it?' If they're not, then O.K., when the end of the year comes and we're having our discussions — 'Can this guy play this offense?' — we'll say yea or nay, or: 'He's getting it; he's getting better.' So I'm sure that's part of the evaluations this summer."
Could one or more of these things be coincidence? Sure, but the coincidences are piling up mighty quick. The real question is how this will affect the future of a team already well out of the playoff race. Derrick Rose has recently come out publicly with some pointed criticisms of the offense. He'll be a free agent this summer, and given his unexplained absence earlier this season, his abysmal defense, and questionable passing, the Knicks might actually be better off using the Triangle to scare him away. As for Melo, he seemingly refuses to say the word "Triangle"—smart dude—and has already soured on Jackson given the president's passive-aggressive attacks on him.
The future of this franchise clearly resides on the frontline, in the form of young Euros Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez. Surprisingly, the second-year big man from Latvia, who struggled during those Triangle-heavy later months under Rambis last season, is a full-blown convert who has backed the Knicks' recent triple-post revival:
"We should've been playing it from the beginning of the season," Porzingis said. "We're a little behind. I don't know when we can finally start using it properly and making an impact.
"The whole first season we played nothing but the triangle. I know it pretty well. I like the offense. It can only work if everyone believes in it and everyone executes it the right way. We're starting to learn it the way we should.''
Kristaps may like the offense, but statistics show that he hasn't really thrived playing the Triangle's post-heavy style. His shooting percentages have gone up this season from both inside and outside the arc, though much of that might be due to normal career progression, but he's clearly a better pick-and-roll finisher. Hernangomez, a surprisingly electric rookie, has what appears to be a smooth post game, but he, too, is far better in the pick-and-roll. Per NBA Stats, both players rank near the bottom percentile of qualified players in post-up efficiency, but in the top half of the league in pick-and-roll efficiency.
The Knicks are moving toward a scheme that their most important players struggle to execute, and evaluating them and their present/future teammates on their ability to execute said scheme. Insane, you say? "Knicks," I reply.
If owner James Dolan doesn't plan on standing up to Jackson—he recently promised to honor Phil's contract "all the way to the end"—and Hornacek has turned into a bona fide Triangle zealot, is there any opportunity for Knicks fans to ditch this antiquated system? Ironically, the best hope may lie with Anthony, who stuck it out through another trade deadline. Last month, the Post reported that sources close to the All-Star forward believe he might try to wait out the 71-year-old Zen Master. Melo apparently still loves playing for the Knicks, and he holds a surprising amount of leverage in this fight. He has a full no-trade clause (courtesy of Jackson), is tight with the owner, and has survived every power struggle in his six years at MSG. Sure, forcing a trade to a contender would be the obvious choice, but Melo has proved time and again that he isn't necessarily interested in the obvious.
Those Knicks fans who are sick and tired of having Triangle propaganda shoved down their throats might just have to back Melo, the king of iso-ball, in his battle with Knicks management, a contest that could very well determine the future of New York's offense.
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