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Examining Why the Princeton Offense Isn't the Right Fit for L.A. Lakers

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Examining Why the Princeton Offense Isn't the Right Fit for L.A. Lakers
Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
Steve Nash

The Los Angeles Lakers were the most talked about NBA team this past offseason. Credit general manager Mitch Kupchak for that.

Despite entering the summer of 2012 with no cap space, Kupchak managed to acquire two of the top free agents on the market and brought both Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to the Lakers.

Unfortunately, they are now being forced to play in an offensive system that isn’t the right for them or their team.

Kobe Bryant’s resume speaks for itself. Although he’s spent his entire 17-year career as a Laker, he’s gone from being a sixth man behind Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones to the fifth leading scorer in NBA history with a shade under 30,000 points.

Over the years, he has excelled playing under the different offensive philosophies of Del Harris, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Phil Jackson.

Obviously, he’s one of the most versatile and complete scorers in the history of the NBA, but the same can’t necessarily be said of his teammates.

Particularly, Nash and Howard.

Nash, certainly a first-ballot Hall of Famer, is one of the greatest shooters in the history of the NBA. Over the course of four different individual seasons, Nash has shot 50 percent from the field, 40 from three-point territory and 90 percent from the free-throw line.

Last season, he shot a career-best 53.2 percent from the field and 39 percent from behind the three-point line, all while averaging 10.7 assists per game.

So although he’s aging, he’s still performing at a very high level.

Dwight Howard has made significant strides in his offensive game since working with Hakeem Olajuwon in the summer of 2010, but he’s still a most effective offensive weapon when he’s beating opposing centers up the floor, getting deep catches and setting screens and rolling to the basket.

In order to take advantage of Nash and Howard, the Lakers need to play to their strengths.

Someone notify Mike Brown.

This past summer, after consecutive second-round exits from the NBA playoffs in 2011 and 2012, the Lakers hired Eddie Jordan to help implement the Princeton offensive system.

That’s a major mistake.

An In Depth Princeton Explanation

At a very basic level, a Princeton offense works best when all five players on the floor are able to help keep defenses spread by being a threat to shoot the ball out to at least 15 feet. The offensive philosophy is predicated on reading and reacting to the defensive coverage and utilizing off-ball movements and screens, back door cuts and equal opportunity shot selection.

Some would argue that a center who has three-point range and backcourt players who can operate out of the post are necessary components of a team running the Princeton offense, because success in this system is predicated on defenses being kept honest. It simply won't work if the opposing center guarding Howard opts to not defend him when he catches the ball above the free-throw line.

So the Lakers looking lost offensively through their first three games of the 2012-2013 NBA season isn’t simply growing pains, it’s more the product of attempting to fit square pegs into round holes. And that's true despite the fact that the Lakers finally won a game by defeating the Detroit Pistons 108-79 on Sunday night at Staples Center.

Howard still can’t shoot and Nash still can’t post up.

Of the members of the Lakers' starting five, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant are the two with the necessary skill sets to thrive in a Princeton offensive system. This should come as no surprise though, considering both excelled playing in Phil Jackson’s triangle.

Though a different system, the triangle is similar to Princeton in that it’s a “read and react” offensive philosophy that is predicated on operating out of offensive sets and not necessarily specific plays. The triangle, though, does have specific options and featured players who get the ball by design and make decisions. That's not necessarily true with a Princeton offense.

The major difference, however, is that the triangle emphasizes action in two major areas of the court, the strong-side pinch post and the strong-side wing. 

Tex Winters Overviews Triangle Offense

Ironically, if this current Lakers team played a triangle offense, it could feature both Howard (the post option) and Bryant (the wing option), but would inevitably limit Nash’s ability to create opportunities off the dribble.

That would obviously take away one of his major strengths. And that’s not what you do with a Hall of Famer, particularly one that is still playing at a high level. 

Though Howard and Metta World Peace each have deficiencies in their games that make neither of them ideal Princeton players, it is Nash whose effectiveness will be hurt most.

Nash, while one of the NBA’s greatest passers, isn’t adept at creating scoring opportunities from the post, and since the Princeton offense mandates that he give up the ball early in the shot clock, he’s likely to have very limited opportunities to shoot.

Neither Dwight Howard nor Metta World Peace are above-average passers, and judging by Bryant’s averaging 19 field-goal attempts over the course of the Lakers' first three games of the 2012-2013 season, it doesn’t seem like Nash should count on Bryant to facilitate for him.

The Lakers simply lack the versatile and somewhat interchangeable pieces that an effective Princeton system requires.

The decision to hire Jordan to implement it is questionable, especially when you consider that along with Nash, the Lakers acquired Howard.

Together, Nash and Howard should form one of the league’s most dynamic pick-and-roll tandems. Prior to this season, Nash’s primary weapon on pick-and-roll plays in Phoenix was Marcin Gortat. Running with Nash, Gortat averaged 14.2 points per game and shot about 56 percent from the field.

Steve Nash and Dwight Howard: A Perfect Match

Before Gortat, Nash’s primary partner on pick-and-rolls was Amar’e Stoudemire and their success helped Nash win consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player Awards in 2005 and 2006.

It won Mike D’Antoni the NBA Coach of the Year Award and also helped Stoudemire receive a $100 million maximum deal from the New York Knicks.

Over the years, players including Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley have benefited from playing with Nash simply because he makes players around him better.

With over 9,900 career assists, Nash is fifth amongst the all-time assist leaders and is currently second amongst all active players behind only Jason Kidd.

With a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.98—which is better than Magic Johnson (2.89) and just behind Kidd (3.01) and Mark Jackson (3.27)—Nash has a pair of the surest hands the NBA has ever seen, so employing a system that encourages him to give the ball up takes him out of his element.

And we’ve seen Nash excel with the ball, especially when playing with a big guy who is capable of playing pick-and-roll ball with him.

In order to maximize Nash’s abilities, the Lakers need to play a fast-tempo game reminiscent of what D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry ran with Nash in Phoenix. If turned loose, with the Lakers' talent, they could be amongst the league-leaders in team points per game.

And in order to maximize Nash’s fast-break opportunities, the Lakers need to block shots, create turnovers, and rebound the basketball. With Bryant and World Peace patrolling the perimeter and Howard and Gasol’s clogging the paint, neither of these would be a problem.

Rather than having Nash play in a Princeton offense, the Lakers should play to the strengths that helped him make the Phoenix Suns a perennial playoff team and won him consecutive MVP awards.

The other four members of the Lakers' starting five, on both ends of the floor, are tailor made to run with Nash and each would benefit greatly by playing with him, at his tempo.

It’s early in the season, but judging by Nash’s struggles with the Lakers thus far, it’s probably safe to say that the benefits would be reciprocal.

After defeating the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night, the Lakers are 1-3 on the season. It’s worth noting that the single victory came without Nash, who suffered a small fracture on his fibula after colliding with Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers back on Nov. 1.

Integrating him, however, will be critical to their long-term success. And maintaining the Princeton system simply won’t.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Mike Brown Must Utilize Dwight Howard

In the NBA, great coaches discover the strengths of their players and develop their offensive strategy towards those strengths. The Princeton offense is a beautiful thing to watch, as it allows all five offensive players equal opportunity to be effective.

But when a team has one of history’s greatest offensive orchestrators who’s particularly adept at creating opportunities for his teammates off the dribble, and pairs him with one of the best scoring shooting guards in the history of the game as well as the best pick-and-roll center of his generation, it’s simply not the best option.

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