Anatomy of An Offense
A scattering of thoughts on Princeton, Pete Carril and basketball’s most deliberate system.
In today’s college game, you can watch the Princeton Offense at schools around the country. Bill Carmody, former head coach of the Princeton Tigers and a Carril pupil, runs a highly effective Princeton Offense at Northwestern. In terms of academic excellence, recruiting limitations and personnel, Northwestern and Princeton are very similar programs.
Craig Robinson, a 1983 Princeton graduate, teaches the offense at Oregon State. Down in Virginia, Chris Mooney runs a Princeton variation at Richmond, and out west, Joe Scott’s Denver Pioneers are running Carril’s system.
Georgetown’s John Thompson III has taken the Princeton Offense about as far as it can go at the NCAA level. Playing in a major conference, recruiting big-time athletes, Georgetown is consistently among the nation’s top teams. Year after year, the Hoyas mix speed and strength with execution; they can pass and shoot like any good Princeton team, but can also snatch rebounds, run the floor and take advantage of their athletic gifts. Thompson played for Carril in the ‘80s and later coached at Princeton for four seasons, where his teams won three Ivy League championships. When he took the Georgetown job and moved to Washington, DC, he began preaching the Princetonian concepts of ball movement, teamwork and intelligence—the “Georgetown Offense,” as he called it.
The NBA was once riddled with teams that played a Princeton style. The heyday was in the early 2000s, when squads like New Jersey, Sacramento, Washington, Milwaukee and Minnesota were running modified Princeton Offenses. More recently, Byron Scott’s Cleveland Cavaliers have tried to run a pseudo-Princeton Offense over the past couple of seasons, but it’s failed so often and so completely that Scott was forced to scuttle most of the system.
The offense is a tricky sell in the Association—a typical NBA team has a roster full of All-Americans, the very best players at their particular universities, and the majority have never run a true Princeton design. With so much talent at their disposal, most NBA coaches opt for one-on-one play or quick-hitting, transitional offense. Given the state of the League today, and the amount of sheer talent on the floor at any one time, this seems the logical thing to do.
But not so long ago, the Kings and Nets proved the viability of the Princeton Offense within the ultra-athletic confines of the NBA. How can we forget the upstart Nets marching all the way to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003? Byron Scott coached those squads; his assistant, Eddie Jordan, learned the nuances of the Princeton Offense from Pete Carril when both men were assistants in Sacramento.
Jason Kidd, as smart a point guard as the League has ever seen, ran the offense with panache. Kidd could play that cagey Princeton game, whipping passes with one hand, looking off his defender and hoisting a backdoor lob. Guys like Keith Van Horn benefited from open three-point looks, and the ferocious Kenyon Martin anchored the frontcourt. New Jersey shared the ball and played fluid team offense. In ’02 they were strong enough to survive the East and challenge the Lakers for the NBA crown, but ultimately, Shaq and Kobe brought home the rings. The following year, the Nets fell to the Spurs in a six-game series.
And the Kings—remember those purple-clad Sacramento Kings? Mike Bibby running the show, a poor man’s JKidd, and Chris Webber in the prime of his career down at forward, and sweet-shooting Peja Stojakovic out on the wing, hitting three after three. The center spot—the all-important hub of the Princeton Offense—was filled by Vlade Divac, the big man of uncanny skill who could pass like a guard. Cranky Rick Adelman walked the sideline, Phil Jackson’s western rival. Sacramento challenged the Lakers, too, always the underdog against those powerhouse L.A. squads. It’s fitting that Pete Carril was an assistant with the Kings in those days, dispensing his basketball wisdom (he continued to work for Sacramento until 2011, and from what I can glean from the internet, is still an advisor to the team).
I usually cheered for Sacramento to beat the Lakers (I thought Shaq was too enormous and shouldn’t be allowed to play—he offended my sense of fairness), and I pulled for the Nets in those mismatched Finals. I was always disappointed, because L.A. or San Antonio was always too good.
I suppose teams like Princeton, Northwestern, the Nets and the Kings run the Princeton Offense because they don’t have players like Shaq and Kobe. They believe, however naively, that the beautiful whirling motion of the Princeton system will confuse, beguile and befuddle their opponents. And sometimes, with the right execution and preparation, with the right coach leading the charge, that’s exactly what happens.
So next time you watch the Princeton Offense on TV, whether at the pro, college or even high school level, take note. Look for the backdoor cuts, the tricky rotations. Check out the bounce passes, the deceptive screening and the slow-down tempo. Hopefully, if the team is any good, you’ll see first-rate basketball—the disciplined synchronicity of an old-school system.
You’ll see Pete Carril’s marvelous invention, his gift to the game, at work.
Reporting from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Princeton Alumni Weekly and GoPrincetonTigers.com contributed to this story.