Among NBA fans, and New York Knicks fans in particular, "triangle offense" has become a loaded phrase. On the surface, it's just the name for the offense designed by Sam Berry and Tex Winter, and made popular by Knicks president Phil Jackson when he was head coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson won 11 league championships using the triangle, and is a firm believer in both the philosophy and the effectiveness of its design.
For all of the triangle's success, no other NBA coach or team has adopted it to the extent that Jackson has; just last week, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek basically promised to go "full triangle" next season. Meanwhile, the term itself has become something of a punch line, as analysts, pundits, and even current and former players question whether the system has become obsolete.
You'll often hear that all teams still run elements of the triangle, but it's hard to pin down what this really means in practice. It's true that many teams run specific actions that were first developed in the triangle. For example, the Golden State Warriors have popularized splits action off of most post entry passes. Splits is a triangle action, and one of the many options for the strong-side wing players after throwing the ball into the post, but it would be no more accurate to call the Warriors offense "the triangle" than it would be to call any offense that utilizes backdoor cuts "the Princeton."
Jackson's Knicks don't just run elements of the triangle; for large portions of their games, they run the actual triangle offense, and it appears that will continue into next season. The debate over whether or not that's wise has been taken up by many writers already, so rather than argue the merits of the offense as a whole, let's take a closer look at how New York's biggest star, Kristaps Porzingis, fits in, and what he can work on this off-season to become a more effective triangle weapon.
In the post
Post-ups are an enormous part of the triangle offense. While the offense is designed to be unpredictable and free-flowing, one of the more common initial actions out of the triangle is the post entry pass. Players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, and Pau Gasol all found success in the post under Jackson thanks to their combination of shooting, footwork, passing, and playmaking.
Currently, Porzingis is not a very dynamic post player. Of the 43 NBA players to attempt at least 100 post-ups this season, Porzingis ranks 42nd in effective field goal percentage on post-up attempts, shooting just 37.6 percent on those shots. His overall post efficiency is boosted a bit by his ability to draw fouls on post-ups, as Porzingis ranks sixth in shooting foul frequency among those same 43 players. His height and his ability to shoot over the top of the defense forces low-post defenders to crowd his space on the catch; from there, Porzingis has the length and quickness to draw contact.
So how can Porzingis become more of a threat? First, he needs to improve his ability and determination to bury defenders deep on the block. In the clip below, watch how Porzingis willingly gives up his spot on the block in order to create separation for his jump shot. This happens far too often. Porzingis is much more comfortable in open space than he is keeping his defender close to him—but if he wants to become an efficient post-up player, he'll have to grow beyond that. Notice how Porzingis gets perfect post position against Rudy Gobert below the rim, but then steps out first to receive an easier pass, and then again to face up before firing a rushed jump shot. By the time Porzingis shoots, he has given up about 15 feet of space:
While Porzingis will receive some early post entry passes in the Knicks' triangle offense, most of his post opportunities will come out of weak-side pick-and-rolls. In the clip below, that action produces a switch, with Chris Paul forced to defend Porzingis at the free-throw line. Giving up almost an inch of height, Paul crowds Porzingis' space to no avail. Porzingis maintains his poise, keeps the ball high, sets his feet, and goes up strong. In the second clip, the Knicks get a similar mismatch—but for some reason, Porzingis decides to make an uncertain dribble move:
These are also exactly the types of shots that Dirk Nowitzki excelled at during his long and successful NBA career: creating mismatches in the post, and then using his height to calmly and decisively shoot over the top of the defense. Watch how he uses his dribble to set his feet and get into a comfortable shooting motion, and contrast that to the rushed, panicked shots that Porzingis took in similar situations:
There's a difference between working to find a comfortable jump shot and settling for any jump shot. Too often, Porzingis does the latter. In the clip below, he gets a switch off of a weak-side pick-and-roll within the framework of the triangle. The action produced a nice mismatch, with six-foot-seven Caris LeVert switched onto Porzingis. With 16 seconds still remaining on the shot clock, Porzingis' main goal should be to force the now-compromised Brooklyn Nets defense into a pickle. Instead, he shoots a contested fallaway, a low-percentage attempt that lets the defense completely off the hook:
Porzingis had eight inches of height on LeVert; his stride alone should have forced the Nets defender into an impossible decision. Just look at how much wider Porzingis' stance is compared to LeVert. A confident spin move would have forced LeVert to take two steps, where Porzingis only needs one.
The biggest problem with this type of low-value shot attempt is that nothing else comes from these types of shots. Spinning toward the baseline and falling away from the basket eliminates the need for the defense to double-team the play. Instead, the Nets are able to stay home and defend Porzingis one-on-one, lowering the chances for a kickout, drop-off, or offensive rebound. All five defenders finish this play in a shell around the basket:
Porzingis has shown the ability to make the right reads in these situations. In the same game, he made an excellent move toward the middle of the floor that drew help from Brook Lopez and allowed for an easy passing angle underneath for the layup. Doing this requires patience. Porzingis had the feel not just to hunt for separation but also to actively force the defense into making a choice: either guard the shot, or guard the rebound or drop-off pass:
The Knicks need Porzingis to figure out when to settle for fallaways and when to force the defense to react. Nowitzki found an excellent balance throughout his career, and it allowed Dallas to play through him in the post. In the triangle, Porzingis will have plenty of post opportunities. He needs to learn to make the most of them.
Porzingis' best current skill is pick-and-pop shooting. In the triangle, there aren't a whole lot of options that go straight into a pick-and-pop, but there are a few. Even more will arise if and when the Knicks can keep the ball moving long enough to get a reversal or two.
This is where Hornacek and his staff will have to get creative. The Knicks would be foolish to underutilize Porzingis as a screener at the three-point line, and they can't always trust New York's players to work their way into it within the flow of the triangle. Some shoehorning will be necessary. The high-post option out of the triangle is probably the best bet for the Knicks to get into pick-and-pop early in the shot clock. In this option, the post player comes up to the elbow and sets a back screen on the point guard, and then immediately follows it up with a ball screen on the wing. There are a million options that spiral off of this, but it is among the best initial options for a team featuring Porzingis, since it immediately places his gravity at the top of the key and opens up the paint.
Finding ways to have Porzingis popping toward the top of the key will be one of the biggest challenges for the Knicks in the triangle. Disappointingly, this wasn't much of a weapon in New York's arsenal this season—even though almost every time the Knicks used Porzingis as the screener, they produced a favorable situation. In the clips below, look how easily this action produces a switch, or leaves one of the two players completely unguarded. Also note: all of the clips in this series are taken from just four games! The Knicks can put this kind of pressure on the defense almost anytime they want:
Perhaps the most exciting skill that Porzingis can employ very frequently in the triangle is the dribble handoff (DHO) action. DHOs are a staple of the modern NBA, and bigs who can read them properly are able to put an incredible amount of pressure on opposing defenses.
The pinch post option is the most common place that Porzingis will find himself in DHO situations. Porzingis is on the weak-side elbow as the ball reverses. The point guard passes to him there, and then follows the pass around him. In the clip below, Porzingis fakes the handoff and drives to the lane for the easy finish:
This is the perfect use of Porzingis' skill set. He already has an enormous amount of offensive gravity because he is seven-foot-three, has a quick release, and is deadly on spot-up jump shots. Putting the ball in his hands as players cut off of him makes him even more of a focal point for defenders. If opponents sag off, Porzingis can face up and knock down the shot; if defenders go under the DHO, the guard can flare out for the handoff behind the three-point line; if defenders go over, the guard can curl to the rim. Oh, and if Porzingis' defender attempts to hedge or switch, he can take advantage by driving to the rim.
Porzingis has a long way to go before he is an elite DHO big, and he hasn't gotten nearly enough reps in his two seasons with the Knicks. In order to excel, he'll have to improve his passing and speed up his reads. The triangle has room for these types of actions, and New York's coaching staff would be smart to emphasize them.
Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose both face uncertain futures in New York, which means Porzingis could enter next season as the Knicks' best creator and scorer. As promising as Porzingis is, he has a lot of off-season work ahead of him, both to round out his game and to prepare himself to be a triangle focal point. It's a tall task for such a young player, but given that the Knicks seem committed to the triangle—and to finding players willing to buy into it—Porzingis would be smart to get started. The more he can master the necessary skills, the better the system will work.
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