Star Players Pass the Ball

Lessons in championships, triangles, and making more stars from the Chicago Bulls.

Gina Trapani

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The triangle offense illustrated, from episode four of The Last Dance

I don’t care a whit about sports, but I’ve been really enjoying The Last Dance, a new documentary series about the rise of the Chicago Bulls. Sportsball aside, the series is just plain great storytelling, about a group of extremely competitive, talented, egotistical, flawed, and driven human beings who came together, won a bunch of championships, made a bunch of money, and had a lasting impact on sports and culture.

There are also a few lessons to learn about scaling teams that apply far beyond basketball.

My favorite story arc so far comes in episode four. It’s the summer of 1989, and the Bulls coach, Doug Collins, is replaced with the new coach, Phil Jackson. Even at this early point in his career, Michael Jordan had established himself as an NBA star. When he got the ball in his hands, Jordan scored–and everybody knew it.

So Collins’ offense consisted of feeding the ball to Michael Jordan. Everyone’s job on the team was to get the ball to Jordan. Jordan scored, and he scored some more, and he racked up individual trophies and titles — Rookie of the Year, League MVP, NBA All-Star, Defensive Player of the Year.

There was no doubt that Jordan was an extraordinary talent, but the Bulls had yet to win a championship. So Phil Jackson had different ideas about how to run the Bulls offense. He recognized that an individual, even one as exceptional as Michael Jordan, didn’t beat other teams.

Influenced by assistant coach Tex Winter, Jackson wanted to institutionalize the triangle offense, which separates players into a triangle formation and emphasizes moving the ball around so that the player who was open could score. The player who was open — whether or not they were Michael Jordan. In a triangle offense, everybody has the opportunity to touch the ball and make the moves they were best at.

But Jordan wasn’t looking for an equal opportunity offense. He was of the “if you want to get something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself” school of thought. He was there to win, and to win you had to score, and he didn’t think his teammates could score like he could (and frankly, neither did anyone…

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Gina Trapani

Technology, culture, representation, and self-improvement. Once upon a time I started Lifehacker.