It’s a sideline triangle, created by a center in the post, a forward on the wing and a guard at the corner, leaving a two-man game on the weak side, run by a guard at the top of the key and a forward in the opposite-side, high-post position.
The triangle offense looks like a factory assembly line. It seems to chug. This guy goes there, that pass is thrown, and the cut is made. Interchangeable gears in a large machine, right? Just keep the conveyor belt moving until the whistle blows, fellas. You get a lunch break after 24 minutes.
Especially in comparison to the fast-breaking, one-on-one styles that dominate the NBA today, the triangle offense appears to be the most regimented system to ever see the hardwood, but it’s exactly the opposite.
There are no set plays. Players are free, and encouraged, to play any of the 5 positions, and when done correctly, the triangle is virtually impossible to stop. This offense isn’t even run by the offense. It’s run by the opponents’ defense. Every movement in the triangle has a purpose, and each is predicated by the opposition. Should the defense stop one aspect, the offense adjusts and begins another sequence designed to take advantage of a new opportunity.
It’s difficult to master, and brilliant in it’s simplicity.
It is the offensive system responsible for 11 of the past 21 championships, and it is the creation of Morice Fredrick Winter. Perhaps you know him by his nickname: “Tex.”
Tex Winter’s coaching career started in 1947, but it wasn’t his 486 career wins as a head coach, in colleges from Marquette to Long Beach State, and one stop with the Houston Rockets, that earned him legendary status. Most people know Tex Winter from the last 18 years of his 62-year run, when he was “just” an assistant coach and consultant.
His career is one for the ages. Tex shined in his 15 years as head coach at Kansas State University (261-118, .689 W-L%), most notably in 1958 when he was named UPI National Coach of the Year, and defeated the 2nd ranked Cincinnati Bearcats, led by Oscar Robertson, on his way to the first of two Final Four appearances. In 1985, after three decades in the collegiate ranks, Winter was hired by the Chicago Bulls as an assistant under Stan Albeck, though his triangle wouldn’t be installed until Tex’s fellow assistant coach, Phil Jackson, was promoted in 1989. From that point forward, until Tex’s retirement in 2009, the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers won a combined 1,041 regular season games (.705), 209 Playoff games (.697) and hung the 10 championship banners, all while running Tex Winter’s offensive design.
The numbers are irrefutable and Hall of Fame-worthy, but what makes Tex Winter truly unique, you will not find on a piece of paper.
To start, Tex was the coach’s coach. Jackson told reporters,
“We had a relationship that went very deep, Tex and I, simply because I wasn’t a very good coach and didn’t have a lot of knowledge. He had a lot of knowledge. He kind of educated me about the different formats of basketball.”
“Then Tex spent two summers with me, teaching me how to develop all the drills that I’ve used all these years, skill drills to develop the system that he’s taught.”
If Phil Jackson is considered the greatest coach in professional basketball history, and his diamond-encrusted, golden fists back him up, then Tex Winter must be considered the greatest assistant coach the league’s ever seen, and not just for being Zen Master’s lieutenant, but for teaching Jackson the profession at the NBA-level. The title of “assistant” matters not – Tex is the best ever at his position – and his historical preeminence cannot be denied.
Consider the following: LeBron James is a preternatural force, the likes of which this league has never seen. His tremendous scoring ability is matched only by his physical gifts and savvy court vision. Yet, after more than a handful of years, LeBron is ringless, and worse yet, leaves people all over the world wondering whether he’ll ever be able to win a title. Oddly enough, Michael Jordan was in the exact same position in 1990. The difference is, Phil Jackson convinced Michael Jordan to buy into Tex Winter’s lifework.
Do you think LeBron James might be interested in a change that could transform him, over the next 6-8 seasons, from the butt of every single, good NBA joke, to the hands-down, undisputed, greatest basketball player of all-time?
Winter told FIBA Magazine in 2007,
“The turning point was in the 1986 playoffs: Jordan scored 63 points in Boston, but that wasn’t enough to win the game at the Boston Garden, and we lost the series 0-3. At that moment, Jordan changed his mind about the triangle offense. It was such a tremendous satisfaction for me to watch two superstars like Jordan and Pippen finally accepting my offensive system and making it work.”
If Phil didn’t have the perfect system in place for Michael, maybe Jordan never has the opportunity to believe in his teammates? Maybe Jordan keeps gunning for points, players hate playing with him, and the Bulls wallow behind the Pistons and the Knicks throughout the ’90’s. Maybe Chicago only wins one or two titles? If that happens, are you wearing his sneakers? Is Kobe Bryant ferociously chasing him? How much of Michael Jordan’s greatness can be directly attributed to Tex Winter?
You never know, “MJ” could have been a “Tex” away from being a “T-Mac.”
Then there’s Kobe Bryant. Author Roland Lazenby told the LA Times,
“Tex was Kobe Bryant’s friend. That doesn’t mean he coddled him in any way. Tex was never one to coddle anyone. But he understood Kobe had all of this greatness in him.”
According to Lazenby’s book The Show, Winter, on many occasions, defended Kobe in the brewing feud with Shaq, including once producing a video to show O’Neal that Bryant was playing his role in the offense correctly. Additionally, Jackson and Winter both credit the triangle offense for healing the fractured relationship between the team’s two stars, and for bringing harmony long enough to win three consecutive titles. Bryant adores Winter, saying,
“I call him, ‘Yoda.’ He really taught me a lot. I know how Michael [Jordan] feels about him and we’ve talked about him a great deal too. You can’t overstate the significance to the game.”
If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that nobody does it alone. Everyone needs someone, and nobody ever gets to the top without help. A true genius is smart enough to learn from his peers, and put people in a position to succeed. Tex Winter was smart enough to learn and perfect the triangle offense from his coach, Sam Barry at USC. Tex Winter was smart enough to team up with an unconventional, old ballplayer named Phil Jackson, and teach his offense to their teams. And Tex Winter was smart enough to groom young talent and manage big egos, to the tune of 10 championship rings.
Finally, the NBA Hall of Fame was smart enough to recognize the genius of Tex Winter.
Tex doesn’t belong to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Chicago Bulls, or either teams’ fans. He belongs to basketball. And he belongs in the Hall of Fame.