Brown: "So, we went out and got Steve Nash to run pick-and-roll with you, and are going to implement an offense that was basically made for your skills. Like me now?" (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
We have been receiving scattered reports about Eddie Jordan's possible hiring through the grapevine for a while now, but when you get a full length piece from Yahoo! Sports' estimable Adrian Wojnarowski on how the Lakers have been in deep discussions with Jordan on implementing the Princeton offense, it appears to be more or less a done deal. Nothing is official of course, but given the sheer detail of the report and how positively both Mike Brown and Kobe Bryant reacted to the possibility, any official announcement that Jordan is joining Brown's staff as an assistant would be a formality at this juncture. Jordan, the recipient of one of Chick Hearn's best nicknames -- the "Thief of Baghdad" -- during his time as a player with the Showtime Lakers, was an assistant with the Kings and Nets before getting two head coaching gigs with Washington and Philadelphia.
As such, in a bout of particularly juicy irony, the Lakers will look to incorporate the Princeton offense into their attack one year after passing up the league's foremost practitioner of it in Rick Adelman. Centered on constant motion, passing, and back door cuts, the Princeton offense is similar in some ways to the triangle, particularly the lack of emphasis on point guard play and the necessity of having good passing bigs to initiate the offense. Developed by Pete Carril during his time at Princeton University, the eponymous offense holds a special place in the heart of yours truly since it has defined basketball at my alma mater for more than four decades. After the jump, we will review the particulars of how the team's personnel fit into the Lakers' new attack, and how it figures into the Lakers' prospects for next season.
Now, for everyone who watched the Lakers' appalling lack of movement on offense last season, they will take heart in that this is the very thing the Princeton offense seeks to counteract. In the classic Princeton, four players stand on the perimeter, two at the top of the key and two on the wing, while the primary big moves to the high post, which opens up significant swaths of space near the basket for the offense's chief method of attack: back door cuts. Players are constantly screening for one another, the ball is reversed from the perimeter into the post and back, and in general, the participants need to be able to read the defense, make pinpoint passes, and be a threat to shoot and give everyone adequate spacing with which to work. The individual players are meant to be interchangeable, and it rewards multifaceted guards who can post and bigs able to stretch the floor, both of which should sound very familiar to Lakers fans. At the same time, the entire offense is predicated on execution and exploiting the defense's mistakes, and it allowed Princeton teams that were not always the most talented squads to defeat much more decorated programs, the most famous of which was Princeton's upset of UCLA in 1996. We will now proceed before Dex and half of L.A. kill me.
In any case, there are quite a few items in that description that echo the triangle, with the importance on sweet shooting and passing bigs being the principal one. It should be no surprise that Pau Gasol, who was basically crafted by the basketball gods to be part of this kind of offense, should thrive in these sets. From the high post, Pau can shoot, hit cutters or shooters, and essentially dictate the flow of the Lakers' attack, something he was superb at doing in the triangle. The problem here is that Pau would be an excellent linchpin of the offense...so long as he is playing center, which doesn't happen a whole lot with Andrew Bynum (or Dwight Howard) manning the middle. Unless Bynum breaks out a consistent fifteen foot jumper and a lot more passing ability than he's shown in recent years, implementing the Princeton offense in its entirety is difficult because he will almost always be rooted to the block. While the Lakers did use the four out, one in formation last season, it largely reduced most of the perimeter players to bystanders and had them spotting on the wing, whereas they would be moving more through the defense in Princeton sets, all things that require space near the rim to operate with.
The Princeton offense, moreover, is primarily a halfcourt and slow developing scheme. You are essentially flipping the ball around and moving players off screens until the defense makes a mistake and gives you an available option. To compare, the Spurs-style attack led by Tim Duncan and David Robinson that Brown attempted to implement relies on the bigs running the floor, getting quick post position, and executing before the defense even has a chance to set up. It also focuses on the point guard running heavy amounts of pick-and-roll in the halfcourt, and to use Steve Nash in any other fashion would be terribly wasteful. As noted above, whenever players are "interchangeable," you are going to devalue the importance of positions, and a lack of focus on Nash will only hurt the team in this case. As such, we should expect a heavy dose of Nash/Gasol, Nash/Bynum, and Nash/Kobe pick-and-roll to be at the core of the starters' offense, as it maximizes Nash's utility and allows both Gasol and Bynum to both be involved in the play in a meaningful fashion. This is not to say that there are not Princeton sets that do the latter part. For instance, there is a three out, two in formation that initially starts with both bigs screening for the wings as they move out towards the perimeter, which opens the floor at the top of the key for the point guard, who can proceed forward or pass to either wing to start a two man game as the big setting the screen moves back to the block. This certainly works -- and one sees clear similarities with the triangle -- but has the downside of taking the ball out of Nash's hands.
When Bynum leaves the game, the first big off the bench will almost certainly be Antawn Jamison, whose ability to play on the perimeter makes the idea of running Princeton sets much more tenable, not to mention the fact that Jamison had great success under Jordan in Washington. With both Jamison and Gasol able to stretch the floor, the wings will have more than enough room to cut and work off the ball successfully, and as previously mentioned, Gasol is the big you want in the high post to find them on their way to the basket. As such, the wings stand to benefit quite a bit from implementing the Princeton offense, as the mere act of putting Kobe in motion and screening for other players is enormously helpful for everyone involved. Both Kobe and Metta World Peace can pop off a screen for jumpers, catch the ball on cuts to the rim, and best of all, operate in the post, all things Princeton sets will put them in good position to succeed in. A lineup of Nash, Kobe, MWP, Jamison, and Pau would be especially dangerous in this offensive framework.
All this noted, if Nash is on the floor, the pick-and-roll will continue to be the main offensive weapon, especially if Gasol acts as Nash's partner and there is no post presence to stop Nash from running the offense as he did in Phoenix with shooters all around him and open lanes everywhere with which to give them the ball. If this all sounds like Nash and the Princeton offense are incompatible, rest assured that Eddie Jordan has plenty of experience at how to operate an offense with a superstar point at the helm, as he did during his stint with New Jersey and Jason Kidd in the early 2000s. It is hard to see Nash as a negative factor, moreover, when players are cutting constantly and forcing the defense to adjust, all things that Nash thrives on in order to create opportunities for himself and his teammates. When the offense occasionally does a five out set -- all players on the perimeter -- Nash has a straight driving lane with two shooters on the wings and two players cutting to the basket, and you can almost always trust Nash to make the right decision in that case.
When Nash is out of the game, running the Princeton offense is a far better alternative than asking Steve Blake to create off the pick-and-roll, as it reduces his role to the only thing at which he is somewhat competent at: spacing the floor. Should Darius Morris win the backup job, it also limits the responsibilities he has to take on, and would smooth his transition in the league. Between this and sprinkling in some Princeton stuff when Nash is on the floor, there should be plenty of opportunity for the offense to have a firm role on the team. Just the general principles on their lonesome -- movement, spacing, and taking what the defense gives you -- are things that the Lakers could use.
When it comes down to it, the underlying benefit the Princeton offense provides is structure, something that the Lakers lacked in great measures last season. Too many times either Kobe or one of the Lakers' post players would have to create with little plan of how to best utilize the other players on the floor, and this is a suitable antidote to that problem. On the flip side, handing the ball to Nash, providing him with a pick, and asking him to create something is an equally good, if not better solution. It is a testament to Nash's greatness that we can hold his court vision and ability above an entire system that tries to get the most out of the players on the floor. Nash does that essentially by his lonesome. At the same time, Nash will not always be on the floor and even when he is, things break down from time to time, making the Princeton offense a nice thing to fall back onto. There will be plays in which the Lakers run things other than straight-up pick-and-roll with Nash, and having an overall structure ensures that things keep flowing nicely. Altogether, we can split hairs over the particulars, but seeing an offense that many thought would be the cornerstone of the post-Phil Jackson Lakers put into place now has to be an endearing thought when considering how the team will look next season.
Some links on the Princeton offense to peruse at your leisure:
- A breakdown of Adelman's version of the Princeton offense. What Jordan implements here will presumably be different in some respects, but the core principles should be fairly analogous. Does a good job of showing how things work when the floor is spaced, and how a dedicated pick-and-roll point in Ricky Rubio can succeed in the system.
- A great repository of Princeton sets, with very helpful animations. For you basketball junkies out there, this is a veritable gold mine of information.
- And just to hammer things home, here is Princeton's upset of UCLA in '96, with the final bucket in regulation coming on a patented back door cut that is the cornerstone of the offense. Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to run for cover.
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