Anatomy of An Offense
A scattering of thoughts on Princeton, Pete Carril and basketball’s most deliberate system.
With Carril at the helm, the backdoor cut became the Princeton imprimatur. It was cagey and old-fashioned, a move that had survived decades of basketball evolution, and within Carril’s system it was never spontaneous. Every cut was designed to score points or create misdirection.
Some argue that the Princeton Offense epitomizes team basketball, and I agree. Without marquee players, without singular talent, Princeton relied (and still relies) on its three greatest weapons: sound fundamentals (ball fakes, bounce passes, footwork, etc.), accurate three-point shooting and sound defense. Assists are an important stat, as well as turnover rate. A polished Princeton Offense scores off the pass and doesn’t turn the ball over.
While researching this piece, I scoured various articles and videos for any information on the Princeton Offense. Digging deeper, I realized the system is very complicated and nuanced (more than one writer described it as “labyrinthine”) and explaining just one set without a whiteboard, a dry-erase marker and copious Xs and Os would be very difficult. Nevertheless, here are a couple of basic plays that a Princeton team might run to initiate the offense:
As the point guard jogs the ball up court, the 2, 3 and 4 space themselves in a semicircle around the perimeter, always higher than the free-throw line extended. The point passes to an open wing (usually the small forward), and the center sets up in the low post on the strong side. The initial scheme is a 2-2-1 variation, but with all the movement that’s about to take place the numerical set is basically meaningless.
After the PG passes the ball, he cuts to the far corner. The two fills his spot at the top of the key and, if his man overplays, cuts hard to the rim and catches a quick pass from the wing. Layup, ideally.
When the first option is covered, the ball moves to the center in the low-to-mid post. (In the Princeton Offense, a good passing big man is crucial. More often than not the five is the fulcrum of the offense; he sets up higher than the usual center, and almost every play runs through him. It also helps if he can shoot a decent jumper.) Ball in hand, the center can pass to the corner if he’s double-teamed. A good three-point look usually results. If the defense plays him straight up, the center has plenty of room to maneuver for his own shot.
The 5 has another option, too: The 2-guard up high and the strong forward have changed positions, with the 4 moving up top and the 2 sprinting to the corner (the PG, recall, was already in the corner, so he moves to the wing as the whole formation rotates clockwise). Moving fast, the 4 plants his foot and cuts backdoor. The center hits him with a short pass a few feet from the hoop.
And oh, there’s more. Much more. Another trademark play in the Princeton Offense is the dribble-drive backdoor cut, whereby the point or 2-guard drives toward his teammate on the wing, and that teammate cuts swiftly toward the basket as the defenders react to the dribble. The ball carrier executes an immediate bounce pass and the cutter has an open road to the rack. When the cutter isn’t open, the ball moves to the corner, the players rotate again, and the mobile center sets a high-post screen that opens a jump shot. In other sets the five is very high, near the top of the key, and flicks neat little passes to his cutting teammates.
If you’re confused by these convoluted explanations, don’t worry. I was confused writing them. It’s nearly impossible to effectively describe the offense without visual aid (check out this NBA TV segment for a concise, if incomplete, video breakdown).
What’s more, the Princeton method is so varied and intricate a player might spend four years in a Tigers uniform and never master the entire system. Some very smart coaches have said the offense is like a secret code, as indecipherable as an ancient text. Imagine game-planning to defend the Princeton Offense in a tournament format, with only one or two days to prepare. No wonder teams like UCLA have fallen prey to the Tigers.
The above paragraphs are just a minute sampling; every set has multiple components, additional options. The Princeton playbook is thicker than the Bible.
Yet for all of its complicated variations, the Princeton Offense, at heart, is about reacting to your opponent’s particular defensive style. If the defender overplays on the perimeter, you go back door. If he clutters the lane, you screen and shoot jumpers. If he plays your center one-on-one, you let the big man work. It’s a reactionary offense in many respects, predicated on savvy guard play, good long-range shooting, precise passing and—most importantly—floor spacing. Without proper spacing, the cutters can’t cut, the center can’t move, and the entire operation grinds to a halt.
Journalist Grant Wahl wrote about the Princeton Offense for a 2003 Sports Illustrated article. Of course, he included a few insights from the always-candid Pete Carril:
“The basic difference [between this system and others] is that there’s a greater use of cutting, and not much picking,” Carril says. “It’s supposed to take the tension out of a game, so five guys aren’t just complaining about getting enough touches, all that bullshit. You know the ball’s going to come to you at the right time. If you’re not skillful you can’t play in this offense, because everyone is the point guard. The minute you have the ball in your hand, you’re expected to see what to do, to read the defense.”
Clearly the Princeton system was not designed for uncoordinated bruisers. It’s a thinking man’s offense, cerebral, deliberate; it maximizes a player’s abilities, yet also betrays his weaknesses. Without excellent fundamentals he’ll be lost out there. Proper execution leads to success. A hard cut to the basket, an accurate pass, a layup—it looks easy when it’s working, when the players are all on the same page.
On the rarest of occasions, Carril’s invention does indeed kill giants (just ask UCLA).
Yet the system has its flaws. For one, offensive rebounding is almost nonexistent. With players spread far from the hoop, most of them above the free-throw line, there’s little chance for put-backs or tip-ins. If the team goes cold, easy shots might be hard to find. And any offense, no matter how well-rehearsed, will inevitably break down—an errant pass is tipped and the play goes kaput, or the defense covers every move perfectly. If this happens at a big-time program, the solution is simple: isolate your best player and let him create a shot. A team like Princeton has no such luxury. The point or shooting guard might be very good, but chances are he cannot consistently manufacture his own look. When their system fails, the Tigers are toothless.
Carril knows the limitations of his offense better than anyone. He often explains his offensive philosophy in very humble terms. “We pass the ball, we dribble the ball, we shoot the ball,” he said. “The only thing we don’t do is rebound.”