The Princeton Report: The Xs and Os of the Princeton Offense

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The Princeton Report: The Xs and Os of the Princeton Offense
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

When the Philadelphia 76ers hired Eddie Jordan as their new head coach this offseason, they knew they had just signed themselves up for a revolution on offense.

During his five years with the Washington Wizards, Jordan implemented the Princeton offense, an offensive system predicated on passing, backdoor cuts, finding the open man, and most importantly, patience and discipline.  (As a sidenote, NBA.com has a great article here about the Jordan, the Princeton, and the Wizards from the 2006-2007 season.)  The team always looks to make the extra pass to find an open, high-percentage shot for a teammate.

Even as early on as his introductory press conference with the Sixers, Jordan had a summary for his offense well scripted.

"It's team basketball, [it] enhances players that are not great scorers and makes great scorers help teammates," Jordan said. "It's just not about perimeter shooting. At the end of the possession or somewhere during the possession, you're looking for a quality shot."

With the 2009-2010 NBA season barely a week old, I wanted to take time and dig into the basics of the Princeton offense.  I'll be turning "The Princeton Report" into a weekly column, where I evaluate how well the 76ers have been implementing Coach Jordan's complicated offensive system.

But first, we need to understand the basics.  What is the Princeton offense?

Princeton offense... does that mean it's for Ivy Leaguers?

The Princeton offense, at its core, is based on passing the basketball to the open man (sounds simple in theory, right?).  All five players on the court must have high basketball IQ, as they must know where they and their teammates plan to move on the court. 

The offense relies on constant motion from all five players on the court.  With all five players rotating, and the ball constantly being passed, the sets create disruption for the defense.  A player will often run as a "decoy" to draw a defender away from the basket, only to open up an easy shot for a teammate.  The Princeton offense relies on every player on the court to be able to pass, decoy, and shoot with consistency.

So yes, in a way, the Princeton offense is meant for Ivy Leaguers—or, at the very least, intelligent basketball players.  Your average, run-of-the-mill middle school basketball team will not likely be running a fluid Princeton offense any time soon.

(Again, like the NBA.com article above, Fran Fraschilla of ESPN.com does a fantastic job breaking down the specifics of the Princeton article here .  Even with pictures!  I'll do my best to explain the basics here, if you're not in a link-clicking mood.)

Fraschilla gives this little gem, which sums up the offense when well-executed: "the offense is the epitome of what good team basketball should look like."

Pete Carill, often credited as being the father of the Princeton offense, explains the basics as such: 

“Offensive sets revolve around the ability of all players being able to read defensive pressure. The center and forward use defensive reads to receive and pass from both the high and low post-positions. Guards use defensive reads to determine whether to cut back door, spot up for a three point shot, or dribble penetrate.”

All five players must be intelligent, must be at least adequate passers, and most vitally of all, must be able to knock down an open shot.  The ball will be coming to all five players on the court—ideally on each possession.

The Princeton's signature move would be the "back door cut," where a player draws a defense's attention away from the basket, then slices the defense with a pass that converts into an easy bucket for a teammate.  

In a write-up about the Wizards' version of the Princeton offense a few years back on NBA.com, the writer explains , "Ahh, the old back door cut. It is a play that is probably as old as the game itself. A player on the wing suddenly will move in towards the basket, receive a bounce pass from a guard on the perimeter, and often will find himself with no defenders between him and a lay up."  

This move is ESSENTIAL to the Princeton offense—it's the offensive players' responsibility to keep moving their feet and passing the ball to create open looks for teammates.

(For an example of what this offense looks like well-executed, look no further than  Georgetown.  Georgetown coach John Thompson III is a noted believer in the Princeton offense, stemming from his time coaching at Princeton and with Carill.  This video comes from the 2007 Big East Tournament, when Georgetown jumped on top of Villanova from the start and never looked back.  They would go on to win the tournament, and make the Final Four later that season.)

A notable facet of the Princeton offense is the importance of the center, who must be a multi-talented big man for the offense to work to its full effect.  (In the video above, check out Georgetown's center Roy Hibbert).

"The offense revolves around the center,” Jordan explained . “Now, whether he touches it a lot or doesn’t touch it at all, you still form your organization around the center. You find your center, and your center finds the ball, and everyone else sets up in the proper spots. The center can be in the low or high-post, or off the elbow. You can certainly run your offense through him or around him. We like to say: ‘If he is the main player, he is going to get more touches and he is going to be a passer as well as a scorer.”

Fraschilla's diagrams demonstrate the importance of the center, as the big man's activity sets up the necessary spacing in the defense that allows the Princeton offense's dangerous back door cuts to take full effect.

So how does this fit into Philadelphia this season?

Princeton in Philly

First, let's look at the starting lineup and see how this fits into the concept of the Princeton offense.  Starting for the Sixers this year have been: PG Lou Williams, SG Andre Iguodala, SF Thaddeus Young (an article on his production this year is coming later in the week), PF Elton Brand and C Samuel Dalembert.

First thoughts: Dalembert?  Versatile?   Uh, oh.  Is there a John Wall countdown starting...?

Second thoughts: Okay.  Maybe they can make this work.  Granted, no one will be mistaking Dalembert for an excellent passer any time soon.  But Williams, Iguodala and Young are certainly all multi-talented players capable of playing more than one position.  Iggy's ball-handling skills allow him to take control of the offense at times and allow Williams to work off ball screens, while Young can play anywhere from the shooting guard to the power forward position (if the Sixers are running a small-ball lineup).

And more importantly, after last year's fiasco regarding Elton Brand's place in the offense, we need something  new.  Anything.  This franchise cannot afford another $80 million albatross with Dalembert and Willie Green on the books.

Third and final thoughts: Yes.  This can work.  It's looked okay in the preseason at times.  And they say it's only going to get better...right?

So, how have the Sixers looked running the Princeton so far?  (Keeping in mind that four games is an extremely small sample size—all the reason to come back for another edition next week!)

If I'd have to choose one word to describe the Sixers offense for the first week of the season, I'd go...mish-mash?  (My other choice, "mixed results," is two words.)  Namely, the Sixers were blown out of the building by two of the elite of the Eastern Conference, while they managed to beat up on two 2009 lottery teams.

Statistically speaking, the Sixers are shooting at a 48.4% clip as a team through four games (and that includes the Boston debacle from Tuesday night , where they shot 29-of-80—a stellar 36.3% from the field).  A shooting percentage like that would imply that the team has been implementing the offense with moderate success (it's the sixth ranked offense in the league)... but... (there's always a but) it's yet to be seen whether the team truly understands the offense, or has just managed to hide their offensive instability with strong one-on-one players and well-timed break points (the Sixers did manage to score 19 points off the fast break against the Celtics).

"We're taking baby steps, we're growing," Brand said  after the Sixers' opening night loss to the Orlando Magic. "We're still trying to find our way through the offense, execute."

Brand, for his part, predicted that the offense wouldn't begin hitting its full stride until after Thanksgiving. 

In their four games this year, the Sixers have 19, 18, 19, and 17 assists, compared to the 28, 17, 27, and 27 respectively of their opponents.  Philadephia ranks 24th of the 30 teams in the NBA in assists/game with an average of 18 per game so far (Boston leads the league with 26).

So, what does a nearly top-5 FG percentage and a nearly bottom-5 APG mean for the Sixers so far?  It means it's too early to tell anything... and to buckle your seatbelts for a long, bumpy ride this season on the Sixers' coaster.

For a team running the Princeton, being in the top third of the league in FG percentage is crucial (dare I say, expected?).  But the Sixers' current APG ranking should be much more troubling to Coach Jordan, considering how the Princeton offense is designed to generate easy assists and even easier baskets.

Speaking as someone who watched the past four years of Georgetown teams struggle through the early parts of the season as they learned the intricacies of the offense, I can definitively say that whatever the condition of the Sixers' offense currently, it's not time to pull the panic button.  

Yet.  

But with the Celtics already looking like the world crushers they were two years ago en route to their 17th NBA championship, the Sixers must learn to execute the Princeton offense fluidly, or they've got no shot in the Atlantic Division once again.  

And for starters?  That means cracking 20 assists per game—starting tonight against the winless Nets.

Next week: I'll start taking an in-depth look at statistics and insights gleaned from the Sixers' first few games of the season.  Until then.

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