What the triangle basketball offence can teach us about successful teamwork

The Triangle Basketball Offence was the tactical system that led to the incredible success of the Chicago Bulls team of the 1990’s and the Los Angeles Lakers team of the 2000’s. But what this famous Basketball system has to do with successful teamwork in business? And what is so unique about it?

Growing up in a basketball world

I need to admit it. I have loved basketball ever since I was a small kid growing up in Athens, Greece.

It all started with the unexpected success of the Greek National Basketball team in the 1987 FIBA European Championship. Before the summer of ’87 the Greek team had very little to show. In fact, during the ’87 tournament, most didn’t even expect Greece to make it past the first round. But, in one of biggest upsets in sports history, Greece went the whole way, winning the Gold Medal in a dramatic final against the ‘giants’ of Soviet Union.

This was due to the incredible talent of the later inductee to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Nick Galis. But also due to the amazing team spirit that the team showed throughout the tournament. Their success sparked an unprecedented enthusiasm about basketball.

It was the gold summer of Greek basketball.

1987: The Year Greeks Began Their Love Affair with the Orange Ball
Image from GreekReporter

Soon schools started investing in basketball, kids started joining clubs, and basketball courts stated appearing in every corner of Greece. Within a few years the infrastructure around basketball was astonishing for the size of a country like Greece (approx. 10 million). The National team started consistently bringing results while new talent started emerging from the many basketball academies and local clubs.

By the mid-90’s the biggest Greek clubs were in a position to attract the greatest European players and coaches. But even NBA superstars, such as the All-star Dominique Wilkins, who in 1996 won the FIBA European League with Panathinaikos. The popularity of the sport erupted. This was the beginning of the dominance of Greek clubs, which overall have now 18 European titles across all competitions.

The next generation of Greek talent

In 2013, a 18-year kid from a small neighbourhood of Athens was drafted in the NBA for Milwaukee Bucks. His name was Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is now the Most Valuable Player in the NBA for the second time. He also now has the most lucrative contract in the history of the league. Although the son of immigrants and while living in poverty in Athens, he found a way out in sports. As it turned out he was the right person at the right place at the right time. Soon a local basketball coach spotted his talent and drafted him to a team in the second League of Greece. There he was discovered by NBA scouters. The rest is now history.

Sepolia Basketball Court Redesigned in Honor of Giannis Antetokounmpo |  Bleacher Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights
Image from Bleacher Report

Growing up in the same environment in the 90’s, I also fell in love with basketball, although I was never as talented as Giannis. Back in then there was one team dominating the sport globally. The incredible Chicago Bulls of Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan, who managed to win 6 NBA Championships in 7 years. Their secret, aside of the talent of Michael Jordan, was Phil Jackson’s coaching system, the Triangle Offence.

The Triangle Offence

Phil Jackson is admittedly one of the most prolific basketball coaches of all time. During his career he used the triangle offence more than any other coach, winning an incredible total of 11 NBA World Championships.

However, the real architect of the Triangle Offence was Tex Winter. Tex Winter started his career under Sam Barry, who originally came up with the idea of having a triple-post offence. Tex Winter fell in love with it and over the years improved it and expanded it, creating the Triangle Offence.

In 1985, Tex Winter joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach. At that point the Chicago Bulls were having great regular seasons but were failing in the playoffs, despite having the greatest talent of all time, Michael Jordan. In fact, this was the problem. The whole game of the team was Michael Jordan. It was very easy for the opponents to find ways to neutralise him. The arrival of Phil Jackson a few years later gave Tex Winter the perfect opportunity to try a new approach. Together they decided to implement the team-focused Triangle Offence and shift the focus from Michael Jordan to the team.

This was not an easy transition for Jordan, who had to sacrifice his personal statistics for the team. But in just a few years, Jackson and Winter managed to create a team that dominated the sport.

Key characteristics

The Triangle Offence is a continuity basketball offence that takes advantage of spacing and ball movement to get the best shot possible. This means that it prioritises pick and rolls and off-ball motion, creating a constant flow and rhythm in the team.

Coach Doug Eberhardt wrote in his article on the SBNATION that the Triangle Offence values unselfishness, quick passing, careful spacing, and team play. The system’s spacing is key for allowing continuous ball and player movement in offence, freeing up star players and providing structure for role players. At the same time it allows for quick team transitions in defence when the ball doesn’t go in. All five players are interchangeable in the offensive spots. This allows constant adaptation based on the defence, which making it extremely difficult for other teams to react.

Picture taken from SBNATION

The Triangle Offence is counter-intuitive. It expects the offence to adapt to the defence rather than the other way around. It also requires players to adapt their personal styles to the group, and essentially relearn team basketball. This usually is a contentious point and this is where patience plays a key role. It takes time for a team to learn how to function in such a liberating and unpredictable way. Essentially the Triangle Offence it is about turning a group of five individuals into a winning team.

Unfortunately, modern NBA has moved away from the Triangle Offence. Today there is more focus on 3-point shots and individual stars. However, for the purpose of this article my interest is on what makes the triangle offence so effective and how its collaboration principles could potentially be applied outside of basketball.

What makes the triangle offence so effective

The Triangle Offence is so effective because it can be adapted to fit both the strengths of the team and the individuals within the team. Through the triangle structure, players can discover endless combinations of potential actions. This is what differentiates it from top down set plays, which are pre-determined and choreographed. In a way, the Triangle Offence has the characteristics of improvisational dancing or even better, the improvisation found in Jazz. There is a minimum structure that creates maximum autonomy. By reading the opponent’s defence the players can adapt in the moment and create the best possible play given the constraints and options available.

Trevor McLean on his personal website “Basketball for Coaches” writes extensively about the Triangle Offence. Here, I will mention the key advantages and disadvantages that he has identified.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The Triangle Offence is a position-less offence. This means that all five players are interchangeable and hence effective regardless of their position. Furthermore, this system engages all five players, with the ball passing through everyone’s hands. No-one really dominates the play, which makes the team particularly effective. Because all players are expected to read the defence and adapt in the moment, this system helps build well-rounded players with higher basketball IQ. In addition the team runs in a continuous flow until someone finds an advantage to score. Compared to set plays that finish after a number of moves, the triangle offence continues until the right scoring opportunity arises.

Nevertheless, the Triangle Offence is quite demanding. It requires players that have a high level of basketball IQ, can read the defence and adapt in the moment. Furthermore, it requires a lot of practice as every player’s decision results to interrelated actions of his teammates.

How the triangle offence enables the self-organisation of teams

Some coaches who like giving top-down instructions, expecting players to just execute their decisions, may not feel comfortable with a framework that provides so much freedom to individual players.

However, as discussed in a previous article when teams are viewed as complex adaptive systems, a different reality is possible. The interaction of the individual players at a local level can lead to emergent team behaviours at a global level. It doesn’t matter anymore what an individual player does in isolation but rather how all players interrelate with each other. This requires a shift in mentality that many players and coaches are not prepared to do. Instead they prefer to rely on individual talent and predesigned moves, wrongly seeing the team as a monolith rather than a complex adaptive system.

The self-organising orientation of the Triangle Offence

The Triangle Offence takes advantage of both the strengths of the team as a whole and the strengths of the individual players, combining a team level (global level) coaching framework with individual (local level) creative freedom. In essence, the offence is at the players’ hands, who get to decide how to interact with one another.

As a result, this system enables the team to self-organise within its constraints, producing an unpredictable offensive outcome every time. When the team collaborates well, there is continuous flow and emerging behaviours that lead to successful team outcomes. But no-one can predict the exact sequence of events as these emerge through the interaction of the players within the triangles.

In fact, it is this interrelation within the constraints set by the triangle offence that enable teams to self-organise and produce desirable team behaviours.

Structure, freedom and communication

The Triangle Offence is a team-focused basketball offence with less focus on the individuals and more on the dynamic interactions between them. At any given moment three out of the five players form a temporary triangle, which keeps shifting. For this to work the players need to be spaced enough (15-18 feet apart) so that they have room for movement without allowing the defence to intercept.

A player within the triangle has many options on how to interact with the other two. For instance, one player can pass the ball to the second one and then cut inside between the second and the third. Then the second one can pass to the third for a shot.

Through this process new triangles can be formed quickly between all five players. Instead of fixed triangles, there is a fluid network of 10 possible triangles, making it almost impossible for the opponents to defend.

However, this is not an exact choreography or a predesigned set play. It relies heavily on the knowledge and skills of the individuals to read the defence, sense and anticipate the actions of their teammates while continuously adapting. Of course, continuous practice and the longevity of the team makes it easier for teammates to understand each other better and communicate at a deeper level.

In one of his interviews Dennis Rodman, who has won 3 Championships with the Chicago Bulls, said about his interaction with his teammates Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan.

“When we were doing the Triangle Offence, we could talk without talking!”

This is the same with what I described as nonverbal communication in dancing, where partners dance beautifully with each other without saying a single word. This requires trust, empathy, focus and a shared mental model between the involved partners or teammates.

The power of triangles in teams of five

There is not an ideal team size. However, through my previous analysis of the existing research on the topic I reached the conclusion that 5 people in a team which does complex interdependent work seems to be just right. Strangely enough this fits perfectly with the number of players in basketball, which I have already been studying separately. This created a strange convergence of ideas in my quest to identify the “perfect” team set up.

The problem with bigger teams is that individual productivity diminishes as the team size increases. In social psychology, the phenomenon where people contribute less in the effort of a team, is described as Social Loafing. Therefore, the smaller the team, the more engaged, responsible, and accountable the team members will feel.

As discussed in my previous article in order for a team to self-organise they need to have sufficient internal energy to overcome their natural tendency towards disorder. Teams that are large tend to break down into sub-teams while not everyone contributes actively.

Moreover, there are thresholds, over which our ability to communicate within a team diminishes significantly. According to Brook’s law adding more people in a team increases the lines of communication geometrically.

developing leaders lines of communication stackoverflow
Image taken from Lighthouse

Therefore having 5 people in a team creates the right balance between communication overhead (max. 10 channels) and individual contribution without players getting overwhelmed. Even more so, organising at any given moment in groups of 3 reduces communication lines further, while maintaining a level of complexity and creativity that is harder to get with pairs.

In the end it is all about teamwork

During the 1990’s and 2000’s the Triangle Offence delivered unprecedented success to Phil Jackson’s teams. But somehow it has lost its appeal in the modern NBA. Although, some of the later Champions, San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors seem to have followed some of its fundamental principles.

The Triangle Offence with its continuous movement and constraint of interactions between 3 players at a time creates the right conditions for self-organisation. Teams that are good in this system demonstrate complex behaviour that is unpredictable in the short-term but very effective in the long-term.

There is a constant interplay between global-to-local dynamics (the triangle system) and local-to-global dynamics (the players’ decisions). This relies on a fully engaged team of well-rounded individuals with great individual experience and training. This is why training should focus on developing intelligent performers who can explore many potential actions within the constraints set up by the principles of play. Players can use their intelligence to continuously sense and respond creatively to both their teammates’ and opponents’ actions.

Essentially what matters is finding the right balance between structure, constraints, communication, and freedom. I believe that by creating triangles of interaction within small teams of 5 creates the ideal balance required for any team to work successfully together.

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