Matt Barnes acknowledges struggles with learning the triangle offense
There was a tipping point at which Lakers forward Matt Barnes said he felt he asked too many questions, appeared tentative on where to move on the floor and wondered aloud why things weren't clicking.
"This is the most thinking I've had to do about playing," Barnes said he remarked to a teammate during Tuesday's practice. "I feel like a robot sometimes because I don't really want to do something wrong."
By his own admission, Barnes' insecurity stems from the fact that he's not fully grasping the triangle offense. However, Lakers fans shouldn't overreact so early into the preseason and conclude that Barnes, who's joining his seventh team by signing a two-year, $3.6-million deal, won't grasp the concepts as quickly as another Lakers free-agent pickup: backup point guard Steve Blake. They also shouldn't believe Barnes will go through a frustrating learning curve, much like Lakers forward Ron Artest did last season. And it's too speculative to claim that Barnes' upcoming court case on Oct. 18 -- in connection to his off-season arrest on suspicion of domestic violence -- has distracted him from his studies.
It's frankly too early to make such assessments as the Lakers enter their third exhibition game, Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Las Vegas against the Sacramento Kings, particularly because a snapshot of Barnes' 4.5 points per game on 40% shooting in 16.5 minutes doesn't reveal much.
Sure, how quickly Barnes masters the triangle will determine whether he can fulfill the reasons Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak acquired him. Barnes' defensive toughness makes for what he calls a "dangerous combination" with Kobe Bryant and Artest. His 6-foot-7, 226-pound frame and playing history provide practical reasons why Barnes could play at multiple positions, including shooting guard, small forward and power forward. And Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said it's conceivable Barnes may play with the first unit at times, considering the team's hope that Artest won't have to shoulder as many minutes this season and Luke Walton's current absence due to a strained right hamstring.
I actually found that Barnes' brief interview with reporters after Tuesday's practice was a good sign that he will become a good fit for the Lakers. He brought up his struggles without prompting, delivered them in a matter-of-fact tone and sounded incredibly pragmatic on how to improve.
"The offense is coming," Barnes said. "I just need to learn the counters. Everyone here is so accustomed to the offense. When they make a certain move that's not really drawn up, I have a problem recognizing that. I think it's going to come with some time."
So it isn't a matter of Barnes not understanding the system itself. He's nailed that part down. It's just that the triangle operates on reads and where everyone moves on the floor. He's already mastered the offense assuming everyone would make the same pass, cut in the same direction and end with the same shooter on every single play. But the offense doesn't work that way, meaning that Barnes, and any newcomer for that matter, constantly needs to be aware of the necessary adjustments should their teammates react differently in the system because of a defensive tendency.
Barnes has tried to remedy the confusion by constantly watching videotape, looking at the playbook and asking questions of his teammates and the coaching staff, a tactic that shows he's as honest about his struggles with the team as he was Tuesday with the media. That approach certainly contrasts with the way Artest dealt with his insecurity last season. Though he showed a genuine effort in wanting to grasp the system, he downplayed his weakness for most of the season to reporters and, more important, appeared afraid to ask too many questions out of fear that the team would grow frustrated with him. The Lakers showed understanding in helping Artest out, but he put so much pressure on himself as the team's lone new arrival that he didn't want to cause trouble. (On a related note, I came across this clip in which former Laker Gary Payton last season passionately defended Artest).
As a result, Artest often moved aimlessly on offense and would literally remove himself from the system by standing idly in the corner. This caused two problems. Because the triangle offense is predicated on balanced movement and spacing on the floor, Artest didn't avoid mistakes by disconnecting himself. The offense simply went out of whack. Second, Artest mostly shot the ball whenever he was open because his instincts told him to take any shot available. Instead, he should have waited more patiently for better opportunities to open up, a hard concept to follow if you're not really grasping the system.
Barnes made it clear he'd avoid any of those problems from happening by overcoming the learning curve before the Lakers' regular-season opener against the Houston Rockets on Oct. 26.
"Once the season starts, I don't want there to be any offensive letdown as far as not really knowing the offense," he said. "I ask the players and coaches questions at any time, and they all help. I appreciate that."
That's not to say Barnes will or should be expected to entirely solve the mystery that is the triangle offense come late October. He has the luxury, after all, of being a bench player; his main function involves defense and providing a spark plug, and he's not even close to the top on the scoring list totem pole. But he at least needs to understand the triangle enough so that he's not throwing a wrench into the system.
At least by how he's approached the learning process thus far, I'd expect minimal hiccups.
Said Barnes: "That's what practice is for."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Matt Barnes dribbles a basketball during a video session at media day at the Toyota Sports Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times