Cavaliers Film Room: The Princeton Offense

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Thanks to Mike Brown Auerbach, and the Lakers’ early season struggles, the Princeton offense has become a popular topic amongst analysts and talking heads. It’s this offense that many are saying is preventing Steve Nash, the Lakers’ offense, and the list of celebrities trying to find a seat on the LA bandwagon from reaching their full potential.

Closer to home, we see a version of this Princeton “Option” offense night in and night out with the Wine and Gold.

“What exactly is the Princeton offense you may ask?

“Is it an offense which features five guys with their collars popped? Not quite.

“An offense consisting of five guys who prefer a glass of red wine over a cold beer? Most likely not.

“An offense run primarily through the high post, that attacks mismatches through constant movement, pick and rolls, and back door cuts?” Bingo!

One of the easiest ways to tell when the Cavaliers are in their Princeton offense is when the ball starts up top in the hands of one their bigs.

Waiters brings the ball up the court and passes to Varejao at the top of the arc. Alonzo Gee will run from the baseline off a Kyrie Irving down screen, followed by Gee and Varejao running through the set’s first option.

Andy starts his dribble towards Gee and begins the first option. Gee has a step on his man, thanks in part to the Irving screen, which gives Andy the read to give the ball to Gee on a dribble handoff.

With his man trailing him, Gee turns the corner and now it’s simple math. Five wine colored jerseys vs. four in white. Coming off the handoff it is crucial for the Cavaliers to keep the floor spaced. Thompson and Waiters do a good job staying spaced, making it much harder for their man to help and recover on penetration.

Irving rotates up, pulling his man away from the rolling Varejao. Waiters’ man is in no position to help on the drive, and now it’s Gee and Varejao attacking the lone Milwaukee defender.

Gee throws the lob, Andy lays it in. High fives all-around.

 Later in the game we see a similar set with the ball starting in Varejao’s hands at the top of the arc.

Donald Sloan cuts through the lane taking his man with him. This leaves Varejao and Gee in a dribble handoff against two Milwaukee defenders with no help on that side of the floor.

Gee’s defender goes under the Varejao screen, and instead of settling for a three, Gee attacks Varejao’s man who is hedging on the screen.

This action on the strong side of the play draws help from Gibson’s man on the weak side. Ever since Gee came off the dribble hand-off the Bucks have been scrambling to help and recover.

The Bucks are a step too slow, and Boobie has a clear shot.

Here against the Clippers we see the Cavaliers run another option off of this Princeton set. Once again the ball starts in Andy’s hands at the top of the arc. He’ll dribble towards Gee and engage him in the handoff.

Varejao hands off, screens, and then rescreens Gee’s man.

Gee comes off the screen ready to attack his mismatch with Varejao’s man. Irving’s defender is also watching Gee and prepared to help on a drive. Irving sees his man watching the ball, and take off on a back door cut.

Kyrie beats his man, and catches the ball in the lane with a great look at the basket.  A well executed half court set.

The Princeton offense requires discipline to be run correctly. The goal is to run your set, run through all its options, and catch the defense in a moment of weakness. Once that moment comes, you attack and find an open teammate or some shooting room.

 As mentioned earlier, Mike Brown and his Los Angeles Lakers also run some sets from the Princeton offense. This leaves Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to play the “Anderson Varejao” position as a point forward of sorts.   Both Gasol and Howard can hurt teams in pick and roll situations like the ones that arise in many Princeton offense sets, but the two of them are much more destructive with Howard in the low post and Gasol stretching the floor.

Due to their struggles early on, Mike Brown and the Lakers have started to stray away from the Princeton “dribble handoff” sets that the Cavs continue to run with Varejao. However, despite their success generating points in other ways, and struggles with Princeton sets, Brown continues to push the Princeton philosophy on his team.This set should look familiar. Howard with the ball at the top of the arc, dribbling towards Metta World Peace  for the dribble handoff.

 World Peace  has no real advantage off of the handoff, and throws the ball to Gasol in the high post.

Gasol catches, fakes a handoff to World Peace, and then will throw the ball back to him in the corner.

Although the ball is on the wing and not with Gasol at the top of the arc, this is essentially the same look as the Alonzo Gee/Varejao handoff from two plays ago. In both plays, the big (Gasol/Varejao) , and the wing (World Peace/Gee) engage each other into a screen and roll.

World Peace comes off the Gasol screen and attacks the paint. Prince attempts recover on World Peace, who draws help from Kobe’s man. That means Kobe Bryant is open, and you never want to leave the Black Mamba alone.

Bryant catches, shoots, and buries a trey to give the Lakers a 31 point lead.

The results have been mixed so far for Coach Scott and his club offensively. Against Washington, Varejao picked up nine assists from his point forward spot and the Cavaliers had great success with their Princeton sets. During the following game with Chicago, the Bulls upped the pressure and took the Cavs out of their offense early and often on most possessions. Against Milwaukee and Los Angeles the Cavs saw moderate success running Princeton sets but the real success came as the floor was spread wide with Irving or Waiters up top receiving a high ball screen. This allows Coach Scott to get his athletes in space, and let them do what they do best, get to the rim.

Look for the Cavaliers to continue running their Princeton sets thoughout the season, however, keep an eye on crunch time. Will they run through their offense? Or abandon the sets and simply let their athletes play ball?

[Related: Cavaliers’ coaster ride heads back up in win over Clippers]

  • Lyon25

    I’d love to see Kyrie or Dion get the handoff and attack. Could be so much more dangerous.

    Great Post!

  • Jared in LA

    Nice article Ryan. All I know is that people here in L.A. want to chop Mike Brown’s head off with this Princeton offense. Their beloved Lakers are like our Browns. No other sport matters, it’s all Lakers all year around and it’s great to see them lose and get older.

  • Dan

    Nice article, very interesting!

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Awesome, good job Ryan… this was interesting to see. You can see why this offense was developed at Princeton… it requires a lot of basketball intelligence and attention to detail predicated on making the right read. Asking that from Metta World Peace (who seems like a fairly dumb guy) and Dwight Howard (who seems intelligent but also seems like he wouldn’t be able to pay attention long enough to learn) might be part of why LA has been playing poorly. Just firing from the hip there.

  • Lyon25

    Can’t think of anyone worse doing a dribble handoff than Howard. Not the best offense for that collection of talent.

  • CJJ

    Ryan, great explanation of the Princeton Offense !! Lakers and Cavs running the same offence is very interesting because the personnel is so different. I see the Lakers getting away from it more than the Cavs. I have never seen this explained so well. Great job !!

  • mgbode

    it’s not just basketball intelligence, but also passing/cutting ability off the elbow (or arc) for a big man.

    still remember the Webber Kings. I hated Chris Webber until he got to Sacramento, but I couldn’t help but become infatuated with that team. Webber was born to run the Point-Forward slot of the Princeton offense.

  • mgbode

    but what about Pau? he is a gifted passer and should be the point-forward on that team. haven’t watched too much of the Lakers yet, but I’ll try to catch one of their games and see what he does. Dwight should be in float and crash mode w/ this offense.

  • mgbode

    Is this going to be a regular addition to the WFNY world? Love the film rooms and this post shows that it has the same potential of the ones for the Browns. Great post.

  • CBI

    Great article. I might even begin to wait a couple of seconds after Irving crosses the half court line to start repeatedly screaming “Shoot the ball!”

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I hear you… this is exactly why BS pushed so hard to have Luke Walton be in that spot for the 2nd unit, but the truth is that you still need that person to score the ball from time to time.

  • mgbode

    Walton can still pass, but that whole cutting thing has left him. If you cannot do both, then it makes it easy on the defense.

  • Conrad Kaczmarek

    Great breakdown. It’s another reason that the Cavs valued Tyler Zeller so much. To run this properly, you need good passing big men with a good feel for the game. Varejao can obviously do it and we need a guy who can do it on the second unit. That’s pretty much why Luke Walton was in the first couple of games, I think. Zeller should develop into that real solid passing man.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Great piece. Between this and the film room for the Browns, it’s quite the education – actually seeing even more stuff than I was before. Guy I own Browns’ tickets with comes over to watch the games every week, can’t understand how I’m able to call what they’re about to do half the time (which is troubling for the Browns O…). Half the time I reference a film room piece.