Derrick Rose called the Triangle Offense “random basketball” and made it clear he isn’t comfortable with the system Phil Jackson wants to be the identity of his team. That’s an alarming admission by a player who has the second-highest usage rate on the team.
But he’s not entirely alone. It’s been three years and 39 players have put on a Knicks jersey over that time and the offense continues to remain a challenge to master.
If we’re basing it on Malcolm Gladwell’s famous Outliers theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, the Knicks still have a ways to go. They’ve played just over 10,000 minutes of basketball since the Triangle was installed.
And here’s the irony: while players like J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert left bemoaning the offense and former coach Derek Fisher said today’s players can’t adjust to the system and Rose called it “just random basketball,” guess who seems to really like it and has learned to thrive in it?
Maybe it’s because he’s spent the most time playing it than anyone else — he is the most tenured player on the roster — but Melo has thrived as a mid-post player. Once in a while you even see his passing ability emerge in ways Lamar Odom exploited the cutters, but for the most part, Melo has turned that mid-post into his new office. It’s where he does almost all of his work.
It’s where he managed to score the game-winning shot to beat the 76ers on Saturday night.
But beyond the last-second heroics on a pretty shot with three-tenths of a second left, it’s what Melo has recognized as the issue for his teammates when a free-flowing game suddenly turns into a struggle to close, such as this game was for the Knicks. They led by 17 and by as many as 10 points late in the fourth, but then everything stopped.
“We got stagnant,” Melo told Rebecca Haarlow during his walk-off interview after the game. “We let them deny us, we let them push us out of our offense.”
Now comes the most important observation.
“And that led,” Melo concluded, “to our defense.”
That’s the same correlation that Jeff Hornacek has made all season. The Knicks defense tends to be poor when their offense struggles. So with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter against the 76ers, the Knicks defense softened when the offense slowed down.
“We got tentative,” Hornacek said.
On the postgame show, Wally Szczerbiak often calls for a “step on their throat” mentality when you have a lead in the fourth quarter. You don’t slow down, you attack. The same goes for closing out the first half. The Knicks too often do the opposite as we saw against the 76ers.
“We started walking the ball up the court,” Hornacek said. “It was more, ‘Let’s just try to get it to Mel’.”
On the final possession, that was the play. Hornacek said it was up to Rose to get the team into the offense, get the ball to Melo on the mid-post and have the option of a slicing Courtney Lee if a double-team came.
For some reason, Brett Brown opted not to send an immediate double-team at Melo, who caught the ball with five seconds left. Everyone in the gym knew he was shooting it.
“All I wanted was a good look at the basket with a little bit of space where I could just raise up and shoot over the top,” Melo said. “And I got that.”
He made the shot and the Knicks got a win that they had to work a lot harder for than necessary. But that seems to be the way it has gone while playing the Triangle. It’s supposed to be a system that makes scoring easier, but right now it looks a lot harder than it has to be.
The easy thing to do is scrap the Triangle and go with the high pick-and-roll systems that about 90 percent of the NBA runs these days. Rose and Brandon Jennings thrive in high PnR sets and with mobile bigs like Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn, one would think this would be tailor made for the Knicks.
But it doesn’t fit Melo’s game at all. Remember the resistance he put up when Mike D’Antoni was here and preferred Melo to be a wing option for kick-outs. Coincidentally, Melo put up huge performances in the Olympics playing exactly that role.
But the PnR style that has taken over the NBA also involves quick cuts and extra effort rebounding and can create defensive imbalance that demands sprinting back in transition defense. These are things that, at 32, Melo prefers to avoid.
The Triangle creates a great deal of mid-range shot opportunities which, in today’s NBA, is considered an inefficient shot with the increased volume of three-pointers and rim-finishes. But Melo has always been one of the game’s best mid-range scorers, so it’s no surprise he was able to quickly adapt.
So the Triangle, with all its warts and frustrations, suits Melo just fine.
Despite Rose’s protestations, Hornacek reaffirmed the Knicks’ commitment to the system. In fact, Hornacek said we should expect to see the team run more Triangle at this point in the season than we did earlier in the year.
So while Melo has figured it out after three years, the challenge for Hornacek — and, yes, Melo, too — is to get Porzingis to understand where he will be most effective.
Otherwise, to borrow a Star Trek phrase, the needs of the few are outweighing the needs of the many. And that goes against the fundamental principles of the Triangle.