Looking at the Wolves Offense, Part III: The Princeton Edition

The Wolves offense was heavily reliant on Ricky Rubio’s dribble game last year.

“We’re the Miami Heat, and he’s Jeremy Lin.” – President Barack Obama, referring to his campaign versus Mitt Romney’s

Story time, kids.

When POTUS made that remark about his re-election prospects, most of the electorate missed it. They don’t follow the NBA closely enough to understand the imagery.  But those of us who do, those of us who get primed up for a hyped night of Inside the NBA, know exactly what Obama meant by that.  Right in the thick of LINSANITY, the Heat and Knicks matched up in prime time; the Knicks having won 9 of their last 11 and having all kinds of confidence facing the defending East champs.  Lin was a skinny, Asian-American and Harvard-educated point guard, thriving on pick-and-roll sets, benefiting from the same hand-check restrictions that all NBA lead guards do.  While the Knicks were confident heading into that game, there was cause for concern.  Miami’s three-headed backcourt monster of Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James was sure to bring the Heat (PUN!) and pressure Lin at every turn.

And it happened. The Heat was On. It was Hot in HerreIn the Heat of the Night, Lin cracked. Hot Hot Heat. Yeah. That’s out of my system now, I promise.

So. LeBron and D-Wade harassed Lin all over the court en route to a big win. Lin shot 1 for 11 from the floor with 8 turnovers.  Wade’s post-game comments were classy but direct:  the Heat did what they were supposed to do.

“First of all, he deserves all of the credit he’s been given,” Wade said. “We knew it was going to be a tough task guarding him. … He’s a good player, but we put a lot of pressure on him and it was a success.”

LeBron sang a similar tune.

“He’s a good player, a really good player,” James said of Lin. “And they’re going to do some great things. But for us, we come in and take care of business.”

The moral of the story is, we come in and take care of business.  Translation: Lin is a thing, but I’m LeBron Motherf*cking James. Don’t sleep. My wallet, it’s the one that says “Bad Motherf*cker” on it.

LBJ was right. Linsanity was a three-week craze, the Heat are dominators.  The Heat aren’t cute.  They don’t need gimmicks. (Mike Miller doesn’t count, he’s a gimmick but they don’t need him.) They don’t need fluky streaks. On the contrary: Miami is big, Miami is mean, and Miami is really, really, really good.

They flopped in the 2011 Finals, but instead of folding, the Heat came back and won it all in 2012.  Lin? His run ended with a knee injury, his coach getting a pink-slip, Melo rightfully reclaiming the throne atop the NYC hoops world, and his self ending up in Houston after the Knicks all but publicly declared they didn’t want him anymore.  Linsanity had a shelf life. The Heat don’t, really, because their shelf life will last as long as LeBron and Wade want, ’cause they’ll keep slashing the lane, dunking on fools, and most importantly, suffocating the rest of the league with their defensive pressure on both wings.

We’re all here because we’re Wolves fans. Lots more people are interested in the Wolves now than they were two years ago. Sure, they’re better. But a lot gets lost in the mania around K-Love’s NUMB#RS and Rubio’s Unicorn and the Russian invasion and Pek the Destroyer. Which makes me wonder, are the Wolves like Lin, or are they like the Heat? Neither, you say. (MANICHAEAN FALLACY!) I get that. But is the in-between really meaningful? If you’re a young, popular NBA team, you’re either legit (OKC) or you’re not (LAC). Contender or pretender.

The Wolves have reason for concern about last season’s craze. Through the first 41 games of the lockout-shortened season, they were right there with Lin as one of the League’s top stories. Ricky Rubio!  Need I say more? Well, the Spaniard was the talk of the Western Conference, curling off ball screens and firing everything under the sun to wide-open teammates.

Rubio’s success depended heavily on three passes:

1)  Flaring off to the right while pulling the help defender with him, then hitting the Destroyer on the roll for a dunk.

If the roll wasn’t there, he’d exploit either of two other options:

2) A behind-the-back pass to a popper (usually Love) or a cutting wing at the top or ball-side wing,

3) A one-handed skip over the top of the collapsed defense to the opposite wing for an open jumper.

By pushing any of these three buttons on a given possession, Ricky showed he could run an NBA offense better as a rook than most veteran point guards could ever dream of.

But Rubio’s John Lennon rockstar thing overshadowed some potentially important limitations in his game.

First, Ricky isn’t unlike Jeremy Lin in that he’s skinny and isn’t very explosive. Unlike Lin, Rubio isn’t intimidated by pressure D  (see 2008 Olympic Gold Medal Game), but Ricky isn’t likely to blow by it and finish at the rim like a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, and he never will be.  Ricky’s ingenuity begins with shiftiness and, usually, a ball screen.  Remember that Pacers game when they punked Kevin Love?  They were pretty hard on Ricky, too. They sicced Paul George on him. Buckets were hard to come by. George is a force of nature on D.

The other limitation separates him in a bad way from Steve Nash, another non-explosive but awesomely-effective foreign point guard.  That is, Ricky is a rotten shooter. Absolutely miserable. It’s broken so badly it probably at this point it’s probably beyond repair. So what, you say–Ricky rules! I agree, but in today’s NBA, a point guard is well advised to have a dribble jumper at the ready. Tony Parker and Steve Nash are the masters. After a couple years of work, even Rose and Russ are getting there too. Chris Paul could make a living just hanging around the right elbow. Rondo seems like the only real exception depending on what you think of Westbrook. Well, Ricky hasn’t learned this yet.  Until he does, defenses will collapse, and he’ll have a lot of frustrating nights.

But even given his limitations, the Wolves were WAY worse without him.  21-20 was followed by 5-26. You can do the math.  There wasn’t a guard on the team, save for the occasional J.J. triple-double that woulda had Cube rappin’, who could create offense. None. Nada. The team needs Ricky no matter his flaws.

Adelman recently reiterated this in an interview with Jerry Zgoda:

You just know what he meant to us last year. I’m still in shock how much it affected our team when he went down. He created an atmosphere around our team that gave everybody a belief that they had the chance to win, no matter who we play or where we play.

All of this is to say that the Timberwolves were heavily reliant upon Ricky Rubio, and that even with a healthy Ricky, there are serious limitations.  Rubio can and will improve, but that type of thin, unimposing player does not carry a championship offense on his back. This might have been possible in the days of Cousy and Havlicek, but not anymore. And, as I’ve said before, the Wolves only hope of becoming a title contender is through their offense. Today’s NBA is a league where great defense requires mobile, rim-protecting bigs. The Love-Pekovic duo is neither. So they need to be great at scoring, and to be great at scoring – not just good or even really good - you need your skinny, non-explosive point guard to be able to finish and shoot and not just pass like a Boss.

How to be Great at Scoring

So what to do, if not all high ball screens?  You already know the answer.  It’s the Princeton Offense.

Pete Carril’s basketball baby is the best counter to pressure defense and a proven method for success of *smart* teams that play unselfishly and actively.  Last year’s Wolves, lacking experience and a full training camp with the new coach, did not use it.  Unless Brad Miller, an old Adelman fave, entered the game.  Rick had this to say when asked about back-cutting and his old system making an appearance in Minnesota:

Q  How comforting is it to add two guys — Kirilenko and Chase Budinger — who don’t stare at you blankly when you call for a back-door cut?

A  It’s really huge. Everybody talked about my system with Vlade Divac and Chris Webber. That’s why it became a system, those two guys. … These two guys can run the floor. They cut. They’re moving all the time. And when we get Ricky back, they’ll be really good.

Q  How much of that system were you able to install last season because of the lockout-shortened training camp and the team’s personnel?

A  Very little. We went to so much pick-and-roll because that was the only way we were going to win. We learned really quick why they were 30th in the league in turnovers the year before. I think you are going to see us doing a lot more things that we used to run. That’s one thing I like: You can really adjust to the people you have, and that’s my job as a coach.

By the sounds of it, the team is looking to relieve some pressure off the point guard and install a passing and cutting offense.  In my last piece on Princeton, I quoted some year-old stuff from Carril.  And it just so happens that Sam Amick dug up some fresh material when it was reported that none other than the LA Lakers were reportedly going to go Princeton after hiring Eddie Jordan as an assitant.  Check out out when you have a moment.  Carril is the man.

UPDATE: Joan Niesen of FSN North summarized today’s training camp events, and included a nugget from AK47 that touches on what this post is about:

“You know why I like European basketball, because there’s a lot of tactic involved,” Kirilenko said. “I know NBA, it’s an individual game prevails. People like to play one-on-one. People like the athletic style of the basketball, but if you can combine athleticism and the tactics, I think you can have a great product. If the athletic guys can start playing good team defense . . . it’s going to be impossible to beat. I think we can do it. Rick, that kind of coach, can really bring it.”

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Looking at the Wolves Offense, Part III: The Princeton Edition

  1. Lots to chew on here. I agree with your points but am waiting to be convinced that they add up to your conclusion: that a team led by a skinny, only moderately athletic point guard can’t succeed running the pick and roll. Nash’s Suns had a chance if things would’ve broken a bit differently. If the implication of your argument is right, shouldn’t we see more teams moving toward the Princeton offense? I’m willing to be persuaded, but would like to know a bit more about your logic and the empirical evidence behind your intuitions here.

    • I think that the easiest way for most teams to be competitive in today’s NBA is to run pick-and-roll. There’s a shit-ton of above-average or better point guards, the rules encourage it, and defenses struggle against it. But there’s a ceiling there that you ain’t breaking through if you run pick-and-roll all night, particularly if you don’t have Nash, Amare, and three shooters. The teams who close out playoff tournaments are the ones with something better than that. An elite shooting guard or slasher (both of last year’s Finalists.) Elite defensive big men (Celtics in 2008, Bulls in a year or so, probably.) The 2002 Kings were damn close to beating one of the best 1-2 punches of all time in Kobe and Shaq. They had Wolves TYPE of talent, that being long and skilled, but less than freakishly athletic. (Yes, I know young Chris Webber was a freak–he was still athletic in Sactown, but less so.)

      Personal experience bears on this for me. My teams growing up sucked. You know this. We were something like 2-22 in 8th grade, .500 in 9th Grade and maybe about the same in 10th Grade. My (our) high school coach, implemented a high-post/backdoor cut offense before our junior year to do just what the Wolves (and Lin vs Heat) need: relieve defensive pressure. We had skinny, skilled guys who didn’t respond well to pressure defense if forced to create. We almost won our conference that year, which was a shockingly-good result. We did win it my senior year. I’m a big believer in back cuts. With enough size and skill, a back cut offense can beat an elite opponent, and not by fluky chance.

      • Good points, and interesting food for thought on backpicks and Princeton-style cuts. I saw your teams and agree the coach made a smart decision to tailor the offense to the personnel’s strengths and capabilities. The difference I see is that you guys – like any hungry prep team would – bought in, believed, and so made it work. NBA players tend to be less adaptable and less willing and able to change bad habits that have accrued over the years. The Kings were great because both Webber and Brad Miller were amazing passers out of the high post. We don’t have that here. Love has shown he can’t pass like Brad Miller. We don’t even need to bring Pek into this discussion.

        That said, I think your instincts are right. In fact, this is the main reason I wanted the Wolves to trade down to take Greg Monroe the year we drafted Wes Johnson and passed on both Cousins and Monroe. I liked Monroe’s value the best, at least for our team, because he’s a ridiculously skilled and unselfish passer from the high post. Love *could* be the lynchpin who makes this bit work, but unless he comes in this year with a different mindset – i.e., that passing is as important as scoring and rebounding – we won’t have the necessary pieces to implement this wholesale.

        • A low-level (REALLY low level, as in, I don’t know his name) Wolves basketball staff member told it to me this way, when I asked about this issue: Pekovic can’t pass. Love refuses to pass.

          I don’t totally buy that re: Love, but it looked that way at times, last year. *Not passing* does not always equal *selfish* — that equivalency that people make sometimes upsets me. When Mike Beasley would jack shots (more in ’11 than ’12) because nobody else could, for example. But Love really embraced the concept of trying to generate contact and free throws, often times to the team’s benefit. A negative externality of that was that he wasn’t passing or even threatening to pass.

          So yeah, I hear ya. Greg Monroe, had The Adelman Family been around, was probably the choice in 2010, with the same Al Jefferson trade being next in line. Or Cousins even, who can (and does) pass.

          But I’ve got some confidence in Love improving his half-court passing skills. Sure, he loves his NUMB#RS, but he’s smart and enlightened enough about modern basketball stats to know that a few extra assists and improved FG% can offset fewer PPG in the win shares column.

          • If there’s anything that Love does well, it’s prove naysayers wrong; since the Wolves now have better scorers around him than at any point during the last two seasons, Love might decide 20-15-5 is a worthwhile goal. He has never averaged more than 2.5 assists per game, and his career average is 1.9, so that would be pretty remarkable. He will be in an offense that would make it possible. Granted, guys like Divac and especially Webber were already outstanding passers before they played for Adelman’s Kings teams, but I think Love is too (as you point out), and he’s finally in a position to prove to people that his outlet gimmick isn’t the only passing skill in his repertoire. Love is a lethal weapon from behind the arc, but with offensive sets that are simultaneously more focused and creativity-enhancing, he should have a greater chance to show he can be a truly multidimensional offensive player. Time will tell if that’s how it plays out, but all I know is that we’re not a championship team (or even a 55+ win team) if Love is the #1 option and relied upon to score 25+ ppg.

  2. Richard Bentley

    Three things jump out here. The first is Rubio’s shot. Even though he has extensive pro experience, from what I understand about his role in European basketball, he was never a shooter; his job was to facilitate. This says to me that his shot is fixable if he works on it.

    The second thing is Love. Love is a great outlet passer (when he chooses to), and he can be an effective passer from the elbow in Adelman’s offense. He, I think, had a different perspective last year when he had to put up big numbers every game, and perhaps this distorted his thinking. But he is young, and a willing learner. Last year Adelman told him that he didn’t care if his scoring or rebounds went down, but he wanted his assists to go up and up. Love’s reply? “I can do that.” But last season was so helter-skelter that they had to stick with the pick-and-roll, and Adelman had no chance to install much of his offense. I truly think that the best thing that could have happened to Kevin was the chance to play in the olympics and watch LeBron act mostly as a facilitator in games. The best player in the world, sacrificing his scoring and making other people around him better. I think that most probably made a profound impression on Love; we will see. Also Kevin is a great three-point shooter, and that is a requirement for Love’s position in the Princeton.

    The third thing is the makeup of the team. Of all the teams Adelman has coached, this group should have the best mindset to buy into his offensive schemes. The Europeans have played team-oriented ball and actually prefer that approach. The other offensive-minded players are mostly unselfish and good passers. The energy guys will get their shots in Adelman’s offense in much the same way as Kirilenko does, but of course with fewer opportunities. The only wild-card here seems to be Williams. But he has really seemed to get with the program and is so young that there is a really good chance he will blossom with Adelman. Almost by definition it is a team-oriented group of players, with no one able to create his own shots except Roy, and he is not the selfish type. One thing is for certain: it will be a joy to watch this offense in action. I have been a celtics fan since Cousy’s second year with the team. And I remember what tremendous ball movement they had in the old days. That, and the weave they used to run. The most confident team I ever saw.

    • Richard,
      Good comment — I wholeheartedly agree with your third point. This team is built to pass and cut. Based on the early impressions I’ve read from training camp, the coaches sound pleased that the players are buying in.

      On Rubio, I’ll need to see it to believe it. I don’t doubt that he can improve his shot, but I just don’t know what will happen there. We used to watch Sebastian Telfair have similar struggles. Bassy had mechanical problems with his jumper that were not the same as Rubio’s, but every bit as damaging. Ricky does not have a smooth tempo to his jumper, particularly when he’s catching and shooting. In some respects, I think when he dribbles into it (the action described above that would make him more of a threat) he has better rhythm and form. I love Ricky for this team, but in terms of him becoming an All-Star, he might need to revamp that jumper.

      Love knows how to pass and I tend to agree with your prediction that we’ll see more if it this year. Limiting factors would be that he doesn’t command a double team (single coverage then invites a shot attempt in the post) and that he isn’t very tall to deliver the types of passes that some seven-footers can, like KG or Gasol. But he’s a clever player and one would expect that he could learn more bounce passes. Every once in a while last year, he would throw a nifty feed to a sealing Pekovic for two points. I think he can get better at passing.