Q&A with Pete Carril: How will the Princeton offense work for Lakers?
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."