There was never anything particularly special about the Triangle offense. It was just another offense, even in its heyday.
One of the funnier moments in recent sportswriting came in 2015, when the New York Times gave the Snowfall treatment to the Triangle, thousands upon thousands of words of meditation on this legendary basketball offense—and never managed, anywhere in there, to happen upon an actual credible description of how the offense works, mechanically. What it actually does. This is the closest they ever got:
“I took the best parts of the Boston Celtics,” [former Princeton coach Pete] Carril, who coached the Tigers from 1967 to 1996, said. “They moved the ball around, had good passers, good shooters, and the center who loved to pass the ball and built his game around helping four other guys succeed.”
That agrees with one of the major tenets of the triangle, which prefers the ball distribution to flow from the post rather than a guard out at the point. The triangle, similar to the Princeton offense, also asks for cuts along vectors plotted to maximize the use of floor space, stressing the defense with a relentless sequence of passes.
Here is how the Triangle actually works. In its initial state, the point guard (1) has brought the ball up to the wing; the center (5) establishes position in the low post in front of him; the small forward (3) stands in the near corner; the power forward (4) stands at the top of the key; the shooting guard (2) stands on the opposite wing. Like so:
Or sometimes the guard passes to the small forward on the wing and then cuts to the corner, like so:
But where are the triangles, you are asking. Where are the god damn triangles????
Here are the triangles:
So then the point guard dumps the ball down to the center, and, like, everybody else does a bunch of screens and cuts and shit while the center either looks to pick somebody out with a pass, or takes a dumb hook shot.
The first thing to notice, here, is that this is already pretty crowded spacing. The ball is on the right side of the floor, and four players—including the guy handling it—are in close proximity to it, meaning their defenders are, too. This is bad! You can’t really pass into that swamp, and you certainly can’t dribble-drive into it.
In 1992, this wasn’t so bad, because the rules basically forced defenders to stay right on their men, even if their men couldn’t shoot for shit. Nowadays, with teams allowed to play zone defense and shade extra defenders toward anywhere they want, compressing the floor like this is basically forfeiting a possession, unless at least three of the four offensive players on the strong side of the floor—the guard and both forwards—are absolute lights-out three-point shooters whose defenders can’t afford to stray more than a couple inches from them at any time. Nobody is what the present-day precepts of basketball would consider “open”—except that shooting guard, way the hell over on the other side of the floor. He’s got space to attack.
Hey, that’s Michael frickin’ Jordan over there! Let’s get the ball to him! More importantly, let’s ignore the question of why you wouldn’t just start your offensive set out with the ball in that guy’s hands, over there with lots of space, to begin with!
Here’s how the Triangle gets the ball to him: The point guard passes to the power forward, then cuts behind a screen from the center, along the baseline, to the other side of the floor. The power forward passes to the shooting guard, then sets a screen for the center, then ducks to the low post on the shooting guard’s side of the floor. The center curls around the power forward’s screen to the top of the key. The small forward, that sad, lonely bastard who was in the near corner a second ago, he kinda drifts up to the wing and stands there watching his teammates run around.
Here’s how it looks in an extremely precise diagram:
Maybe one of these screens opens somebody up for a shot. I hope so! Because here’s what you have when all this stuff is done happening (assuming Michael has not just gone ahead and gotten a bucket for himself in the meantime):
The exact same crowded-ass shit you had on the other side of the floor, but with the numbers rearranged. But also...
This is an actual principle of the Triangle offense: That it’s good to have four players crowded around the ball in one half of the floor, because they’re arranged in triangle-shaped patterns.
That’s really all there is to the fabled Triangle offense. It contains no key insight about basketball or about basketball players or about harmonic balance or any other variety of Phil Jackson’s quasi-spiritual hogwash. Some players arrange themselves in triangle patterns, and screen for each other, and cut around each other, and pass to each other. If those players are very good—if they pass well and shoot well and share the ball and work well together—then it will operate more smoothly than if they are trash players. This is true of literally any basketball offense, including plenty that do not cram four players in half the available space for no good reason at all.
So, why did this offense produce such great results for a team that had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on it, one of the best defensive teams of all time? Why did it later produce great results for a team with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant on it, and then for a team with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom on it? My friends, these questions contain their own answers.
They also contain what may well be a faulty premise: That the Triangle offense “worked” in the mechanical sense in which a basketball offense is meant to “work” in the first place. The great Bulls teams got much of their offense from Jordan making extraordinarily difficult shots; for any given nifty pass Shaq made to a cutter on Jackson’s Lakers teams, there were 10 instances of him just lowering his shoulder into his defender and bashing his way to the hoop. On Jackson’s second Lakers stint, their crunch-time offense consisted entirely of a Bryant-Gasol high screen-and-roll. Does it really matter all that much what particular shape of offense they were running the rest of the time, when each of those teams had the basketball equivalent of a doomsday device on the court at pretty much all times? (This is a rhetorical question. The answer is no.)
But it did work, in another sense. The irony here (you can decide for yourself whether it is a sad irony or a hilarious irony or both) arises from what we know now that Phil Jackson has run himself out of New York basically because his insistence on the primacy of the Triangle offense alienated everyone in the organization: that Jackson himself never understood the role the Triangle played in his earlier successes. It wasn’t that the Triangle, as a mechanical set of basketball actions, did anything special, or was anything special. It’s that the great and prideful and stubborn all-time great players Jackson had at his disposal in Chicago and Los Angeles believed enough in the guys asking them to run the Triangle to run it with something approximating focus and commitment, and that any team with multiple historically great players setting aside even a marginal portion of their egos and committing to pretty much any system of sharing the ball and working for open shots will be essentially unbeatable.
This is to say, the Triangle “worked” because Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal and Scottie Pippen ran the Triangle, and they ran the Triangle because they trusted Phil Jackson (and, presumably, Tex Winter). And so the irony, the sad or hilarious one I’m getting at, is this: The Triangle worked because some of the smartest and greatest basketball players of all time placed their trust in a guy who turns out to have been too stupid to deserve it. Which makes it, and him, world-historically successful ... frauds!