Princeton

Anyone who’s discussed the Knickerbockers with me, either in person or online, understands that I’m a big believer in Phil Jackson. I recognize that there’s a pretty stark division in the ranks of Knickerbockerdom between supporters of Phil and detractors. Put simply, there’s a camp who believe Phil Jackson is ill-suited to his current role, despite his success as a coach. These folks point to his various lukewarm personnel decisions, and his adherence to the Triangle offense, as symbols of his inflexibility and mediocrity as team president. The other camp is generally characterized by the sense that Jackson is moving deliberately, running the team like a normal NBA franchise, avoiding the home run swing for a bunch of singles and the occasional double, Porzingis notwithstanding. His insistence on system basketball (the Triangle) is a minor feature of his tenure as team president, and it will ultimately be the personnel and culture end of the franchise evolution that will tell the story of his success or failure.

As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in between. I tend towards the rosier view of Phil Jackson’s impact on the franchise as a person who bought into a long term view of his approach from the start. In fact, I hardly expect anything monumental to occur with the Knicks during Melo’s remaining years, which would make me want out instantly if I were #7. As a non-Melo human being, I think he has tremendous value in the many evolutionary steps that will transpire between now and peak Porzingis, even if the best we can hope for is a playoff series win or two by the end of Melo Time. As a person who takes that view, I pay strict attention to Phil Jackson’s early pronouncements about molding the franchise in a way that outlasts his time in the hot seat. Phil is limited to five years with the Knicks, and we’re already halfway home. It’s next to impossible to believe that he has the resources or charisma to pull off a superteam in the next 2-3 years, and there’s still a league full of elite teams between us and anything close to a championship.

With that in mind, our coaching hire is possibly the single biggest decision Phil Jackson will make beyond the drafting of Kristaps. If he does anything to top Porzingis, the Knicks are going to be set up for a very long time. The coaching hire only has to be the 2nd best thing he does to make a long term impact. This is where my second love comes into play. I’d like the Knicks to hire David Blatt and give him the freedom to work with the Princeton offense, however he integrates the Triangle into what he does with the offensive scheme.

For a long time, I’ve been a big believe in the Princeton offense. Like the Triangle, the Princeton offense is a read and react offense that relies on fluidity, intelligence, and the seamless interaction of each player on the court. Every player has to be smart, creative, and selfless. That’s the epitome of system basketball, the thing Jackson purports to love so much. The only reason Kurt Rambis would ever be hired as the next Knicks coach is a stubborn insistence on Triangular orthodoxy. Rambis certainly knows the Triangle, and how to teach it, but he’s never shown himself to be particularly improvisational about how that offense might adapt to personnel or contemporary styles of play. If orthodoxy is the prescription, Rambis is your man. If Rambis is our man, the problems are bigger than the coach.

Blatt is far from a perfect coach, but to his credit he’s managed to stay true to the principles of system basketball, including most of the key tenants of the Princeton offense. (Watch him run an hour long clinic in the Princeton offense if you’re a super basketball nerd like me.) He’s been able to adapt and adjust to various leagues and various collections of players within the principles of his philosophy, which is precisely the approach any new Knicks coach will need under Phil Jackson. It’s up to Phil now to let go of his grip, if only a little, to include some breathing room for his coach. The benefits are very clear, whoever reaps the benefits of this freedom, but it particularly applies to Blatt, to me, because I love the Princeton offense so much. In my opinion, Princeton is superior to Triangle in any number of ways. (I’m fine with the Triangle, and consider it a feature rather than a bug, whatever others think.) Watch Eddie Jordan talk about the Princeton Offense and its origins in the 60s Celtics and 70s Knicks…another reason for us to love it.

Phil’s Bulls and Lakers ran the Triangle and made it beautiful. No question. It was a much more open and enjoyable offense to watch than the 90s Knicks, despite my rooting interest. As beautiful as those offenses were, it’s another club from that era that calls to me from the grave. The early-2000s Sacramento Kings, with Rick Adelman playing Phil Jackson and Pete Carril playing Tex Winters, who really capture my basketball imagination. Those teams never made the NBA Finals, but they were close a number of times and won more games for Sacramento than any other collection in franchise history. This little video, although imperfect, illustrates in sentiment, if not Xs and Os, what those teams were all about.

The clip features a few Princeton-esque sets, although it’s really more of a razzle dazzle highlight reel for Jason Williams and Chris Webber. The quotes that periodically appear between segments tell a particular sort of story that I think is worth considering.

“The Kings are a reminder of better days in the NBA. Someone should send their game tapes where are the life and fun have been strangled out of the game.” – Bob Ryan, Boston Globe, December 31, 2001

If there’s a place in the NBA that’s seen the fun strangled out of it, it’s Madison Square Garden. This is true of the play on court, the atmosphere of the locker room,the fandom, and the media environment. I’m certain Phil Jackson sees the Triangle, in its most beautiful execution, as a fun style of play, and a great spectacle for the fans. That may yet be true, but I doubt anything about Kurt Rambis is going to bring out that sense of fun anytime soon. I don’t see it, however well he can teach the system.

“Sacramento presents a perfect opportunity for the NBA to celebrate a style of play…The only thing better than watching the Kings run would be seeing the rest of the league catch up.” -Phil Taylor, Sports Illustrated, February 19, 2001

In fact, in the interim, the league has caught up. The Kings open, unselfish style of play is a clear influence on the way the league has evolved. The three pointer is probably the biggest symbol of the league’s evolution, and the Kings were not a high volume three point team. Like the Triangle, the Princeton offense was never a big three point system. Both systems remain “quality shot” offenses, which traditionally emphasize some sort of post play, but in both cases we’ve seen the Triangle and Princeton integrate wise use of the three pointer to outstanding effect. Ball movement is the trademark of the read and react philosophy shared by both, and we’ve seen some very attractive, non-isolation offenses take the league by storm, including our Jason Kidd-led Knicks of a few seasons back.

“The first impression one gets from watching the Sacramento Kings play basketball is the right impression…This razzle-dazzle bunch enjoys the game and each other and it shows.” -David DuPree, USA Today, April 3, 2001

This, to me, is the key ingredient. Phil Jackson has spoken at length about culture because it’s the key to arriving at joy. The game is meant to be about joy for the players and fans alike. Achieving this kind of joy, from Jackson’s point of view (and mine), comes from horizontal relationships on and off the court. There are going to be star players, but those star players must understand how to recede into the team, and then to emerge in key moments. If Michael Jordan grew in any significant way under Phil Jackson it was in this sense. Jordan was famous for getting his teammates involved during first quarters before sensing the moment to take over. He also knew when to start hot and then back off. His instinct for this became uncanny, actually, and I’m sure this sort of things fosters a sense of great camaraderie and fun. Lord knows, the Knicks haven’t given Melo much choice in recent years but to take over at the beginning, middle, and end of games. He’s carried to heavy a load because the Knicks have failed to surround him with smart, creative, capable teammates for the most part. There is evidence that Melo bought into the philosophy, in good times and in bad this season, as he posted a career high in assists.

That group in Sacramento is an interesting model for the Knicks because unlike Phil Jackson’s championship clubs, the Kings never had the All-World talent on their roster. They had smart, unselfish, creative players who enjoyed being on the court together. Think about the players they put on the floor. Jason Williams and Mike Bibby. Doug Christie and Bobby Jackson. Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu. Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, and Brad Miller. None of those players approaches the level of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, or Shaquille O’Neal. The guard play is solid, at best. The common characteristic among those players is a willingness to pass the basketball. A look at the 2001-02 Kings, a team that won 61 games before losing in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals (to Phil’s Triangular Lakers), is a study in passing. Webber averaged 4.8 assists. Divac averaged 3.7 assists. Christie averaged 4.2 assists. Bibby averaged 5.0 and even Peja managed 2.5 per game. For all the “razzle-dazzle” the team finished 3rd in ORtg and 6th in DRtg. They were just a good, smart team that played seamlessly together on both ends.

Talent is clearly an ingredient to the success of those Kings, as it was with the Phil Jackson champions. The Knicks aren’t going to approach any semblance of the Kings’ success unless they improve the overall talent of the club, in qualitative ways as much as quantitative. The type of player who will succeed in the Triangle is not unlike the type of player who will succeed in the Princeton offense, or some variation thereof. Talent may take time, however, while coaching is an immediate concern. I’m a big believer in Frank Vogel, and I’m as shocked as anyone that the Pacers may let him walk. Frankly, no pun intended, the Knicks ought to run, not walk, to interview him. If Blatt isn’t your guy, Vogel is clearly your only other option.

I suspect that Phil detractors will prefer Vogel, given his defensive chops, and I can’t say I blame them. Should the Knicks turn into a top defensive team, I think the fans and media would be more than joyful. I would be, for sure. As a believer in the beautiful game, and the Princeton offense, I prefer Blatt. As a believer in Phil Jackson’s vision for the franchise and the sport, I prefer Blatt. If Steve Mills is to be the face of the Knicks leadership beyond Phil Jackson, the Princeton connection is essential to continuity, both in Phil Jackson’s vision for the sport and for the “simpatico” he desires between the brass and the bench. This is not about Phil Jackson. It’s not about the Triangle. It’s certainly not about Kurt Rambis. It’s about culture. It’s about system. It’s about style of play. It’s about joy between the players and joy amongst the fans. (Maybe it could be joy within the media……NAAAAAAAAH.) It’s about simpatico between the owner, the management, the coaching, and the players. David Blatt is an important bridge between Phil Jackson’s vision and Steve Mills continued steering of the USS Knickerbocker. He’s good for the current players, the future players, and most importantly he seems an ideal fit with Kristaps Porzingis, which is the most important thing of all.

Edit – If you want a 2014 look at what people were saying about Blatt as he entered the league, take a look at this article in Grantland that mentions Rambis and the Triangle in contrast to Blatt’s style, and a bunch of other things that seem oddly tailor-made for our current state of affairs.

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15 thoughts to “Princeton”

  1. I’m not going to add anything substantive to this conversation, but I actually lived in Sacramento during those golden years of Kings basketball. The Kings were the only show in town, and man it was awesome. They became my WC team and my #2 team overall (after the Knicks, of course). What I’m getting at here is that when I become a fan of a team, they go on to become laughing stocks for many years. Sorry guys.

  2. I’ll be happy with either Vogel or Blatt. Who knows which will really be the better fit here, but either has gotta be a much better choice than Rambis. Hopefully Phil grabs one or the other.

  3. I live in Israel, and has been watching Blatt’s teams for more than 10 years.

    In Europe, Blatt is applauded for his defence rather than his offence. in particular – his offense was created by the defense: traps, using 2-3 super athletic combo guards lineups (rare in Europe) to pressure the (usually slow) ball handlers, create steals, and make it hard for the other team to set their attack in motion.
    So the US talk primarily on his Princeton offense came as a surprise to me.
    Still, I’m a huge fan of Blatt, he loves a 4 that can shoot, and he has a great track record developing young players (they became HIS players in Europe, moving from team to team with him) – he can be a success in New York

  4. I’m totally cool with Blatt. I’d prefer Vogel, but I’d be down with Blatt. Just pretty much anyone other than Kurt Rambis, please!

    All the Vogel/Blatt stuff has started to give me hope, which we all know is dangerous for Knicks fans to have.

  5. I’ll take either coach, but give me Vogel over Blatt. I’ll take a guy with a top defense every year and give him great offensive players instead of vice versa. When you’re missing shots, you need something to fall back on, and a Vogel defense is exactly what you need.

    Oh, and Adam Schein seems to think Kevin McHale is next in line to coach the Pacers. That both makes sense and works extremely well for the Knicks.

  6. It’s so odd to see Bird be so dismissive about how Vogel has the team playing excellent defense every damn year. “I want us to score more points!” Talk about the grass is only greener syndrome!

  7. I’d be pumped about that, as well. So many different possible outcomes where I’d be pumped! Really only one where I wouldn’t, so I’m hoping like crazy that that won’t be the one that actually happens!

  8. I’d be super happy with either Blatt or Vogel. IMHO the only way the Triangle will work in NYC is if Phil comes down to coach it himself.

    I’m a solid believer in scheme but a much bigger believer that talent wins games more than scheme/system wins games. We won’t get either playing or coaching talent if Rambis is the coach. If Phil coaches, I think a lot of players who would otherwise thumb their nose at the Triangle would come and at least listen hard.

  9. I think Phil wants to coach but also knows he physically can’t hold up. Which is why he wants to hire Rambis, because he thinks Rambis is the coach most willing to do what he’s told. For the most part this coach shit doesn’t matter until we get good players, except to what degree having a certain coach will help attract players. LeBron clearly thought Blatt was a bozo. I have no idea what Vogel’s guys think of him, but he managed to get Lance Stevenson to play really good basketball. So let’s hope Vogel gets pushed out in Indy, I suppose.

  10. The only downside to Phil hiring Vogel is it’ll give us nothing to complain about for a few months (until we sign Evan Turner and Rajon Rondo this summer)

  11. Nice piece, Mike.

    I don’t really have a choice between Vogel and Blatt. I mean, if Phil doesn’t pick Rambis, I’ll probably just stop following the team.

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