Last month marked the three-year anniversary of Phil Jackson being hired as New York’s President of Basketball Operations. Knicks fans welcomed Phil back to NYC with open arms, hoping he would lead the team back to respectability. Jackson obviously wanted the same thing, but he was determined to do it his way.
Jackson began preaching the many benefits of The Triangle Offense as soon as he arrived. Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, it has failed. While the majority of the NBA’s most successful teams have offenses that spread the floor in an effort to get as many three-pointers and layups/dunks as possible, Jackson and his emissaries stubbornly insist on staying stuck in the past.
When Jackson hired Jeff Hornacek last summer to be the Knicks’ head coach, there was hope that Hornacek would be allowed to revamp and update the offense. While the Knicks initially ran far less of the Triangle than in years past, Hornacek has seemed to bend to the will of Jackson late in the season. Last month, he told reporters that the remainder of the season would be used to evaluate which players embraced and thrived in the system.
“End of the year comes and we’re having our discussions and you say, ‘Can this guy play this offense?’ We’ll say either yay or nay or he’s getting it, he’s getting better. So, I’m sure that’s part of evaluations this summer,” said Hornacek.
Hornacek also later hinted that one of the problems derailing the 2016-17 Knicks was veering away from the Triangle too often, and that the plan was to go “full triangle” at the start of next season.
Amazingly, the takeaway from another lost season in New York is not that the Knicks are running too much Triangle, it’s that they haven’t run it nearly enough.
For three years now, the Knicks have operated under Jackson’s preferred approach. The problem is that the system has not produced the desired results. Again and again, the Knicks have found themselves essentiality eliminated from playoff contention shortly after the All-Star break.
The New York Knicks have posted a cumulative record of 79-164 in the three years under Jackson’s reign. Only two teams in the entire league have lost more games over that span than the Knicks.
During the early 1800s, amid the British industrial revolution, groups of skilled textile workers feared the future. They believed that automated looms and knitting frames being introduced at that time would leave them displaced and jobless. Luddites, as these individuals came to be known, began destroying machinery and other technological improvements in the misguided hope of preserving their livelihoods.
In the centuries since the Industrial Revolution, the term Luddite has been associated with individuals who are hostile to advances in technology.
In many industries even today, individuals that have been successful in the past often find themselves at odds with innovative technological advancements. In the sports world, for instance, analytics are viewed by many as a threat to the status quo.
In a rare interview, granted to the New York Times in February of 2015, Jackson, already feeling the heat and determined to defend the Triangle, stated he wasn’t ready to capitulate and implement changes into the Knicks’ offense.
“I think it’s still debatable about how basketball is going to be played, what’s going to win out,” Jackson said, leaving no doubt of his disdain for the point-guard-dominated concept of “screen-and-roll, break down, pass, and two of three players standing in spots, not participating in the offense.
NBA analysts give me some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs…seriously, how's it goink?
— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) May 10, 2015
In May of that year, Jackson took to Twitter to ask for “some diagnostics on how 3pt oriented teams are faring this playoffs.” Infamously, he signed off with “seriously, how’s it goink?”
Well, the returns are in Mr. Jackson. The “diagnostics” have taught us that most of the NBA’s best teams try to avoid mid-range jump shots in favor of three-pointers or attempts at the rim.
In recent years, a tectonic shift has changed the way the game is played. Many teams in today’s NBA are incredibly reliant on long-distance shooting, including the majority of the league’s elite contenders. The two teams that led the NBA in made three-pointers during the 2015-16 regular season were the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers – the two teams that ultimately ended up squaring off in the NBA Finals.
NBA players have made 22,470 three-pointers this season, breaking the single-season record of 20,953 set in 2015-16.
There are four teams currently averaging over 11 made three-pointer per game this season: The Rockets, Cavaliers, Warriors and Celtics. The Cavs and Celts sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. The Rockets are third in the West, while the Warriors boast the best record in the league. Those four squads have a combined record of 218-94 (.699 winning percentage).
There are only four teams currently averaging fewer than eight made three-pointers per game this season: The Pistons, Suns, Bulls and Timberwolves. All four are currently below .500. The combined record of those four teams is 126-186 (.403 winning percentage). Both the Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks are averaging just over eight three-pointers per game. If we included them in the math, the cumulative winning percentage of three-point averse teams would certainly dip.
As recently as eight-to-10 years ago, when Phil Jackson was still on top of the coaching world, three-pointers were not a necessity. Teams could dominate without relying on long-range shots and The Triangle Offense was certainly still viable.
In 2008-09, when Phil Jackson won a title with the Lakers, only two teams in the entire league made more than eight three-pointers per game.
But times have changed. The introduction of analytics, although it was initially resisted by many, has rapidly revamped the way most coaches approach game plans and the way general managers approach roster construction.
Make no mistake, the times they are a changin’. The teams that attempt and make more shots from behind the arc and at the rim tend to win more ballgames.
Yet, Phil Jackson remains convinced the Triangle can still reign supreme. Which, by proxy, means the Knicks’ offense will continue to stagnate and settle for mid-range jumpers far too often. Unless Phil can convince the rest of the NBA to stop shooting so many three-pointers, New York will continue to lag behind the rest of the league if they insist on sticking with the Triangle.
Per NBA.com, the Knicks are attempting 25.6 mid-range jumpers (28.9 percent of New York’s total field goal attempts) per game this season. That’s the highest average in the league. In contrast, the Rockets average just 7.1 attempts from that distance.
New York also led the league in field goal attempts from the mid-range zone last season as well. In 2014-15, they were tied with Byron Scott’s Lakers for the most such attempts.
According to NBAMiner.com, the Knicks “average shot distance” is 12.8 feet from the basket this season. That’s exactly 15th in the NBA (sandwiched between the Sixers and the Nets), meaning New York is often neither at the rim or behind the arc. That’s the NBA’s ‘no man’s land.’
Jackson was brought in to right the ship and steer the Knicks towards respectability. Under Jackson, the Knicks have gotten worse. New York was above .500 (169-143) in the four seasons prior to Phil’s arrival.
Since Jackson came aboard, the Knicks have been investing in a dying technology. The numbers bear this out in every way possible. The stats are undeniable, with the clearest indicator being the win/loss record. And it’s not as if the Knicks roster has been completely bereft of talent. They have had an All-Star each of the last four seasons. In addition, Willy Hernangomez will make either the first or second All-Rookie Team this year, which means it will also be the fourth straight season the Knicks have also had at least a player named to the NBA’s All-Rookie Team. New York is actually the only franchise in the league able to claim this distinction.
Still, the Knicks still find themselves nearly 20 games below .500 once again. The system didn’t work when Carmelo was surrounded by young players. It didn’t work with Melo surrounded by veterans. Maybe the system is part of the problem, not the solution.
Instead of acknowledging it’s now necessary to adjust to a changing landscape, the Knicks decision makers not only seem committed to an ineffectual system, they appear dedicated to doubling down.
Of course, it would be foolish to pin all the blame on the Triangle. The biggest problem in New York this season has been on the defensive end of the floor.
Offensively, the Knicks are averaging 104.6 per 100 possessions this season. That’s well below average (19th in the NBA in Offensive Efficiency), but far better than their Defensive Rating. New York is allowing 108.4 points per 100 possessions (fifth-worst in the league).
However, in lieu of publicly demanding improved defensive effort, last month Phil Jackson came down from his office to run a clinic on the Triangle at practice. Dedicating time and resources to The Triangle hampers their ability to focus on more pressing issues.
To his credit, Jackson has done some positive things during his tenure in New York. The single most important decision he has made as an executive was deciding who to take with the fourth pick in the 2015 draft. By selecting Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson hit a home run. In addition, he has been adamant about not trading away any future draft picks. Thus, the Knicks future is not as dreary as some have portrayed it to be.
However, the recommitment to the Triangle over the second half of the season should frighten Knicks fans. Considering his age and how things have played out so far in New York, it’s clear Phil won’t be in charge of the Knicks forever. What type of team will he leave behind for the person that inherits his job? Will he flesh out the roster with players that fit one particular system, one which will almost certainly be abandoned once Jackson leaves town? For instance, the Knicks will have a high lottery pick in June. This draft class is loaded with top-tier point guard prospects, and the Knicks desperately need to add a PG this summer. Will Phil choose to pass on a playmaker such as De’Aaron Fox because Fox doesn’t fit in the Triangle?
The Luddites destroying looms and knitting machines wasn’t going to save their jobs. Technology would only continue to advance forward, regardless of what they did.
The NBA isn’t going backward either. Winning teams aren’t going to somehow forget that three-point attempts are more valuable than those from two-point territory. The rules that have been changed to benefit perimeter players and increase scoring are not going to be reversed anytime soon either.
Success starts from the top down. Whether it’s running a factory in Britain in the early 19th century or running an NBA franchise, certain constants exist.
The famous scientist Charles Darwin was born in England in 1809, just two years before the Luddite revolution began. Darwin, best known for his contributions to the science of evolution, once wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
It’s time for Phil Jackson and the Knicks to adapt, or continue down their current path, which ends in irrelevance and annual, early-season extinction.
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