The triangle offense has been used in the NBA for almost two decades, yet what actually sets this offense apart from others is rarely discussed. The triangle is unique because it is not a collection of sets, as most teams run. The triangle offense is a philosophy, a collection of fundamentals and sound principles. As we begin this new season, we'll take a look at the Lakers 2010 opener against the Rockets and take this chance to cover the very basics of the triangle offense.
First and foremost, the triangle is a "read and react" offense. There is no playbook. There are no set routes or patterns. Instead the offense runs as a sequence of options. Each new pass keys the next set of options. The players are taught these multiple options and asked to simply take the option that the defense is willing to give to the system. In this sense, the triangle is very much like a motion offense.
What sets the triangle apart from other motion offenses is that it asks its players to fill certain positions on the floor.
This particular spacing provides the triangle it's name. The classic sideline triangle is formed between:
- the man in the wing (also called the "key" position because the pass made from this position determines the next sequence of options for the offense)
- the corner
- and the post.
The other two positions are known as:
- the weakside wing (the man on the weakside)
- and defensive balance (the man above the top of the key).
The typical triangle formation has the overload (three man triangle) on the strong side of the court (the court with the side of the ball) and the two man game on the weak side. The triangle offense also has a sequence of options called the "Solo Cut Series" where the two man game is on the strong side of the court and the overload is on the weak side.
The offense is able to read and react to the defense based on two offensive theories: initiating the offense against pressure at the moment of truth and lining up and reading the defense by forming the triangle along the line of deployment.
Once the ball has entered the wing position, a triangle has been formed on the strong side (ball side), and the defense is lined up, the players are asked to execute whichever "Number 2 pass" the defense is willing to give up ( it's called N.2 pass because the ball handler in transition typically makes the first pass to the player in the wing position).
Traditionally, the priority of the N.2 pass goes as follows. There are four N.2 passes in all:
N.2 pass to the post
2. N.2 pass to the top (reversal)
3. N.2 pass to the weakside wing who comes across the key to receive the pass, otherwise known as the backdoor step
4. N.2 pass to the corner
Each N.2 pass keys a unique sequence of options in the offense. Players are asked to follow "the path of least resistance." Because of this read and react style of offense, no play call is needed to initiate the triangle or set up plays. Instead, players are required to think for themselves. They must consider the ball, the defense, and their teammates at all times.
To ensure that players would be capable of executing this freelancing style, the offense was created with fundamentals and sound principles in mind. The offense seeks to follow these seven principles of sound offense:
The offense seeks to compromise the defense by penetrating the frontline defenders. This is best accomplished through the fast break.
Proper spacing ensures that any attempt to help, trap, and recover requires defenders to travel 15 to 20 feet from player to player. When the defense commits, an offensive player should always be open.
3. Ball and player movement with a purpose.
Players must move and move the ball with a purpose. The offense should keep the defense occupied on and off the ball. Players are indoctrinated with the mantra "there are five men and one ball, so each player will only have the ball 20 percent or less of the time the team is in possession of the ball."
4. The ball handler must be able to pass to any of his four teammates at any given time.
5. Offensive rebounding and defensive balance.
On all shots taken the offense provides strong rebounding positioning and defensive balance to get back and prevent the oppositions transition opportunities.
6. Versatile positioning.
Every player should be able to fill any spot on the floor regardless of their role. All positions are interchangable.
7. Utilizes individual talents.
Tex liked to say that Michael Jordan taught him this principle. The offense should be able to utilize it's best players and put them in the best positions to score.
With these principles in mind, it's easy to see why the triangle has the positions on the floor it does. The post is featured heavily in the offense so that a player is only one dribble away from the basket. Because of this deep penetration, any attempt to double asks defenders to traverse at least 15 feet from their assignment, opening up another player in the offense. In spite of basketballs trend to keep 4 out and 1 in for a drive and kick game, the triangle asks it's weakside wing to stay within 15-20 feet of the ball to keep that player as an option for whoever has the ball. Even with the weakside wing playing inside, perimeter players have plenty of space and great angles to attack the basket. This also affords the offense better offensive rebounding opportunities by placing two players close to the basket at all times.
There are other simple principles that the coaching staff constantly preaches to the players of the triangle offense:
- "You are always in the offense."
If you watch Shannon Brown in this clip, you'll see that despite being lost at times, he is "always in the offense"
Kobe makes the N.1 entry pass into Matt Barnes in the wing position. Brown wants to fill the strong side corner but sees that there is an opportunity to isolate against Yao in a solo. So Brown backs off. Barnes swings the ball up top to Kobe. Brown initially goes to fill the wing position, but Odom gets there before, so Brown fills the corner instead.
Despite the failed solo, the swinging of the ball allows for a center opposite for Barnes. None of these actions are called or setup, the players simply fill the first available position on the floor and execute their options from there.
Barnes comes across to fill the post and form the triangle, but Odom immediately makes a N.2 pass to the top. This pass keys two actions:
1. Wing man runs a rebound screen cut
2. Weakside wing to the pinch post.
The play breaks down but Barnes is ready and alert, cutting behind the defense to the void below the free throw line and is able to finish around Yao for the layup.
- "You can't make a mistake in the offense if you hit the open man or cut to the open area."
Here, Steve Blake and Theo Ratliff establish a solo. Ratliff sees that Blake is going to be open in the garden spot and makes the skip pass. Kobe, who is directly behind Pau (leaving his man no one to guard), is able to easily free himself for the pass. Martin is left in no man's land so Kobe forces Pau's man to help by penetrating, leaving Pau wide open for the dump pass and easy two.
- "If you have a direct line to the basket, break the offense and go to the basket."
In this clip, Pau trails the ball, bringing Yao out of the paint. Yao, being uncomfortable guarding the perimeter, sags off of Pau, allowing Kobe to easily swing the ball to Pau up top. The rest of the Rockets are caught ball watching, and with Yao out of the paint, Odom is able to slip from the post right under the basket for the easy finish.
For players to succeed in this system, they must always be in the moment, ready to react and adapt to any situation. Despite the complexity of the offense's options, the triangle emphasizes fundamentals and principles that are simple and as old as basketball itself: "Get to the open area. Leave space for other players. Don't pass and stand." Armed with these fundamentals and principles, each player is empowered to make their own decisions rather than function as predictable robots of execution. Because of the fundamental nature of the offense, the only adjustment necessary from season to season is an emphasis on particular series of options, so that certain individual abilities and strengths might be utilized. Dedication to fundamentals, asking the players to actually think, and system flexibility have allowed the triangle to escape the scrutiny of the best NBA minds and stand the test of time.