If Phil leaves…

Another post about the Lakers, because hey, my blog.

(There will be some writing stuff coming along soon here, updates and the like, if that’s more your speed.  Patience, grasshopper.)

If Phil leaves the Lakers…well, the first thing I’m going to do is fly up to Minnesota, find Rambis, and kick him in the shin, shouting, “If you’d just waited one more fucking year…!”

But, aside from that, if Phil leaves now, it presents the team with a difficult choice, one that has little to do with the “system”, triangle vs. whatever.

Despite all the dark, shimmering cloaks of mystery that surround the triangle offense, it’s not some freakish aberration of what most people consider basketball.  Players in the triangle do run plays, the same kinds of plays that every other team under the sun do.  Down-screen, baseline backdoor, pinch-post P&R…it’s all in there.  Here’s the only real difference:

In a “normal” offense, the point guard brings the ball across the timeline, calls a set play that the team has practiced (usually passed to him by the head coach, either from the sideline or during the last play stoppage), the team runs that play and either finds success or doesn’t.  If it doesn’t work and they have time, they’ll run another play, a Plan B that they’ve prepared, or else they’ll give it to the guy on the floor who can create his own shot and hope that he does so.  The plays they run can have options, based on what the defense does, but they’re pre-planned and dependent upon the players practicing the moves over and over so they know exactly what they’re supposed to do.

In the triangle, one of a couple of players (usually guards, but anyone who can handle well will do) brings the ball across the timeline, everyone gets into their proper spacing (three players in a triangle—post, wing and corner—on one side [hence why it’s called the “triangle” or “triple post” offense], the other two spaced at the wing and high post on the other side), and then the offense is “initiated”.  If on the strong side (where the triangle is), the initiation is usually a pass into the post player; if on the weak side, there’s either a pass made into the high post or a S&R with the two of them.

No specific play is called, not yet.  The offense is initiated, and then the players observe how the defense reacts.  And based on what the defense does, the offense will do something else—say they run a double-team at the player in the triangle post, well, that leaves someone else on the court open, or at the worst in a 2 on 1 zone, and the offense’s job is to get the ball to the open man.  And there are a variety of ways to do that, each dependent upon exactly who that open man is, where exactly the defense is, etc.

So, the triangle does result in running the same kinds of plays that a “normal” offense does, but instead of having it pre-planned, it grows organically out of what happening right then, in the moment.  If you have a team running the triangle that’s unfamiliar with it, or is made up of players who aren’t that bright, or are more “athletes” than “basketball players”, or who haven’t spent much time playing with each other, or who don’t really trust each other, it can be a mess.  No one knows where they’re supposed to go, nor where anyone else is going to be going.

But when you have a team of high basketball IQ players who know each other well and trust each other, it is sublime.  Pau will get the ball in the post, with Odom at the wing and Fisher in the corner.  Fisher’s man shades in to start double-teaming Pau, and so Odom’s man shades down into the lane to be ready to help out.  Odom sees this, and dives down the lane towards the basket.  Pau looks to pass to the diving Odom, but sees that not only has Odom’s man recovered, but Bynum’s man, seeing the diving Odom, has moved away from Bynum to help as well.  Bynum sees this and flashes to the far side of the rim, Pau ignores Odom (who is now needlessly double-teamed off the ball), and lofts a high pass to Bynum for an easy layup.  Or he fakes that pass, forcing Fisher’s man to turn his head and run to help, and passes to Fisher for the open corner three.  Or any of another dozen options.

A “normal” offense is like an orchestra, everyone trying to be exactly where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there, doing what they’re supposed to do, exactly as it says on the identical scores in front of them.  The triangle is like a jazz combo:  they all know the tune, they’ve all played it together before, they know what the others like to do, so they pay attention to each other, and if, say, the guy on keyboards gets into a really good groove and sounds like he wants to kick the pace up a bit, the other guys will either pick up their own playing to come along, or will ease back a bit, giving him the space to shine.  It’s organic, everyone moving towards the same goal, with the moves and the goal defined on the spot, wordlessly, growing out of a shared, instinctual awareness of what’s happening exactly in that specific moment.

It’s a beautiful thing where the joy comes not from achieving the goal but from being in perfect unison with four other guys who you know, and trust, and care about, and are sharing that specific moment with.

And it doesn’t matter who the Lakers bring in as coach if Phil leaves, do you really think, after all the years these players have spent with each other, and the success they’ve had trusting each other, if they’re running a set play, and see the defense reacting a certain way, that they aren’t going to immediately abandon that play and react to what the defense is doing?  And that that won’t happen several times, every game?

So the system the next coach has isn’t as important as how he will react to what the team is doing.  Will he empower the team to do what they know how to do, even if it means they regularly toss his carefully-constructed offense overboard?  Will he encourage that?  Or will he be upset that they’re not doing what he wants them to do.

This is really my only concern with Byron Scott.  He’s a true Alpha male who has already butted heads with two teams previously.  Is he secure enough in himself—and trusting enough in his team—to take that step back?  Or will it turn into a battle of wills?

And we also have to worry about the opposite, which is really my only concern with Brian Shaw.  Will the players respect him enough to know that it’s his hand on the wheel, no matter how much he leaves to them to sort out on their own?  Or will the inmates—for lack of a better analogy—end up taking over the asylum, with Shaw little more than the guy doing sideline interviews after the first quarter in a suit?

What we need to replace if Phil leaves is not a system, but his presence and leadership.  Phil is the ultimate leader, a guy who commands respect without ever having to say it.  A guy who steps back, points at what needs to be done, and lets his charges sort it out for themselves, without ever giving up any of his authority.  Who empowers his players to own what they do, without any of them ever forgetting that he, ultimately, is where the buck stops.

I don’t know if it’s possible to find a perfect replacement for that…guys with eleven rings, and his particular demeanor and philosophy, don’t grow on trees.  But I’m convinced that, regardless of the X’s and O’s, that the real battle for success in the first season without Phil will happen here, in the shared hearts and minds of the players and the coach.

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One response to “If Phil leaves…

  1. Yay!

    And again, I say, when are you writing for the LA Times, because DUDE, they suck and you don’t.

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