How Lakers' Princeton Offense Renders Steve Nash and Dwight Howard Useless

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How Lakers' Princeton Offense Renders Steve Nash and Dwight Howard Useless
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

After the Los Angeles Lakers bungled their way to a 99-91 loss to the short-handed Dallas Mavericks on opening night, Charles Barkley trotted out a familiar trope of his on TNT's Inside the NBA.

You know the one—how he likes his accountants, not his offense, from Princeton.

There's some truth to Chuck's words about the Lakers' Princeton offense, even if they're more akin to political zingers than actual analysis. It's nothing new for old-school figureheads—in this case, those in the sports world—to act like reactionaries in the face of encroaching intellectualism, especially that which stems from the ivory towers of the Ivy League.

But, believe it or not, Barkley has a point, albeit not one as blanket-worthy as he might think. 

The Princeton offense, in principle and (so far) in practice, appears to be a major impediment for Steve Nash. It's one thing for the two-time MVP to struggle to find his way in the preseason, wherein he averaged a middling 5.8 points and 4.3 assists amidst L.A.'s 0-8 exhibition campaign.

It's another for Nash, a man who's fashioned a Hall of Fame career out of orchestrating offenses to perfection, to look befuddled on that end of the floor. He put up a paltry seven points (on 3-of-9 shooting) and four assists in his debut, and just two points and four assists (albeit in just 16 minutes) in a loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, while spending an inordinate amount of time off the ball.

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Because, well, that's what the Princeton offense calls for. The much-discussed system that former Washington Wizards head coach Eddie Jordan is implementing (at least in part) as an assistant under Mike Brown emphasizes spacing, ball movement and player movement while marginalizing the need for any one player to handle the ball and create for everyone else.

That would've been all well and good for the Lakers of yore, who had Derek Fisher spotting up at the point in Phil Jackson's Triangle offense.

But the Lakers don't need to mask their deficiencies at that all-important position anymore because Nash (presumably) can do all that on his own. By trying to fit Nash into the framework of the Princeton offense, the Lakers are essentially doing what opposing defenses have been trying desperately to do for years—take the ball out of his hands.

Sure, Nash may be the best pure shooter in basketball and will get plenty of easy, open looks as a spot-up sniper in Princeton sets. However, Nash's most valuable attribute has always been and will likely always be his ability to put pressure on defenses and create easy opportunities for his teammates off the dribble.

And if Nash isn't handling the ball, he (and, in turn, the Lakers) will be that much easier to defend.

Which is ironic, considering that the whole point of instituting a read-and-react offense is to make that very task more difficult. But if running more Princeton means less pick-and-roll—Nash's bread-and-butter—for the Lakers, then the system might only serve to neutralize Nash's true talents.

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The same could be said for Dwight Howard, who, in theory, is an even worse fit for the Princeton offense. Like Nash, Howard does much of his best work in the pick-and-roll, though (obviously) as a screener, roller and finisher rather than a ball-handler.

When he's not busy picking and rolling or ooping alleys, Dwight's at his most dominant in the low post, where he can use his quick feet, strength and explosiveness to get to the rim for easy baskets. The Princeton offense, though, often calls for the center to operate out of the high post primarily as a passer, with the threat of a mid-range jumper to keep the defense honest.

Except, Howard doesn't shoot (unless it's out of desperation) and has never been known as a particularly deft passer. In fact, he's never averaged more than 1.9 assists per game over the course of an entire season.

What's more, putting Howard in the high post means he has to work harder to get to the basket in situations where the Princeton offense sets him up in isolation. As such, Howard, too, is likely to see his effectiveness degraded by the calibration required in Pete Carril's system.

A system that, by the way, was designed, in part, to level the playing field for talent-challenged teams. It's intended to slow the game down so as to mitigate the advantages that a team with superior talent (especially athletically) might have over a less-gifted squad.

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The Lakers, though, aren't exactly lacking in talent. They currently employ four All-Star-caliber players—Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol—and two others (Metta World Peace and Antawn Jamison) who've partaken in the NBA's midseason exhibition in the past.

Then again, there may be something to the question of athleticism. Kobe and Nash are both old, Gasol has never been an imposing physical presence, and Howard, for all of his physical gifts, still lacks some measure of his signature explosiveness after undergoing back surgery in late April. Meanwhile, some of the Lakers' most likely challengers in the Western Conference (i.e. the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Denver Nuggets) and their biggest impediment to a title out of the East (the Miami Heat) are all long on players who can run and jump 'til the cows come home.

More importantly, the explosion of criticism surrounding the Lakers' attempt to institute the Princeton offense tends to ignore a few key points.

For one, Chuck is but the most vocal of observers who've already scapegoated the Princeton offense for the struggles of the newcomers, even though the system is but one option in the Lakers' burgeoning arsenal. The Lakers' goal isn't to go "four high" and milk the clock every time down the floor, but rather to present such a set-up as a choice for which opposing teams must prepare. As Mike Brown told Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times in response to Barkley's comments:

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We could spread the floor and play pick-and-roll all the time ... but it will make us one-dimensional. And when we're in seven-game playoff series, for sure the later we get into the playoffs, they'll be able to take us out of the offense because we'll be so one-dimensional. What we're trying to do, we're trying to eliminate that and be hard to guard because it's a read-based offense. 

That's precisely the point—if the Lakers are going to compete for a championship, they'll have to come equipped with a big bag of tricks rather than a small selection of plays of which defenses need to be wary. So far, they've mixed and matched, to the extent where the offense looked much more fluid in Portland, switching between the Princeton and more conventional strategies on the way to scoring 106 points.

Granted, the Lakers racked up a whopping 25 turnovers, off of which the Blazers added 28 points to get to 116, but many of those miscues were of the sort that result from players being unfamiliar with each other and with what exactly they're trying to accomplish as a collective on the court. There were always bound to be growing pains involved with integrating Nash and Howard into the Lakers' team dynamic, just as there were in getting two guys known for pick-and-roll prowess to adjust to a more free-flowing approach.

Those turnover totals will decline over time, as the players grow together as a unit and as they learn the nuances of their system.

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One that, by the way, is hardly a strict replica of the textbook Princeton offense. So far, the Lakers have taken to initiating the scheme at times with the center (Howard) on the low block and/or some of the wings playing a bit closer to the basket. Such tweaks stray from the original framework while taking into account the relative strengths (inside scoring, posting up, mid-range shooting) and weaknesses (outside shooting) of this Lakers roster.

However you'd prefer to recognize the newest wrinkles in LA's offense, it's far too early for the team to abandon them. An 0-2 start is anything but pretty, especially for a team with such lofty expectations, but the work done therein and that which remains need not be tossed onto the backburner so soon.

To the TNT crew's point about asking Nash to push the pace and run pick-and-roll ad nauseum, keep in mind that he's still trying to find his niche with the Lakers and, moreover, that he can't carry a heavy load like he used to. Nash takes tremendous care of his body, but at the age of 38, the reality is that he's best suited to playing 28-to-32 minutes per game.

And if the Lakers ask him to go full-bore on fast breaks and in the two-man game, he could break down in even less time. LA must be even more careful with Nash now that he's dealing with a leg bruise stemming from a collision with Blazers rookie Damian Lillard.

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As Mike Brown insists, the Lakers' Princeton-hybrid offense was designed with Nash's freshness in mind:

Every time down the floor — and if they want to, they can call Steve Nash and ask him — Steve Nash has the right to play pick-and-roll if he wants to. He has said it himself that he doesn't feel like he's as burdened because he doesn't have to make every play for everybody all the time with what we're trying to do. He can give it up and still have a chance to get it back. He's said that he feels as fresh as he's ever felt in his career because he doesn't feel the pressure of making every single play.

For Nash, it seems to be a matter of comfort. His understanding of when to run the pick-and-roll and when to settle in as a complementary cog will improve as he acclimates himself to his new role. If he can't play on account of injury, the Lakers would be wise to cover up for Steve Blake and Chris Duhon at the point with a more Princeton-centric approach.

As for Dwight, he looked just fine on the offensive end against Portland, as his 33-point, 14-rebound, five-assist effort would suggest. He still looked a bit slow getting off the floor, though his footwork was still impeccable.

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And when the Blazers sent Howard to the line, he converted a reliable 15-of-19—light years ahead of his 3-of-14 performance from the stripe against Dallas that may or may not have cost the Lakers an opening-night win.

Some of that productivity came with Howard as a Princeton pivot, though plenty more was achieved in isolation and off screens.

Just as the case figures to be for the Lakers offense as a whole throughout this season, like smart investors the Lakers are looking to diversify their assets so that if one should falter, whether on its own or as the result of defensive disruption, there will be plenty of other options left on the table.

The losses may pile up a bit, the basketball may not always be pretty, and Steve Nash and Dwight Howard may appear, at times, to be confused and/or improperly used, but the Lakers (and their fans) would do well to exercise patience.

Something that Charles, Kenny Smith and most talking heads aren't paid to do.

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