New York Knicks: The failure of Phil Jackson’s triangle offense

Phil Jackson forced the triangle offense on the New York Knicks in his three years as president of basketball operations. The old-school play did not lead to success, and the team knew it could not work.

The New York Knicks proved the triangle offense, while a formerly successful system that created championships with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, was outdated for the modern-day NBA. Sure, Carmelo Anthony was the star to build it around, in the ballpark of what Phil Jackson did with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, but the league transitioned from 2014-17, and the Knicks were behind.

Jackson, despite his role as president of basketball operations, implemented the triangle on his head coaches. First, long-time Laker Derek Fisher took his knowledge from the court to the sidelines but was fired midway through his second year. Jeff Hornacek followed, with success not following him, either.

After his departure, Fisher blamed himself for not asking the right questions about the triangle. He joined the Knicks as the head coach without any experience beyond playing. Hornacek led the Phoenix Suns for three years, but with his own scheme.

New York had just 80 wins in three seasons, under three head coaches, during Jackson’s time. The offenses in 2014-15 and 2015-16 ranked in the bottom five of the NBA in points per game, while the 2016-17 team placed 19th, but sat 25th in effective field goal percentage.

The triangle was not the only problem. Questionable personnel decisions, including $72 million for Joakim Noah, sunk the Knicks. Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton were also traded for inconsequential pieces and second-round picks who did not make an NBA impact. These moves, and others, quickly decreased the team’s talent level, Kristaps Porzingis selection in 2015 or not.

For a more damaging report on Jackson’s offense, Derrick Rose and Sam Smith gave the New York Post an excerpt of their book, I’ll Show You, which described Rose’s issues with the legendary head coach.

The 2011 NBA MVP highlighted the difference in thought on the triangle, which Jackson imposed in Hornacek’s first season as head coach and Rose’s only year in New York:

Early on in the season, Phil really didn’t force anything. But as time went on, it converted all the way to the triangle and we played through that almost the whole year. For the team we had, I think deep down [coach Jeff] Hornacek really wanted to play that more up-tempo style. But being in that position, being a new head coach, having to listen to the front office, it’s hard on that coach to say something. He’s moved around, he’d been fired in Phoenix. I guess Hornacek got tired of hearing about it, having meetings about it, so he just said, “We’re gonna do it and see.”

Earlier this year, Hornacek told Adrian Wojnarowski’s The Woj Pod, Jackson wanted to mix the triangle with today’s game and never said to “go full triangle.” That differs from Rose’s words, at least after the stretch of Jackson not trying to “force anything.”

Any potential miscommunication with the triangle is impossible to speculate on, but if it was the full-blown triangle or a mix of the old and new styles, it did not work. That much is known.

If anything, Jackson’s implementation proved the triangle may never work in the NBA again, or until the league moves away from a universal style of three-pointers, layups and nothing in between that ex-New York Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni popularized with the Houston Rockets.

It was basketball’s way of writing off Jackson, who had his years in the spotlight on those ’70s Knicks teams, the ’90s Bulls and the ’00s Lakers. He is a Hall of Fame basketball figure, but nothing special developed from a trilogy sequence in the front office.