Phil Jackson’s Beloved Triangle: A Symbol of Hubris

True, Holzman’s squads, still the only champions in the history of the Knicks, consisted of men blessed with exceptional basketball I.Q.s and the ability to improvise within the team concept. What they largely lacked, across the lineup that included Jackson as a long-limbed defensive nuisance, was the enhanced athleticism of the 21st-century player, and the freedom to operate in the ever-expanding shot-launching areas of the court.

Before returning to the Knicks in 2014 as team president and the latest in a long line of well-compensated, would-be saviors, Jackson had record-shattering coaching success — 11 rings’ worth, you may have heard — with the triangle offense in Chicago and Los Angeles. In his hour of reputational disrepair, it would be egregiously revisionist to argue that his fame and fortune were all about Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles.

Which N.B.A. coaches with multiple rings — Auerbach, Pat Riley, Gregg Popovich — haven’t had the luxury of all-time greats? The triangle was an effective system through all of Jackson’s postseason runs, but never better than during the 1993-94 season, which proceeded without Jordan, who took a sabbatical while the Pippen-led Bulls amassed a stunning 55 wins.

Jackson learned the triangle from Tex Winter, a Bulls assistant, not long after he was rescued from the Continental Basketball Association, which he liked to call the Cockroach League. Apprenticing for the Albany Patroons, Jackson drove the team van, pleaded with the front office for incremental raises in meal money and lobbied unsuccessfully to have Charley Rosen, his friend and assistant, accompany him on the road.

From those days in the 1980s until he returned to New York, Jackson evolved from deserving dues payer to international luminary. From his just-concluded time with the Knicks, it is difficult to argue that the trappings of celebrity, and the stubbornness of age, didn’t compromise his judgment and performance.

His belief in the triangle offense went from what he would call, in more immodest moments, “just a system of basketball” to a full-blown religious experience, the essence of purity in a sport he decided was devolving in the predictability of high-screen-and-roll.

Four years ago, while promoting his latest best-selling tome (surprise, “Eleven Rings”), he sat in the back room of a bookstore in Ridgewood, N.J., and explained to me why he would consider returning to the N.B.A., despite all he had achieved.

“I think some of it is just the influence from my close friends — Jeanie Buss, Kurt Rambis, Jim Cleamons — that you should not stay away from the game because your influence is needed and brings another element to the game of basketball,” he said. “So in watching the game evolve, there’s quite a difference philosophically in the way it’s played now and the way I coached.”

Jackson apparently mistook the advice of a small circle of friends for widespread public demand. He convinced himself that the triangle would save the sport in general and Carmelo Anthony in particular.

Oh, and the $60 million over five years from James L. Dolan, the Knicks owner, would make up for those sparsely compensated years in Albany and even in Chicago.

Jackson is a competitor. It wasn’t just about the money. That argument is as silly as the often-cited one that Dolan, who has spent enough on the Knicks to rescue a good-size country in economic despair, doesn’t want to win. Almost two decades of mostly failure have been about the process, the execution.

To that extent, Jackson, long renowned for thinking out of the box, became trapped in a three-sided prison. He forsook psychology for philosophy. He put Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek, his handpicked coaches, in untenable working positions by insisting they teach as he would, costing them the respect and attention of their players.

In an exchange of testy postings on my Facebook page on Wednesday, Rosen — as close to a Jackson spokesman as there is — said that Jackson was supremely confident that Anthony would thrive, as Jordan and Bryant had, in the preferred isolation areas of the triangle, around the elbow. And that was why Jackson not only re-signed Anthony to a five-year contract, but also added a no-trade clause.

For perspective’s sake, imagine Jackson running the Golden State Warriors. Would he insist on positioning Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant within the same limited scoring range?

Hard to believe, but Anthony’s no-trade clause — especially if Rosen’s rationale is true — was a crippling example of Jackson’s ego overriding executive pragmatism. It ultimately led to Jackson’s lowbrow attempts to persuade Anthony to waive the clause and alienated Kristaps Porzingis to the point where Jackson considered trading the team’s most precious asset as well. Add that to how the triangle and organizational dysfunction had made the Knicks toxic to stars around the league, and you understand why Dolan finally had to move.

A more clearheaded Jackson might have backtracked on Anthony when he realized that Anthony, because Jackson’s own malpractice, had all the leverage and that the residual effects of the impasse were putting the franchise on the brink of implosion.

But, yes, it was apparently still about the triangle, the sword he fell on.

On Facebook, Rosen, at least, seemed not to have learned anything from the debacle. He wrote: “If you had a thorough understanding of the triangle, you would understand some of his moves — but obviously you don’t — and don’t give me that M.J., Pip, Kobe, Shaq stuff. Remember how well the Bulls did when M. J. was playing baseball.”

As mentioned earlier, we remember. Who could forget? But these last three years? Simply obtuse.

Correction: June 29, 2017

An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the league the Albany Patroons were in when Phil Jackson coached the team. It is the Continental Basketball Association, not the Continental Basketball League.

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