NBA Playbook asks 'Can the Wolves run the Triangle?'

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I envy Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook. While I am hugely, dorkily fascinated by basketball strategy, he actually understands it and writes about it with knowledge and lucidity. He’s the kind of guy that can invent and draw up plays for NBA teams (or fictionalized, animated all-star teams) and then eloquently convince you that you should care. So when he turns his eyes toward our humble Wolves, it’s kind of a big deal.

That said, although the Timberwolves aren’t exactly media darlings (shoot, they’re not even always on TV) what they are trying to do strategically is actually a pretty significant story. And that is: implement the famous Triangle offense–an offense that relies improvised reads, reactions and ball-movement and that cuts against the NBA grain of isolations and pick-and-rolls–on a very young team and without the aid of a transcendent scorer.

Not surprisingly, Pruiti has his doubts. Here’s the essence of the argument (although if you have any interest in this at all, you should really read the whole thing–quality Luke Ridnour and Anthony Tolliver analysis doesn’t come along every day after all):

In conclusion, the Timberwolves’ Triangle could be much better than it has been in the past. A few things need to happen though. The first, and most important, being that the Timberwolves really need to commit to it. When watching their preseason games, the one thing that you noticed is that there was a lot of hesitation and confusion when they were cutting in and out of the Triangle. This is because they don’t run it every time down the court, and the players aren’t comfortable with it.

Two of Pruiti’s critiques are particularly salient, I think. The first is that if the Wolves don’t get the look they want after the initial Triangle action, rather than swinging the ball and resetting the Triangle on the other side of the floor as the Lakers do, they instead opt into a fairly traditional, not to mention predictable, weakside two-man game. Here’s what this looks like (apologies to Pruiti for pillaging his video):

As Pruiti points out, the Triangle is most effective and least predictable when it progresses to its second and third layers of reads and options. The Wolves rarely get there.

The second criticism is related. Because the Wolves also run lots of more conventional sets, their young players don’t have the opportunity to learn the offense through endless repetition. And this shows up on the court as hesitance, indecision and an insufficiently nuanced understanding of the offense.

Pruit argues, rather convincingly, that if the Wolves really want their young players to internalize the Triangle, they need to commit to it fully. But here’s the problem. Because the NBA game is so tilted toward individual matchups, and because the Triangle can become stagnant if all five players aren’t operating on the same frequency, it often becomes necessary in the course of a game to rely on some old standbys: pick-and-roll, isolations, set plays to create easy looks. Indeed, for these reasons, even the Lakers aren’t entirely wedded to the offense, often using Triangle action to set up isos for Kobe or Pau, or simply resorting to traditional pick-and-roll.

So this is a huge question. Is it feasible to adapt to the ebbs and flows of NBA games running only this offense? and if not, can the Wolves truly learn to run the Triangle without committing to it fully?

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