Things are not good in Madison Square Garden at the moment. As Knicks fans stare down yet another lost season, with no clear plan in place, an aging and seemingly disgruntled legend in Carmelo Anthony and the prospect of yet another young star whose career may be wasted in Kristaps Porzingis, there is reason to be concerned.
And for a fanbase searching desperately for answers, team president Phil Jackson seems to have only one: The Triangle. His old offense that brought him so much success in the past and doesn’t seem to have any place in the modern NBA. After a year in which no progress seems to have been made, and the players brought in to run the offense either injured or playing poorly, you’d think it’d be time to move on.
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But no, the Knicks have once again doubled down, with both Jackson and head coach Jeff Hornacek saying in the past weeks that they need to run it more, keep perfecting the offense, that it will change this time.
You know the the old cliché: Insanity is doing one thing over and over again and expecting different results.
What has to be so frustrating for Knicks fans is that this front office seems adept at placing the blame on anything but the system they’re playing. If Jackson is confronted with the facts that every other team in the league is finding success playing a different system, that the league has changed, gotten smaller and quicker, that the shots that result from the Triangle – too often long 2s – aren’t the way to win in this league, he can just contort his way out of it.
If the Triangle isn’t working, it’s not the Triangle’s fault. It can’t be the Triangle’s fault. The Triangle has proven to work in the past. No, it must be the players who aren’t running it correctly. Or the coach who isn’t insisting on it being used enough. Or it’s because Carmelo Anthony doesn’t want to win like other, better players have wanted to win and can’t fit into the system. Or injuries. Or whatever else.
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He can always find a way. Forget that Jackson has had years now to bring in the right type of players, to hire the right coach to execute his vision. It’s still not working.
And what are the Knicks players and coaches supposed to do? The only way to prove to Jackson that the Triangle doesn’t work is to run the Triangle. But that only brings about mutually assured destruction: In proving to their leader that his ideas are bad, the Knicks coaches and players are only dooming themselves.
If this all sounds apocalyptic and terrible, well, welcome to the 2016-17 New York Knicks!
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I don’t mean for this to be a total indictment of Jackson, because it’s totally understandable why he feels the way he feels. He’s on the shortlist for the greatest NBA coach of all time, and the way he found success was to take some of the greatest to ever play the game and convince them to buy into a system that was bigger than themselves. That’s incredibly hard to do, and Jackson was able to combine his unique personality with his knowledge of the game and a dash of armchair psychology and make the whole thing work.
Where Jackson went wrong was believing that it was the system itself that was the key. It wasn’t. Not really. If you have teams with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, you’re going to win titles.
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Jackson’s ability to get the best of all time to buy into an offense was amazing, but in truth it didn’t really matter what offense he got them to buy into. All that mattered was that they were playing within a team, because by playing within the team it would free up Jordan and Bryant to shine, would make sure Pippen got his looks, it would keep O’Neal’s teammates happy and interested and feeding him the rock. It also added another character that could take the pressure off -- Jackson and his Triangle took the bright spotlight just enough off the superstars to keep it from blinding them.
NBAE/Getty ImagesGarrett Ellwood
And, in its time, the Triangle was fantastic. The offense was brilliant for the Bulls with Jordan because it kept the ball moving, kept role players involved in the offense, allowed Jordan to find pockets of space to work. It was brilliant for the Lakers because it allowed Jackson to avoid the probable outcome of Kobe and Shaq taking turns shooting until they fought each other at midcourt. (Well, it managed to delay that outcome, anyway.) Mostly, it was brilliant because it made the offense into something the entire team could buy into.
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But what if those teams had run a Princeton offense? Or a Spurs-ian Euroball offense? Or a pick-and-roll with Jordan-Pippen or Bryant-O’Neal? Do we really think, if he had gotten the team to buy in, Jackson wouldn’t have found success? Of course he would. He had four of the 50 greatest players of all time, and three of the top 12. Those Bulls and Lakers teams were always going to win titles.
What Jackson needs to realize right now is that the Triangle isn’t what’s important. It’s not the end-all solution. It never was. What’s important is figuring out what works for a team and getting them to buy in. Unfortunately, that might be too late for the Knicks to do now.