The version of the Princeton offense the Lakers will use this season has the chance to be an evolving oasis of offensive possibility. The sheer talent and versatility of their core four players can translate to a multitude of actions — some obvious, some not so much — that can hurt a defense in a variety of ways.
When the Princeton was first talked about as a system the Lakers would employ, one of the first things that came to mind was Pau Gasol operating at the high post. Using Pau at that spot on the floor, with Howard occupying the low block, would take advantage of his elite passing while also utilizing his ability to space the floor as one of the better mid-range shooting big men.
This, of course, has become a staple of what the Lakers do run on offense. Every game we’ve been treated to at least one Gasol dime to Howard where he makes a catch at the elbow and plays high-low basketball with his frontcourt partner. As the season advances and these two develop even more chemistry, we should see even more of this action and little wrinkles added to it to force defenses into making the types of lose/lose choices that often result in made baskets.
However, one of the not so obvious ways the Lakers have started to take advantage of their talent has been the inverting of their big men. Against the Pistons, the Lakers ran several actions that put Pau at the low block and left Howard at the high post. This is the opening play of the game:
This play starts as many Lakers’ sets have lately, with the point guard (Steve Blake in this instance) bringing the ball up the left side of the floor with Kobe on the wing and Dwight in the ball side post. Blake enters to Kobe who looks to Dwight for a quick post up. Instead of entering the ball, Kobe passes the ball back to Blake who then enters a quick pass into Dwight as he slides up the lane line to the elbow. Blake then screens away for Pau who pops open at the top of the key where he gets the ball from Howard. This is where the heart of this action comes to life.
After Pau gets the ball at the top of the key he swings the ball back to Kobe and then rubs off a high pick from Dwight to dive to the low post. Kobe hits Pau with an entry pass while Howard hovers around the free throw line. It’s important here to note how closely Howard’s man is playing him and how much room Pau has to work on the post:
With all this room, Pau backs his man down and shoots a half hook that misses. But since he’s maneuvered his way around his man, he follows his shot, gets the offensive rebound and scores easily on a put back. It bears repeating, in this next still Howard isn’t even in the picture and Maxiell still hasn’t left the FT line area to help on the glass and is watching as Pau scores an easy two points:
One of the key reasons this set works is that the Lakers have put Pau in the post and spaced the floor in a way where if the double team comes Gasol can use his tremendous passing ability to hit the open man.
Furthermore, with Dwight at the elbow, the defense has a unique problem. If Dwight’s man leaves to double team he’s allowing Howard to dive from the FT line with the best passing big man in the league ready to drop him off a pass that will surely end with either a basket, a foul, or both. Not to mention that if Dwight’s man leaves him but the pass doesn’t go to him, he still has a wide open lane to crash the glass and be an offensive rebounder.
What the Lakers have figured out — and based off how many times they ran a variation of this set, they have figured something out — is that the defense must respect Dwight if he’s anywhere near the paint. His ability to cut to the ball and score off passes or simply get to the front of the rim for rebounding chances means that his man has to keep within arm’s distance of him at nearly all times or risk being exposed.
This doesn’t have to be a full time set for the Lakers. Dwight is still best served operating from the low post and trying to score on his man via touches in the paint. Many of those touches will come from the splendid passing ability of Pau. But there will be times where the Lakers can invert their bigs and use Pau’s strength as a post scorer to their advantage and not hesitate. Even though Dwight doesn’t have range on his jumper and isn’t known as a great high-low passer, it doesn’t matter. He’s too dangerous to leave.
Offensive spacing can come from many places. In this case it comes from Dwight Howard standing at the foul line. Not sure many people saw that coming.