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The Princeton Offense and You

The Princeton offense, we've heard the term more times over the past weekend than ever before. It's dominated our thoughts. It'll be brought up in relation to every roster move, or non-move for the remainder of the Summer. Fairly or not, it will either be the savior or the bane of our existence when the 2009-2010 season unfolds. So let's take a few minutes to talk about it after the jump.

The P.O. was made famous by Pete Carril, the legendary head coach at Princeton University. Personally, I think Carril was a genius. He took a look at what he had (smart players who could shoot), what everyone else had (teams with a huge athletic and talent advantage) and he figured out a way to compete. He devised a scheme, or to be more accurate, he took the best of other offensive styles, to come up with a game plan which could shift advantage from the more athletic, more talented team to the better conditioned, smarter team.

The P.O. in its pure form accomplished several things.

  1. Shorten the game: We talked about this a couple times this season. When one team is clearly superior, it behooves the underdog to limit the number of possessions. Say a team is 10 points better in a 100 possession game, then they'd only be 8 points better in an 80 possession game. Which is an easier gap to overcome?
  2. Emphasize endurance over explosiveness: The P.O. consists of five moving, inter-connected parts. There is no rest for the defense, even off the ball. In Carril's Princeton days the shot clock didn't exist at first, then it was introduced at 45 seconds, finally it settled at 35 seconds. Now, imagine you're a clear favorite against Princeton. Every time you have the ball, you run your normal offense, maybe get a shot up after 20 seconds, then you fall back on defense. You spend the next 45 seconds chasing your man all over the court, dealing with screens, defending the post, etc. The moment you get tired of chasing your man, or decide to take a short cut around a screen, he reads your mistake and cuts backdoor for a wide-open layup. Frustrating, right?
  3. Create high-percentage shots: Above all else, this is what the offense is designed to do. It's based on principles. Everyone is constantly moving, the movements are dictated by the defense. The team runs a series of two and three-man sets, each one having several different options for open looks, depending on how the defense reacts to each.

Now, Carril developed and utilized the offense mainly for the first two purposes above. He rarely, if ever, had a demonstrable talent advantage. He needed a scheme, or a gimmick, if you're a non-believer to level the playing field for his team. Princeton could run this offense for 40 seconds knowing they could get a fairly high-percentage jumper at the 10-second point, or with only a couple seconds left on the shot clock. They'd grind down the entire shot clock, but the whole time they'd be probing, seeing if they could get their opponent to make a mistake, then they'd "settle" for an 80% layup instead of the 40-50% jumper they knew they could get at any time.

Of course, the NBA uses a 24-second shot clock, so for the most part, the first two stengths of the P.O. don't have a ton of use in the pro game, or at least they don't if you have a talented offensive team, but more on that later.

The P.O. has been used a couple of different ways in the NBA, and it's almost entirely based on the talent level of the team. Let's take Sacramento's best team ever, first. The 2001-2002 team which lost to the Lakers in brutal 7-game series in the conference finals (of course, they may not have lost had Tim Donaghy not been officiating, but that's neither here nor there). This team was first in the league in pace (95.6 possessions per game), and 3rd in the league in offensive efficiency (109 points per 100 possessions).

In this case, the P.O. was used to get the first high-quality open look for one of the team's best offensive players. In Sacramento's case, they had five quality options on the floor with their starting unit, Chris Webber in the high post, Vlade Divac in the low post, Peja, Bibby and Christie on the perimeter. Not to mention, Hedo and Bobby Jackson coming off the bench. They'd spread the floor, feed a post, make a quick cut and they'd basically get whatever they wanted. It was a thing of beauty.

In Washington, Eddie Jordan saw similar excellent results with only three legitimate options, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. When he had those three guys healthy for basically an entire season in 2005-2006, the Wizards were unbelievable offensively. They ranked 7th in the league in pace (92.3 possessions per game) and 6th in offensive efficiency (109.3 points per 100 possessions). They put those numbers up with Arenas, Jamison and Butler taking an astonishing 63% of the team's shots on the season. Basically, the P.O. was run with this guiding rule: Get the first open look for GA, AJ or CB, and take it. This should be especially heartening to us Sixers fans, because that Washington team certainly didn't have much talent surrounding its big three. Fourth in field goal attempts was Antonio Daniels, who shot 41.8% on 550 FGA and a miserable 22.8% from long range on 101 attempts. Willie Green blew both of those numbers out of the water this season for the Sixers.

The offense kept the ball out of the hands of the likes of Brendan Haywood (432 FGA in 1,879 minutes), Jared Jeffries (415 FGA in 1,951 minutes) and Etan Thomas (246 FGA in 1,121 minutes).

Conversely, the 2008-2009 Sixers saw Andre Iguodala, Andre Miller and Thaddeus Young account for only 48% of the team's field goal attempts. Lou Williams heaved up 844 shots in only 1,919 minutes of action. Willie Green took 658 in 1,828. They did a decent job of limiting the Dalembert damage, however. Sammy only attempted 434 in 2,036 minutes. Of course, he was also begging to be traded, so that situation wasn't exactly handled ideally.

We'll get back to the Sixers in a second, first I'd like to use one more team as an example. In 2007-2008, the Wizards dealt with major injuries to Arenas and Caron Butler. The two missed a combined 93 games. How did Jordan react? Well, he took the P.O. back to its roots. A team minus two of its big three finished with a 43-39 record by slowing the pace significantly. In a fact, they went from 5th in the league the year before (94.1 possessions per game) to 27th in the league in '07-08 (89.5 possessions per game). They also somehow finished 12th in offensive efficiency with DeShawn Stevenson and Antonio Daniels forced to play over 2,000 minutes each. The offense changed from finding the first good look for the big three to working the ball around the court to find the best available shot period, and milking clock in the process.

I have to say this research left me feeling better about Eddie Jordan coaching this team. Jordan has a history of utilizing the talent he has, and changing his approach to fit the talent level. If the team makes no moves whatsoever, I firmly believe he'll have them clicking on offense this season. The bulk of the shots will probably be taken by Brand, Iguodala and Thad, as they should be. Guys like Green and Dalembert will be minimalized in the offense. That being said, the big three for Washington could all stretch the floor. The Sixers don't have that luxury, and stretching the floor will be key in this offense. The need for shooting is paramount, even if Thad continues to develop his touch.

While I think the Sixers probably eclipse the overall talent level of those Washington teams already, the bar has to be set higher. They need to get to the point Sacramento was at in its heyday, not only offensively, but defensively as well (Sacramento ranked 6th in defensive efficiency that season as well). They have three pieces right now who can play both ends and be counted on in this offense, Elton Brand, Thad Young and Andre Iguodala. Marreese Speights could probably be really effective offensively right now, but he cannot be trusted on defense. Lou could still turn the corner and Jason Smith is a big maybe on both ends. No one else on the roster fits, at all.

We haven't talked defense at all, and I suppose we'll save that for another day. I will say this, however, with or without Andre Miller, with or without an impact draft, I firmly believe the Sixers will be a better offensive team this season. Whether or not they finish with a better record, or advance further in the playoffs will be dependant first on whether or not they can maintain or improve their team defense, and then by what personnel changes they make this Summer.