TWO YEARS AGO, the man who popularized it summed up the dilemma over breakfast at the Princeton Diner.
"If you don't have real good players, the Princeton offense isn't going to help at all," Pete Carril said.
So, do the Sixers have real good players? Well, they have some really good athletes. Are those athletes skilled enough to play the Princeton offense? And if they aren't, can their skills be improved enough to make it work? And, if they can't, can president/general manager Ed Stefanski get new coach Eddie Jordan the players to make it work?
There were more than a few questions on the first day of Princeton in South Philly. Do these Sixers have enough players who can pass, dribble and shoot? When they get in a triple-threat position with the ball, will a defense respect that threat enough to make the offense work correctly?
"It's an accent on development of skills," Carril, the legendary Princeton coach, said 2 days after he watched Georgetown win a place for his offense in the 2007 Final Four.
Can NBA players, some of whom have played a certain way for years, still develop those skills and play a way they have never played before? Stefanski believes it, which is why he hired Jordan. And Jordan believes it because: a) he has seen it happen before, and b) he has to believe it.
The Sixers will learn the Princeton offense. Then, everybody will see if they can make it work.
So, what is it?
"It's one-third Boston Celtics during the good old days when they were passing and cutting, one-third the Knick offense [from the early 1970s] and one-third was what I developed over the course of the years trying to do those things," Carril said.
Jordan learned it from Carril when they were together in Sacramento. Jordan helped implement it in New Jersey and the Nets promptly hit the NBA Finals in consecutive years. (Was it the offense, the arrival of Jason Kidd or some of each?) He taught it as the head coach of the Wizards. Washington's offense immediately scored 10 more points per game. The Wizards were regularly in the playoffs.
"I believe in unselfish basketball," Jordan said.
The new coach, however, is under no illusions.
"What wins in this league is talent," he said.
When Gilbert Arenas was hurt last season and the Wizards couldn't win, Jordan was fired. Talent wins. Lack of talent loses.
If one of those triple threats is not a threat, the offense does not work as well. The Sixers shot 31.8 percent from the three-point line last season. There were too many games where they were outscored by 20 or more points from the arc.
The team shot 45.9 percent overall, which says they: a) got to the rim a lot, and b) were much better on midrange jump shots than longer shots.
Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams, among others, are serious NBA athletes. A healthy Elton Brand is somewhere on the level below superstar, a very exclusive club whose members are identified by nickname [Superman] or first name [Kobe].
At first glance, this group does not really seem suited to the Princeton offense. Jordan showed the Sixers' brass during a 4-hour X's-and-O's session that he thinks otherwise. Stefanski believed him.
"Eddie's system fits us perfectly with the talent and personnel we have in this organization right now, with the athletes, the way they move with and without the ball," Stefanski said.
The GM might be right. Or he might be wrong.
When it was suggested that the Sixers needed more parts to get anywhere near an elite level, Stefanski did not disagree.
"We're still building here," Stefanski said. "Is it the final product? No way. We are trying to get shooters. People say, 'Well, get a shooter that can play defense.' I say, 'That's an All Star.' "
The Sixers have too many of the same kinds of players. From the outside, that looks like a problem. Stefanski and Jordan kept saying "interchangeable parts." They think that is one of the reasons these players can succeed in this system. Stefanski said the offense "intrigued" him precisely because of the frontcourt personnel that seem so much alike.
"It's about cutting, passing and getting quality shots," Jordan said. "It's not just about perimeter shooting. It's about all the other parts of basketball."
Jordan is convinced that he can help develop even veteran players beyond what they have already shown. If he can, this has a chance. If he can't . . .
"There's a formula for each team to win," Jordan said. "We're going to find our formula."
If the Sixers have a frontcourt of Brand, Iguodala and Young, that potentially could be difficult to guard. But, if the backcourt is Andre Miller (or his replacement) and Willie Green, the frontcourt might not be so difficult to guard.
"Teams exploited our weakness, packing it in," Iguodala said. "With this offense, it opens it up a little more, better spacing."
There will be times when no player starts an offensive possession below the foul line, which has a tendency to make the basket area difficult to cover.
"I'm not going to have to force which is a good thing," Iguodala said.
Jordan and Stefanski both said they would like Miller back, but also said they are not sure a point guard is terribly significant in the offense. Those "interchangeable parts" again.
A semicomparison to the great Bulls teams (who was the point guard?) was silly. Don't see Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen on this roster.
So, what is on this roster? Watch the Lakers and Magic in the Finals and you will see skilled players all over the court. Do the Sixers have many of those kinds of players, enough of those kinds of players?
"I think Iguodala, Young and Brand right off the bat [will be better in this system]," Stefanski said.
Better spacing, it is hoped, will keep double teams away from Brand or make them less effective.
These Sixers will be required to read the defense. The defensive pressure dictates the offensive option. Will they choose the right option? And, if they do, will they have the required skill to take advantage?
Remember what Carril said about his offense. In the end, it is about the players. And they better be real good. *