Tex Winter is back in Oregon now, after having spent weeks in Kansas following a late April stroke.
Craig Hodges, who played for Winter at Long Beach State and with the Chicago Bulls and who now coaches with him as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers staff, keeps in close touch with Winter’s family.
The 87-year-old Winter, who developed the Lakers’ famed triangle offense, still struggles with leg movement and trying to speak, Hodges said, but he’s pretty sure Winter is watching the Lakers in the playoffs on television.
If so, you have to be worried about Winter, who has a tendency toward frustration with the Lakers’ play and vociferous criticism of their performances.
Even though the team played extremely well in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against the Denver Nuggets and followed that up with superb play against the Orlando Magic in Game 1 of the NBA championship series, Winter wouldn’t have allowed himself to be very pleased.
“He would have found something to yell at us about,” said the Lakers Luke Walton with a smile.
Winter has always been that sort of perfectionist.
He has teamed with Lakers head coach Phil Jackson over the past two decades to dominate as pro basketball’s odd couple. When they met as assistant coaches on the Chicago Bulls coaching staff in the late 1980s, Winter was the quirky genius of basketball, a superb college coach who was never quite able to sell his ideas to pro players, and Jackson was the strange duck outsider, lacking a deep technical understanding of the sport.
Sure Jackson had won an NBA championship as a sub for the 1973 New York Knicks and a Continental Basketball Association title as a coach of the Albany Patroons. But his coaching contemporaries in the CBA liked to joke behind his back that Jackson had trouble understanding a simple flex offense.
Together, though, Winter and Jackson would make for a masterful team. Even then, in his late sixties, Winter was a revolutionary, so fiery that Bulls head coach Doug Collins had to ban him from practice. The Bulls, however, soon fired Collins, promoted Jackson, and the triangle conspiracy was off and running.
Jackson was the student, with Winter teaching him over the years during film sessions, organizing his practices, explaining all the details. Jackson soaked it all up, and then provided that special touch of genius that Winter lacked — a masterful ability at team dynamics and group building.
Winter often said the triangle would never have gone far in the NBA without Jackson’s ability to elevate it to relevance and sell it to the players, especially superstars such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Within two years, they helped guide Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls to their first title. They would win five more over the course of the 1990s and would eventually come close to Winter’s ideal of the perfect offensive state.
That would be what Winter called “the automatics,” a state where the coaches didn’t have to call plays because the players were so well versed in the triangle offense they could simply read the defense and make the cuts and passes to counteract it.
With Jordan, Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper and a host of smart role players, the Bulls came to inhabit that rare state for their last three championships, from 1996-98. They spread the floor, ran their “automatics,” and left the rest of the league dazed and confused.
These elevated states of play and Jackson’s Eastern and mystical leanings helped cast them as purveyors of a “Zen” basketball. But then the Bulls broke up in a contentious storm, and Jackson/Winter soon found their way to L.A.
Surprise, surprise, they won three more championships from 2000-2002 with Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant, but those Lakers teams did so mostly with a mix of Shaq’s blunt force trauma and just enough triangle offense to keep opponents off balance. Then for the second time, one of Jackson’s championship teams came apart in a fury of spite and ego.
O’Neal was traded, and Jackson was fired, then rehired in 2005. He, Winter, and the fine Lakers staff have spent the ensuing seasons rebuilding that triangle mind among their players.
Why has it taken so long for Jackson's latest Lakers teams to reach that higher level? "It's a different generation of players," explained Hodges, who played on Winter's college team at Long Beach State, where his college players had the practice time to learn full execution of the offense. In the pro game with its heavy schedule and many distractions, it simply takes longer to teach and learn it.
After falling apart in the 2008 championship series against the Boston Celtics, the Lakers are back at it, but now for the first time in more than a decade, one of Jackson’s teams has reached that special level. You almost have to use a word that has become trivial, but the Lakers are playing Zen basketball, in a special state with Winter’s “automatics.”
That special something has just recently clicked with the Lakers after years of work. As Walton explained, the players themselves realized it in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals when they soared to a different level and destroyed the Denver Nuggets.
And then came Game 1 of the league championship series against the Orlando Magic Thursday night, and the same great tide lifted the Lakers again and carried them off to that special place. Yes, the "great tide" is the play of Kobe Bryant, who scored 40 points against Orlando. But it's also much more than that. It’s how he and the Lakers did it.
He scored them largely in the broad, discombobulating context of the triangle offense. The Lakers went to their “automatics,” and simply took what the defense gave them. From the 25-point final margin, it’s easy to deduce that Orlando was quite charitable. Afterward, the Magic players and coaches had the look that Bulls opponents had in the late 1990s.
As veteran Magic assistant Brendan Malone suggested before Game 1, Orlando would counter the triangle by slowing the flow of Lakers cutting to the basket.
“We have to keep a body on the cutters,” he explained.
It made great sense, especially against a young team that couldn’t use all of the “automatics” of the triangle offense. But as Walton explained, this Lakers team has been growing in its relationship with the complicated offense, and now they’re able to make the many reads the offense required. They’re now able to employ all of the automatics.
“It’s been a constant change,” Walton explained, “but toward the end of that Denver series, that’s when we really took a step to the next level.”
The players, he said, have come “to know that pretty much every time, if we make the right reads, we’re gonna get a good shot.”
Being on the floor in those Zen moments makes for a rare and wonderful level of basketball, Walton observed. “If you have the ball, you’re looking around and seeing people move and cut. It’s a great way to play basketball.”
It’s a matter the Lakers going to their first option and waiting for the defense to counter it, then turning to their automatics, Walton explained. “The thing about our automatics, we’re running them because the defense is taking something away from us. There’s no way you can take away our first option and our automatics at the same time. The automatics are pressure-release situations. So if you’re gonna take away something, we read it and go to something else. We normally have the court spread out and people cutting all the time.
“This offense is meant to not even call any plays, just move the ball, and depending on how the defense is guarding you, you make the appropriate pass. Off of every pass, there’s another five options to go from,” Walton added. “We got a group of guys out there right now where it’s starting to click for us. We’re constantly moving and getting open shots.”
It makes basketball very Zen and very fun, agreed teammate Sasha Vujacic. “When we were still learning about the offense, we didn’t know what to do with pressure.”
Winter devised the triangle to take a defense’s pressure and use it against them, which is what the Lakers are now doing to their opponents. In Jackson, the perfectionist Winter found a tremendously patient and wonderful teacher to explain the offense over long periods of time to those pro players willing and eager to learn it.
“The triangle is a two-guard front, so it’s a little bit different and difficult to learn,” Vujacic explained. “But the coaching staff has explained it step by step, and it has become easier. To learn triangle takes a while. Once you finally learn it, it goes smoothly. There are just so many options.”
It takes special players to fit the system, Walton suggested. “They’ve done a great job of putting this team together.”
No player in the world understands the offense better than Bryant, a Winter disciple who joins the coaching staff in teaching it to the team. “It helps everybody else,” Vujacic explained. “When we play as a team we are very hard to beat. That’s when Kobe takes over. He knows when to take shots and when to pass. He’s just the best there is in the game.”
Bryant’s uncommon work ethic has been a big factor in driving this learning experience with the automatics, as assistant coach Brian Shaw, himself a veteran of the offense, explained. “He’s done a good job of balancing when to be aggressive and when to be a facilitator.”
Even though Bryant took 34 shots and scored 40 points in Game 1 against the Magic, there wasn’t a sense among his teammates that he had attempted to go it alone. Bryant was simply reading and taking what the Magic defense was giving.
What the defense gave was a lot of opportunity for Bryant to run the side screen and roll, which he used to burn Orlando time and again. Having coached against Winter for years, Malone likes to argue that the screen and roll really isn't the triangle, but Winter has long been adamant that screen and roll action is just one of the options his players have in making their reads. "Kobe killed us with it," Malone said.
Does this mean that the Magic players and staff have no hope, that whatever Orlando does, the Lakers will simply read the situation and take what’s left?
Not necessarily. There’s always the human element. Sometimes the Lakers lose the patience that Zen requires.
“It’s just in some games we don’t do it,” Walton said, pausing a moment to contemplate that mystery. “Some games we try to force it in (against the defensive pressure). That’s when we struggle.”
Those have always been the moments that left Winter fussing about the overbearing elements of Bryant’s or Jordan’s competitive nature.
“When we’re willing to accept to what’s open, it works well,” Walton explained. “If they jam cutters, we kick it to the other side and counter back in, and now they’re playing at a deficit.”
That’s the brilliance of Winter’s triangle offense, that it creates an imbalance, then swings the ball to the weak side, where a Bryant or Jordan can play behind the defense and then take advantage.
As they work to win Jackson’s tenth title, the Lakers are quite mindful of Winter’s condition, and that may factor into their determination to reach that special level with the automatics. As you might expect, they don’t articulate such notions. They’re better left unsaid.
Jackson, though, has been hurt deeply by Winter’s condition, according to close associates. It’s not something the coach is going to talk about publicly, and he addresses it only subtly with his team. “He’s constantly teaching us and telling us things his teacher has told him,” Walton said of Jackson. “We’re all thinking about Tex, and we miss him.”