The Triangle Offense is making a comeback
In an era of basketball seemingly defined by pace and space, slow-footed big men are falling by the wayside. Teams are seeking to run their opponents off of the floor, and play small ball as much as they can. That being said, reports of the death of the center may be exaggerated. Several teams are choosing to use their skilled post players in a very old school way, with a modern twist. In terms of collapsing the defense, a post up is similar to a dribble-drive into the paint. Coaches are using the strain placed on the defense by having a man so close to the basket to generate open jump shots on the perimeter. While this is nothing new, it is contrary to how many teams in the league play. Teams like the Rockets, Wizards, and Thunder almost exclusively use their guards to initiate their offense. Alternatively, some of the league’s best teams are looking to other options.
Nikola Jokic has been nothing short of a revelation for the Denver Nuggets this season. The second-year big flourished after fellow center Jusuf Nurkic was traded to Portland, freeing up more minutes at the 5. Head coach Mike Malone came increasingly comfortable using Jokic as a primary distributor as the season carried on. At times the Denver offense looked straight out of a bygone era. He posted up the Serbian all over the floor and ran motion around him, giving Jokic the opportunity to see over the top of the defense and pick it apart. The Joker has a penchant for passes that’ll earn him a spot on highlight reels the next morning. His favorite is feathering a touch pass barely over the head of a defender looking the other way and into a cutter’s hands for a layup. Other players in the league have taken notice, even allowing Jokic to run point for several possessions during the All-Star game (and doing a pretty good job at it too)*.
The Warriors have been using the post as a passing hub for several years. Draymond, Durant, Zaza, and previously Bogut are all crafty bigs who are comfortable slinging passes across the court. The action they favor most is known as “elbow splits”. The Dubs start their motion with an entry pass to the elbow, and then their dance begins. Traditionally one of the guards would screen for each other above the posted big. However, when the guards are a pair of the best three-point bombers in the league (or one of the screeners is a seven foot tall, sweet shooting glitch in the matrix), things get tricky for the defense. Years of playing together have given the Splash Brothers uncanny chemistry. They dart towards each other like minnows, playing a “will they, or won’t they” game rivaled only by Pam and Jim in early seasons of The Office, before finding a crease in the defense to fire away. Occasionally one of them will completely ignore the screen, darting the basket for an easy layup.
Steve Kerr throws another old school wrinkle into his offense called “elbow get”. After the guards cut through, the other big comes to set a screen for Draymond or Durant out of the high post. This gives Green a chance to showcase his vision and passing ability while simultaneously allowing Golden State’s lethal shooters to spot up wherever they like. KD uses this action as more of a scorer, working with his unique blend of length and shooting. The Cavaliers consistently run the same action for Lebron. Setting the screen lower on the court puts James in position to start his attack closer to the basket, which can be huge when his streaky jump shot isn’t falling.
The Celtics have incorporated a lot of similar principles straight from the notebook of Tex Winter. While Isaiah Thomas has been lighting the league on fire, much of Boston’s motion comes with Al Horford as the fulcrum. Horford’s jack-of-all-trades game has opened new doors for the Celtics, and with him, on the floor, they frequently run the same elbow splits as Golden State. IT and Avery Bradley are both dangerous, and Bradley’s improved ball handling and playmaking means he no longer just a stand-still threat. One of Brad Stevens’ favorite additions to this set is a backside off-ball screen. The other big back screens for the wing man, giving him a cut directly to the basket. This action has generated several highlight reel alley-oops from rookie Jaylen Brown already, with seemingly many more in the future. The other benefit of utilizing Horford’s all around skill set comes from moving Isaiah off of the ball. The NBA’s second-leading scorer is free to slither around screens and attack defenders off of the catch, adding another dimension to his game and making him even harder to defend.
The Cavs run a lot of similar actions to the Warriors to make use of their two bigs** exquisite passing. Lebron often posts up in iso situations while Cleveland’s arsenal of shooters orbit around him. The King is always a threat to score, and his gravity in the post bends the defense to its breaking point. Send a double his way, and more often than not it’s a free three-pointer for the Land. When James sits, Tyronne Lue runs a lot of the same offense through Kevin Love. Love’s shooting stroke is what pairs him so well with James. He can be a screener, shooter, or passer in any of the options the Cavs run through the post.
It’s worth noting that Cleveland has a bad habit of going away from their prettier motion offense when they need to get a bucket, opting instead for a spread pick and roll attack. Lebron gets a screen from whoever has the most advantageous matchup (generally J.R. Smith), and the other three guys on the floor just stand along the arc. While it helped them beat the Warriors in last year’s Finals, this offense is often why the Cavaliers offense seems to stall out at times. Whether this is on Lebron or Lue is hard to tell, but they might want to avoid it in this year’s playoffs. They can’t afford to go through stretches of impotence with the potential of playing an even stronger Golden State team in the upcoming Finals.
* This has to be every big man’s dream right? Every center-type guy I’ve ever played pickup with has tried to run the break at some point. Sometimes it works. Most times it doesn’t.
** At this stage in his career, Lebron is a big man. Or he’s a point guard. Not 100% sure about which.