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December 10, 2009
Caught in the Triangle
Minnesota Adapts

by Anthony Macri

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This past summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves made significant changes to their team. From the hiring of Kurt Rambis as head coach to the addition of young players headlined by point guard Jonny Flynn, the Wolves made it clear they are beginning a major rebuilding process. When Rambis, a former L.A. Lakers assistant, was brought on as head coach, thoughts in the Twin Cities drifted toward how this group would fit into the famed triangle offense Rambis brought with him from L.A. As their record can at least partially attest, adopting the triangle has not been the cure for what ails the Timberwolves. Let’s take a look how it all fits together.

Traditionally, the triangle offense is a pass-oriented offense involving player and ball movement based on reads and the way the defense applies pressure. Most are familiar with the offense when it features highly skilled wings like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Kobe Bryant. These multi-faceted players could play in a variety of positions and be extremely effective from them all.

Of course, the triangle can feature other players. Phil Jackson and company modified certain aspects of the movements in the offense to accommodate Shaquille O’Neal with great results. This illustrates one of the more misunderstood characteristics of the offense: its versatility. The triangle offense is a very flexible attack, capable of fitting a variety of personnel. Teams can play the offense with their best players in any positions, and at any kind of tempo. It is really a thing of beauty when deployed at full strength.

With that said, what is the best way to fit Minnesota's talent into the triangle? A quick glance at their personnel yields some reasons for optimism.

First and foremost among these reasons is the return of Al Jefferson. In any offense, Jefferson would be considered among the top three bucket-getting forwards in the game today. He can score in a variety of ways and has a real ability to get his shot off in traffic and from odd angles and positions. This kind of player can be very effective in the triangle, as the post is a major focus point, and the offense looks to achieve penetration through the pass or the dribble. Jefferson is also an effective passer out of the post who can find cutters and as a face-up player he can see the opposite side of the floor as well as anyone. As he gets healthy and finishes recovering from his knee injury, his production will improve and so will the Wolves.

Minnesota’s second-leading scorer, Flynn has been impressive in his rookie year. He has a knack for getting into the lane and finishing plays, and he tends to make good things happen with the ball in his hands. As he improves his shooting consistency, he will become even more effective. However, Flynn’s real strength as a ball-dominating speed guard does not necessarily translate into the traditional triangle parameters. Whether the Wolves can adjust their triangle to his abilities is a question they have yet to answer.

The wings for the Timberwolves are more problematic. Ryan Gomes and Corey Brewer are not Jordan and Pippen, and so the actions are not the same as Bulls of old either. That said, Gomes has been solid (right around his career averages) and Brewer is having his best year.

The final major piece of the puzzle is only now in place as Kevin Love has recently returned to the lineup. In theory, Love’s talents as a passer should be excellent in the offense, and because he can also be active and effective from the foul line area, he can be a very good scorer in the triangle. In his first few games back, he has proven to be a valuable contributor. As the season progresses, his exact fit will be easier to ascertain.

So where are the Wolves falling short? Three major areas: fast-break and secondary-break actions, lack of precision in their offensive execution and a failure to embrace what triangle innovator Tex Winter would call the “ping” pass.

The Wolves are built with some contradictory pieces. Flynn, Gomes, and Brewer are guys who excel in transition. Jefferson is better as a half-court scorer, and while Love is great at initiating the break, he too is most effective in a set offense. Nonetheless, Minnesota has looked the most comfortable out in space on the fast break—likely because the ball spends so much time in speedster Flynn’s hands. While the Wolves already spend some time in secondary-break actions, this could be a much larger piece of their offensive attack strategy. Using either Love or Jefferson in trail-screen actions at the top of the key (similar to what the Lakers do when Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum is the last man down the floor) would be helpful.

Though Minnesota looks moderately comfortable running the read-and-react triangle, players are not always purposeful in their cuts and seem to rush through the options. Watch the next time they run a man off the elbow for a handoff—that player goes past and just floats to the next option. If the Wolves instead took their time and explored each cut and exploited each movement, they would find there are a lot of points waiting to be discovered. Related to this is their lack of commitment to the offensive glass. One of the best features of the triangle is that it is designed to put three players into offensive rebounding position. However, Minnesota does not consistently crash the boards, and their players are content to retreat defensively (possibly by design). Again, they are likely leaving points on the floor by doing so, and putting no pressure on their opponents to defend their glass.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is hesitation on the part of multiple players in Minnesota to execute what Tex Winter called the “ping pass.” This offense, by design, is one where the ball should be moved within two seconds of its being received (either by the pass or by the attacking dribble). The Timberwolves have too many players interested in stopping the ball. This is an offense-killer in the triangle and something that needs to be fixed in order for the Wolves to really make progress. At this stage, it can be attributed to inexperience, but if the problem persists into the second half of the season and beyond, it becomes an issue of desire and not ignorance.

Coaching one of the league’s worst teams with a lot of rope, Rambis can take his time navigating his players through the triangle. There are times when the Minnesota offense is clicking and it looks beautiful. At other points, the Timberwolves look adrift, sailing aimlessly in the triangle. One of the most interesting--and, presumably, helpful--developments will be how Minnesota incorporates Love. He can definitely help make a difference for this young team, and gives them another player who can execute in the half court. Ultimately, with some adjustments and some additional focus, the triangle can be a good fit for the Timberwolves. How long it takes them to figure it out, though, is the real mystery.

Follow Anthony on Twitter at @CoachMacri.

Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Anthony by clicking here or click here to see Anthony's other articles.

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The Biggest Aberration... (12/09)
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