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Basketball Theory: A Classical Concept to Help the Suns Offense Generate Better Results

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A theoretical look at the Synergistic Two Pass Triangle Principle and How it Applies to the Suns’ Offense.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball can be played a thousand different ways, with hundreds of strategical perspectives, and scores of coaching philosophies. In essence, the basketball thinkers of the past have laid the foundation for modern basketball theory. The idea of basketball originated in the late 19th century, naturally the game has evolved with various rule changes, innovations, and the rise of coaching trees. Today’s game of basketball is diverging from the original philosophies of team-oriented strategies and shifting to a more star-driven approach in the Pick-and-Roll Era.

In the NBA historically and today, contending teams are those who can reverse engineer what works best. The Phoenix Suns are fortunate to have the ultimate apprentice in Earl Watson as their head coach, who has served under four legendary coaches: John Wooden, Jerry Sloan, Greg Popovich, Hubie Brown. Watson has been able to morph their philosophies to create his offensive system in Phoenix.

After I wrote the last article about Coach Watson, many pessimistic fans began buying into the idea that Watson has created a solid system in Phoenix. However, many readers also rightfully questioned why the sets and actions did not generate satisfactory results in 2016-2017. The truth is, there is a plethora of reasons why the Suns’ sets failed. It would be impossible to explain in one article. I could analyze a hundred different sets the Suns run and look to add new ideas from other successful teams, but I came to the conclusion that I can summarize it all in one classical basketball concept. The idea is what I call the, “Synergistic Two Pass Triangle Principle;” a principle idea that can theoretically transform the Phoenix Suns’ Offense.

Designed Sets

First, let’s look at the concept in some designed sets. Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors has some of the best actions using this concept. One of the best sets in all of basketball right now is the Warriors “Fist Up Short” set.

Essentially the principle concept is: Player A making the first pass with purpose to Player B for him to find Player C, all in a synergistic triangle. This idea works best when Player A turns into Player C.

Here Stephen Curry is player A passing to Draymond Green with the purpose of finding JaVale McGee within a triangle.

Watson’s best Zipper set is a direct result of this concept. With the entry into Alan Williams, the synergistic triangle is created once Warren beats Curry backdoor. The key is Bledsoe passing to Williams with the purpose to find Warren.

Although Watson has no input in Summer League, this the same Zipper Backdoor action without the entry into the post. Jones Jr. beats his defender backdoor, if James had passed to the low post with the purpose of finding Jones Jr. it would have likely resulted in a dunk.

Ty Lue, head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers uses the synergistic triangle principle in his best Zipper set as well. Irving makes his first pass with purpose to Love, who is looking for the lob to James.

I love the idea Watson has designing this Zipper set, creating the synergistic triangle between Ulis - Len - Barbosa. Although the action fails with poor weak-side action, look for Watson to bring this set out next season using a lob target in Josh Jackson. Much like James in the last clip, an elite lob target is a big boost to a team designing this type of action.

I’ll get more into how HI LO passing can naturally create the synergistic triangle, but this a great set Greg Popovich designed using the concept, similar to many of the fundamental actions in Tex Winter’s triangle offense.

Ginobili goes on a UCLA cut and seals his defender allowing Duncan to make the simple entry pass. The passing within the triangle is key, the first pass Parker makes to Duncan has to be with purpose to find Ginobili. In the Len clip above, the synergy is not there with slow passing, allowing Leonard to make a play on the ball.

The best part about this set is how Player A (Ginobili) turns into Player C, that is when the two pass synergistic triangle will almost always work with three passes rather than two. Also note the attention to detail Parker has holding the ball an extra second rather than Ulis in the last clip who passes to Len a second early.

Based on the film I have studied, Greg Popovich is the king of turning Player A into Player C. I want to believe he designs his sets with this concept as the major factor, but I honestly don’t know.

Watch how Aldridge is the initial passer in the triangle and the finisher. Hope Watson can use this simple concept more this season.

In my view the future of basketball will be more of this type of action that Popovich has revolutionized. If I was an NBA coach, I would try my best to reverse engineer many soccer concepts such as the idea of turning Player A into Player C with one-two passing within a synergistic triangle.

  1. 10 passes to 6 and continues cutting.
  2. 6 passes to 8 with the purpose for him to find the cutting 10

This is the concept at its finest, straight from basic soccer action. In my opinion, Steve Kerr has mastered applying this concept to the basketball court.

Dragan Bender and Alan Williams are great players to fit into the HI Lo Synergistic Triangle. This is a designed ATO set where they get a triangle between Ulis - Bender - Williams.

Even though the passing is not as synergistic as the Spurs, the fundamental idea of Ulis passing to Bender so he can hit Williams is all you need to beat the Mavericks 2-3 zone.

At times last season the Suns used a 2-3 zone to defend elite point guards such as Damian Lillard and Russel Westbrook. This is another case where the HI LO Synergistic Triangle will work the majority of the time to beat the 2-3 zone.

Every NBA set designed with the synergistic triangle automatically creates ball movement and man movement. If you study many of the Warriors’ actions, ball movement is created with purposeful synergistic passing. Like many other philosophies in basketball history, teams will attempt to reverse engineer the simple idea of one-two passing to find a third player, it is just a matter of who will do it best.

Natural Flow

Synergistic passing within a triangle is naturally created with HI LO passing, basic basketball sets, and how teams attack different defensive schemes. However, many teams are fortunate to have players that naturally create synergistic triangles based on their playing style. In my view, the Suns are fortunate to have Alan Williams, Jared Dudley, and Dragan Bender, who are able to make quick reads within triangular passing.

HI LO

The primary example of a team and player fitting well together is Marc Gasol who has a natural ability to make quick reads from the elbows. The Grizzlies’ Offense is filled with various HI LO actions, but Gasol’s ability creates synergy between his teammates.

If you really want to see the natural instinct Gasol has, notice how he takes one step in at the 10:53 mark once he sees Allen seal Booker. He then demands the ball, thinking one pass ahead of Parsons. Allen was not going to seal Booker again until he makes eye contact with Gasol.

This is also a main reason why the Suns struggle at times defensively versus teams with gifted big man passers, prime example would be how they played Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.

Jared Dudley often talks about how he looks to swing the ball and make quick reads. That pass first mentality is what makes him a valuable player in the NBA.

Alan Williams rarely misses an opportunity to seal a guard in the post, but watch how Dudley is one pass ahead. Dudley points at Williams expecting him to seal Jason Terry. Once the ball swings back to Ulis the synergy is lost and Ulis has no angle to make the pass.

The art of the HI LO entry has been lost as basketball continues to evolve. The fundamental way to make the entry into the post is swinging the ball to create an angle from the wing.

Both Dudley and Bender have a high basketball IQ; they understand how to create the synergy between passes.

Watch how he swings the ball to Tucker, a super simple pass you would think most NBA players make every time.

In Summer League action, Reed is calling for the ball looking to find Bender in the post, however James fails to make the simple pass.

After the timeout Reed and Bender talked it over. With Chriss flashing middle the only way to get the entry into the post was using a synergistic triangle on the strong side.

In reality, the beauty of Dragan Bender is his ability to make the tough HI LO pass without swinging it to the wing. Players with his length and natural feel for the game are hard to find, similar to Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic.

If Watson were to implement the synergistic triangle concept you would see great improvements in HI LO passing next season. In particular a young player such as Marquese Chriss could benefit from a passing structure.

In this play notice how Bender is able to see seal his defender but Chriss makes a bounce pass to Booker without purpose. Theoretically, if Chriss makes this a chest pass with the purpose for Booker to hit Bender, it would not result in a turnover.

As I have mentioned earlier Dragan Bender is a player that naturally creates passing angles for his teammates with his effort sealing defenders in the post. As he plays more minutes you will see more synergy in the Suns’ Offense.

This is a similar action where his effort in the post leads to a Jones Jr. - Booker - Bender triangle. The key to any natural flow triangle is Player B (Booker) having a pass first mentality.

PicknRoll

Last season the Suns were breaking records with their PicknRoll frequency according to Synergy Sports, about 25 % of possessions ended in PnR action; the highest recorded in their database.

In order to transform that poor stat, the Suns can employ a couple of strategies to create a more well-rounded offense. Out of PnR action a team can have more synergistic triangles.

The key to this specific PnR action is starting from the wing to create a passing angle. Once again, it comes down to the effort Bender puts in sealing a smaller defender. In the future more teams will switch all PnR action with Booker allowing Bender/Williams to seal. Len could have easily made the entry pass for a Bender finish.

The Double High PnR is a staple in the Watson offense, he brings out the set at least a couple of times per game. I love how Watson has different variations for Dudley - Williams.

Another wrinkle they could add knowing Dudley has a pass first mentality is the two pass synergistic triangle. Anytime a team has Player B (Dudley) looking to pass with one of the best post sealers in the NBA in Williams, it will not fail.

I love how Watson is getting the fundamentals down during the summer at UCLA, the results will come with more game reps.

Blind Pig

Bling Pig action is my favorite basketball action and is an action that is used across almost all passing sports, you will mainly see it on the soccer pitch.

I do believe that international players have a better feel for running Blind Pig as they play other sports such as soccer and water polo growing up. You often hear Jokic talk about the influence water polo has had on his feel for the game.

The Utah Jazz run Blind Pig to perfection at times with Rudy Gobert, Boris Diaw, or Trey Lyles. This is a good example of how the two pass synergistic triangle principle is applied best in Blind Pig.

Gobert makes the first pass to Lyles knowing he will find a back door cutting Joe Johnson. The term Blind Pig comes from Lyles facing away from the basket trying to make a blind pass.

Suns are fortunate to have a 7-foot play maker in Dragan Bender. He has a natural instinct for the back door pass, watch how he anticipates the cut faking the pass even though the player does not cut.

Bender is built to become a great passer in Blind Pig, but notice the slight difference in the timing of Johnson’s back door cut and Barbosa. I would expect a quicker Josh Jackson to beat his defender.

Dudley takes one dribble, you can tell it was not as purposeful as Gobert who made the pass knowing Lyles was looking for the cutting Johnson.

This has become a natural flow because of Bender’s pass first mentality as Player B. Theoretically, if Dudley makes the pass with purpose it should become a back door layup.

Again, a lot comes down to having players that are one pass ahead. Marc Gasol is another example of a player who creates beautiful Blind Pig action, which leads to more team ball movement.

Although this is not technically Blind Pig action, Watson does a great job designing this High Horns set knowing Young is going to over play on Booker; moving forward Booker is going to get many easy baskets backdoor.

It is awesome to see the Suns practicing the backdoor concept, understanding how it will generate more easy baskets.

In Game Value

There is a direct correlation between winning more games and having players that can create synergistic triangles. All across the NBA, teams with these players are perennial playoff contenders.

For the Suns, they can take advantage of other teams with their second unit possessing Alan Williams and Jared Dudley. Williams has made an NBA career using his wide body to seal defenders in the post, however an underrated element of his game is his pass-first mentality.

Let’s go through this example vs the Grizzlies.

Suns are down by one point at the 7:26 mark in the second quarter. Dudley and Williams are inserted into the game, and watch the difference their pass-first mentality makes.

Dudley, as Player B, makes a super quick read to Jones Jr. who is able to finish. The key is understanding how to swing the ball to the corner.

At the 5:42 mark the Suns are back in the lead shifting momentum in the game. In this clip Williams is Player B looking to make a quick read. If you go back and watch the film both Williams and Dudley naturally create the two pass synergistic triangles.

This is a minor example, but it shows the importance of creating chemistry within lineups.

Theoretical Applications

Applying this concept to modern basketball sets is not easy, because if it was easy everybody would do it. I do think that the Suns have a couple sets that they can improve using this principle.

Double Fire

This is a Double Fire set from 2016 where they get both guards coming off down screens on both sides. I love how Watson has designed this set, after the entry into Booker they could theoretically create the triangle with Teletovic and Leuer.

Spain PnR

The back screen PnR is a common set Watson runs; a new trend in the NBA. Similar to Draymond Green in the Warriors Fist Up Short set, Jones Jr is moving up to set a back screen on Zeller. The two pass synergistic triangle works best when Player B is moving in the opposite direction.

You can see how this set naturally creates a triangle, Watson can add another wrinkle looking create the lob to Player C after a pass to Jones Jr.

So, I saved the best set for last, when you were probably thinking Watson will not make the necessary adjustments. Watson is a great basketball mind, willing to learn rather than stick to the status quo.

Watch how they run Dudley in similar Fist Up action to Draymond Green, this is a designed set to get the lob to Jones Jr, you can tell by how quick he cuts to the basket. Even though they do not get the lob, every NBA set designed with the two pass synergistic triangle principle almost always works.

Earl Watson has the foundation in place for future success. Although it may not look like the Suns have the ball movement compared to teams such as the Warriors or the Spurs, Watson is a creative mind thinking two steps ahead.

There is a direct relationship between teams with more two pass synergistic triangles and wins. With more minutes to Alan Williams and Dragan Bender this season, look for the Suns to make major progress on the offensive end.

To quote Earl Watson himself, “The old becomes the new”. It is time for the Phoenix Suns to start shifting away from the modern Pick-and-Roll Era and begin to think what the next decade of basketball will look like. It is time to start building for the future, sticking to the fundamental principles of basketball that have worked for the last century, and create their own version of Phoenix Suns basketball.