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The Cavaliers Should Run The Triangle Offense

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Lue wants to install an up-tempo offense for this Cavaliers team, but the Triangle is the better fit.

New Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue wasted no time making his presence felt in the Cleveland organization this past week. His first order of business was an arguably trivial one, reinstating pregame player introductions at home games. Earlier this season, LeBron James had nixed the pregame showmanship in an effort to focus the team. It was Lue’s second demand that raised some eyebrows: an up-tempo offense.

The Cavs currently hold a 31-12 record, good for third-best in the NBA behind only Golden State and San Antonio. However, this success has come while sporting the league’s third-slowest pace, at only 95.03 possessions per 48 minutes. This is a curious decision by Lue, considering that Cleveland has been decidedly worse when attempting to play at a quicker pace. Per  

“Cleveland went 23-5 in games this season when it used 90-99 possessions under David Blatt, versus just a 3-7 record when it used 100 possessions or more”

It’s fair to point out that the Cavaliers rank first in the league in transition scoring efficiency, but they do so by being judicious and opportunistic about their fast break attempts. To expect that they would maintain or even approach their current level of efficiency with a higher volume of fast breaks may be ill-advised. It’s certainly tempting to just give LeBron the green light to push the ball at all times, and finish like this:

But, as has been well documented, this is not 2011 LeBron, and that explosiveness is not guaranteed for 82+ games a year anymore. Instead of adopting a potentially unsustainable fast-paced offense, Coach Lue should look to a different former Lakers point guard for inspiration: New York Knicks head coach Derek Fisher. Because given their strengths, these Cavs are better suited to run the Triangle Offense.

The Triangle Offense

Chuck Klosterman, formerly of Grantland, said of the Triangle:

“The Triangle offense has been, pretty much irrefutably, the single most dominant offensive attack (in any major sport) of the past 20 years. 

As The Sports Quotient has covered before, the specifics of the Triangle are arcane and complex, but the basic tenants are simple. Spacing, penetration, and constant motion all help to create open looks, which depend on the defensive coverage. The types of shots that the Triangle produces most frequently are isolation post-ups and midrange jump shots. The Cavaliers have the ideal personnel to excel with this kind of offensive scheme. 

LeBron James

Two other generational talents in Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have won a combined 11 titles exclusively running the Triangle. There is no question that LeBron has the basketball IQ, talent, and vision to be the focal point of the Triangle in the same way that MJ and Kobe were before him. This offense depends on players to be able to score from the post in isolation. Kobe and Jordan’s abilities to score so efficiently from the post helped to prolong their careers as their athleticism dwindled. Consider this Triangle play from the Lakers during their back-to-back title run in 2009-2010:

Over the past half-decade, LeBron has been arguably the best isolation post player in the league. This year is hardly different, as he ranks third in the league in isolation points scored, and seventh in the league in post-up scoring efficiency (among players who’ve attempted at least 80 such field goals). He is simply too big and physical to be checked by the majority of wings in the league:

Kevin Love

Not only does Kevin Love already have some Triangle experience under his belt from his days with Kurt Rambis, but his strengths also coincide with the goals of the system. Despite having turned into predominantly a three-point shooter since Kyrie’s return, Love has remained the most efficient volume post player in the league. Among the top-20 most prolific shot takers from the post, no one scores more Points per Possession (PPP):Image title

In addition to his post scoring, Kevin Love has another skill that has been underutilized during David Blatt’s tenure - creating from the elbow. This area of the court, referred to as the “pinch-post” in the Triangle, is one of the most important areas for the Triangle Offense, as explained by this video of the Knicks:

During Love’s final season in Minnesota, only Marc Gasol had more elbow touches than Love, and only Pau Gasol had more combined points and assists (per Love’s  vision from just above the elbow here results in an easy dunk for LeBron:

Kyrie Irving

Theoretically, Irving would be the most difficult star player to fit into the traditional view of the Triangle. Phil Jackson is on the record saying to Klosterman:

“(Y)ou didn’t need a great point guard to win in the NBA. This idea of the point guard dominating the ball is a relatively new idea in the game of basketball, really. … One of the things that’s pretty obvious [about my coaching career] is that I never had to fight to get a dominant point guard. Because once you do that, defenses can align themselves against that one guy. You can pressure the point guard high on the floor and move the ball away from whomever you want to shut down.”

However, this is not an indictment on Irving’s ability to fit into the system. Since the Knicks have adopted the Triangle, they have led the league in midrange scoring. It just so happens that there are very few players in the NBA as accurate from midrange as Kyrie Irving. Last year, Irving ranked sixth overall in midrange field goal percentage among players who played in two-thirds of games and attempted at least four such shots a contest. Take a look at his shot chart from last season:

Image title

Also, it’s hard to buy into the concept that a player of Irving’s overall offensive ability will not be able to figure out how to utilize the Triangle to get looks. He can do this after all:

When you factor in the fit of the Cavaliers’ role players (J.R. Smith has some experience running it in New York) and consider that Tristan Thompson idolizes Dennis Rodman, it starts to make sense that Cleveland seriously contemplate adopting the notorious offense. Not only does the Triangle play to the strengths of the team’s best players, but it runs counter to the league-wide “pace and space” trend. The Triangle could very well be the best shot this Cavaliers team has against the Warriors, because it’s hard to imagine LeBron & Co. outrunning their foes from Golden State.

Edited by Joe Sparacio.

Which of the following active NBA head coaches has won multiple NBA championships (as a coach)?
Created 1/26/16
  1. Doc Rivers
  2. Erik Spoelstra
  3. Steve Kerr
  4. Rick Carlisle

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