By Ben Adams
You would think life would be easier for Carmelo Anthony. A champion in his only season in college, a No. 3 overall pick, and an immediate NBA star, he's now locked in for another $124 million over the next five years with his hometown team. He will almost certainly score his 20,000th career point in the first week of this season, and he's just barely 30.
Despite all this, and the oft-cited fact that his teams have made the playoffs every season of his career but one, Melo has yet to shake his reputation as the kind of player who would rather score than win.
But now Phil Jackson is in town, and he's got a reputation of his own: The man who can manage any personality; the man with more championship rings than fingers, the man who hand-picked Derek Fisher, his former point guard, to lead New York; and of course, the man who perfected the Triangle Offense. Now the question at the center of the Knicks, of Carmelo's reputation, and of the reconfigured, post-Miami Heat Atlantic Division is this: has the Triangle Offense come to save the day?
Well, first they have to actually use the Triangle. This turns out to be surprisingly hard. Paul Shirley, the former NBA player, podcaster and author of Can I Keep My Jersey?, says the Triangle is rarely run by the book, even under Phil Jackson. (There is an actual book, it turns out. The author is Tex Winter, a Jackson mentor and the architect of the offense.) "[The Triangle] is pretty simple but NBA players are also simple. They're not dumb, but they're used to something less complex," Shirley says.
Maybe this is why some see the Triangle offense as too complex to install. Yet Knicks superfan and new Triangle expert Spike Lee says the offense is simple enough to teach to a junior high school team. Phil Jackson told Grantland in 2012 that "The Triangle is extremely simple. You just need enough energy to get up and down the floor, because it's a 94-foot offense. Everything happens in 4/4 time, like rap music."
The basic Triangle of this scheme is on the strong side: one player in the low post and two on the wing. The remaining two players are on the weak side, forming the so-called pinch post. The ball starts on the strong side wing, and the point of the system is to move it from one option to the next until someone has a favorable look at the basket. Each pass triggers a new set of player movements and options. It's a bit like a chess game: you make a choice, the other team responds, and then it's your move again.
This is also presumably what Jackson means by "4/4 time": you have to make your decisions in sync with the scheme. Otherwise you quickly go from Wu Tang to experimental jazz, and not in a good way.
Meanwhile, most NBA players, according to Shirley, are accustomed to a group of set plays. When a play is called, they know where they're supposed to go. But the Triangle is a system, not a group of plays. "The Triangle is slightly programmed but also reactive. You have to make reads based on how the defense is playing."
Of course, the Triangle is rarely played in its purest form, because in the NBA, the ball has a way of remaining in the hands of the star player.
Which brings us back to Carmelo. Despite his success and his reputation, Phil Jackson can't force his top scorers to move the ball if they don't want to, and even the great Bulls and Lakers teams that made Jackson famous often didn't run the real thing. "If you have Michael Jordan, you can get away with [a watered-down version of the Triangle]," says Shirley. "But Carmelo Anthony isn't as prolific as Jordan or Kobe."
Jackson would no doubt deny this. "People will sometimes look at a team and say, 'Those players won't work in the Triangle. The Triangle won't work here.' And that's so ridiculous," he said to Grantland.
But of course, what he's really saying is that anyone can be convinced to play it right. Ultimately it still comes down to what goes through a player's head.
On one level, the $125 million contract Melo got from Jackson is very sensible for a Triangle team: He's a perfect fit for a key part of the offense called the pinch post, which is essentially the two offensive players who are not part of the triangle that gives this system its name. To visualize the pinch post, watch the first fifteen seconds from a Knicks summer league game.
You'll see the point guard make a first pass to the guard on the wing, then sprint to the strong side corner. (These two guards, plus the big man on the low post, make your basic Triangle. But more about these mechanics later.) At around the :09 mark, a pass goes back to the weak side and a two-man game is played between the pass catcher and another forward in the high post. Those two guys are the pinch post. It's not hard to see why Melo would do a lot of damage if he were part of that tandem: He's a terror in the high post, has the range to shoot the three, and the quickness to get off a screen and get to the rim before the defense can react.
So what's the problem? "The Triangle, in theory, creates matchups for better players at certain spots," says Shirley. "But the other team knows that too. The Triangle is based on treating all its scorers equally and moving the ball. But the ball always stops with a star.
"This offense is just a way to get Carmelo Anthony the ball, but the Knicks can already do that. The problem is, Carmelo doesn't help you win when the ball stops in his hands."
In other words, the defense isn't going to sell out to stop Cole Aldrich just because he has a role in the offense. They're still likely to cheat over to Melo when they can.
Jackson himself recently noted Melo's shortcomings, but is hoping the new offense will open up some new opportunities for him.
"Passing has never been a great strength of his, but in the triangle he'll be able to have check-off reads like a quarterback looking for his first-option receiver, then his second and then his third," Jackson told ESPN. "There'll be plenty of iso opportunities for Melo, and in the triangle it'll be very difficult for defenses to double-team him.
"It won't be like last season where he had to take clutch shots with a gang of defenders in his face. Also look for Melo to get a bunch of post-up looks."
Of course, Carmelo isn't the only player in New York, nor the only scoring option in a Jackson-run scheme. Amar'e Stoudemire is likely to play the low post spot in the original Triangle. (No. 3 in this diagram of the scheme in its opening position.) And he'll be a scoring option too. Part of the theory of the Triangle is that everyone is.
But we all know Stoudemire isn't what he used to be. Despite his therapeutic bathing routine, his chronic knee problems have made him into a limited-minutes player even at age 31. Shirley, who played with a young, spry version of Stoudemire in Phoenix, thinks a physical breakdown may be more than Stoudemire can overcome.
"The smartest thing the Knicks could've done was hire the trainers from the Suns. They have the best trainers in basketball. And a player like Amar'e relies so much on his physical gifts that it seems unlikely he'll become a crafty veteran. You never know, but I think he's nearing the end."
The Triangle does more to create floor position than get guys wide open, so these won't necessarily be clean looks Stoudemire is getting. He still has to win his one-on-one matchup -- or else pass off to the next option. Which may well be Melo again.
In addition to giving Carmelo his extension, the Knicks have made a few other moves, and some of those may be more promising, if a bit less important. The Tyson Chandler/Raymond Felton trade was mainly about clearing cap room and adding draft picks, but it still serves the system well. Samuel Dalembert is clearly a step down from Tyson Chandler -- he is a weaker defender and doesn't move as well; but he can shoot a little, at least enough to be an option late in the shot clock.
For his part, Felton didn't just have a bad season last year -- his best skills just don't belong in a Triangle system. Felton is at his best in transition and off the dribble; Jose Calderon, his replacement, is a better passer and can get his shot off in a phone booth.
There is also the matter of Iman Shumpert, who won't be the target on as many plays, but -- a bit like Lamar Odom, maybe -- he will be an asset as an offensive rebounder and his athleticism will get him open cutting to the basket as the ball handlers work through their options. (The trigger-happy J.R. Smith is another story -- he may struggle to make the reads required of him by the Triangle.)
On the whole, though, Jackson and Fisher have their work cut out for them. For all its mystique, the Triangle is just a plan for how to move the ball around. You can change the scheme, but it's a big ask to alter the DNA of the team. They're still the same Knicks as last year: a freakishly talented but tendentious star, a diminished second scoring option, and few other consistent performers.
Ben Adams is a contributor to Sports on Earth. His writing has also appeared on SB Nation and The Classical, and -- as a book editor -- he has acquired and edited manuscripts on basketball, baseball, football, soccer, golf and one that is tangentially about bowling. You can follow him on Twitter @bendadams.