Phil Jackson digs O'Neal in the triangle
As far back as three years ago, when Phil Jackson was coaching the NBA's best team (the Chicago Bulls) and the league's best player ( Michael Jordan), he'd break down film on opposing teams and catch himself daydreaming about Shaquille O'Neal. "Phil and I used to talk about how nicely Shaq would fit in the way we played," says longtime Bulls assistant Tex Winter, the architect of the triangle offense that helped Jackson win six championships. "Phil always used to tell me, 'I'd love a chance to coach Shaq.' "
He'll have that chance now. Jackson was introduced as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers on June 16 after signing a five-year, $30 million contract that will give him all the time he needs to implement the triple-post offense. While Jackson's hiring instantly sent expectations through the roof of the Staples Center, the new 20,000-seat arena that the Lakers will play in next season, it also left observers speculating about how O'Neal would adjust to the triangle, which demands offensive sacrifices from each player and requires the pivot man to be a deft passer—something that Shaq has never been.
Jackson expresses little concern over how his new superstar will adjust to the complexities of the system. "It doesn't take a chemical-engineering degree to figure out how to play basketball, that's for sure," he says.
Winter says that O'Neal is a perfect fit for the triangle and that it's a mistake to think he will have the same role in the system that the Bulls centers had. Chicago, with Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley as its starting pivotmen, never had a dominant player in the middle. "As a matter of fact, this offense is far more effective with a dominant center," Winter says. "The center is the apex of the triangle. He is really the first option of the offense. He accepts what we call our 'priority pass,' from the wing into the post, and if he's in a good position to get to the basket, he'll go."
Because the Bulls didn't have a center of O'Neal's caliber, their big men passed the ball to players cutting through the key. "If those cutters are open, it's the center's job to pass them the ball," Winter says. "If they are guarded, they will take their defenders with them as they cut through the middle, which leaves that area open again for the big man, giving him a second look at the basket."
Winter and Jackson point to past NBA clubs as evidence that a dominant center can flourish in the triple post. The Lakers used a variation of this offense in the early '70s with Wilt Chamberlain, and Philadelphia coach Alex Hannum featured Wilt in a similar vein when the Sixers won the 1967 championship. Winter says Milwaukee coach Larry Costello also implemented parts of the triple post with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to help the Bucks win the championship in 1971.
O'Neal has heartily endorsed the choice of Jackson, whom he dubbed "a legend" late last week. Sources close to Shaq say he is willing to adjust his game now that there's a clear strategy—and a long-term coach—in place.
"The one thing Shaq should be prepared for is, it could cut down on his scoring," Winter says. "On the other hand he'll have plenty of opportunities."
The player who may have the most trouble adjusting to the triangle is Kobe Bryant. Although he possesses all the tools to flourish in this offense—quickness, good shooting range, ball-handling skills—he might have to battle the urge to catch and shoot rather than continue the flow of the triangle by making the extra pass. According to Winter, Jordan struggled with that urge right up until the end of his career. "When you take a player with the skills that Jordan or Kobe has, he wants to score every time he touches the ball," Winter says. "That's understandable. But in this offense, you can't make spectators out of your teammates."