A Princeton Review

Stephen Dunn

After assembling a superteam this off-season, the Lakers' offense flopped in their season opener, ultimately leading to their demise against the Mavericks, 99-91.

In the program's 111 year history, Princeton University has produced a grand total of nine NBA players. Just one of those players (Bill Bradley) wound up making it into the basketball Hall-of-Fame. Just about the only reason the Princeton Tigers' basketball program has any national recognition is because of the offensive system that Pete Carril established at the school during his 30 year tenure there, appropriately titled the "Princeton Offense."

The system was built around one principle: Player movement. Carril had his teams constantly working off the ball in order to get open looks, with the backdoor cut being the staple result of the action. The Princeton offense doubled as a defensive strategy, as Carill's patient offenses controlled the clock and presented their opposition with few opportunities to get easy baskets.

Essentially, the Princeton offense was a ball control system that Carill developed in order for his less athletic and less skilled squads to compete against the better teams in the country. This was not an offensive scheme designed for players that would latter go onto to play in the NBA. This was an offensive scheme designed for players that would latter go on to be CEOs and lawyers.

In the 40 years since Carill's system became famous, only one NBA coach has successfully implemented in into the pros: Rick Adelman with the Sacramento Kings during the late 90's and early 2000's. That was a team full of lights out shooters, athletic cutters and a very skilled big man to run everything through. Even still, the Kings weren't able to overcome another popular basketball system, the Triangle.

So you may be asking yourself (especially after last night): Why in the world would the Lakers adopt a system that is designed to slow the game down and to extract every bit of value out of players who can't create for themselves? This was certainly a concern of mine and watching last night's disaster of a game unfold only confirmed the issues that a ball control offenses presents to a team that was constructed to run.

It is very true that the Lakers have personnel that would benefit from the Princeton, mainly Pau Gasol, and that is why Gasol had a very good game last night, scoring 23 points while grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out six assists. Not coincidentally, Chris Webber's season averages while acting as the focal point of the Princeton in Sacramento hovered around 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Running the Princeton with Pau would be all well and fine if he was the best player on this team or if he was working with the bench unit, but the simple fact is that running Princeton sets with the starters on the floor neutralizes all of the advantages that Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and even Kobe Bryant bring to the table.

Last night, it didn't matter which Steve was running point for the Lakers, because you couldn't tell the difference based on the way they played. And that is an absolute travesty when one of your point guards is Steve Nash and the other is Steve Blake. Nash was so ridiculously underutilized last night that it makes calling the Princeton offense into question after just one game totally defensible. Just seven points and four assists for Nash in 34 minutes, with this cast, is simply unacceptable, and it was an embarrassing way for him to start his Laker career.

Most of the time he was on the floor, Nash would bring the ball up the floor, perhaps run and quick pick-and-slip with Dwight, and then pass it off to a teammate before heading off to a corner and standing still until Gasol made a play. The Mavericks knew what they were up against and Rick Carlisle came into this game with a brilliant gameplan. If the Lakers were going to take the ball out of Nash's hands, then they weren't going to let him get it back. Dallas stuck to Nash all night long, preventing him from getting open spot-up looks, and forced the Lakers to live and die with Pau, and when he started to miss some shots in the second half, Dallas began to pull away.

Nash thrives with the ball in his hands and with a quick tempo. Everyone knows this. And yet, there the Lakers were, taking the ball out of his hands and playing at an 89 possession pace that would have ranked dead last in the league last season.

And when you slow things down for a center like Howard, you are diminishing the impact he can have on the game. With Andrew Bynum, slowing the game down makes sense because he's a player with a deliberate post game. Dwight? He moves quickly on all of his post-ups and any plodding offense will prevent him from rim running and getting into semi-transition pick-and-rolls that make him such a deadly player stop. When you slow the game down and rely solely on Gasol getting the ball into Howard, you run the risk of a team getting to Howard in time and hacking him, and hack him the Mavericks did last night.

Howard had 19 points and 10 boards, but it was an extremely uninspiring performance. Howard was sent to the line 14 times last night and he converted on only three of his attempts (in case you don't have a calculator handy, that is 21%). Howard also had three turnovers and ended up fouling out of the game in the fourth quarter. Howard may still be battling his way into shape, but he could have been more impactful last night against an undermanned Mavericks team if the Lakers had forced Eddy Curry, Elton Brand and the like to actually chase him down the floor. Instead, Los Angeles gave them a chance to get set defensively and Dallas responded by forcing the Lakers to make free throws. And they didn't: The Lakers shot the worst free throw percentage in NBA history for a team that had at least 30 attempts, due almost entirely to Howard and Jordan Hill, who went 1-for-6.

There were times when the Princeton stuff looked great, specifically when Antawn Jamison was at a forward spot and cutting to the rim, and Jodie Meeks didn't look half bad with his understanding of floor spacing and positioning. But it is abundantly clear that, even after one game, the Princeton is not the optimal system for the Lakers' starting line-up to operate under. Can you use bits and pieces of it from time to time with the starters? Sure. Can you use it full-time when Pau is in the game with the bench mob? Absolutely. But under no circumstances should a team with Steve Nash as it's point guard not be running a pick-and-roll heavy attack that keeps the ball in his hands until an optimal shot is available.

The Princeton did produce some easy looks for Kobe Bryant, which led the best shooting night he's had in a loss since 1996, but it didn't seem like the looks he got wouldn't be produced in a traditional pick-and-roll offense so long as he made it a point to cut to the basket area. Bryant made 11 of his 14 field goal attempts, good for a 22-point outing, but he also didn't rack up any assists and didn't seem to handle the ball in a scoring position outside of the 14 times he shot the ball. I liked what I saw from Kobe in terms of the kind of looks he got but he's also an underrated playmaker and should have more touches than he got last night, if only to make sure the defense is always thinking about him.

Los Angeles' offense was so putrid last night that it overshadowed how poorly the Lakers played defensively. So, not only did Mike Brown find a way to mute some of the greatest offensive talents in basketball, his team also failed to execute in the phase of the game that he hangs his hat on. On top of that, the Lakers came out of the gates flat and it seemed to me like they didn't take the Mavs seriously with Dirk out, and not having your players ready to play falls on the coach (though in the pros, a large amount of blame goes to the players, too). Comparing the jobs that Brown and Carlisle did last night is like comparing apples and oranges. Carlisle's team was ready to play and had an effective gameplan that his team executed to a tee. Brown's team had no spark, a flawed plan of attack and their execution faltered in the second half when the Mavericks started to establish their lead.

Dallas made a lot of crazy shots (how about those Vince Carter pull-ups) but the Lakers' pick-and-roll coverage against Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo and Rodrigue Beaubois was laughable last night, and those guys spearheaded a Dallas attack that worked for open looks and got wide open mid-range pull-up after wide open mid-range pull-up after coming off of screens. Dwight's performance in this area will improve dramatically as he gets into better shape, but the poor play of the secondary defenders on those plays is concerning. Collison's speed also exposed Nash's defense, which we all expected to be a problem, and he showed that Howard won't be able to clean up all of those mistakes because almost all point guards nowadays are capable of pulling up for a jumper in place of challenging Dwight at the rim.

It's important to keep telling yourself that it was just one game, and it doesn't hurt that the Lakers have a chance to redeem themselves against the Blazers tonight. But still, what we witnessed last night was very concerning. Nash has placed some of the blame for the offensive struggles on himself, pointing out that he wasn't very assertive in pick-and-roll situations because he was too concerned about getting into LA's Princeton stuff. With time, I'm certain that his comfortability running the team will improve, but if another team comes at the Lakers with a gameplan as detailed and smart as the one the Mavericks had, then these are the kind of struggles that they are going to have.

And with a roster like this, that's not OK.

The Lakers get back at it tonight. Let's hope they have a better feel for things against a young Blazers squad.

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