As Hall of Fame beckons for Winter, modern NBA shuns his masterpiece
The firing of Kurt Rambis on July 12 was hardly surprising. In an offseason filled with questions about whether there will even be a next season, the dismissal of a coach who led the Timberwolves to a 32-132 record in two years seemed appropriate. Rambis, though, was the last coach utilizing the triangle offense, and with his departure, the NBA, whenever it chooses to return, is now without the most successful offensive system the league has known.
In an ironic twist, as the triangle departs, its architect, Tex Winter, enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday after a career in which the Bulls and Lakers won a combined 11 titles in 19 years with his system. In a museum, however, is where it appears the triangle will stay, thanks to the rush to develop players and franchises.
Adapted from the triple-post offense Winter played in while at USC in the 1940s, the triangle doesn't have plays, but sets and formations. As players read a defense, they look to drive into openings, run backdoor cuts and share the ball, all in hope of finding a weakness to be exploited. If working as planned, the ball moves quickly and equally among all five players.
"You can't afford to have the ball in one person's hands," said Steve Kerr, who played in the system with Chicago from 1993-98. "In a way, that is sort of the genius of the offense and the reason it makes it so difficult for a lot of modern-day players to adapt.
"The triangle requires a different kind of guard who is more used to playing kind of a combo position than a pure point. Derek Fisher is a great example. He did a great job of recognizing the defense and getting the Lakers lined up in their spots and getting the action started.
"It's not at all point-guard dominated, and the NBA has become a very point-guard-dominant league. Kids grow up playing high pick-and-roll and they've got the ball in their hands and they're pounding the dribble. You try to put Derrick Rose or Chris Paul or Deron Williams in the triangle and they'll go nuts. It's just a tough adjustment."
Minus specific play calls, the offense also requires time to analyze each possession. (The Timberwolves tried otherwise last season, playing at the league's fastest pace, but they also led the league in turnovers and finished 27th in shooting.)
"If you run it correctly, it can take a little time to get into and get people in the proper spots and then react out of it," said Bulls vice president John Paxson, who won three titles playing in the triangle during his Bulls tenure from 1985-94. "The 24-second clock is difficult. If you have more time on the shot clock, it's better for the offense because it allows you to switch sides of the floor with the ball more often and get the defense moving. And because there are so many options, when a defense makes a mistake, you have a way of taking advantage of that."
But that often takes time, and with so many teams proclaiming their desire to play up-tempo, a methodical approach doesn't appeal unless it comes with a coach in Jackson who has won 11 titles.
"We play a game now that caters to the athletic abilities of NBA players," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "Players want to showcase, and it sells, too. There's a trade-off there. With the structured offense, you have to ask: If you are preventing players from showing what they can do, are you holding players back?"
The rush of a season doesn't allow for much teaching, which generally meant anyone joining Phil Jackson's teams after opening night faced a difficult transition. To ease that learning curve in the Jackson era, the Lakers decided in 2006 to purchase the D-Fenders, a Development League team in L.A., and install the triangle as its operating system. That meant finding a coach who could teach the system.
"So we conducted a search and there just weren't that many people. It was limited to two or three people nationwide," Kupchak said. "A lot of [the candidates] said they understood the concepts of the triangle because they had played against it, but there just weren't that many who had actually coached and taught the triangle." (The Lakers ended up hiring Dan Panaggio, who had coached the triangle in the CBA.)
Indeed, part of why the Bulls and Lakers ran the triangle so successfully was the presence of the man who wrote the book on it. Winter's 230-page work,
"Not knowing the intricacies is a huge part of why so few coaches use it," Paxson said. "And most of our coaches now have grown up differently. They've learned different things. Personally, I love the triangle, but there's no one right system. A coach has to have a system he believes in and he's got to be able to teach it."
Jackson's retirement and the Lakers' decision to hire former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, a Gregg Popovich disciple, has sent whatever remaining teachers exist of the triangle scattering. Jackson's longtime assistant, Jim Cleamons, found work as a head coach in China. Brian Shaw was hired as the Pacers' head assistant coach. Meanwhile, Winter, 89, suffered a stroke in 2009 while serving as a Lakers consultant. He is still struggling to communicate and will not be able to give his own Hall of Fame acceptance speech in Springfield, Mass., on Friday.
Efforts to establish the triple-post offense beyond Jackson's teams have been few and unsuccessful. Cleamons tried it in Dallas in 1996-97 and was fired after a 28-70 record in one-plus seasons. Tim Floyd ran it in Chicago after Jackson's departure and left three-plus years later with a 49-190 mark. And this summer brought a close to Rambis' experiment in Minnesota.
"It's alarming that so many coaches have tried and not had success," Kerr said. "I've had this debate with myself since I've thought about coaching at some point in my life, and if I were to do so at the NBA level, I'm not sure I would implement the triangle. I believe in spacing and ball movement and angles and backdoor cuts and using the defense's pressure against itself. Those are all things the triangle does. But it's a little tricky because it does take time for the players to adapt and really feel confident with it, and one thing NBA coaches don't have is time. If they mess around trying to run the triangle for a year or two and they don't have success, then that's it."
When Jackson installed the offense in Chicago, the Bulls needed time to believe the concept could work.
"There's a trust that needs to develop," Paxson said. "And one of our big things was getting Michael to trust that [his teammates'] strengths could help us win games."
Said Kerr: "[Phil] used to tell us in Chicago that he didn't run the triangle for Michael and Scottie [Pippen]; he ran it for the rest of us. That's what makes the offense unique. It gives role players a defined, prominent role because they are constantly handling the ball and passing and moving, so they feel more involved."
Paxson said the offense gave the players "real ownership" on the court.
"That was a big for us," Paxson said, "to have a coach who basically said this is the format you're going to play and I'm not going to stand up and scream at you and make a call every time. I'm going to let you work through this on your own."
The results differ, however, when Jordan and Pippen and Horace Grant are running the plays rather than a trio of recent lottery selections.
"You're not going to have great success with mediocre talent running the triangle," Kupchak said. "You have to have great players. There have been a lot of teams that did not run the triangle and won championships, and that's because they had players worthy of competing for a championship."
For those teams that adopted it, the triangle wasn't all-encompassing, as anyone who has watched Jordan or Kobe Bryant dribble out the shot clock for a game-winner could attest. And with each incarnation, the offense became more diluted. The Bulls ran more of the system than the Lakers, and the Lakers ran more of the system than the Timberwolves.
Winter, who lives near the Kansas State campus where he coached from 1953-68, now sees elements of his offense splintered throughout the league. In Dallas, the Mavericks position Dirk Nowitzki in the pinch-post area (situated at the corner of the lane at the free-throw line) from where Jordan and Pippen passed to weakside cutters or big men rolling to the basket. In San Antonio, the Spurs utilize the kind of spacing and passing that once made Shaquille O'Neal a primary weapon and distributor in the Lakers' triangle offense. And in Houston, now former coach Rick Adelman utilized the wing-based attacks and backdoor cuts that made the triangle stand out in a league full of high pick-and-roll plays.
"I'm not sure we'll ever see someone come in with a complete triangle system," Paxson said. "But I know there are a lot of coaches in this business who have Tex's triangle book on their shelf."
And it appears that's where it will stay.