Tex Winter helped Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant win NBA titles. Now, the 93-year-old coach's Triangle offense and passion for fundamentals are helping Golden State in the NBA Finals.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
The 93-year-old coach sits in front of the television in his favorite chair at his home in Kansas, munching popcorn with his gaze fixed on every little element of the action.
His speech remains severely limited, due to the effects of a stroke suffered six years ago. But make no mistake, Tex Winter is having an impact on the National Basketball Association Finals, just as he has on every practice the Golden State Warriors have conducted over their remarkable season.
The influence is felt through head coach Steve Kerr and assistant Luke Walton, both unabashed Winter disciples.
"Tex, he was huge on the fundamentals of the game, the basic plays, things that are very important to our team's success," Walton explained after a practice during the Finals. "Obviously, we play a flashy brand of basketball, but we work on Tex's basic drills. Steve and I get these guys to do them every single day in practice."
Known for his triangle offense that the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers used under head coach Phil Jackson to win 11 championships between 1991 and 2010, Winter was a master at teaching footwork, among other fundamentals—something a line of stars, from Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to Kobe Bryant, have credited with bringing a key edge to their games.
The Bulls were known for opening practices with an intense session of basic passing drills and footwork, which observers often found both incredulous and fascinating. Not long after their Dream Team experience in 1992, Pippen famously told Jordan to just imagine how great immensely gifted Olympic teammate Clyde Drexler would have been if he had ever worked with Tex on the fundamentals.
For years, Winter complained that Jordan—the best basketball player on the planet—never really learned to throw a proper chest pass, a claim that irritated Jordan to no end.
"We definitely try our best to get these guys to use Tex's two handed chest pass, even though our guys prefer the behind the back," Walton said with a smile.
Beyond teaching Winter's fundamentals, the Warriors coaches subscribe to the principles that guided his Hall of Fame coaching career—principles that have helped the Warriors overcome challenges in key moments of their hard-fought series with Cleveland.
Asked during the Finals if he was channeling Winter, Kerr smiled and replied, "Well, anytime I can channel Tex Winter, I'm going to do that. I learned so much basketball from him, and those were great years in Chicago. We don't run the triangle, but we do have some concepts of the triangle within what we do."
"We definitely try to get Tex's philosophy of the game into our guys' minds as much as possible," Walton said. "We're not running the triangle here, but we use the same idea."
That was evident in Game 1, when the Warriors resorted to back cuts to counter Cleveland's over-playing perimeter defense. It's a very basic play, but it was textbook Winter, and it earned the Warriors six easy baskets that helped them win a tight game that went to overtime.
Winter had backcuts built into the "automatics" in his triangle offense. The Warriors don't have "automatics" per se in their offense, Walton explained. It's not that sophisticated yet. But they have a culture where awareness of such opportunities is emphasized.
"We'll watch film," Walton said, "and we'll see that what they call the back door step will be wide open. That's not part of the basics of what we try to do. But we'll tell our guys to do a back cut every time they're overplayed. 'Just use the pressure against them.'
"What was great about Tex with the triangle offense was, if the defense would work hard to take something away from you, then something else has to be open. We work from the same idea. If you want to take away our three-point shooters, we have other people on other areas of the court who will be open. We're not using the automatics, but I think we'll get better at that the longer we go. As we get more time with our guys those things will become part of what we're trying to do."
Facing a 2-1 deficit going into Game 4 of the series, Kerr came out with a small lineup and spread the floor to open up the Warriors' offense and momentarily confuse the Cavs' defense, another Winter trademark. Winter's playoff plans were filled with surprises for opponents, and that element helped Golden State earn a key win in Cleveland and even the series.
Heading into this season, Walton said, Kerr and his staff looked at running Winter's triangle offense—which can take time to learn and requires players to master what amounts to an entirely different philosophy of basketball.
Instead, the Warriors opted to run "that San Antonio Weak and Strong type of natural flow in our offense," which came from Kerr's experience playing for the Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich.
"This team was a very good team when we took over, so we wanted to take what they were already doing great and just add to that," Walton said. "We didn't want to come in and try to change everything about it."
That said, Winter's fingerprints are still evident. Case in point? The triangle seeks to create an unbalanced floor by "filling the corner" with an excellent three-point shooter who attracts defensive attention and gives masterful players like Bryant or Jordan room to work on the weak side.
"We fill the corner," Walton said, explaining what Golden State runs out of the triangle on occasion. "We run the corner series that was part of the triangle... There are a lot of principles and ideals from the triangle that are similar to what we do."
Walton also hinted that given more time with this Warriors roster, the coaches will attempt to include more triangle down the road.
"We'll get better on that as the years go on," Walton explained. "That's the layers of what we're trying to get to. As a first-year staff, we're just trying to get the basics down."
They're also keenly aware that Winter is probably watching back home in Manhattan, Kansas, where he and wife Nancy live with their son Brian and his wife. As a college coach, Winter enjoyed great success at Kansas State, and he still receives regular visits from his former players.
"Tex spends most of his waking moments sitting in his favorite chair watching NBA TV," explained his nephew, Norm Winter. "Unfortunately his ability to talk has not improved and he can only string a few repetitive words together in conversation. However, he seems to understand what is being said to him."
Winter provided Kerr special access to his coaching library and his philosophy when Kerr was with the Bulls, Norm Winter says, adding that Tex's wife Nancy "once said that Kerr was the one player who reminded her the most of how a youthful Tex played on the court."
At Winter's Hall of Fame induction in 2011, Norm Winter jokingly asked Kerr, "Aren't you the young Tex Winter?"
"Kerr smiled and laughed," Norm Winter said, "but I know he took it as sincere compliment."
If some more of Tex's tricks can help the Warriors win their first championship in 40 years, that Kerr smile—and his connection to Winter—will grow even broader.