By: Dr. Ikjyot Singh Kohli
So, I came across this article today by Matt Moore on CBSSports, who basically once again has taken to the web to bash the Triangle Offense. Of course, much of what he claims (like much of the Knicks media) is flat-out wrong based on very primitive and simplistic analysis, and I will point it out below. Further, much of this article seems to motivated by several comments Carmelo Anthony made recently expressing his dismay at Jeff Hornacek moving away from the “high-paced” offense that the Knicks were running before the All-Star break:
“I think everybody was trying to figure everything out, what was going to work, what wasn’t going to work,’’ Anthony said in the locker room at the former Delta Center. “Early in the season, we were winning games, went on a little winning streak we had. We were playing a certain way. We went away from that, started playing another way. Everybody was trying to figure out: Should we go back to the way we were playing, or try to do something different?’’
Anthony suggested he liked the Hornacek way.
“I thought earlier we were playing faster and more free-flow throughout the course of the game,’’ Anthony said. “We kind of slowed down, started settling it down. Not as fast. The pace slowed down for us — something we had to make an adjustment on the fly with limited practice time, in the course of a game. Once you get into the season, it’s hard to readjust a whole system.’’
First, it is well-known that the Knicks have been implementing more of the triangle offense since All-Star break. All-Star Weekend was Feb 17-19, 2017. The Knicks record before All-Star weekend was amusingly 23-34, which is 11 games below .500 and is nowhere mentioned in any of these articles, and is also not mentioned (realized?) by Carmelo.
Anyhow, the question is as follows. If Hornacek was allowed to continue is non-triangle ways of pushing the ball/higher pace (What Carmelo claims he liked), would the Knicks have made the playoffs? Probably not. I claim this to be the case based on a detailed machine-learning-based analysis of playoff-eligible teams that has been available for sometime now. In fact, what is perhaps of most importance from this paper is the following classification tree that determines whether a team is playoff-eligible or not:
So, these are the relevant factors in determining whether or not a team in a given season makes the playoffs. (Please see the paper linked above for details on the justification of these results.)
Looking at these predictor variables for the Knicks up to the All-Star break.
- Opponent Assists/Game: 22.44
- Steals/Game: 7.26
- TOV/Game: 13.53
- DRB/Game: 33.65
- Opp.TOV/Game: 12.46
Since Opp.TOV/Game = 12.46 < 13.16, the Knicks would actually be predicted to miss the NBA Playoffs. In fact, if current trends were allowed to continue, the so-called “Hornacek trends”, one can compute the probability of the Knicks making the playoffs:
From this probability density function, we can calculate that the probability of the Knicks making the playoffs was 36.84%. The classification tree also predicted that the Knicks would miss the playoffs. So, what is being missed by Carmelo, Matt Moore, and the like is the complete lack of pressure defense, hence, the insufficient amount of opponent TOV/G. So, it is completely incorrect to claim that the Knicks were somehow “Destined for glory” under Hornacek’s way of doing this. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Knicks’ opponent AST/G pre-All-Star break was already pretty high at 22.44.
The question now is how have the Knicks been doing since Phil Jackson’s supposed interference and since supposedly implementing the triangle in a more complete sense? (On a side note, I still don’t think you can partially implement the triangle, I think it needs a proper off-season implementation as it is a complete system).
Interestingly enough, the Knicks opponent assists per game (which, according to the machine learning analysis is the most relevant factor in determining whether a team makes the playoffs) from All-Star weekend to the present-day is an impressive 20.642/Game. By the classification tree above, this actually puts the Knicks safely in playoff territory, in the sense of being classified as a playoff team, but it is too little, too late.
The defense has actually improved significantly with respect to the key relevant statistic of opponent AST/G. (Note that, as will be shown in a future article, DRTG and ORTG are largely useless statistics in determining a team’s playoff eligibility, another point completely missed in Moore’s article) since the Knicks have started to implement the triangle more completely.
The problem is that it is obviously too little, too late at this point. I would argue based on this analysis, that Phil Jackson should have actually interfered earlier in the season. In fact, if the Knicks keep their opponent Assists/game below 20.75/game next season (which is now very likely, if current trends continue), the Knicks would be predicted to make the playoffs by the above machine learning analysis.
Finally, I will just make this point. It is interesting to look at Phil Jackson teams that were not filled/packed with dominant players. As the saying goes, unfortunately, “Phil Jackson’s success had nothing to do with the triangle, but, because he had Shaq/Kobe, Jordan/Pippen, etc… ”
Well, let’s first look at the 1994-1995 Chicago Bulls, a team that did not have Michael Jordan, but ran the triangle offense completely. Per the relevant statistics above:
- Opp. AST/G = 20.9
- STL/G = 9.7
- AST/G = 24.0
- Opp. TOV/G = 18.1
These are remarkable defensive numbers, which supports Phil’s idea, that the triangle offense leads to good defense.