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Subject: Interesting article on the Princeton Offense in the WSJ


Author:
Jerrylh
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Date Posted: 09:41:00 03/09/17 Thu

I thought this might be of interest.

Pete Carril Saw the Future of Basketball. The legendary Princeton coach pushed his teams to space the court, pass the ball and shoot 3-pointers. The rest of the sport is finally listening.

Pete Carril likes what he sees when he turns on NBA League Pass these days. He admires the ball movement. He appreciates the floor spacing. He applauds the unprecedented display of 3-point shooting

But there's a reason it's easy for Carril to enjoy watching the NBA's best teams. It's because the NBA's best teams now play like his old Princeton teams.

"You'd have to be blind as a bat not to notice that," he said. Carril, the 86-year-old basketball sage known as "Yoda," was the architect of an eccentric offense designed to give his Ivy League school a chance against more talented teams, which was almost every team it played. But his work was always seen as part brilliance, part gimmick-even when Carril retired in 1996. Only since then has something unexpected happened.

It has become clear in recent years, as basketball has evolved, that Carril was ahead of his time.

The Golden State Warriors aren't running backdoor cuts, and the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't running down the entire shot clock. But in many ways, the game has caught up to Carril. The trends of today's NBA are the same as his ideas from decades ago.

Carril was bullish on 3-pointers. "I love the 3-point shot," he once wrote. "You know why? Because it means they're giving us three points for the same shot we used to get two for."

He valued big men who could play small ball. "All five guys could step outside and make a 3-point shot," said Bob Scrabis, who played for him in the 1980s. "If you couldn't shoot, you couldn't play."

He also hated mid-range shots. "If you charted our shooting and looked at how many shots were layups or 3-point shots," said Princeton alumnus Matt Lapin, "it had to have been 90%. And maybe even higher." NBA teams play the way Carril always believed the game should be played because they have data that proves it works. But that information wasn't
available when Carril was coaching. And others were curious about Princeton's unusual style. Carill still recalls one clinic when former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson cornered him to ask why Princeton only seemed to shoot high-percentage, highly efficient shots: 3-pointers and layups. "We didn't have that in-between shot," Carril said.

They also didn't have the pace of today's NBA. That's the big difference between Princeton and its descendants. NBA teams push the tempo. Princeton squashed it. But even now, when the league is faster and more athletic than ever, the
principles of the Princeton offense are plain to see. They been adapted by the current generation and amplified for the modern game.

"There's a very strong correlation between what's going on in the NBA and what's been espoused here for a long time," said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson.

This, of course, sounds crazy. Princeton's system became synonymous with killing the clock, torturing defenses with backdoor cuts and generally playing as if the hoops were still peach baskets. But that perception of the
Princeton offense as a relic always bugged the people who knew it best. "We had to combat the idea that the Princeton offense was about slowing the game down," Henderson said. "That's the furthest thing from the truth."

The real idea powering the Princeton offense was simple: take good shots. Princeton got those good shots by creating space on the court, often by moving traditional post players out to the perimeter, and passing the ball until someone was open for a three or layup. That might sound familiar to anyone who has seen an NBA game lately.

It was contrarian then, but it's common sense now, which only makes it more remarkable that Carril's ideas weren't incorporated earlier. And the most innovative part of the Princeton offense was Carril's early adoption of the 3-pointer.

The 3-point line was introduced to college basketball in the 1987 season, and it played right into Princeton's existing strategy. Carril's team was already shooting from deep. But those shots were suddenly worth more.

"The 3-point line," Scrabis said, "worked so much to our advantage."

Carril encouraged his players to take advantage of 3-pointers even when that line was only taped on the court. "They literally had not incorporated it into the floor yet," Lapin said. Carril didn't care. He would stop practice if he saw a player's toe on the arc and make him inch backward. He also shot 3-pointers in practice. "Just to prove a point," he said. It didn't matter how far away a player was far from the basket. He was allowed to shoot as
long as he was open.

In that first season, when other coaches were still debating whether the 3-point line would destroy basketball, Carril's team launched 30% of its shots from behind the arc. Two years later, it was 42%. Two more years
later, nearly half of Princeton's shots were threes.
That would be a record in the NBA this season. It was completely radical in 1991. The average team in the NCAA tournament that year depended on threes for 22% of its shots. No other team was above 37%. Princeton was at 48%.
They were analytically savvy before anyone knew what that meant.

Carril's teams also understood before anyone in basketball that a 3-pointer could be worth more than three points. It had a psychological effect that couldn't be quantified. They made defenses worry about backdoor layups only to see Princeton sink a more valuable shot instead. "It was demoralizing to other teams," Scrabis said. The Rockets' James Harden, the Cavaliers' LeBron James and Warriors'
Stephen Curry all incorporate aspects of Pete Carril's offense in the modern NBA.

Even as his ideas have become popular, though, Carril isn't basking in credit. The former Sacramento Kings assistant is a fan of the Golden State
Warriors and especially the San Antonio Spurs, "because no matter who's there," he said, "they're true to the way they play." But he also worries about the future of basketball. Carril believes that teams playing the same way-even if it's his way-isn't necessarily good for the game.

"There are so many threes," he said, "that it could be uninteresting."

There are even more threes in college basketball. Princeton, the No. 1 seed in the inaugural Ivy League tournament this weekend, led its conference in
3-point reliance in a season when the Ivy League had the highest proportion of 3-pointers of any conference in history.

But the 3-pointer has always been the slingshot that basketball Davids use to beat Goliaths-especially in the NCAA tournament. The single-elimination format incentivizes the underdog to decrease possessions and increase
variance by holding the ball, firing away from beyond the arc and hoping it's a day when those shots fall.

That was the blueprint, in fact, for the biggest win of Carril's career.

Princeton's upset of defending national champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 tournament is remembered every March for the funny-looking final score: 43-41. But overlooked that day was a statistical anomaly: Princeton
took 46 shots that day-and 27 of them were threes.

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