L.A. Lakers: Is the Princeton Offense a Good Fit for the New-Look Lake Show?
The arrival of two star players spells significant change for any team fortunate enough for such turnover, but on top of their changes in personnel, the Los Angeles Lakers have apparently decided to revamp their entire offensive system.
Mike Brown's stagnant system of a year ago appears to be on its way out, and the vaunted Princeton offense—as prescribed by former NBA head coach Eddie Jordan—is on its way in (h/t Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports). That transition in itself requires intense repetition and an entire change in the Lakers' philosophy of movement, all of which is complicated further by the need to maximize the value of both Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
The Princeton offense is predicated on continuity, and in that regard, it's very different from the Lakers' Kobe Bryant-centric offense. It is also very different from the kind of ball control that Steve Nash is accustomed to and even the high screen-and-roll actions that empowered Dwight Howard in Orlando.
It's a system that requires discipline, commitment and constant movement, and in that regard, it actually isn't all that different from the triangle offense. One can pick out similar sideline triangle formations from within some Princeton patterns, a fact which bodes quite well for Bryant, the Lakers' role-playing mainstays and versatile pivot Pau Gasol.
But where does that leave Howard? The entry sequences to feed Howard in the low post should be effective enough, but things could get tricky if and when L.A. shifts into the "four high" formations that are typical in Princeton-style offenses.
As a means of keeping the bottom of the floor open for backdoor cuts, teams employing the Princeton offense often utilize four players along the perimeter—two at the top of the floor and two on the wings—while the nominal center assumes a spot at the elbow. That placement is both outside of Howard's wheelhouse and willingly shifts him to a space on the floor where he isn't a threat to shoot or, frankly, dribble.
Plus, Howard is a pretty decent passer, but nothing more. He won't be orchestrating an entire offense from the high post the way Gasol can, and thus he is resigned to setting back-screens for cutters and scoring on rolling cuts within those stages of the offense.
Those rolls should work as well in the Princeton offense as they do in standard pick-and-roll fare, but setting Howard at the elbow doesn't at all allow him to capture a defense's attention or lure in additional defenders. Brown and Jordan—who is soon to be a Laker assistant—will be tasked with coming up with suitable flow alternatives. It's certainly not mandatory that one big be positioned in the high post for the Princeton offense to function as designed, but shifting Howard into more of a low-post/high-screening role—much like the capacity he served in with the Magic—could compromise some of the spacing that's crucial to the foundational cutting of the offense.
That kind of player movement is even more important for L.A. than it might be for another team running a Princeton-style system. Steve Nash and Jodie Meeks are the only above-average three-point shooters on the roster, making cutting and mid-range shooting the primary bases of all of the Lakers' spacing.
This particular offense has the potential to set up well-spaced post-ups and pick-and-rolls if all of the cuts and fills come in the proper rhythm, but the implementation of such a system won't come without a steep learning curve and inevitable growing pains. Things won't always be easy for Bryant or Howard or Gasol, but if the Lakers really can program the Princeton cuts, they'll strain the defense in ways that go well beyond the individual strengths of their top offensive players.
Is the Princeton offense a good fit for the Lakers?
Yet it's worth wondering if a system designed to take the ball out of a single player's hands is truly a good fit for a team that could otherwise work through Steve Nash. The past two seasons have marked the only occasions since 2001 that Nash hasn't helmed a top-two offense in terms of points scored per possession, and even those two most recent campaigns placed an underwhelming Suns roster among the league's top-10 offenses.
The Princeton offense would be able to rely on some of the same playmaking strength that powered Nash's previous outfits, but it would also utilize him more as a perimeter shooter, cutter and floor spacer. It would lean on the versatility of players like Bryant and Gasol in order to establish a very balanced offensive framework, but in the process, it would also require players like Howard and Metta World Peace to step out of their comfort zones while Nash is made to be a more passive participant in the offense.
Nash's age clearly hasn't caught up to him in a way that would demand he phase out as a team's primary ball-handler, but he also hasn't had to helm an offense with such limited outside shooting. Perhaps that bit of contrast is what makes the Princeton offense—or at least the incorporation of Princeton elements—a fair middle-ground.
It's not as if L.A. couldn't run more typical high-screen action involving Nash and Howard even after installing this system, but rather that this particular framework would ideally replace some of the default isolation work that the Lakers so frequently reverted to last season.
From that perspective, this stylistic shift has decidedly less to do with Howard or Nash, and almost everything to do with Bryant.
If Kobe isn't willing to let go of the iso creation crutch, the Lakers' Princeton work will be finished before it even begins. Bryant could do tremendously well considering how much ball-handling and passing is typically demanded of nominal 2-guards in the Princeton offense, but his submission to the cutting and passing basics inherent to the system would be paramount.
To his credit, Bryant seems not only willing, but legitimately excited to work through a scheme with more flexible offensive flow. Whether that holds when the season begins—or when the Lakers begin hitting walls in their execution—remains to be seen, as does the compatibility of a star-studded cast with a system designed to maximize their coordination while limiting their independent ball work.
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