After a year-and-half hiatus, George Karl is back on the coaching sidelines. Known as an X's and O's mad scientist, Karl's newfound opportunity gives him a chance to restart the wacky experiment he began in Denver. With his trusty assistant Vance Walberg at his side, Karl once again tries his hand at introducing the NBA to the Dribble-Drive offense.
Besides that Nuggets team, the offense is mostly untested at the NBA level. Walberg had originally created it for his high school teams. It's most famous iteration thus far has been John Calipari's teams in Memphis and Kentucky. On the one hand, its a bit exciting to potentially be at the forefront of an offensive revolution again; Rick Adelman's early 2000s Kings teams introduced the league to a modern Princeton Offense, and nearly every team in the league runs Princeton-esque plays now. On the other hand, significant questions remain unanswered. Were those 2013 Nuggets that ran teams off the court to the tune of 57 wins just lightning in a bottle? Do the Kings have the personnel to replicate that success?
We know Karl is going to try. And the fate of the team depends on it. But until since the season tips off in October, we might as well try to use our imagination to forecast how the personnel fits the scheme.
So, what is it exactly?
The Dribble-Drive offense in its purest form sets up "four-out, one in," meaning that there are four perimeter players and one big man operating close to the basket. There are really only three offensive positions in the Dribble-Drive. The "1" is the initiator, the point guard who sets up the offense; the "5" is the big man operating close to the basket, making himself available for offensive rebounds and dump passes; and positions 2-4 are interchangeable, ideally slashers who can both hit set shots and drive to the rim.
The basic philosophy of the offense is to use movement and cuts to create driving lanes. The ballhandler is responsible for judging the size of the driving lane; Walberg described the difference between single, double, and triple gaps that players have to evaluate.
While creating triple gaps (think ball handler at the top of the key driving toward the side with only one offensive player, positioned in the deeper corner) is ideal, the most vital part of the system’s success is resisting the urge to attack single gaps. Driving into a single gap — about eight to 12 feet of space — is something Walberg always wanted his teams to avoid.
If a slasher is unable to get to the rim, his next move is to pitch it to another slasher in rhythm, who will then try to attack a compromised defense in search of that elusive driving lane. Players off-the-ball must recognize where the defense is being attacked and space/cut accordingly.
Here is a long video by YouTube hero Mike Wasielewski of Memphis running the Dribble-Drive in the 2008 NCAA Tournament:
The first thing that you should do is track which players occupy which position in the system. Derrick Rose, #23, is the "1"; he initiates the motion of the offense. Antonio Anderson, #5, and Chris Douglas-Roberts, #14, are the "2" and "3" respectively. Robert Dozier, #2, is the "4". Shawn Taggart, #0, comes off the bench as both a "4" and "5". And Joey Dorsey, #3, exclusively plays at the "5".
Another thing to notice is the diversity of ways to initiate the action. Contrary to popular belief, the Dribble-Drive isn't just about slashing from the perimeter. There are plenty of post-ups opportunities that players can use to exploit matchups. The main idea behind the Dribble-Drive is to give creative players the freedom to make plays in the context of an offense that pokes and prods at a defense until it breaks. In this way, the Dribble-Drive doesn't have set plays on offense. It has a series of initiating motions to get the movement going, but its up to the players to read the defense and react accordingly instead of moving according to a script.
According to Walberg, Karl's Nuggets ran the pure Dribble-Drive offense about 5% of the time. I think this was to accomodate the unique talents of Kenneth Faried. Karl often used both Faried and Kosta Koufos together, neither of whom have much shooting range to speak of. Because of this, the "4" and "5" became interchangeable on offense, neither one really drifting out much further than the key.
You can see how the two worked together in the play above. Faried cuts to the basket after a quick slip of a brush screen with Ty Lawson, while Koufos curls to the top of the key. This is how you create space without shooting; Koufos' man gets distracted by Koufos' movement and doesn't diagnose what's happening until its too late. A well-placed Andre Miller lob and Faried's athleticism took care of the rest. Note that neither Koufos nor Faried left the vicinity of the key area.
In fact, its Koufos' ability to man the five spot that probably made him a target for Vlade Divac this offseason. He was the starting "5" for the 2013 Nuggets under Karl, splitting time with JaVale McGee, and played his role very effectively. He meshed well with Faried even though they don't really look good together on paper.
Here is an example of Faried taking advantage of his quickness in early action offense, driving against a defense that isn't quite set yet and dumping it off to Koufos near the rim. The Dribble-Drive really well suited to a fast tempo for this reason; creative players can exploit driving lanes against a defense scrambling to get into shape. Koufos is ideally suited to be the "5" in a Dribble-Drive setup. He's big, long, a good finisher around the rim, and has a good nose for offensive boards.
Similar to what Karl accomplished with Faried, DeMarcus Cousins will probably occupy a "4" position in the offense, but with even greater freedom than Faried had. You can expect to see him both as a perimeter initiator similar to the tradition Dribble-Drive "4". And you can also expect to see him get plenty of touches in the post and off of dumpoffs in places where the "5" will traditionally be. How do I know this? Well, we saw glimpses of it last year. Check it out:
In this play, Boogie gets a pitch from Nik Stauskas on the perimeter and attacks Alexis Ajinca off the dribble, muscling his way to the rim. What's most interesting about this play is that Derrick Williams is playing the "5" position in the offense here. Conventional wisdom would have Cousins playing the "5" and Williams playing the "4" when the two are paired together in the frontcourt, but in this setup Cousins gets to use his ballhandling ability on the perimeter to take on bigger centers while Coke Machine positions himself for a rebound or a dumpoff pass. It lets the Kings use Cousins' talent in the buildup and penetration.
Here's Cousins taking another pitch from Stauskas, exploiting a driving lane, and finding Jason Thompson (the "5") for a dunk. Its this package of skills that makes Cousins such an intriguing fit for the offense.
And here is Boogie taking a pitch from Ben McLemore and finishing the drive himself. Cousins is simply a nightmare matchup for lead-footed centers who want no part of hanging out by the perimeter to check him. His unique combination of ballhandling, strength, and passing ability for a man his size is something that Karl will certainly want to exploit by making him a conduit for attack from the perimeter. But don't assume that means the end of his post-up game. The Dribble-Drive affords players the flexibility to post-up if the situation calls for it. Here is a clip of Cousins getting the ball down low and directing the offense, with Thompson playing the "5" on the other side of the rim:
Cousins could have attacked Omer Asik in the post if he wanted to, but decided to kick it out to McLemore for the open three. Remember the mantra: give creative players the space to make creative plays. By the time the last ten games of the season came around, Boogie was dropping unbelievable numbers: 27 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists per game, with a usage of 37% and TS% of 53%. Ideally you'd like to see a lower USG% and higher TS%, but by that time, the Kings were scraping the bottom of the barrel to find players, and with more time in the system the hope is that Boogie will be more efficient with less workload.
Interestingly, we even got to see hints of how Karl sees Willie Cauley-Stein fitting into the offense this offseason. In Summer League, we saw Cauley-Stein operate mainly in the "5" role, but also got to see flashes of play in the "4" role.
Here is a play where Cauley-Stein takes a dumpoff feed from a curling "2" or "3" and finishes the easy shot around the rim. For the most part in Summer League, this is where Cauley-Stein could be seen on offense; taking dumpoff passes, running the floor, and the occasional post-up attempt at the "5" position, with either Eric Moreland, David Wear, or Duje Dukan playing the 4 spot. He only took one jumper through the entirety of the seven games. But, there were flashes of play where we got to see what Cauley-Stein could do in a "4" position more involved in the Dribble-Drive buildup.
Here, Cauley-Stein takes the ball in a Faried-esque position at the top of the key with Eric Moreland occupying the "5" spot area in the paint. Willie curls into the paint area and finishes a nice running hook.
Again, Willie gets the ball at the top of the paint in the "4" position, but this time drops a beautiful dish to Moreland. Moreland gets blocked, but Cauley-Stein gets the ball again and draws a foul. Cauley-Stein played really effectively in his role in the Summer League, averaging about 18 points and 8 rebounds per 36 minutes on 51% shooting from the field. There are real flashes of creativity there and it will definitely be interesting to track Cauley-Stein's development as Boogie's frontcourt partner. It could be the beginning of a beautiful interchangeable 4/5 relationship between the two in the romantic land of Dribble-Drivestan.
The rest of the positions fall into place once you sort out the "4" and the "5." Rajon Rondo is going to have a field day as the "1"; he loves to diagnose how opposing defenses are playing, and once he masters all of the initiating motions of the offense, he'll start marshalling the troops into positions to exploit mismatches. The only question with Rondo is if he can be an effective enough shooter to keep the offense greased and running smoothly. Darren Collison can feasibly be slotted both at the "1" and the "2", and its easy to envision him getting into the paint, pushing the pace, and spotting up for threes.
The group of wings Karl has on-hand are easy to slot. Rudy Gay, McLemore and Omri Casspi all ended the season playing arguably the best basketball of their careers, which is surprising in a way. In an offense geared towards dribble penetration, you wouldn't expect wings with shaky ballhandling ability to thrive so much. But this goes towards something Walberg mentioned in the interview linked earlier:
"When you have a player who is not a great driver and you give him that triple gap," says Walberg, "you’re gonna be surprised at how much better he is than what you originally thought."
And I think that is exactly right. I mean, you don't exactly have to be Kyrie Irving with the ball to be able to attack driving lanes as big as this:
Or this driving lane that Gay frolicked down:
You get the picture. When the Dribble-Drive offense is humming, those are the kinds of driving lanes someone playing the slashing positions can expect. With that trio of wings, Collison's ability to slide into those spots, and the Marco Belinelli/Caron Butler additions on board, there is a solid stable of talent that Karl can pick from to mix-and-match into the 2-4 spots. Karl can go big, he can go small, he can go fast, he can load up on shooters, he can go defensive... it'll be fun to see what kind of combinations the evil genius concocts.
This is an exciting moment in time. We could see waves of the Dribble-Drive spread across the NBA if its successful here. Its the kind of offense that generates the shots (paint, free throws, and threes) that the modern NBA loves and obsesses over generating. Its fast-paced, its fun, and it relies on all five players on the floor to be in sync. Will Karl's latest mad experiment fail or succeed? We're about to find out.