Tex Winter first developed his triangle offense decades ago, but it went nowhere until he got the Bulls to adopt it, after Phil Jackson became head coach. It’s an unorthodox approach to offensive basketball, to be sure, but it’s not like the wishbone or the veer or the run-and-shoot in football–grand schemes that dramatically alter the offense and that demand to be taken on their own terms by the defense. The triangle is more a philosophy than a strategy, more an outline than a scheme; it replaces set plays with patterns and tendencies, diagrams with positions on the floor. It may not work for any other basketball team in the world, but it has certainly been the trick for the Bulls.
The triangle allows Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen maximum freedom, while keeping them within a pattern that averts chaos. It suits Jordan and Pippen’s improvising the same way set chord changes and an agreed-upon chorus cycle (say, 16 bars) suit a jazz musician. Sonny Rollins, for instance, can howl away with the knowledge that with the slightest of hints he can signal those in his band when to return to the refrain; likewise, Jordan can drive through traffic knowing that John Paxson is on the wing, Pippen at the top of the circle, and Horace Grant at the corner of the lane. It’s been the key to making Jordan and Pippen function as team players.
The triangle is so named because, in its most basic form, Bill Cartwright posts up low on the right-hand side of the lane, Paxson sets up on the right wing, and Jordan dribbles near the free-throw circle, creating a triangle formation. Pippen and Grant set up on the left so that if the defense is too firmly entrenched on the right Jordan can pass to Pippen, who passes in to Grant while Jordan moves without the ball into the left-hand baseline corner, establishing another triangle. In actual practice, it works as follows. Against Houston two weeks ago, Pippen drove on a mid-tempo fast break and ran right into the Rockets’ intimidating center, Hakeem Olajuwon. Pippen backed out on the dribble, into the right-hand corner, drawing Olajuwon and another defender. Pippen then swung the ball swiftly to Paxson high on the right wing, who then passed to Jordan high on the left wing, who took an open three-point shot and hit it, giving the Bulls a 57-41 lead on the way to a 20-point first-half advantage that would all but put the game away. The triangle gives Jordan and Pippen the ability to probe the defense for weakness and sets them within a framework that makes it easiest to exploit that weakness with an open shot.
Complex as this is–and backup guard Bobby Hansen, acquired in the first month of the season, says he’s still picking it up–it’s simple enough for a fan to understand and recognize on the floor. Yet the Bulls–even they themselves insist–won last season and have won this season more with defense than with offense. Since the Bulls are a quick, improvisational team, they rely on their defense to get the offense moving, to set Jordan and Pippen free in the open court, and to score points in spurts. The Bulls’ defensive scheme, however, is not so easily grasped.
Defense is by nature, well, defensive; there’s no better way to put it. The defense reacts to the offense and attempts to counter its strengths and strategies. The Bulls win with a defensive intensity as keen as any in the league. They learned much from the Detroit Pistons in the last few years (as has much of the league–especially in the Eastern Conference). The National Basketball Association doesn’t allow zone defenses–the scheme of preference in college–placing instead an emphasis on offense and one-on-one driving. Oddly enough, this emphasis on offense made the pro game not more interesting but less. Before Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird arrived in the league over a decade ago–and even, for a while, after–it was commonly said that an NBA game was 46 minutes of guys running up and down and then 2 minutes of basketball. The players were simply too skilled offensively; in most cases, 24 seconds was ample time for someone to find an open shot and make it. The Pistons changed that. They allowed no uncontested shot. If Paxson had an open 20-footer from the wing, John Salley was out running with a hand in the air as he put the shot up. That’s what separated the Pistons from the rest, and that’s still what separates the contenders from the pretenders in the NBA, where much of the Western Conference continues to play as if defense were just the way to spend time until a team gets the ball back.
It wasn’t just a matter of wanting to play defense, however. The Pistons also adapted defensive schemes to counter opponents’ trends and emphasize their own strengths. The celebrated “Jordan rules” were a simple application of strategy. Jordan likes to drive right, so force him left, into the lane, where help–in the form of Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, etc–would be forthcoming.
The Bulls also allow no uncontested shots. “We’re going out there with the attitude that we’re going to play at least 45 minutes of tough defense,” says Grant. “Once we hit teams with that strong defensive effort, that really takes them out of their ball game.” Even when badly fooled, Grant or Pippen or someone is running out to stick a hand in the face of whoever is shooting. (The Bulls also foul as judiciously and with as much determination as any team in basketball; when they decide to take a foul, they try to make sure the ball will not go in the hoop. Put the opponents on the line for two shots, but deny them the three-point play.) Yet the Bulls have also adopted some schemes that make the Pistons’ work look like kids moving bottle caps on a playground, because, again, their schemes are based not on diagrams but on improvisation.
In Jordan and Pippen, the Bulls have two of the best defensive players in the league. They are also very similar in size and ability, however, and they poach relentlessly on each other’s territory–with the other’s complicity, of course. Against the San Antonio Spurs at home last month, Jordan and Pippen were matched with Willie Anderson and Sean Elliott–likewise two players of similar size and ability. The Spurs ran Anderson and Elliott back and forth along baseline screens, but Jordan and Pippen would simply switch men, effectively negating the screen. “It’s something that’s happened naturally over time,” Pippen says. “We’re the same type of player and we feel confident with whoever we’re out there guarding on the court. Basically, I feel I can guard whoever Michael’s guarding.”
As on offense, the Bulls try to allow Jordan and Pippen maximum freedom. When a team has players of their abilities, it pays to find ways to let them display those abilities. Yet Pippen takes issue with notions that the defense is tailored just to Jordan and him. “I think the defense is tailored to everyone’s strengths,” he says. “I think we’ve got enough quickness out on the court between me, Michael, Horace, and John that we can cover for one another and gamble.”
Gambling is key: it’s what separates the Bulls from most other NBA teams; it’s what makes their defense so important to their offense. Again, however, the key word is judicious, as in judicious gambling–risks Jordan and Pippen know the rest can cover for. Jordan and Pippen are cat quick, but in Grant they have a player large enough to be an enforcer and quick enough to make up for their mistakes. “Whenever Michael or Scottie goes for a steal,” Grant says, “it’s up to the other guys on the court to make sure their guy doesn’t get to the basket.”
The Bulls have been accused of playing a zone, but what they really play is a rapid-rotation man-to-man. On defense, they don’t move to locations, they move to players. It’s comparable to the military defense of the village in The Seven Samurai, where the samurai are always leading the villagers quickly to weak spots in their perimeter. There’s a willingness to concentrate resources where they’re needed from instant to instant. That results in other weak points, but by the time the enemy adjusts, the resources can be shifted back. The Bulls rotate toward the ball either to double-team or to cover for Jordan or Pippen when they’re caught out of position, but the idea is to leave the other team’s open man as far from the ball as possible. Most other teams in the league don’t have the perimeter-passing framework the Bulls have in the triangle.
In short, the Bulls’ offense and defense are mirror images of each other (their time spent in practice shows). On offense, the players move to locations; on defense, they move to the nearest opponent. The offense tries to create a weakness in the defense (an uncovered man) and exploit it through rapid passing; the defense tries to patch each weakness as it emerges, counting on Jordan and Pippen to seal the passing lanes.
The key to both offense and defense, however, is energy. The offense went through a rough patch about a quarter of the way through the season when the improvisers weren’t improvising. A jazz band with the best horn charts in the world will nevertheless sound lame when there’s no energy in the musicianship. Likewise, the Bulls went on a road trip last week and looked flat in the first two games, in San Antonio and Houston. The offense lacked energy in the first half in both games and put the Bulls in a hole. The defense tried to make it up in the second half, but in the end couldn’t keep the opponents from scoring. This crisis produced two of the most exciting games of the season for the Bulls, but they were both excruciating losses. Against the Spurs, the Bulls clawed their way back to where Jordan put them within three points with a slam dunk off a free throw Pippen missed and a steal and slam on a fast break, but that was as close as they got. The Spurs’ forwards, Elliott and Terry Cummings, just kept rolling to the hoop.
Was this a crisis? No. The Bulls were simply discovering the boundaries of their athletic ability. Their offensive and defensive schemes attempt to exploit their almost across-the-league edge in athletic ability, but they can easily become overreliant on that edge. It carried them through last Friday against the Dallas Mavericks, allowing them to regain their balance for the game last Sunday in Los Angeles against the Lakers–an impressive win on national television in which, at crunch time, the Bulls turned up the pressure on defense and set Jordan and Pippen loose on offense. Theory merged with execution, and the Bulls were winning against the league’s best once again.