The Lakers Are Playing Zen Basketball

» June 7, 2009 11:42 AM | By Brandon Hoffman

Roland Lazenby, blogging for, explains:

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.”

Click here to read Lazenby’s blog.

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