L.A. trades triangle for pick-and-roll

Updated: May 14, 2004, 12:55 PM ET
By Terry Brown | ESPN Insider

It was supposed to be the perfect offense for the perfect game, executed by the perfect players -- or as close to perfect as four future Hall of Famers could get.

But it collapsed under the weight of its own requirements.

"The triangle is no longer a valid offense," a Western Conference scout said of Phil Jackson's famous offense. "To run it, you've got to have players who are able to make reads and make passes, and today's players are not intelligent enough to do it. Their basketball IQs are not high enough, and their skills are not developed enough, and you need five guys to do it."

Tex Winter
Tex Winter designed the offense that the Lakers are now abandoning in search of another title.
The triangle was created by one of the most respected minds in basketball, chosen by one of the greatest coaches in basketball history and run by some of the greatest players in basketball history. They are, in order: Tex Winter, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

Combined, they have won nine NBA Championships in 13 years, including three seasons in which the offense was missing either its creator, its coach or some of its key players.

But with the biggest pivot player in the history of the game and four interchangeable swingmen -- perhaps the perfect assemblage for the scheme -- the Los Angeles Lakers instead are running the pick-and-roll when they need a basket.

"Shaq and Kobe would have won anyway, whether or not they were in the triangle," the scout said. "And while Michael [Jordan] was the perfect fit and was patient enough for it, I really think he would have won all those rings regardless."

The offense dictates an ever-flowing, ever-changing series of cuts and rotations through the middle. Dribbling is shunned, one-on-one play blasphemous. It's a half-court set that demands the sacrifice of one's self for the betterment of the whole.

In today's NBA, that's not an easy sell.

If MJ himself had not bought into the approach at the request of his coach, neither would the other Bulls. If Ron Harper, John Salley and Horace Grant (all former Bulls) had not been brought to L.A. at various times to aid in its development, who knows if Shaq and Kobe would have, either.

"I really don't think that you're going to hear too much about it in the future," the scout said. "It is connected to Phil Jackson, and to be honest, I don't think his success was so much about the triangle as it was about Phil's ability to coach."

Whatever it was or wasn't, it no longer is.

From the time Jordan and his Bulls won their first NBA title in 1991 to Thursday night's game in San Antonio, in which an undersized shooting guard hit the game-winning shot with .04 seconds left for the Lakers, the triangle has slowly and inevitably worn itself out.

Look at the numbers when all of the components were in place:

The slow decline of the triangle
Year Teams PPG FG %
1991 Bulls 110.0 51%
1992 Bulls 109.9 50.8%
1993 Bulls 105.2 48.2%
1996 Bulls 105.2 47.8%
1997 Bulls 103.1 47.3%
1998 Bulls 96.7 45.1%
2000 Lakers 100.8 45.9%
2001 Lakers 100.6 46.5%
2002 Lakers 101.3 46.1%
2003 Lakers 100.4 45.1%
2004 Lakers 98.2 45.4%

Sure, other teams have run the triangle and had little or no success. And other recent teams have not run the triangle and still won NBA titles. But eulogy being what it is, we will speak of the triangle only in terms of its defining characteristics.

In its time, it was different, esoteric, sexy, an offense developed to take advantage of the very game itself, in all its beauty. The passing, the cutting, the synchronization of five players moving as one. The triangle encouraged creativity and spontaneity. In fact, within its rules, its players often flourished through renegade drives to the hoop reminiscent of less civilized times.

Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson
Bryant and the triangle's teacher, Jackson, had an uneasy relationship.
Once the rules were mastered, they were made to be broken.

The triangle simply created an unbalanced floor, placing its best offensive players at an advantage through numbers or mismatches that resulted in high-percentage shots.

But, then again, you don't land a featured spot on MTV Cribs by sinking open eight-foot jump shots. You get there by skipping college and going tomahawk on two defenders.

Nothing was meant to last forever ... right?

"This isn't rocket science," our scout said. "You get your two best players the ball. It's not too hard to figure out. And the triangle did this. But it also required a level of unselfishness, and an intelligence level that needs players to go to college to learn the game before they can learn the triangle."

These days, teams seem more enamored of the Princeton offense, or some variation of it that begins with one rotation and a cut off the post and evolves into a high pick-and-roll.

The Sacramento Kings run a version of it, as do the Nets. And if you look closely enough, you'll see Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, some of the most-heralded passers in the history of the NBA, resorting to the pick-and-roll in times of crisis.

Jackson has given them permission. Winter is in audience. Even Harper is there, wearing civilian clothes and sitting in the second row.

It only seems right that everyone be present for a proper funeral.