T'wolves hope discomfort now creates comfort zone later
Few teams without superstars have been successful with triangle offense
Kurt Rambis is trying to install triangle offense for T'wolves he now coaches
Al Jefferson, Jonny Flynn have struggled to adapt to concepts of new offense
Jonny Flynn knows what a triangle is. Ask him to draw it, no problem. Ask him to make one with his hands like Jay-Z. Easy. But ask the rookie point guard to run the triangle on the basketball court and well, let's just say that it's still a work in progress.
"It's difficult to learn, not just for me but for all of us," said Flynn. "We're used to going up and down and running, and the triangle is more about cutting and passing and playing without the basketball. It's just different."
When the Minnesota Timberwolves hired Kurt Rambis to be their new coach over the summer he was quick to announce that he would be implementing the triangle offense, the foundation for the 10 NBA championships Phil Jackson won in Chicago and Los Angeles. The difference, of course, between Jackson's championship teams and Rambis' current squad is that the Timberwolves don't have Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal.
That is the biggest reason that the triangle hasn't caught on with any team. Normally an offense that has produced more than half of the past 19 NBA champions would be all the rage but it is about as accepted around the league as Jackson's pre-game meditation sessions.
As beautiful as the offense can look with Jordan and Bryant, it can also produce some ugly basketball when it isn't run properly. Jim Cleamons, who has been Jackson's assistant in Chicago and Los Angeles, tried to implement the triangle in Dallas and was fired after a 28-70 record. Tim Floyd tried to run it in Chicago after Jackson left and abandoned it at some point during his 49-190 nightmare tenure as coach.
Now it is Rambis' turn to prove that one of the most successful, yet misunderstood offenses in basketball can work without a couple of Hall of Famers.
"Too much is made of it," said Rambis. "I think a lot of people don't understand it but if you understand basketball it's not very complicated. It's just a format to give the players something to play out of. It's got great spacing. It teaches the players how to move without the basketball. A lot of players struggle in it because they assume the offense starts when the ball is in their hands and stops when the ball is out of their hands. This teaches everybody to play together and see things that are available to them when they get the ball."
Despite calling Jackson and Rex Winter his coaching "mentors," Rambis is quick to point out that he is running a slightly tweaked triangle in Minnesota than the one Winters taught Jackson.
"I'm not really running it the way that Phil runs it," said Rambis. "Some of the aspects of how we flow into the triangle we tried to implement last year with the Lakers. We called it 'Live Ball,' where we run it with a one-guard front. I wanted to be able to give Jonny Flynn and Ramon Sessions space to operate if they had an opportunity to take the ball and go one-on-one."
Unlike Jackson, who surrounded himself with assistants familiar with the triangle (Clemons, Winter and Frank Hamblen) and players who had played in it (Ron Harper and John Salley), when he came to Los Angeles from Chicago, Rambis is basically going it alone in Minnesota. Not only have none of his players ever played in the system before but none of his assistants have ever coached it either.
"Everybody is learning it for the first time," said Rambis. "Even the coaching staff is learning it. There have been pockets of games where they've done it really well but they just haven't been able to put it together for a whole ball game."
The difficulty of learning the offense has been evident through the first five games of the season as the Timberwolves have gone 1-4. But the club has seen slight improvements with each game. Minnesota took the undefeated Celtics down the wire before losing 92-90 at home on Wednesday.
The key to the triangle working in Minnesota is the willingness of Flynn and Al Jefferson, who is slowly regaining his rhythm after missing the final 32 games of last season following surgery on his right knee, to buy into it rather than reverting back to what they are comfortable doing.
"I'm asking [Jefferson] to do things he's never been asked to do in his entire professional career," said Rambis. "I'm asking him to play defense and rebound more. I'm asking him to be more of a playmaker and play away from the basket some. Some of the aspects of learning what we're doing are very foreign to him. He's used to just running to the left block and posting up and everybody throwing him the ball."
As much as Jefferson wants to accommodate his new coach, he understands that physically and mentally he may not be able to give him what he wants until next season.
"This is my first major injury and I'm finding out that my mind is telling me that I can pick up where I left off but my body is not agreeing with me," said Jefferson. "I just have to be patient. The doctor said that's it's going to be a full year before my knee gets back 100 percent. It's the same way with the offense. It's going to take some time. No one expects for us to get it quickly. It might take the whole year for us to get the triangle down the way he wants it."
As Rambis tries to turn the Timberwolves around, he says that he keeps in touch with Jackson, who is keeping a close eye to see if the triangle finally works out with a team he's not coaching.
"We text back and forth," said Rambis. "As a matter of fact the other day he said that our guys were executing aspects of the triangle a lot better than his guys were. I thought that was pretty funny. I didn't agree with him."
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