First things first, Pete Carril says, the Princeton offense doesn't always work.
Legendary as it may be, the ball-sharing, backdoor-cutting, brilliant and beautiful basketball system that he made famous throughout his Hall of Fame coaching career has failed before. In fact, that's why Carril was so tickled when Eddie Jordan called three weeks ago to inform his old mentor that he was finalizing a deal to join the Lakers as an assistant coach.
Jordan, with whom Carril coached in Sacramento in the late 1990s, has been out of work since April 2010, when he was fired after one season as the 76ers' coach. The Sixers' experience didn't go nearly as well as Jordan's previous stints with New Jersey (NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, while an assistant under Byron Scott) and Washington (four playoff appearances in his five full seasons as head coach), as Philadelphia's roster was a mismatch for the Princeton system. A 27-55 record sent Jordan on his way. Yet Carril, who is now retired after working with the Kings as a consultant through 2011, is optimistic that his protégé's latest endeavor will go far better than his last one.
"I was so happy when he called me because I blamed myself for his getting fired in Philly," the 82-year-old Carril said in a long chat with SI.com. "I told him he can call me anytime he wants."
With the Princeton offense set to become the Lakers' new calling card, as long as Jordan's hiring is formalized as expected next week, the man known as "Coachie" in NBA circles may need to add a few phone lines. There will certainly be no shortage of questions coming his way.
Newly acquired center Dwight Howard spent years in Orlando feeling underutilized when he wasn't surrounded by future Hall of Famers; will he buy into a selfless style while surrounded by stars? Point guard Steve Nash isn't used to playing alongside a ball-dominant guard like Kobe Bryant; how will an adjustment affect his game? Bryant has already endorsed the Princeton system as a long-lost cousin to the triangle offense that left with Phil Jackson in 2011; will he take the necessary steps to improve a Lakers' offense that ranked 10th-most efficient in the league last season?
Carril doesn't know those answers, but he is a firm believer that the Princeton offense could help turn the Lakers into title contenders again. And with training camp still a month away, one of the game's most innovative minds was kind enough to share his perspective on how it all might work -- or not work -- for Kobe and Co. in 2012-13.
SI.com: So Coachie, how do you see the Princeton offense fitting in L.A.?
Carril: I imagine that if the [Lakers] guys want to do it, and [the coaches] can convince them that it'd better for them, I think they'll do it. They have the right ingredients, all the passers. They have really good passers there. The only one I don't really know much about as a passer is Howard. But [Pau] Gasol can pass and he can shoot, and of course Bryant and Nash can shoot, and whatever they call him now [Metta World Peace], I know he can pass. It all depends on Howard, and then what kind of bench they have.
I know Jodie Meeks is a shooter. He makes shots. And Antawn Jamison is not a shooter, but he can play. Eddie knows all about him from having coached him in Washington.
Generally speaking, that offense doesn't work when two things are prevalent. One is when they treat it like a robotic thing. And the other is when they don't want to do it.
SI.com: We'll touch on the Lakers more soon, but can you tell me about the origins of the Princeton offense?
Carril: No one has ever taken my word for it, but half of that offense -- not half, but certain ingredients in that offense -- come from an old Boston Celtics play which we used to just call "low post play." It was a pass down to a center, to [Bill] Russell, and he'd throw it to a forward -- which could've been Paul Silas, could've been Tom Sanders, could've been [Jim] Loscutoff, Willie Naulls -- any one of those guys that they had. They'd throw it down to him and set a screen away from the ball at about the elbow, and now first was [Bill] Sharman, then comes Sam Jones, then comes [Frank] Ramsey, a whole [line] of guys would just come off that screen and shoot a 15-foot jumper. Of course the one distinction would be that Sam Jones, he banked them all. That's part of it.
Then the Knicks during their heyday, they had a situation where they had an exchange along the side between the guard and the forward. [Forward Bill] Bradley would set a pick for [the guard], and then they would switch so Bradley would have the outside shot and [the guard] would go inside and take a fadeaway. We used to call that "Knick." But we added to it, because my guys couldn't make those shots as consistently as those guys did.
And then we had dribble handoffs. We didn't pick much to the ball, although, if I had to do it now, I certainly would put that in. We only would set a pick for the ball when the center for the other team didn't show [defensively]. He wouldn't show, and the guy would screen for the ball and come off and get free shots. But nowadays that [center] shows too hard, and the little guards are so clever they're splitting that pick. It's a very effective play, pick-and-roll.
SI.com: Will the Princeton offense work for the Lakers?
Carril: What I told Eddie is that it might work for this team for several reasons. One is that you're going to get easy shots for Kobe Bryant. And over the last several years, I've seen where his shots have become harder and harder to get. He's getting older and more tired, so I'd like to see whether they can get him some easy shots. He's going to make them.
But you have to set picks to do that, whether you set a pick with Gasol or whoever it is, you're going to get a free shot and they're going to find out -- the way I did -- that the guy who sets the pick, after a while, is going to be more open than the guy that he set the pick for. They've got shooters, they've got passers, so they can run that. Whether they want to do it? I think Eddie can show them how to do it so it's not robotic, and it could be effective.
SI.com: What exactly do you mean by "robotic"?
Carril: You call the play; call "low post play." But the way we did it [at Princeton], you ran the low post play without calling it a play. You brought the ball up the court, then you saw that the forward or the wing guy was wide open, so throw him the ball. Then, after you threw him the ball, you cut. Then you looked for the center down in the post, and he wasn't there. He was at the elbow, so you ran something there. It was based on what you're able to see. Then it becomes especially hard to guard. You've got to have shooters, but you're going to get free shots.
Backdoor became a very important play, because if they would overplay you then you go backdoor. And because my teams couldn't shoot as well as the pro teams, I had to develop the next step: If we couldn't hit shots, what did we do? If that didn't work, what did we do? It was just one continuous motion of weaves to see what was available. Each guy has to give a little bit, each guy has to play a little bit more without the ball, and they have to be happy with it.
SI.com: How important do you feel Howard's role will be in this whole experiment? He's not exactly known for his passing, so could that limit what the Lakers can do?
Carril: Well, a little bit. I remember when Eddie was with the Nets, their center [Jason Collins] didn't score and didn't pass. So they had the guy from Denver [Kenyon Martin]; they would throw it into him and the guy who would guard him would sag off so much that he couldn't throw it into the post and they had to run something else. But Eddie devised a way so that the majority of passes were thrown by Jason Kidd, so it became effective.
Eddie was always clever that way. When I worked with him in Sacramento, he always had a good feel for the game. That's why I guess he was such a good [player]. He stole a lot of balls and knew how to play. So he got it to work [in New Jersey], then he got it to work in Washington, too. It's good when your center can pass the ball. At first you'll have to prove it to him, but after a while you'll see that the more he passes, the more he's going to score.
SI.com: How do you envision Kobe's role? Last year, he averaged 23 shots a game and worked pretty hard for his attempts.
Carril: Well, if he sees it the way I see it, and the way Eddie sees it, he's going to take less shots and make more of them. And he's going to pass more, which he's very good at. And the same is true of Nash. Nash is not always going to have the ball in his hands, but because he's such a good ball-handler and so is Kobe, you don't have to worry about who's going to bring up the ball. They've got the personnel where there's an awful lot you can do with that team.
SI.com: How about World Peace? You saw him up close while you were with the Kings, but I think people would be surprised to hear how highly you think of his passing.
Carril: Oh, yeah, he can throw any kind of a pass. And if he practices hard, he'll make enough threes that they'll have to honor that shot and he can drive.
SI.com: So all in all, it sounds like you think this can work. But could the Princeton offense bring the Lakers back to their triangle roots?
Carril: I remember when I made [an instructional] video of [the Princeton system], and we're in the playoffs [Kings vs. Lakers in the early 2000s] and the guy who [produced] the video said the Lakers ordered three copies. This was when we played the Lakers in the playoffs. And actually, there's not much difference between the triangle offense and that offense -- except that our offense is a little more creative. What's the triangle offense? The idea is to pass the ball. And Phil Jackson had a thing they'd call four-pass, where you had to pass the ball four times before you shot it. It was very effective. They deviated from it when [Jackson] was with [Michael] Jordan. He did things on his own and he was good at it, but he liked the offense too because it gets you to share the ball and, in general, takes a lot of the tension out of the game. But they have to like it, and they have to see how to make the game easier.
SI.com: I see the similarities. But what are the main differences between the triangle and the Princeton offenses?
Carril: I think [the Princeton offense] is more creative, but I would never argue that. Gasol is going to turn out to be a three-point shooter. And if you want that to be effective, then he's got to make them. He had to do the same thing with [Andrew] Bynum, and now he's got this guy [Howard]. It's going to be pretty good. And whatever they need, I know that Eddie will straighten it out.
I told Eddie, "Don't insist on doing it. If you have resistance [from players] to what you're doing, then work around what they want to do, because a good coach builds a team around the things that his guys can do."
SI.com: Can you elaborate on Howard's place in this equation? What if he doesn't fit into the system?
Carril: Well, then it's like with the Nets and what happened there, when their center didn't contribute the assists or scoring that they needed but Eddie devised some way to get it done. They'll be thinking about that too. But [Howard] is an important rebounder. That's going to be something that he has with L.A. that he didn't have with New Jersey. But there's stuff there that Eddie's going to have to do. And then, you don't have to keep Dwight as he is [as a player]. There's no such thing as keeping him there. Who knows? With coaching and teaching and understanding of what this can do, he might turn out to be better than he is now. He should be. If he takes instruction and he listens, and of course he's playing with better players now too. He's got two Hall of Fame players for sure on that team at guard, so they're going to have a profound influence on him. So when they get him the ball, and he's in a position to pass as opposed to score, you're going to hit Steve Nash for a three-point shot. That thing is going in. And that's true with Kobe.
SI.com: Howard comes in with one year left on his contract, and I think a lot of people assume he's going to want to the ball if he's going to stick around. Isn't that a pretty tough dynamic to balance with this new system?
Carril: I definitely agree with that. On the other hand, if he's the kind of guy who's happy about winning, then that's it. That's everything. That ought to change that. If they win, and he's not happy, well, then to thine own self be true. That's not me saying that. That's Shakespeare, I believe.