Xs and Os: Primer on the Triangle, the Pinch Post, (and a little Horns)

Upon the hiring of Brian Shaw one of my off season goals immediately became to get a working understanding of the Triangle offense. During Summer League Shaw gave two interviews which gave some good clues as to some of the changes that may be seen in the Nuggets offense next season. Using parts of those interviews as a guide I thought I would share some of what I have learned during my research.

The first point I would like to make before I get into the Triangle is that Shaw has stressed that he will not be going ‘full Triangle' next season but will be blending elements from all the coaches/systems he has played/coached under:

What I have tried to tell people as I have interviewed over the years is that I've played for seven different teams and a bunch of different coaches that ran different systems but I've been stereotyped as a triangle guy.

I love the offense obviously I have had success with as a player and as a coach but I will blend you know alot of different styles and schemes and what have you that I have been exposed to.

[Jul 19 Interview]

So I am not suggesting the Nuggets will only be running the Triangle, but as no NBA team has been running the pure triangle system since Phil Jackson retired, it is probably the part of the Nuggets offense that will be most unfamiliar to fans, and so Stiffs who continue to think about basketball in the off season may find this post useful.

Principles of the Triangle

The pure Triangle is a system offense that provides a framework for players on the court, and does not require a coach to call plays from the sideline during the game. It is a continuity offense that flows from fast break to secondary break to half court offense. If an initial play/option ‘breaks down' the offense can continue ‘in flow' into a new set of options (by following the system) that are a reaction to what the defense is doing.

At its highest level the offense is based on Seven Principles of a Sound Offense as Tex Winter titled them. Even though Brian Shaw is not running the full Triangle system it is logical to think that these high level principles will influence the offense he develops.

The following quote is a summary of those principles from a chapter on the Triangle Offense written by Phil Jackson and Tex Winter in the book the NBA Coaches Playbook (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in Basketball).

An effective offense, to my way of thinking, features the following dimensions.

1. Penetration. Players must penetrate the defense, and the best way to do this is the fast break, because Basketball is a full-court game, from baseline to baseline.

2. Spacing. I am a fanatic about how players distribute themselves on the offensive end of the court. They must space themselves in a way that makes it most difficult to defend, trap, and help. Players must align a certain number of feet apart. In high school, I’d recommend 12 to 15 feet spacing, in college, 15 to18 feet, and in the NBA, 15 to 20 feet. Proper spacing not only exposes individual defensive players’ vulnerabilities, but also ensures that every time the defense tries to trap, an offensive player will be open.

3. Ball and player movements. Players must move, and must move the ball, with a purpose. Effective off-the-ball activity is much more important than most fans and players think because they’re so used to watching only the movement of the ball and the player in possession of it. But there is only one ball and there are five players, meaning most players will have the ball in their hands 20 percent or less of the time the team is in possession of the ball.

4. Options for the ball handler. The more options a smart player has to attack a defender, the more successful that offensive player will be. When teammates are all moving to positions to free themselves (or another teammate with a pick), the ball handler’s choices are vastly increased.

5. Offensive rebounding and defensive balance. On all shots we take, players must go strong for the rebound while retaining court balance and awareness to prevent the opponent’s fast break.

6. Versatile positioning. The offense must offer to any player the chance to fill any spot on the court, independent of the player’s role. All positions should be interchangeable.

7. Use individual talents. It only makes sense for an offense to allow a team to take advantage of the skill sets of its best players. This doesn’t preclude the focus on team play that is emphasized in the six other principles, but it does acknowledge that some individuals have certain types and degrees of talent, and an offense should accentuate those assets. Michael Jordan taught me this.

Another important point of the offense (which may affect the kind of roster assembled for a team using the triangle) is covered in the following quote:

The system also runs better when players games are well rounded, not one- or two- dimensional. Complete players well-versed in fundamental movement, ball handling, screening, and shooting skills will perform the tasks demanded of them within the offense more effectively and consistently. Basketball played at its best is a reflexive sport, and I want my team to play a fluid instinctive, complete game.

Triangle Spacing

The Triangle offense has a unique spacing set up which gives its name: The Sideline Triangle offense (shortened to Triangle offense).

Im not running the triangle but we're gonna have alot of triangle actions and triangle spacing in the things that we run offensively

[Jul 14 Interview]

There will be some similarity in certain actions that we run that do have triangle spacing but it will not be the quote unquote triangle.

[Jul 19 Interview]

Again Shaw is keen to emphasis he will not be running the full Triangle system, but he also mentions using ‘Triangle spacing' in both quotes so I will now cover that.

The goal of the spacing in the Triangle is to give the ball handler room to respond to help and traps and to force the defense to cover a larger area that can be attacked at more angles.


The half court spacing forms a side line triangle on the strong (ball) side and what is known as a ‘two man game' on the weakside. The spacing between players is generally 15-20 feet at the NBA level. The players in the diagrams are not numbered as in the triangle offense the role of the players is totally interchangeable- the spots on the floor can be filled by any players. Once the spots are filled the offense is run by where the ball is positioned on the court and how the defense is moving.

The Elbow/Pinch Post

The elbow is the area of the court where the free throw line meets the lane line. This area is also called the pinch post in the Triangle offense.


Brian Shaw discussed the importance of this area during his second summer league interview:

The back side of everything we do will be predicated on getting the ball at the pinch or the elbow area where you know, thats a potent spot its hard to come to double team from that spot, and if you have your best player with the ball at that position he can hit any of his four teammates, he can keep the defense occupied. You can shoot, you're in shooting range from that distance as well and you can get to the basket in one dribble. So everything that you need to do is right there at that position its a potent spot on the floor and that will be an integral part of the system that we run.

[Jul 19 interview]

Video Breakdown - Spacing and the Elbow

The following breakdown is an ‘oldy but a goody’. Taken from a 1992 talk show ‘Know Bull’ produced for Chicago fans it has Tex Winter and Phil Jackson breaking down a number of Bulls plays. It illustrates the basic spacing of the triangle and the frequent use of players at the elbow very well over a number of plays.

Ty Lawson and the Triangle

Another interesting point which Shaw covered during both interviews was adjusting to specific players strengths (the 7th principle above), specifically mentioning Ty Lawson in both interviews.

With a point guard like Ty Lawson you know you wanna give him the freedom, you wanna have the ball out at the top of the floor and be able to use his speed and quickness and break guys down off the dribble, and you know in a triangle offense thats not something that you know is conducive to his ability out there on the floor, so we're not gonna do something thats gonna constrict him and thats what I was trying to get people to understand.

[Jul 14 Interview]

In the triangle offense the pure form of the triangle there's a two guard front. With Ty Lawson and his ability to be able to come off screen and rolls and use his speed, I think it would inhibit him playing in that type of system.

[Jul 19 Interview]

What Shaw is referring to is the de-emphasis on point guard play in the triangle.

Here is quote from Phil Jackson in the Triangle offense chapter:

I rejected the idea of relying solely on a point guard to bring the ball up the court and make all the ball handling decisions. Ultimately, a good defensive opponent will pressure and destroy a team with a single point guard orientation. A two-guard offense allows players to share the ball handling and passing duties and prevents a defense from ganging up against one player out front.

This can also be seen in the most common action to start the half-court Triangle: the strong side fill. This is where the point guard passes off to the wing player and ‘fills' the corner to form the Triangle.


As you can guess putting Ty in the corner without the ball is not using his abilities to their maximum. An interesting side note is that this type of action might be perfect for the more 'combo guard' players (like Foye, Robinson) so we may see some time with more triangle based action taking place while Lawson is on the bench and no ‘true' point guard is on the floor (or Lawson may play the two spot in the diagram above so he remains an option at the top).

So what actions will Denver run in the half court with Lawson?

While Shaw never gets too specific on this the fact he mentions: the importance of the elbow to what Denver will run, and then refers to Lawson having the ball out at the top, and coming off screen and rolls, probably make some Horns action very likely.


The basic horns set begins with one player at either elbow and a player in either corner with the point guard at the top.


This is probably the most popular set in the NBA at the moment and is run by most teams (Denver ran some Horns at times last season). It places a lot of decision making power/emphasis on the player with the ball at the top (usually the PG) and plays to Lawsons strengths well.

The following breakdown by Coach Nick shows a number of teams using the Horns set in different ways (this is actually probably the best breakdown I have seen by Coach Nick). It you are interested in how Ty and the elbow might be used this is a useful watch. Interestingly too the last two plays in the video are almost Triangle/Horns hybrids. In the Minnesota play at 5:55 Rubio basically dribbles into the wing position in a triangle set up (instead of passing and filling the corner), and in the final play in the video New Orleans use a handoff in the pinch post which leads to an alley oop.

So there you have it...I hope this post has given Stiffs a useful primer on the Triangle for those fans interested in thinking about how the Denver offense might look in the coming season.


NBA Coaches Playbook (2009) by National Basketball Coaches Association; Giorgio Gandolfi, editor.

NBA TV Video interviews with Brian Shaw:

July 14, 2013

July 19, 2013

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