Q & A: Triangle Talk with Coach Tim Cone

Thank you for agreeing to do this, Coach Cone! For those who don’t know, you’re one of the most winningest basketball coaches in the world with a record 18 PBA championships and 30 finals appearances. ESPN in a 2011 profile, described their trip to Manila to meet you as “one of last days of the triangle offense.” Does this notion put added pressure on you to be successful and to be successful with the triangle in place, considering that you’re a part of a dying breed in the eyes of many people?

It did look bleak there for awhile. It did seem that after Phil Jackson left the Lakers that there was no one else around running the Triangle, although it remained a popular offense in women’s basketball, and there were a number of high school coaches around still running the offense. But from a professional standpoint, and certainly within the NBA, I seemed to be the lone wolf (or dinosaur) still running it. Thankfully, Jackson went on to the Knicks and hired Fisher and the Triangle returned. One of my great joys in watching the NBA was studying the Triangle through the Bulls/Lakers years with Jackson and Tex Winter. I just could not find the same joy watching other systems, though the Spurs were certainly intriguing.

Coaching or playing for 22 years is rare in any sport. When the Alaska Aces, your first and only professional club for more than two decades, released you from your contract, did that motivate you more than usual to win the way that you did these last four years with B-Meg? Was leaving the Llamados in July after two Grand Slams tough and how much did going to work for the Philippines’ favorite team in Barangay, along with the challenge of breaking the Ginebra curse, play a role ultimately in your decision?

Actually, I asked for my release from Alaska. I just felt that after 22 years, I needed a change, to do something different that would recharge my batteries. Moving to B-Meg (or Purefoods, which is the original name of the franchise) was an opportunity to bring a new culture to the team, and of course, to see if I could teach the Triangle to a whole new group of guys. It was a talented team that had underperformed for a couple of years so it was interesting to find out how fast we could turn things around. I was both surprised and gratified to see how quickly the guys took to the Triangle (although I was told much later that a couple of the stars asked for a trade saying they didn’t think they could ever get it–they continued being the stars during our Grand Slam year and, as it turned out, were our best at executing the Triangle). We became the dominant team rather quickly.

For the record, we won one Grand Slam with Alaska and one with the Purefoods organization. Within a year after winning the Grand Slam with Purefoods, I was moved by the San Miguel organization to Ginebra to see if I could help make a turn-around to that team as well. I really didn’t choose to move, it was a reassignment from the ownership who owned both teams, Purefoods and Ginebra. But I must admit, the challenge has been exciting and I very much enjoy where I’m at, even though coaching Ginebra brings different pressures since they are so extremely popular country-wide.

Legend says that in the search for a new system during your earliest days as a coach, you, like many of us, watched Michael Jordan’s games by intercepting broadcast signals from a nearby U.S. naval base. Unlike most, however, you charted the movements of each player on the court, kept track of every possession, watched and videotaped it to see how the Bulls reacted to the different defensive schemes which came their way. So tell us – was teaching yourself the triangle as difficult as all that sounds and did you know exactly what you were getting yourself into?

(I’m shocked by how much you know about my history! Incredible!) When I watched the Bulls in those early days, it was like a light bulb going off in my head. It was early in my career and I was searching for a offensive system, having tried sets for a time and then motion (Bobby Knight motion), neither of which had much appeal to me. To me the Bulls danced while other teams played. They seemed so choreographed when they played. So I endeavored to break them down, using an old Betamax, winding forward and backward until I could figure out the basic patterns. That was 1991. By 1992, I was already implementing parts of the Triangle. By 1993, we were going full force which led to the organization’s worst record in their history. One of my great lessons in basketball was learned at that time–don’t teach what you don’t know, and I think that is one of the reasons coaches have such a hard time implementing the Triangle, they don’t truly know it. It took me more than a year to learn all the little nuances of the offense, mostly through trial and error. I was fortunate that I had a very patient owner in Fred Uytengsu. He kept me on despite the bad year in 1993 and we followed that up with the best year in our history in 1994, and we were still running the Triangle.

Tex Winter has been a big part of your career. Describe, if you can, his impact, vision and dreams for the concept that he created. Where did his feedback help and shape, for instance, the way you run your practices and teach it to players you first met? What did his remarks of you understanding and running the triangle at a better and deeper level than he did with those Laker teams and Shaq and Kobe mean to you? Is there anything you want to add about the student/mentor dynamic that you two clearly shared?

First of all, there is not a nicer man nor a more committed student of the game than Tex Winter. He took a little Podunk coach from the Philippines who he barely knew and put him under his wing. It was an incredible experience for me being around him. He came to the Philippines in the late 1990’s on the invitation of my former assistant coach, Chot Reyes (who went on to do some incredible things with the Philippine National Team), to do clinics and talks. I, being the Triangle Guy in the Philippines, was introduced to him straight away and we immediately hit it off. He attended our practices and I must say truly surprised at how well we ran it (I was hoping he would be–we had a core of players that had been running the Triangle for the last 7 or 8 years, so they were truly well-versed). He had just finished one year with the Lakers when he came, so when he commented that “your guys run it better than the Lakers,” I think he was mostly not exaggerating. He spent a lot of time with us correcting our footwork and emphasizing fundamentals which really impacted me and the way I teach now. Footwork and fundamentals is my obsession because of him.

We would talk on the phone frequently through the years and every chance I had to go to the US, I would drop into LA and attend a practice here or there and watch games. One fond memory was sitting with his wife, Nancy, at a Christmas Day game I attended with my wife and then going out together afterwards. I would say 90% of our conversations were about the Triangle. He was a virtual encyclopedia and so incredibly willing to share. I miss him greatly.

This is the portion of our interview where we want to ask you for the basics of the triangle offense. It’s hard, of course, not to get technical especially without a drawing board, but at its core, what skills translate well in the triangle? Why is spacing (the simultaneous movement of both the ball and player) of supreme importance and what does it do for the defense and getting back in transition off missed shots? Why does the flexibility of the high two-guard alignment, pinch post, automatics leading to two-man game and other reads still make it hard to program, especially with superstars?

Ok, let’s see. Hmmm. What skills translate well? I don’t think one-dimensional players work well in the Triangle, in other words, pure 3 point, spot up shooters don’t translate well. Pure point guards that need the ball in their hands as well. Though combo guards do well because once the guard “initiates” the Triangle and fills the corner, he now becomes a scoring guard coming off screens or can get to the post with a corner curl or a center rub. But generally, versatile players do well with the Triangle, and it is still a premiere post offense. You don’t necessarily need a dominant big man to run the Triangle but you could certainly use some players who can post up (see Bulls–Michael). It doesn’t hurt to have a Shaq, though. That was one of Tex’s great arguments. He felt it didn’t matter what position your dominant player played. The Triangle would “find him.” The ball, he felt, would always gravitate to the best player. In college, he said one year he built it around his point guard who was a great scorer. Years later, he built it around his power forward. The Bulls, the small forward, the Lakers, their center, the Knicks, their power forward, etc. I’ve had the same experiences through the years, having to build it around different types of players. I’m not sure there is an exact prototype player for the Triangle, though I must admit, when I see one I know it right away, if that makes sense. But actually, I think superstars, once they get a feel for the Triangle, love it. Look at Kobe after Phil left the first time.

Look at the Spurs, look at the Warriors today and they will show you the importance of simultaneous man and ball movement, and the Triangle provides that, so it can’t be all that bad. For me, the best thing the Triangle brings is a tempo that helps your defense, and I’m a defense-first guy. The two-guard front gives you great defensive balance as opposed to the high screen offenses where two guys stand in the corner while your point guard tries to penetrate the middle which leaves little or no defensive balance at all. The Triangle because of its balance and tempo really helps you get back and get a “settled” defense. That is probably the most underrated aspect of the Triangle.

I used to talk to Tex about how counter-intuitive the Triangle is to players. The tempo and rhythm can be hard to teach. You got guards who want to go 100 miles an hour, you got high energy players who want to go 200 miles an hour, you’ve got big men who would prefer to play at about 25 miles per hour. There’s a tempo in which everyone has to play for the Triangle to be effective. If you go too fast, you can’t read (like driving down the middle of a street going 100 miles an hour, you can’t see the kid riding his bicycle into the intersection or the old lady stepping off the curb). At 45 mph, you can and that gives you a chance to “read and react”. Also, there has to be great awareness of what your teammate is doing. You don’t have time to veg out or you’ll miss the next movement and disrupt everyone. If one guy is screwing up, everyone screws up. It’s a disciplined offense, and discipline, except for a few organizations, is not part of the professional game.

What do you have to say to skeptics who say the triangle offense can’t work in “the new NBA” with faster pace and more 3 point shooting, although we see Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich implementing elements of the triangle in their respective offenses? Are there other critiques of the triangle that you find to be misplaced like the struggles of those on Phil Jackson’s coaching tree who often find it easier to discard the triangle for a more up-tempo style of basketball in order to win 41 games when they hear signs of job security, like Rick Fox likes to say? Are former players like Fox and Scottie Pippen good resources to further implement and explain intricacies to players closer their age?

Three or key! With no mid-range game is what analytics is calling for now. Everyone wants to push up the floor to get that three or key. The NBA for the most part is governed by analytics and that is the name of the game. Still, the 76ers play at one of the fastest paces in the NBA, but they aren’t winning games. The Spurs, right now, are in the bottom five in pace, I believe (I could be wrong!) and they are still winning. Of course, the Warriors are a different animal from everyone else. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what to make of them at this point. I was at the Miami/GSW game a few weeks ago just after the D-League Showcase and I thought the Heat defended them very well, especially Curry, but the Warriors got what they wanted all night long.

I believe there is a place for the Triangle in today’s game. I don’t believe analytics is the end-all, though there is certainly a place for it. We use it and I see it but I don’t let it dictate exactly what I do. I’ve talked to and heard a couple of NBA coaches and they say the same thing. Ultimately, I still believe that defense wins championships and the Triangle is one of the best offenses in terms of helping your defense and I think that’s a key in the playoffs. How many championships did the Bulls and the Lakers win? And how many losing seasons have the Knicks had using the Triangle? 11-1 so far or something like that.

Last thing. Defenses will always catch up. They will lag behind for awhile, but they catch up. Right now, defenses are starting to adjust to 3 or key and faster pace offenses. Listening to Quinn Snyder of the Jazz, he said that they defend their pick and rolls to always take away 3 and key and give up the mid-range jumper. And their focus defensively is always defensive transition and forcing teams to play half-court. Coach Spo, too. So as more and more teams start to focus there, offensively, teams are going to have to start shooting that mid-range shot, and if teams are stopping transition, then half-court play will have to come back in vogue. It’s an interesting dynamic.

I understand that you’ve gotten to meet Phil Jackson. What was that like and has his resurgence of the triangle in the NBA gone as you expected? With the Knicks being the only team to primarily feature the triangle offense in the NBA, what have you seen from the team so far? Are they executing the triangle well in your eyes? If you could give an estimate, what percentage of the team’s plays are triangle based on any given night? What do you feel this roster needs? Are they one piece away from being a playoff team, if they add to the point guard position or wing? Which complementary players, off the top of your head and regardless of availability, seem like perfect fits for the triangle?

I’ve met Phil a few times and he never remembers me. Still, its a thrill to meet every time! Tex always described him as a private guy who stayed within his circle. No doubt, he has a special mind and he sees things differently from other people.

Honestly, I thought the Knicks were going to do much better in the first year. They had some “Triangle guys” or at least guys you thought might perform well. I thought JR Smith and Bargnani would do well, Shumpert, too. But obviously, the character of the players got in the way and I don’t think many of us foresaw that, and that says something about the need for discipline in the offense, and buy-in.

That first year, Fisher really tried to run a conventional, Tex Winter-like Triangle (like the way we run it here in Manila), but in the second year he has tried to add pace to the offense through “run-outs” or what they call “Swing” or at other times, drag screens. The idea is to shoot guys to the corners and spread the floor like the more conventional offenses and see what they can get early. If there is nothing early, then they hit the trailer and go into their Swing initiation which eventually initiates the Triangle. That, by and large, has taken away for the most part (they still run it after free throws and slowdowns) the two guard front which is Tex Winter-like. So, in effect, Fisher has exchanged pace for versatility in the Triangle. The two-guard front, because of its multiple initiations of the Triangle, gave the offense numerous looks and put different people in different spots in the Triangle. The Swing is more limiting but there is a certain accelerated pace to it. But once they finally initiate the Triangle, it is just like the Lakers or the Bulls. So, yes, they are executing it.

Back here, we do run-outs as well but we haven’t abandoned the two-guard front. After makes, we go to our two-guard front. After misses, we run-out, and yes, we do some Fisher Swing.

Are they a player away? Well, I think most teams are a player or two away. I think they could use a more dynamic two-way player in the back-court, preferably with size, although because of the pace Fisher is looking for, he might be better suited with a push-it guard, though I think that would take him further away from the Triangle. In any case, they need a guard who can defend first and keep the defense honest. Galloway is almost the guy, but Calderon can’t defend and Grant can’t shoot. Combine the two and you got a good guard. But mostly, I just think the Knicks need time to grow. Carmelo is playing good, unselfish basketball and will continue to do so in the Triangle. Afflalo to me is the big question mark. Is he an elite player alongside Carmelo? He shows flashes, but not enough.

The Knicks are arguably having their best stretch of the season with impressive wins over teams like Atlanta and Miami. Some say a more vocal Derek Fisher film review after an embarrassing 31-8 fourth quarter made the Knicks more aware of their tendency to go away from the triangle at the end of games. Do you agree? Are you seeing the Knicks trusting in the offense when finishing? What would you tell fans that want to see a coaching change and someone like Luke Walton come over, after a game against the Spurs last night in San Antonio that they should have won where Fish didn’t call a timeout with 15 seconds left and down one, later to opt for a Calderon three?

Luke could be special, no doubt, but good players make good coaches, and there’s a lot of really good players at GSW. I think Luke is going to be like Phil. He’s going to be very selective where he goes. He can afford to wait for the best situation.

Tex used to say, why call a timeout and design a play when the Triangle (which you practice all the time) can give you a better play than I can design. Also, why let a good, no great, San Antonio defense have a chance to set up. I don’t think you ever look at specifics for a coach because there are always better and worse ways to do things. Its always about the body of work and if the team is growing. Are guys getting better? Are they playing better than they were a month ago? And they responding well to adversity? What’s the chemistry like in the locker room? Are they staying with game plans? I think you can “yes” to most of those questions for Fisher. Calling a timeout or not calling a timeout should not be the basis, or having one bad, embarrassing loss, or a bad stretch of games. I believe you look at the body of work and I believe that is what Phil is looking at.

Us, here at New York Sports Guys, always believed Phil Jackson and the Knicks got both the best player available and the best player for the triangle with the selection of Kristaps Porzingis. What has been your initial impression of the 20 year old? In a podcast with Coach Nick of BBALLBREAKDOWN, you mentioned the triangle offense develops big men quite nicely. How high is the ceiling for this kid and how quickly can he reach it? Is this a situation where Kristaps is the Knicks’ lead player in two years and helps Carmelo age gracefully, seeing the chemistry that already exists there? How would you use him in the triangle with pick and pops? What would his ideal front court mate look like?

Sky is the limit for Porzingis. No doubt, Pozingis is special. I saw him in Vegas during the Summer League and I was amazed. The nice thing about the Triangle is that the bigs get a lot of touches and it forces the bigs to use all their skills–perimeter shooting, post-up, passing, screening, pick and rolling (or popping), etc., unlike a lot of other offenses where bigs are just pick and rollers, and rebounders. The most penetrating pass into the defense is the post pass in the Triangle, so that’s where you look first. Hence bigs get a lot of touches and have a chance to develop their skills over time. (As an aside, I wonder if Robin Lopez has had so many touches before, and you’ll see him continue to improve dramatically, which is my bet). Plus with all the involvement and touches offensively, bigs have a tendency to stay more engaged defensively, and again, defense is the key. For Porzingis, I’d like to see him get the ball in the post more. His teammates largely ignore him there, but he could do some damage with his face-up and passing. That’s the next level for him.

Its hard to imagine what he’ll be like in two years. I’m scared that the Knicks might put too much weight on him and he loses his great quickness and lateral movement for his size. That’s what makes him special. I wouldn’t sacrifice that for strength and bulk. And at this point, he’s lucky to have Carmelo on the other side of him to take some pressure off him and give him time to grow.

Seeing that you’re in the States for the D-League Showcase that is currently going on, what’s next for Tim Cone? Would you be interested in coaching either in the NBA or for a premier Division 1 men’s basketball program down the line? We have great respect for you and your love of the game, and would be honored to have you on this Knicks staff. Your accomplishments are worthy of recognition and in our eyes, of New York City. The opportunity to unite you and Phil Jackson, the two maestros of the triangle offense on the sidelines of Madison Square Garden truly would be exciting! Everyone has seen the photo of Filipino youth playing basketball amid the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan but for now, you are exactly where you belong and with a country that you call your own. Maraming salamat!

The country would go bonkers if I ever got onto an NBA staff. But, truly, I am very content where I’m at, 26 years and counting. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to coach in the NBA. It’s tough trying to figure a way to win in the PBA and anywhere else in the world. The degree of difficulty in the NBA is almost unimaginable. Those guys like Derek Fisher are at another level. Imagine where Pop is and where Phil was. Incredible.

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