Right Triangle? On the Knicks’ Struggles and Whether They’ll Continue

After a terrible year in 2013-2014, the Knicks made some big changes this offseason, all stemming from the hire of Phil “Zen Master” Jackson as team president.  Jackson is considered by many to be the greatest basketball genius on the planet, with 13 championship rings – 2 as a Knicks player, 6 as coach of the Bulls, and 5 as coach of the Lakers – to his name. One of Jackson’s self-proclaimed biggest reasons for success is the triangle offense, a system that has taken on a sort of legendary aura over the years. The Zen Master brought his protege Derek Fisher on board to become Knicks head coach and teach the team this art, which is assumed to be the offensive philosophy New York will employ for as long as Jackson remains team president. However, the Knicks haven’t started so hot this season – they’re currently 2-6 and already falling well behind divisional rivals like 7-1 Toronto. Is the slow start due to slow chemistry building and system learning among players, or could New York have a real long-term problem?

2-6 isn’t the only measure that shows the Knicks haven’t been too great in the early goings.  They rank 22nd in TeamRankings’ predictive rankings (just between Indiana and Minnesota), and an eye-openingly awful 28th in NumberFire’s power rankings (ahead of only the Sixers and Lakers). So far, it looks like New York has been as bad as, or worse than, last season. Of their two wins, one came against a Cavalier team in a (perhaps detrimentally) emotional setting that is still trying to mesh, and the other at home in a nailbiter against Charlotte, the team that just got the Lakers into the win column. They were blown out opening night against Chicago by 24 points (though it wasn’t even that close), lost by 15 at home against Washington, fell to the 2-4 (then 0-3) Pistons, were beaten handily by their cross-town Brooklyn rivals, and finally were outscored by 20 points in the second half of Friday’s loss against Atlanta before losing to Atlanta again two days later. So, Knicks, what gives?

One possible excuse for New York’s struggles is the absence of new starting point guard Jose Calderon, who’s been out with a calf injury. Calderon’s excellent shooting (41.1% 3pt for his career) and his ability to run sets could help a Knick offense that’s 28th in the NBA in points per game, but he’s a liability on defense, and his return – though positive – probably won’t be hugely influential for New York.

Their offense has largely been struggling for another reason – and it might be the triangle. Sure, the Knicks don’t really have the league’s greatest talent outside of Carmelo Anthony, but they haven’t exactly been putting the players they do have in the best positions to succeed. It’s early, and New York is still adjusting to the system, but many of the problems they’re having aren’t related to turnovers or spacing, rather, to the ideology of the triangle itself.

One of the staples of the triangle offense is mid-range shooting. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant made their livings in the middle area, and Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks have been the same. As a matter of fact, 43% of the Knicks’ shot attempts have come from the mid-range, the most in the NBA. And those shots have to come away from somewhere: New York is dead last in the NBA in points in the paint per game AND free throw rate, third to last in fastbreak points per game (which usually come in the paint), and second to last in corner threes attempted. I think the name of our website shows how we feel about that stat, and no wonder – Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets have taken the most corner threes in the league, and they’re 6-1. Check out this points per possession table, courtesy of 82games.com:

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 12.56.36 PM

As you can see, three of the worst four spots to take shots – other than “missing” or backcourt – according to points per possession fall in the mid-range, where the Knicks attempt the most shots. Conversely, the two consensus best spots to take shots, corner threes and low paint, are where they attempt the least.  It would seem their offensive system isn’t quite built to succeed in terms of shot-taking locations, but that’s not all. With its focus on posting up and offensive rebounding, the triangle continues to buck recent (successful) NBA trends.  As Jason Concepcion of Grantland pointed out, “last year’s Finals participants, the Spurs and the Heat, were both in the bottom quarter of the league in offensive rebounding percentage — 22.7 percent and 20.6 percent, respectively. The 2012-13 runner-up Spurs posted one of the lowest offensive rebounding percentages ever. The Pistons had the best offensive rebounding percentage in the league last year, at 31.4 percent, and they won all of 31 games.”

When was the last time the triangle was successful without Phil Jackson? Better yet, when was the last time it was successful without Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, or Pau Gasol? It never has been – plenty of other teams and coaches have tried with no avail. The Zen Master may have a lot of rings, but there’s a solid argument that it had much more to do with the talent on those teams than their offensive sets.

Of course, the Knicks have a severe lack of talent at the moment, so it’s hard to be so extremely hard on the triangle in terms of this season. But what about the future? New York is looking forward to this coming offseason, where many contracts are set to expire, both in town (Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani, most notably) and out. New York’s top target is reportedly Grizzles center Marc Gasol, whose post-up ability, passing, and defense would make him a perfect fit for Jackson’s system. But what happens if he’s off the market? Memphis has started the season 7-1, and it’s not unlikely that Gasol re-signs before free agency even begins.  DeAndre Jordan, on the other hand, who’s also due to be a free agent this offseason, is a terrible fit for the triangle, with little to no offensive ball skills, but is probably the better player – with a composite grade in our Western Conference Preview of 10th to Gasol’s 54th. Rajon Rondo’s contract will also be up, but he could be dealt from Boston midseason in a trade – however, it’s hard to see Jackson biting on a point guard whose inability to stretch the floor makes him a poor fit for his system. Instead, already 33-year old defensive turnstile Jose Calderon is under contract to be the Knicks’ answer at point until 2017.  The question comes down to who makes a bigger impact on the court, players or coaches, and although coaches’ impact continues to be vastly understated, it would be foolish to avoid better talent in favor of better “system fit.”

It’s still very early in this season, and the Knicks have plenty to figure out. It’s also very hard to argue against a “Philosophy” that’s brought Jackson more rings than he can fit on all his fingers.  But it’s fair to take a critical look at what’s transpired already this season for the Knicks, and what could follow in the near future, and have plenty of cause for concern.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern Unversity

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