The Art of ... Learning the Triangle Offense

October 23, 2012
Luke Walton
There are two kinds of people who truly understand “The Art of … the Triangle.” There are renowned artists who’ve used the triangle in their most famous works, like Kandinsky. And there are NBA players who’ve played in Phil Jackson’s complex offensive system with great success, like Luke Walton.

Last year, we looked at “The Art of … the Dunk” with the Cavaliers’ most electrifying dunker, Alonzo Gee. Today, we ask Luke Walton – who played in the Triangle under Phil Jackson and Tex Winter with the Lakers – about the system that only one NBA team runs exclusively.

Walton, the son of the Hall of Fame center, was drafted by the Lakers in 2003 and spent part of nine seasons in L.A., winning a pair of NBA Titles – in 2009 and ’10 – before arriving in Cleveland at the Trade Deadline last March.

As Luke and the Cavaliers prepare for the opener against Washington next Tuesday, sat down with Walton to ask him about the intricate system, why no one else in the NBA runs it and the reading assignment given from Phil Jackson …

Why don’t more NBA teams run the Triangle offense?
Luke Walton: Well I think the strengths of the Triangle go away from what a lot of teams in this league do. You know, the pick-and-rolls as often as possible, the point guard handling the ball.

The Triangle offense is more of the point guard making the pass to the wing, which initiates the offense. And from there, the offense goes wherever the defense dictates that it does. And with the talented point guards that are in the league today, I think a lot of teams just play to their strengths.

The point guard has a reduced role in the Triangle?
Walton: In the Triangle, we had Fish (Derek Fisher) with so much success because he was OK with making that pass and then going to the corner, getting open shots or eventually coming off a corner pick-and-roll if the ball got there. It takes a certain understanding and certain types of players to have success with that offense.

How important is a big man who can pass?
Walton: A good passing big helps a lot. But it’s really an offense that, whoever has the ball, the other four people are always an option. So you just have to have guys out there that are willing to keep it moving and not hold the ball for too long. There’s not a lot of spacing for breaking down or getting to the paint. (Obviously, when you get somebody as talented as Kobe Bryant, he can hold the ball all he wants. He’s still going to make plays.)

I won’t say there’s one position that’s the most important. But having a good passing big is near the top of the list.

How difficult was the Triangle to learn?
Walton: A lot of the sets in the NBA are universal. It was just learning the new terminology. And the Triangle is a completely different system as far as the continuity of it.

A lot of teams – the Spurs run a strong-side and a weak-side Triangle within their offense. Here (in Cleveland), it’s more of a non-stop, flowing type of offense that takes some getting used to.

Coach Jackson’s terminology – it was things you’ve never heard before. It was like memorizing a new vocabulary and then mixing that in with his philosophies are.

The reason it takes so long – it all makes sense once you get it down – is that every time there’s a pass, you have 20-some options. It’s just how the defense is playing you that night. And once you make the pass, the options of the other three guys change. So there’s some repetition and work to kind of familiarize yourself with it.

Could you explain the Triangle to a guy sitting in a bar?
Walton: I mean, I could explain the basics of it. But you’d have to be a basketball person or you’d get lost after a couple minutes. The terminology and ideas – a normal guy sitting in a bar just isn’t going to know what you’re talking about.

Aside from learning the Triangle, everyone’s heard about Phil Jackson giving his teams a book or reading assignment. What did he give you?
Walton: He gave me different books. He didn’t do it every year, but he did it most of the years.

One year, he gave me “My Losing Season” by Pat Conroy. Another year – while we were taking off on a flight – he gave me a book, and the first two chapters were about rock groups that died in a plane crash. And I was like: ‘Why did he give this to me on a plane?’

Sometimes, he’d give you books if he knew you were interested in certain subjects. But other times, I think the books were strictly based on the title of the book. Like one year he gave me the book: “Sh*t My Dad Says.” I'm pretty sure that one applied to my dad.