The Triangle Offense: Stay the Course? Or is it time for Change We Can Believe In?

It should not surprise anyone that the head coaching search being undertaken by the Los Angeles Lakers is different than any other coaching search in the leauge. After all, the Lakers are a high profile team to begin with, and this particular job comes with the added pleasure, and pressure, of inheriting a roster that has championship quality talent. It remains to be seen whether this season’s flame out was simply a combination of unfortunate circumstances, or the beginning of the end of the Kobe Bryant era, but there can be no doubt that next season will be held to the exact same standard of success or failure that this season was.It will be championship or bust.

But the high profile of the position is not what makes the Lakers’ search so unique. Instead, what makes this search so different from what is going on in Golden State or Houston is the stark similarity between the Lakers coaching search and a political campaign.  The candidates are not being judged simply by their qualities and merits as a person.  Instead, their ideologies are center stage in helping to make this selection.  The process itself may not be democratic, but the choice will be made based on the answer to this question:  Should we stay the course, and maintain the current system?  Or is now the time for change?

There are many people who think Brian Shaw should be the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.  Shaw has no experience as a head coach, though he does seem to possess all the necessary qualities in abundance.  But most who believe Shaw should be the choice think so because they believe the Triangle should be the choice.  Mark Medina of the LA Times is one relevant example.  He thinks the Lakers should continue to run the Triangle because:

The Lakers have all the same personnel to make it work.

And

...the success that Tex Winter and Jackson have had running that system speaks for itself.

With respect to Mark, I must disagree.

Mark’s first claim is that the Lakers have the personnel to make the Triangle work. I don’t disagree with him. However, the Lakers have very intelligent players and they could use almost any offense that did not depend on an athletic point guard to run the show. The offense chosen should be the one that best maximizes the team’s chances of winning a title and not simply the one they are most familiar with. This leads to Mark's second point. Jackson won 11 titles using the system, so clearly it works and thus should be continued. It is this second point with which I take issue.  All due respect to the great Tex Winter, I think the Triangle offense is vastly over-rated.

Those who support the Triangle with the "look at the championships" argument are completely ignoring the talent that those teams had. Certainly the Jordan/Pippen Bulls, Kobe/Shaq Lakers, and Kobe/Gasol Lakers had a ton of talent and likely would have won titles under many different offensive systems. The common rebuttal though is that both the Pippen/Jordan Bulls and Kobe/Shaq Lakers failed to win titles together before Jackson and the Triangle arrived. This logic however is flawed.

The Bulls under coach Doug Collins made it to the Conference Finals with both Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant in the second years of their careers. Phil Jackson took over the following season and the Bulls again made it to the Conference Finals and were eliminated. The Bulls finally won a title in Jackson’s second season as coach. By then both Pippen and Grant had developed significantly with Pippen having an All-Star selection and All-NBA defense award to his name. The progression from conference finals to champion can easily be explained by the natural development of these younger players.

A more interesting study is the Lakers and the Triangle for which the rest of this article will focus.

Did the Triangle offense and Phil’s arrival lead to the Lakers first title with Shaq and Kobe?

Phil’s arrival did directly correspond to the Lakers winning a championship but trying to connect it to the Triangle offense is a stretch. Here is a table showing the Lakers offensive and defensive efficiencies and league ranks for the two seasons under Del Harris prior to Jackson’s arrival and then Jackson’s championship team.

Harris_vs_jackson_medium


The offense under Phil Jackson did not improve in any way. The Lakers had the 2nd best offense in the league under Del Harris but that ranking dropped to 4th when Phil arrived with the Triangle. The defense however went from sub-par to the league’s best. It was the defense that changed and led the Lakers to a title. Phil deserves some credit for this, and while the Triangle offense does encourage good floor spacing which could help improve transition defense, it would be a stretch to attribute a change of this magnitude to the offense.

Did the Triangle offense and Phil’s return lead the Lakers to the playoffs in 2006?

After the 2004 season the Lakers roster was drastically changed when Shaq was traded to Miami and Phil Jackson left. The 2005 season was a disaster under Rudy Tomjonavic (who retired after only 41 games) as the Lakers were hit hard with injuries to Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom and failed to make the playoffs. The following season Phil Jackson returned and reinstated the Triangle offense with a similar roster and the Lakers made the playoffs. Was the improvement due to the Triangle offense though? Here is a similar table comparing the three down years between the Shaq and Gasol eras.

Tomjonavic_vs_jackson_medium

 
It is evident once again that the Triangle offense had no significant advantage over the prior offense in place. In fact, the small offensive improvement can be solely attributable to a healthy Kobe and Lamar the two seasons under Phil. Additionally, the defense showed improvement again under Phil Jackson but this likely had little to do with the Triangle. 

So what if the offense didn’t "improve", the Triangle was still a top 10 offense.

It may be unrealistic to expect dramatic improvement in the Lakers offense each time the Triangle was implemented given it was already a top 10 offense (2nd best in the case of Del Harris). Perhaps just being a top 10 offense is enough justification to keep the Triangle as the preferred option going forward. But this logic too has holes in it.

A phrase that can be found on many advanced NBA stat sites is the "four factors". The four factors are the four main factors that contribute to offensive and defensive efficiency. The four factors are: Effective Field Goal % (FG% adjusted for 3’s), Turnover Rate, Offensive Rebound Rate, and ratio of Free Throws to Field Goal Attempts. Here’s how the Lakers performed during the last three seasons (the Pau Gasol era) in these categories.

Lakers_four_factors_medium


Clearly the Lakers two best categories were turnovers and offensive rebounding, being in the top 7 in each category every year. They were roughly average in the other two. But is the Triangle offense the reason for the Lakers strengths in these categories?

While the style of offense can certainly impact the rate of turnovers, I think a better explanation is simply the experience of the players. Younger inexperienced players tend to be more turnover prone while veteran players tend to protect the ball better. Here is a chart showing the Lakers ranking in turnovers over the last 10 years.

Turnover_rankins_medium

It is pretty clear that experience is the major contributing factor. The experienced Lakers in the Shaq era were never ranked worse than 6th in turnovers. Similarly the Gasol era Lakers were never ranked worst than 5th. But the 4 year period in-between when the roster was filled with inexperienced players (Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, etc…) the turnover rate was never better than 8th. Another example would be the Minnesota Timberwolves who are a team that is young and runs the Triangle offense. They finished 29th in turnovers this season. It is evident that turnovers have more to do with the experience of the players than the Triangle offense.

Offensive rebounding could be influenced by the offensive system but again there is a much better explanation, size. The frontline of Bynum and Gasol (with Odom off the bench) is the biggest in the NBA and is a huge advantage. The Lakers have been ranked 7th or better in each of the last three years with this large line-up while they ranked 19th and 20th the two years prior. The great offensive rebounding is obviously due to size and not offensive system.

That presents a very interesting question, if the Lakers greatest offensive strengths are not due to the Triangle but instead due to their experience (few turnovers) and size (offensive rebounding), how would the Triangle perform if the team were of average size and experience?

With a little math we can calculate this impact. I performed a linear regression on 10 years of NBA data to determine the impact each of the four factors has on the offensive efficiency. From this regression we can substitute the league average turnover rate and offensive rebounding rate to estimate just how well the Triangle offense has performed the last few seasons. Here is a table showing Lakers offensive efficiency, the impact of better than average turnovers and offensive rebounding, and the adjusted offensive rating reflecting the value of the Triangle offense.

Adj_offense_rtg_medium

When removing the impact of turnovers and offensive rebounding, the results are not a ringing endorsement of the Triangle offense. Over the last three years the Lakers have been fairly average offensively, this despite the Lakers possessing top tier offensive weapons at the shooting guard and power forward positions along with other solid talent in Bynum and Odom. The fact that the Lakers possess this type of talent yet the Triangle offense produces merely average results should cause some concern that the Triangle may not be that great of an offense. Perhaps that is one reason the Timberwolves, who possess less talent than the Lakers, have finished 28th and 29th in offensive efficiency the last two years.

Why then is the Triangle offense not a great offense?

This is more difficult to answer as it is quite subjective but I do have a few possible explanations. The first is that the offense does not create opportunities to score from the two most efficient places on the floor, at the rim and behind the arc, like other offenses do. Most of the Lakers baskets at the rim come from dribble penetration, one-on-one post-ups, or offensive rebounding. The offense does not use any back picks and the only motion to the rim are when the wings enter the ball into the post and then make a token dive towards the rim which is rarely open. It may be surprising to some but the Lakers, despite their enormous size finished 19th in league in shots at the rim this season and 16th last year.

Similarly the offense does not lend itself to many three point attempts. Even though the Lakers are not the best three point shooting team, the extra value of the shot more than offsets the lower field goal percentage. The Lakers finished 17 in three point attempts per game last year. Basically the Triangle offense produces and "average" number of attempts near the basket and "average" number of three point attempts which results in the offense being "average".

Here is a great post at NBA Playbook  (a must read for those wishing to better understand the Triangle) that shows, with numerous video clips, the various options within the Triangle and how it works. Through the 14 total video clips, only one shot occurs at the rim as a result of the Triangle (there are two others as a result of dribble penetration). Additionally, there is only one three point attempt within the context of the offense. The post was meant to highlight the various options yet most of the results are mid range jump shots which produce the littlest bang for the buck of any shot on the floor.

The second reason is due to the "read and react" nature of the offense. The Triangle offense allows the team to make the optimal cut, screen, or other motion depending on what the defense gives up by reading and reacting. But what if the defense isn’t giving up anything? As can be seen in the many clips in the linked post above, the offense does not create screens or actions towards the rim to force the defense to help and get out of position, which the Lakers can then read and react to. The only way to create the situations, which allow for  the reading and reacting, is by dribble penetration or forcing a double team in the post. These actions force the defense to make decisions and then the Triangle works very well from that point by reading and reacting. One of the reasons for the Triangle's success is that it's always had a player or two who could create those opportunities. Jordan and Kobe both could penetrate and demand a double in the post. Meanwhile Shaq and Gasol also demanded double teams. Because of this, the offense was somewhat successful at exploiting these opportunities. But what happens if we remove these offensive creators?

The leagues worst offensive rating last season according to www.basketballvalue.com was around a 101.4 by the Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers had two five-man units that played over 40 minutes last season that did not feature Kobe or Gasol in them. The units were Steve Blake, Shannon Brown, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and either Ron Artest or Matt Barnes. While that may not be a great offensive unit it is still better than some (certainly better than Milwaukee’s). However those units had offensive ratings of 92.1 and 97.1, significantly worse than the worst offense in the league. It wasn’t just a one year anomaly either. In the previous season the Lakers had a similar line-up (featuring Jordan Farmar instead of Blake) and it too produced a 96.0 offensive rating. Basically removing the players that demand double teams or create opportunities with dribble penetration leaves the entire offense in a bind as there are no defensive actions to read and react to. Each defender can single cover the Lakers and no easy opportunities are presented. The Triangle offense requires an elite player to create opportunities or it doesn’t work.

But the Lakers have Kobe and Gasol still under contract so they will still have an elite player to create opportunities, so that isn’t a problem right?

Yes the Lakers still have Kobe and Gasol under contract for a few more seasons, but how long can they continue to be elite players? The Mavericks series gave us a chance to see what the Lakers may look like running the Triangle in the future as Kobe and Gasol continue to age. Gasol was passive and completely taken out of the game by Dirk Nowitzki. While Gasol is certainly better than he showed, he is beginning the downward path of his career.  His field goal percentage with LA has fallen each year since he was acquired. It may not be long before he no longer demands a double team.

Kobe was dealing with an ankle sprain that left him without the explosive step needed to get past his defender and penetrate. Kobe only took 5 shots at the rim the entire series and was only able to get to the free throw line for 10 free throws total in the 4 games. His skills alone still allowed him to be quite effective scoring the ball. He averaged 23.3 points on 46% shooting from the field, but he only had 2.5 assists per game, a 50% decrease from his regular season average despite playing more minutes. Without his ability to penetrate, the Mavericks were able to stay glued to the other Lakers and there were no holes in the defense to react to and exploit. The results were ugly as the Lakers failed to break 94 points any of the four games and quickly found themselves eliminated. There is a decent chance that Kobe won’t be injured like that again next season, however father time may wear on him to point that he looks that way regardless.

Summarizing all those words into four short talking points, we have the following:

  1. Phil Jackson's immediate effect as a coach has always been seen defensively, not offensively, bringing into question just how much the Triangle contributed to his 11 titles.
  2. The Lakers have only been an elite offense due to their experience and size, two attributes they would still possess in any other offensive system.
  3. The Triangle offense does not generate above average number of attempts from the two most rewarding locations on the floor, at the rim and behind the arc.
  4. The Triangle offense requires an elite player (or two) who can force double teams or use dribble penetration to create opportunities to read and react, which is vital to the system.

Those four points directly support the claim that the Triangle offense is not the great offense that many claim it to be. It could be the case that the Lakers simply do not execute it well enough to show its true benefits, but if they haven’t been able to do that with this veteran team then why should we believe they would suddenly figure it out next season. In my opinion, the Lakers would be best served to abandon the Triangle and use another system that would likely produce similar, if not better, results, and also would allow the Lakers more flexibility in making personnel changes in the future without worrying about the learning curve associated with such a complex offense.

The Los Angeles Lakers are not a democracy.  There are only a few opinions that matter, and in the end, only one vote that counts.  That vote belongs to Dr. Jerry Buss.  When Dr. Buss decides to make his choice, will he see Brian Shaw and Rick Adelman and (gulp) Mike Dunleavy Sr.?  Or will he see the Triangle, and not the Triangle?  If I had a ballot, that ballot would be marked "Rick Adelman".   Not because I don't think Brian Shaw can be an effective head coach, and not necessarily because I want Adelman's veteran presence to lead a star studded roster.  My vote for Adelman is a platform vote, one which considers the ideologies in play and declares that it is time for change.

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