Searching for Princeton

When it was announced that Rick Adelman would replace Kurt Rambis as head coach of the Timberwolves, there was a palpable buzz around the team with all that was transpiring.  Ricky Rubio (finally) arrived, Derrick Williams was drafted, Kevin Love was still here, and now we had not only a competent head coach, but a future Hall of Famer and innovator.  After the immediate and knee-jerk reaction of “this is awesome” wore off, some conversation turned toward what the offense would look like under Coach Adelman.

While building a Western Conference Empire in Sacramento, Adelman famously hired Basketball Yoda, Pete Carril, of Princeton University fame.  The Kings utilized high-post passing in a way that the NBA hadn’t seen, and the results were amazing.  Not only did the Kings thrive under this offense (four consecutive seasons of 55+ wins) but they were an aesthetic treasure, wooing fans with passes and cuts that seemed equal parts flashy and efficient.  Unless you had a rooting interest in a Western rival (as we in Minnesota did, in 2004) you probably liked the Sacramento Kings of the late 90’s/early 2000’s.

So, when Adelman arrived in Minnesota, one of the expectations was this high-post offense, or some variation of it, with lots of passing and cutting.

So… where has it been?

The Wolves offense, particularly when Rubio was playing and the team was winning, has largely based itself around the high ball screen.  Ricky would tear around that thing with his head on a swivel, usually choosing between a cross-court skip pass to the wing shooter, a bounce pass to the rolling screener, a behind-the-back bounce pass to the screener (if he popped) or his own shot.  Simple and effective.

But not Princeton.  The only backdoor cuts were of the high-flying, “slip behind my post defender and Ricky will find me at the rim” variety.  Nothing orchestrated by a high post surveying the floor, or a wing setting his man up with a sharp and unexpected cut to the basket.

Before digging into conjecture about why there’s been no Princeton, let’s take a deeper look at what Basketball Yoda has said about the offense in some interviews.

First of all, here’s the Wikipedia page, if you want the basics of how the thing works.  For a little bit more on the basic principles, here’s another primer.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this interview that Carril gave to David Friedman.

On the importance of dribbling ability for all players:

I think that what has happened is that about 25 years ago they went into this passing game offense in which dribbling is discouraged. Maybe it was because guys were dribbling too much.

They might have been dribbling too much. All of a sudden, guys start passing the ball, pass and cut, don’t dribble the ball. The coach is screaming from the bench, ‘Don’t dribble the ball’ and all that kind of stuff. Now if you find a ‘3’ man (small forward) who can dribble the ball, it’s rare. I mean, if you play LeBron James at the ‘3,’ he’s going to kill everybody. He kills everybody at ‘1’ or ‘2.’ At ‘3’ it’s even easier. A guy like Tayshaun Prince, because he can dribble the ball–if you’re looking for an outlet (pass), there he is. He can dribble the ball up the court and make the play in a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 (fast break). It is a valuable asset (because) if you have three guys who can dribble the ball on your team then you are not going to get pressed.

What would Yoda think of our favorite small forward from Syracuse?  (Shudders.)

Cavs coach Byron Scott also learned from Carril, and has tried implementing parts of the Princeton Offense in New Jersey, and last year in Cleveland.  Carril has this to say about it:

When [Scott] was in New Jersey, they went to The Finals two times and he had the right kind of players for that offense — they were unselfish and they passed the ball,” Carril said Wednesday. “That’s not the same kind of team as this. I’m hopeful he’ll see he better go in a different direction. If you can’t run a high pick-and-roll, you’re done for. That’s the only thing nobody stops. The Princeton offense has been around for such a long time, that I think it may have worn out its usefulness. If he had a center that could pass the ball better, it’d be better.

Perhaps most interesting are Carril’s remarks about Rick Adelman in an interview conducted shortly after he was hired by the Houston Rockets in 2007.  Carril expounded on Adelman’s ability to adapt to different personnel:

“He will take a look at his team and scour film after film and try to figure out where they need to be to be the most successful…

He’s not a hardhead, so whenever things change, he’s able to implement those things to deal with those changes.  He doesn’t think there is only one way to do something…

To think that Yao Ming can’t do anything on the basketball court is lopsided.  The opinion of the people down there is he is a low-post center and that’s all he can do. I don’t think that’s the case.”

So, what should we take away from the inventor of the Princeton Offense?

* Dribbling is important, especially at wing positions.

* The Princeton Offense might be outdated.

* High screen-and-roll is essential to every NBA offense.

* A passing center is needed if you want to even try running the Princeton Offense.

* Rick Adelman is not married to the high-post passing formula.  He adapts to personnel.

Applying some of these thoughts to the Wolves season, it becomes easier to see why Princeton has been missing.  Our wings, particularly the starting small forward, are not good dribblers.  In fact, Adelman was most successful when starting two point guards.  This is reminiscent of those Kings teams who would roll with Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson for long stretches of terrifyingly-effective offense.

The high screen and roll, led by Rubio, was working like a charm.  And perhaps more importantly, it’s a simple set for a new team in a lockout-shortened season.  Princeton requires brains and preparation, the latter of which was in short supply this year.

Maybe most interesting is the idea that you need a passing post player.  We should know that this is not Nikola Pekovic.  The Montenegrin brute has huge muscles, advanced footwork and a soft shooting touch.  But he can’t pass for shit.  But what about Kevin Love?  He’s often touted as a good passer.  Is this true?  Is it even close to true?  We all know that he can throw a mean outlet, but there has been an increasing sense that Love is becoming a “ball stopper” in his surge toward MVP conversations.  Compared to Michael Beasley, a player often lazily-described as a black hole, Love is averaging 1.4 MORE shot attempts per 36 minutes, and only 0.4 more assists per 36.

The dearth of passing bigs is highlighted by the case of Brad Miller.  Every once in a while, Miller checks into the game.  Without fail, this is followed by a backdoor cut and pass for an easy layup or dunk.  Sometimes it’ll be two or three of them.  Miller, in small sample size, is averaging 5.6 assists per 36 minutes.  Love averages 1.9.  Pekovic averages 0.9.  While 5.6 is skewed high in Miller’s career, he still averaged over 4 per 36 while playing for Adelman in Sacramento.  What makes Miller more than twice the passer that Love is in the halfcourt?  Miller has announced his intention to retire after the season, so the Wolves could be without a good passing big in 2012-13.

This post is more about questions than answers, so I’ll wrap it up with two more:

1) Should we expect to see the Princeton Offense next season?

2) Should we WANT to see the Princeton Offense next season?



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6 responses to “Searching for Princeton

  1. I wish we had Greg Monroe to be the high-post passer. Derrr…

  2. Richard Bentley

    This was written a while ago, but you notice that the deals that have been done (and the possible addition of Kirilenko) for the most part are wings and guards who can move without the ball, pass it, and cut. So hopefully (at least for me), we will see more of the Princeton mixed in with Love being told point blank to position himself for it and pass. He was told by Adelman in the beginning that points lower ok, rebounds lower ok, but assists should go up and up. Love concurred, but things got fouled up by the lockout, and lack of preseason.

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