The Basics of the Triangle Offense

The Basics of the Triangle Offense
Thu 9th May 2019

As with all sports, there are a variety of complex-sounding terms which commentators and the media lean on to try and give us an accurate picture of exactly what’s happening on the basketball court.

At times it can be almost impossible to visualise exactly what they mean, particularly if you’re a basketball fan who hasn’t come from a playing background.

One of the most commonly used, but too-often misunderstood, offensive descriptors in the entire history of NBA is the idea of a “Triangle Offense”.

Made famous by the Phil Jackson coached teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, the Triangle Offense has become arguably the most well-known offensive strategy in the history of the NBA.

But what does it actually mean?

Let’s find out!


The outline of the strategy was first put down on paper by a coach called Sam Barry, who was in charge of the USC Trojans’ basketball program from the 1920s to 1950s.

One of Barry’s players, a guy named Tex Winter, further developed the idea as a head coach at both the Houston Rockets and Kansas State University Jayhawks in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Winter became an assistant coach under Phil Jackson in the early 1990s, and under Jackson the system was finally given the chance to fully flourish. The basketball skill and genius of stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen gave it the raw talent and intelligence required.

Jackson then moved to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999-2000, and installed the same strategy with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. It was an unbelievable success.

The Lakers made four NBA Finals appearances in five years and three-peated from 2000-2002 in one of the greatest eras of success in NBA history.

After O’Neal’s acrimonious departure from LA in 2004, the Lakers and Jackson were forced to re-jig. In 2009-2011 they made the Finals another three times thanks to a dominant Bryant and the acquisition of centre Pau Gasol.

We have not seen a successful version of the Triangle offense since that time, with various franchises (including the ill-fated Knicks under Jackson and Carmelo Anthony) trying but failing to replicate the Bulls and Lakers of lore.


There are various iterations and variations, and some dispute as to what actually constitutes a “Triangle” style offense, but let’s walk through the basics.

It’s important to recognise from the outset that there’s no one play, and no designated routes or patterns that characterise the Triangle.

It’s known as a “read and react” style of offense; basically each pass and outcome in an offensive play triggers another set of options for the ball-handler to choose from.

The offense starts when a guard brings the ball up the floor and passes to the strong side wing. The guard then cuts to the strong side corner. 

The initial “Triangle” is thus created by the player on the strong side wing, the player in the post and the guard who has cut to the corner.

The other wing and the player at the top of the key, known as the “defensive balance” remain on the weak side for spacing purposes.

The strong side wing has 4 passing options depending on what is offered up by the defense. 

Option 1

The primary option is to pass to the strong-side post player on the block (usually a big guy, like Pau Gasol, Luc Longley or Lamar Odom).

From there, the player on the block can either score with a post-move or make a pass back out to one of the guys on the perimeter. The remaining four players are driving, cutting and interchanging in to various spots depending on where the others move.

Option 2

The second option is to pass back to the defensive balance. The weak side wing then comes up to the elbow and sets up a two-man game. 

The remaining three players can either set up for a rebound if the two-man game is successful in getting an open shot up (e.g. through a pick and pop), or they can back-screen each other for a roll to the hoop or pop to the weak side corner.

Option 3

The weak side wing flashes to the top of the key on the strong side. At the same time, the defensive balance makes a cut to the hoop. 

The wing with the ball can either then pass to the cutting player, roll to the hoop themselves, or dish out to the guys on the perimeter if the defense collapses to stop the drive.

Option 4

The ball gets passed out to the strong side corner. If open, the shooter in the strong side corner can take a high-percentage three from the short corner.

If not, the strong side wing can come across and screen for the strong side corner, who can roll to the top of the key for an open shot, or come all the way across to the weak side and restart the offense by setting up another triangle with the weak side wing and defensive balance.

All four of these options bring up so many different possible permutations that it’s not feasible to run through all of them.

Suffice to say that each time the ball moves to the next position in the chain all five players on the floor have a number of potential moves (with and without the ball) that they are able to make, depending on where the ball is and where the four other players are.


There are several major advantages (apart from the ability to generate open shots) to a well-run Triangle Offense.

Good spacing (a key feature of a well-run Triangle) should ensure that every offensive player is at least 15-20 feet away from each other at any one time. This means as soon as the defense commits to one player, by necessity they are leaving at least one other player wide open.

Each option along the chain should also result in players being in great position when a shot goes up for a) an offensive rebound and b) to be able to set up quickly on defense. There should always be at least one player in that Defensive Balance position, and one Wing at the top of the key, which should cut out the potential for an uncontested offensive fast-break going the other way.

Triangle Offenses are generally highly efficient transition defences, which is unsurprising.


Given no team since the 2014 New York Knicks has consistently run the Triangle, it’s clear that NBA franchises have decided that its negatives outweigh its positives.

The primary reason is that in today’s NBA, the Triangle doesn’t create overly efficient shots. It results in a disproportionate number of long twos and post-up opportunities – which modern offenses consider inefficient in comparison to driving lay-ups and threes.

Secondly, the fluidity of the offense makes it extremely hard to “code” in a way which modern basketball players can understand. It relies on players being able to read the wrinkles that unfold with each consecutive pass/move and respond appropriately, rather than run in pre-determined routes. In that sense it’s highly cerebral, and if one player isn’t where they are supposed to be then it can break down catastrophically.

It also requires a degree of selflessness which seems to be lacking in the modern NBA. Every player in the offense must be willing/able/allowed to take shots when needed, otherwise the defense can overload on one player (e.g. Carmelo when the Knicks tried to run it) and the offense falls apart.

In that same vein, a successful Triangle really needs 5 “positionless” players. Everyone on the floor has to be able to post-up as well as pop to the outside. Otherwise, again, the defense can set up in a way which anticipates the weaknesses in the offense.


Will we ever see the Triangle in the NBA again?

Undoubtedly, or at least some variation of it. The system needs some tweaking – the lack of shot-generation from three in particular is a huge weakness. 

Someone, somewhere, with the right roster will find a way to make it viable again.

Written and produced for by Eddie Dadds

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