There used to be a Phil Jackson mystique that made him appear semi-God like. His booming voice, his daunting height, his crisp shoulders, the way he entered the room like the King eyeing his subjects after war games, all of it created an image of Phil Jackson as an emperor. It extended to the basketball floor and the array of organizational patterns the triangle offense readily made available while Phil watched bemused. He squeezed every drop of life out of an offense no one else could adequately run because no one else had Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Phil, though, is married to what made him a success and that is appropriately human. We all have a philosophy- if it works then we double down on it. But the question has to be asked: if the triangle is creating rebellion what are you doing Phil Jackson?
While the Carmelo get the hell out took center stage Friday, behind the scenes Knicks not named Carmelo were pretty disgusted and were not feeling the front office talking point of learn the triangle during the summer, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical. Not only is the triangle boring and needs specific players to be able to run it, it is antiquated, a scheme with sepsis in its veins, on life support, in intensive care. According to Wojnarowski, Knicks players were confused about the exit meetings. The meetings were heavy on triangle talk which every NBA player knows is dead offense walking.
Further adding drama, the Knicks future and their one non-tradeable commodity, the only player Phil Jackson can point to as a victory, dissed Jackson and the exit meeting and flew home to Latvia disgusted with the season, the turmoil, the depressing middle and end of a wasted year. The team was in adolescent dysfunction. No message is often a message and Kristaps Porzingis silent yell was loud and clear.
Kristaps Porzingis is not happy.
Back in this country, Carmelo continues to be at the center of the Knicks power play. Jackson wants him out. Carmelo wants to dig in. But what for? With Phil insisting on the triangle, this team is going nowhere and Carmelo will be 34 years old at contract’s end. He should want to save himself and pursue a legitimate chance at a title instead of engaging in a childish game with Jackson. Who is gong to blink first just makes Jackson more energized. Carmelo is giving Jackson the fight that he wants and at the end of the day Jackson will win. Cut your losses now Carmelo.
Back to the triangle. Luke Walton was a prototypical triangle player. He kept the ball moving for the right play to be made. He existed in a Kobe Bryant universe, was happy to do so, and executed Jackson’s system flawlessly. It’s worth noting that the Golden State Warriors offense is a read and react, no plays consortium offense, straight out of Triangle 101. But what Kerr brilliantly did was add Gregg Poppovich’s ball movement by incorporating passes on the drive, and honoring Mike D’Antoni’s shoot it or move it theology by making it the backbone of his team’s actions. Kerr packaged the triangle with supportive offenses to create the Warriors hyperactive point scoring, make opponents cry dominance. Kerr who played for Jackson was conceding the triangle wasn’t enough. It needed updates and adjustments and variations.
Derek Fisher was coming to that same conclusion, according to Adrian Wojnarowski who wrote a year ago that Fisher was moving away from the triangle. Fisher played for the Warriors, and then the Jazz, the Mavericks for a hot minute, and Oklahoma City. He had plenty of other offenses from which to mold a hybrid triangle plus system. He chose not to until it was too late, so indebted to Jackson for giving a neophyte like him a job like the Knicks in the first place, one he didn’t earn. So, there he was, toting the company line until he just couldn’t anymore. Fisher was late to the party but he discovered what every NBA coach knows. The triangle is archaic, a dinosaur-like relic.
That said, it doesn’t matter which NBA offense you use. You must have elite NBA players in their prime, and good role players as a compliment. The Knicks lack both of those things. Carmelo Anthony is no longer in his prime. He is repeatedly sick in the knees and is posting career low numbers in shooting. That matters more than most star players because all Carmelo is good for is putting the ball in the hole. That’s it. The Knicks 2016 summer haul was a bust and is part of the Jackson failure.
But Kristaps Porzingis is the outlier. Multi-skilled, versatile, can play several positions. In the Knicks cast of almost-rans, he is the bright light in a dark room. But he has taken that light far, far away to lick his wounds and reassess. That should trouble every Knick fan, fill their heart with fear.
The triangle offense is not what the Knicks need. The Knicks need a coach who knows what he is doing. And they need a system that can pull the best out of this cast of retreads.
Looking back at Phil’s success- no matter how far he has fallen in New York, he was a brilliant coach and leader- the triangle worked in two specific instances that were very similar. The Bulls kept losing to the Pistons and Doug Collins was fired. It was Phil’s job to take the Bulls from Eastern Conference losers to Eastern Conference champs. A decade later, the Lakers kept losing to the Spurs and Jazz and Del Harris and Kurt Ramibs were fired. It was Phil’s job to take the Lakers from Western Conference losers to Western Conference champs.
Eight years later Phil, with an in his prime Pau Gasol, and role players like Trevor Ariza and Metta World Peace who made consistent shots and guarded their position, did it again, weaved a magical tapestry with a couple of titles as his reward. But just because it worked in Chicago and L.A. with iconic talent didn’t mean it would work everywhere.
Average talent doesn’t win in the NBA. You need skilled offensive wings, those who can get their shot off against defenders in a variety of ways of scoring: catch and shoot, dribble pull up, dribble and drive, jab step, reverse. For the big men, more than one post move of up-and-under and/or lob usually does the trick.
The Knicks have a lot of one dimensional scorers. Take that one thing away and they are helpless. Quality defenses will confuse the Knicks each and every time. And the Knicks don’t pass the ball well enough, nor are they unselfish in their passing to wait for the shot to open up.
Phil Jackson should have known. He gets all the blame. All of it. The triangle wasn’t meant for this group. It was dead on arrival. Dead is an apt description for the Jackson mystique too. He is not who we thought he was. Or, maybe he is exactly what we thought he was. Brilliant coach, average G.M., married to a system that is on life support.
photo via llananba