The Princeton, patience and the Lakers' peril

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Eddie Jordan was hired by the Lakers to install the Princeton offense in Los Angeles. The Lakers are 0-2 and appear to be misusing the most creative point guard in the world. How does this story end?

Trust me, the glee that rips through my veins when seeing the mighty L.A. Lakers struggle is like a drug-induced electric charge. The true Lakers haters in this world have been so beaten by the villains in Forum Blue and Gold over the years that to see struggle is to see justice. I take comfort, not despair, in this 0-2 start. Know that.

But I also remember the glory of the Princeton offense. The Sacramento Kings ran a version of it under Rick Adelman. Its inventor, Pete Carril, was until recently a Kings assistant coach and adviser, a Yoda-like figure belovedly known as "Coachie."

In the first half of the last decade, there were a number of notable offensive systems in place -- the Princeton in Sacramento, the Triangle in L.A., Nellieball in Dallas, Seven Seconds or Less in Phoenix, Clear Out and Let A.I. Cross Over His Defender in Philadelphia. Seven Seconds got the book deal, Nellieball got the Hall of Fame bid and the Triangle got the championships. But the Princeton got doting fans -- not necessarily of the Kings, but of the beautiful movement, of the gorgeous symphony of cuts and passes, and of the impressive results.

The modified Princeton allowed the Kings to thrive offensively with two big men (Chris Webber and Vlade Divac) as the primary playmakers, with a two-trick pony (Peja Stojakovic) as an unstoppable scorer and with an impure point guard (Mike Bibby) as a designated gunner. Doug Christie handled a bit and was the defensive stopper; Bobby Jackson could replace Bibby or pull a Jason Terry act off of the bench. The result was sport as art.

The Lakers' offense has not come remotely close to resembling art, unless we're talking about macaroni sailboats. Even then ... I'll take the macaroni sailboat.

But this is the thing: you know how the Triangle takes a full year to grasp? The Princeton is no different. Why the Lakers or any observers thought that Eddie Jordan could install the Princeton in October and have it clicking in ... October is a mystery. Of course, chances are that the Lakers didn't expect everything to be beautiful so soon. The team -- players and staff -- is smart. Kobe Bryant's angry ripostes to catcalls are spot on: only fools would abandon a system this quickly.

Forget about the sunken-costs fallacy -- it's not as if reversion to a more traditional system would come without lengthy learning curves. If at midseason the Princeton remains a disaster, and the Lakers decide to abandon it in the interest of winning the 2012-13 championship, what's the problem? Will Steve Nash and Dwight Howard have forgotten how to run a pick-and-roll? Will Kobe suddenly be confused in isolation on the wing? Will Pau Gasol's varied skills implode? Of course not!

The opportunity cost of sticking with the Princeton is early-season wins. Home-court advantage is nice, but the Lakers have confidence they are good enough to survive without it. They won't panic if they fall behind the Spurs or Thunder. And they shouldn't. Because honestly, look at this team.

There is, of course, a second opportunity cost, one that's already been spent in large part. It's the cost of implementing an offense that would be easy to grasp from Day 1 and unstoppable. Consider that the Lakers were really good on offense last season with Kobe, Pau and Andrew Bynum. Howard is at least Bynum's offensive equal; Nash is a ridiculous offensive upgrade. Stan Van Gundy built great NBA offenses by surrounding Dwight with shooters. Howard is a lovely post scorer and a good inside-out passer. Pau and Nash are good shooters, and Kobe can be a good shooter. Rustle up a shooting small forward, and you have the S.V.G. option.

Nash and Howard are two of the best at their positions in the pick-and-roll. You have the pick-and-roll option.

Kobe and Pau can play a mean two-man game. You have that.

Kobe can create a shot against any defender in the league and, on some nights, against any two defenders in the league. You have that.

Instead of spending time focusing on implementing a brand-new offense no one on the team (minus Metta World Peace, who got a distorted version in Houston) had a working familiarity with, the Lakers could have refined the above-mentioned options and worked on team defensive schemes.

Offense wasn't the problem in L.A.'s Wednesday loss to Portland. The Lakers lost because they let Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard slaughter. Nash is a defensive liability, Kobe isn't nearly worth his reputation on that end and World Peace hasn't looked great defensively in either loss or preseason (according to those who watched the Lakers in preseason). Howard can carry a team on that end, and Mike Brown has been successful coaching defense. But he actually needs to be able to coach it. Given the widespread concerns about the offense and the pace of the NBA season, how much time will Brown really have to coach up this defense? And frankly, it's going to be more difficult than in Cleveland because there are far fewer credible pieces to mix and match. Nash, Kobe, Pau and Dwight all need to play major minutes. The bench is beyond awful. There is little lineup flexibility, there are holes among the top players. Schemes are needed.

Time is needed to implement those schemes. But time is going to be spent figuring out how to make the Princeton work. So it becomes a patience issue: can the Lakers hold out for the fruits of the Princeton? How long? At what further cost? Who, if anyone, will be the first to revolt? Will this cost Mike Brown his job? Will Eddie Jordan become a running joke? (Don't answer that, D.C. and Philadelphia.) Will Mike Brown say any more bizarre, inordinately defensive things about the perils of pick-and-roll porn, such as when he asked rhetorically on Thursday where Nash's Suns had been every May? Will this work?

Only time can tell. But we need time to tell. In the meantime, let's all just unwindulax and enjoy the greatest thing that can happen in American sports: the Lakers losing.

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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