Success of the 'Super' Lakers will depend on new Princeton offense
The doors opened on the much-anticipated first day of Lakers practice, and everything relevant and substantive about the most compelling team of this NBA season was right there to be seen.
No, it wasn't Kobe Bryant declaring ownership of the team or Metta World Peace comparing the Lakers to Care Bears or jokester Dwight Howard continuing his lifelong comedy tour. It was, believe it or not, a basketball practice.
The Lakers' fabulous five -- Steve Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Pau Gasol, and a surprisingly mobile Howard -- was somehow losing a game of five-on-zero because of the rules. The Princeton offense, a free-flowing, read-and-react system they plan to use en route to a championship, was the invisible opponent. And it was clearly getting the best of them.
New Lakers assistant/Princeton offense expert Eddie Jordan controlled the floor during these final minutes of what had been a four-hour practice. The work, and the Lakers' spirited attempt to work together, was front and center.
Enough with the simplistic talk about whose team this is, or the silly storylines about whether the edgy Bryant and silly man Howard can co-exist. That fodder had made headlines and fed the news cycle the day before, when 300-plus reporters descended on the circus that was media day.
Beyond the matters of health that will be a story all season long, this will be about the basketball. And because it's nearly impossible to imagine a team with Howard, Bryant and World Peace anchoring its defense and Mike Brown as its coach struggling on that end, it will be -- above all else -- about offense.
Tuesday's events only heightened this reality, as Howard participated in live action of the one-on-one and two-on-two variety and was suddenly talking about the remote possibility that he could return from his April back surgery during one of the Lakers' final preseason games.
"Hopefully I'll be back for some preseason games," Howard said. "I think we're going to need it for chemistry and all that stuff. But like I said, I'm not going to rush. I'm going to continue to practice. We've had some great practices. Today was really good, so I'm happy."
Said Brown: "It's live [action], and if a guy isn't 100 percent going live then I'm not going to put him out there to where he gets hurt."
In other words, he'll be back before long and the focus will be on -- imagine this -- the basketball team that Brown must maximize.
Brown, a former Cavaliers coach and product of the revered San Antonio system whose career has long since been defined by his ability to orchestrate tremendous defensive teams, knew that much after his underwhelming debut season with the Lakers in which they finished third in the Western Conference (41-25) and fell to Oklahoma City in five games in the second round. He knew something had to be done about the offense that plummeted from ninth in scoring the year before he arrived to 15th in 2011-12, about the fact that his Lakers set a team record by scoring fewer than 100 points in 13 consecutive games in January (going 7-6 in that stretch).
He knew offensive changes needed to be made if this Super Team was going to be superb, and if he was going to survive to see the third and final guaranteed season of his $18 million contract. So with the memories of Jordan's Wizards still fresh in his mind after their teams faced off in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2006, 2007 and 2008 (all Cavs victories, Brown points out), he knew who to call.
"I thought that game-planning defensively against all the teams out there, [Jordan's Wizards teams were] the hardest to defend," Brown said of Jordan, who learned the system from Princeton legend Pete Carril while with the Kings in the late 1990s. "The floor was spaced great, there were a lot of cuts that were available. If you took one thing away, there was a counter to every one thing that you did. You don't have to verbalize a lot of stuff, so teams can't look or see a call and sit on something because they know it's coming.
"It's just hard to guard. And unless you have a good understanding of what you're going to do as a group defensively, at times it can be impossible to guard."
Brown didn't stop there, though. His research included a visit over the summer from University of Denver coach Joe Scott, a Princeton product who runs the system and who agreed to fly out to Los Angeles for a tutorial session.
"I spent the summer piecing this thing together," Brown said, "so it's not like I'm trying to learn something new from somebody or another group of people. I had a lot to do with putting it together and making sure that it fit right and felt right. I have a comfort level that I feel pretty good about. It's not necessarily just the Princeton. Everybody thinks it's the Princeton. It's aspects of that, but there's also aspects of what we did last year and a couple wrinkles here and there and other stuff."
For players like Bryant and Gasol, who mastered a similar system in the triangle under Phil Jackson, the transition to the Princeton should be easier than the rest. But Nash, the ball-dominant master of the pick-and-roll, said he has never run anything remotely close to this system in his NBA days or in college at Santa Clara. He's more than capable of mastering it, of course. But much like the notion that the Larry O'Brien trophy should already be shipped to Laker Land, it's presumptuous to deem it a foregone conclusion.
"It's going to be a big transition for me, but one that I'm excited to take on and open-minded about," Nash said. "I think we'll still see a lot of pick-and-rolls, but we have different personnel so it'll also maybe be a benefit to me to maybe not have so much responsibility. I think the beauty of this team is we have a lot of guys who can make the defense pay. If we play together, and we space the floor, and we read and react, we can be a difficult team to cover. ... We covered a lot of ground today.
"For us, it was a day of building blocks, just trying to get down some fundamentals and some ideas and philosophies that the coaches want us to work on and build on defense and offense. It's a lot. It's a lot of reading and reacting. It's a lot of connectivity that has to take place. You have to read the guy in front of you. There's limitless possibilities out of it. Once we get a handle of it, it will be difficult to defend."
Said Howard: "I like how the offense flows. Once all of us understand how to move off each other, to feed off each other, all that stuff is going to come and the offense is going to be great."
Howard's role will be worth watching, as he hardly fits the profile of a prototypical Princeton-style center. For all his incredible physical skills and forceful offensive game, Vlade Divac he is not. And passing, above all else, is key in the Princeton. Brown, however, said adjustments will be made to tailor it to his new big man.
"Very seldom will he catch the ball at the elbow and have to be the quarterback there," Brown said. "A lot of times where he's going to be the quarterback is when he catches the ball in the post, because there's going to be movement while he has the ball in the post.
"But if he doesn't get double-teamed, then I've got my money on him that nine times out of 10 he's going to score in a one-on-one situation, so that movement is going to occupy the defense to allow him to go ahead and make a move and look to score."
Bryant, whose enormous offensive load last season (23 shots per game) had everything to do with the lack of creativity in the system, said the Princeton just might be perfect.
"It was very productive," he said of the practice. "I don't think it'll be that bad [of an adjustment], to be honest with you. I relate it to the first year Phil came here and put in the triangle offense. We had a lot of players who had a high basketball IQ and they just picked it up right away."
They can only hope this story turns out the same way this time around.