What to Expect from John Beilein’s NBA Arrival

The spring’s first major Woj Bomb was dropped Monday: The Cleveland Cavaliers hired University of Michigan’s John Beilein to be the organization’s head coach. Beilein signed a five-year deal with the Cavs and broke the news officially before the West Coast was even awake. The announcement came out of left field after the Cavaliers reportedly interviewed several of the league’s prominent younger assistants.

An accomplished college coach, Beilein is 66 years old and had considered NBA gigs in the past. He interviewed for the Detroit Pistons last year, losing out to the reigning coach of the year Dwane Casey. But Beilein made the jump now, presumably to take the chance on coaching at basketball’s highest level before retirement and while his stock was still high.

There’s no doubt Beilein is a phenomenal coach, an offensive whiz with a track record of success. As a manager of personalities and a “player’s coach”, few have consistently achieved as he has.

That does not mean his ascent to the NBA will be smooth, however. There are legitimate questions about how he will adjust to a different league and style based on both his teams’ pace and the offensive system he has championed.

For lack of better terms, Beilein’s strategy has been a fusion of the Princeton offense and a ball screen-heavy attack. He has consistently valued shooting, stretch bigs and a spread-the-wealth system that is not predicated on one primary scorer or initiator.

Mar 21, 2019; Des Moines, IA, United States; Michigan Wolverines head coach John Beilein talks to guard Zavier Simpson (3) during the second half against the Montana Grizzlies in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, his teams’ leading scorers have been below seventeen points per game for each of the last five years. That’s not positive or negative when comparing to the pro game, but it does highlight a stylistic preference.

As Beilein has transitioned to more ball screen sets, he has moved from one facet of the Princeton offense to the other.

He has abandoned the “Point” series (playing through bigs at the elbows) in favor of what is known as “Two Guard”, an offense with myriad options starting with two guards simultaneously cutting. Within the Princeton offense, everything is connected and all four positions around the high post are interchangeable. There’s a great amount of fluidity within their possessions once the general principles are understood. So while the Point actions are not emphasized, it’s impossible to run Princeton without them.

A little confused? Don’t worry, we’ll show you what all these actions are and mean.

Start with the main motion, which is that two-guard cutter formation. Watch for the two players that start above the break, or the three-point line extended. As the ball reverses, both will cut to the corners. That triggers the rest of their movement, which is tagged by three distinct screens in a row: a back screen, a flare screen and then a ball screen:

When it all comes together, the floor is spread very well and allows for cutters to maneuver everywhere. There’s no reason that this type of movement cannot find at least some NBA success. It’s based on positionless basketball, with four guards or wings cutting around one post.

The offense always lends itself to backdoor cuts and guys filling each spot. If defenders jump to deny one pass, the instructions are simple: cut to the rim and fill out the other side to the corner. Such a patterned movement leads itself to continuity, where Michigan players have known exactly what to do when defense pressures them.

They zip the ball and cut through the lane, and have pounded side ball screens to death until they get their desired result:

The entire Princeton system spaces the floor while looking for layups. Very few players get consistently beat backdoor in the NBA, mainly due to the length most athletes possess as well as the strong IQ and positional foundation that goes into establishing the world’s best players. So these cuts produce easy points in college, but not as much in the pros.

Beilein has many counters built into this offense, which will likely manifest themselves as set calls for the Cavaliers. They are essentially wrinkles within the Princeton offense, where he moves one person to a different spot and gets a new action because of it.

The offense is far more in-depth than the simple, free-flowing motion would suggest.

Built off the two-guard series is one of the most famous wrinkles: the two-guard cutter into a shuffle series. Shuffle screens, a diagonally-set back screen usually at or around the elbow, are a prominent part of NBA actions and can lead to mismatch post-ups, cuts for layups or great screen-the-screener actions.

Beilein capitalizes on all those facets within his offense at Michigan:

Hundreds of colleges (and even high schools) have run this similar action—I’ve scouted it several times and face it every year.

Nothing about Beilein’s offense is revolutionary or innovative, but it is proven successful. Cutters, great spacing, high-speed reads and interchangeable pieces are hard to stop, even when you know what is coming. The two-guard cutters are difficult to guard because it is hard to differentiate whether the shuffle series or the regular motion is coming until it is too late to call out the difference.

By the time you recognize what play is coming, the train is too far removed from the station to stop.

The same can be said of the Chin series. Chin has become universal language for the combination of a back screen and a ball screen, in that order. The back screen forces the big’s defender to help backwards to the rim, which puts him in an impossible situation to hedge the pick. It’s one of the oldest tricks of the trade, but still effective to this day.

When the Wolverines run Chin out of the Princeton offense, it appears like the same back screen- flare screen combination within their motion. Before you know the ball screen is coming, it’s already jammed down your throat:

Beyond these three Princeton staples lie the reason Beilein is highly regarded as an offensive mind: He routinely combines new trends, ball screening actions and other sets to leverage his personnel. His teams always peak near the end of the year because of his adaptive spirit and grown knowledge of his players. The Wolverines have always won in March.

One such trend has been his usage of the Alley ball screen, which leads the ball handler towards the sideline. It usually results in a pick-and-pop but allows for dribble penetration to occur while keeping the lane open.

In typical Beilein fashion, he doesn’t always walk into the action. He’ll lull defenses to sleep with a three-man weave that leads into the screen:

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has long used the same Princeton style of alley pick-and-pop, leading to Al Horford or his 5-man at the top of the key. On Horford’s catch, the Celtics will backdoor cut from one-pass as a means from taking help away on the pick-and-pop. The weak-side action they get from this is tremendous.

Beilein does the same thing and certainly will extend this concept to the pros. His bigs at Michigan were constantly well-taught and skilled, so they knew exactly to do when they caught the ball on a pop. The cut that occurs on the catch is what is referred to as a 45-cut due to its angle to the rim:

In addition to those concepts, Beilein has some nifty set plays he’s run. They all blend within his motion offense while also standing on their own as successful actions.

Below is a compilation of some of my favorites:

Now some of the bad news, Cleveland fans. If these sets and play calls don’t look like what you see a lot of in the NBA these days, it’s because they aren’t.

No teams currently utilize a big man at a permanent high post spot, and even fewer run a true read-and-react motion during a 24-second possession.

One major adjustment is the shot clock. While six seconds (the difference between the NBA 24-second and NCAA’s 30-second counts) does not seem like a large amount of time, it’s about twenty percent of the possession that is now disappearing for Beilein.

His sets have heavily been predicated on ball reversals and false movement to set up the desired action. It takes more time to develop, and because of the last decade’s NBA pace revolution, it’s hard to envision an offensive dynamo if he tries the same.

That’s the trouble with the Princeton offense to some regard.

It has not been successful at the professional level since the “D’Antoni Revolution” took place and forced even the staunchest Princeton names to ditch their style. David Blatt was the last coach (hired by Cleveland, nonetheless) to fail at implementing the Princeton style. Byron Scott worked with it during his failed runs since the Chris Paul days in New Orleans, as did Eddie Jordan at all his stops. Rick Adelman ran a heavily adjusted version of the Princeton, copying only the elbow “Point” series and even having former Princeton coach Peter Carril on his staff as an assistant.

Like the Triangle offense, Princeton’s fingerprints are everywhere, however. But to run an offense where it is the sole focal point, copied-and-pasted from its original advent, has not worked in a long time. Beilein knows this—it’s likely why he’s embraced the screen-and-roll as wholeheartedly as he has the past few years.

Pace is the issue now because Beilein has changed the half-court actions without increasing tempo. The Princeton offense, no matter what variation of it is run, is about the organization and precise location of players. It can be difficult to run a more modern type of early offense in conjunction with it, as there isn’t enough time during a twenty-four-second possession to flow into offense and then reestablish a set based on where scoring personnel is located.

As such, Beilein’s Michigan teams have been far below the standard pace of play that is taking the NBA by storm.

He’s a meticulous play-caller that values control over free-flowing action. That pumps the brakes on tempo and leads to his teams frequently backing the ball out after semi-transition to re-establish their offense.

It’s a legitimate clash with how the game is played in the NBA. Coaches rarely call plays after a missed basket, ceding control to their players to feel the game. At the NBA level, many of the elite creators feel like they are boxed in and have to color inside the lines provided by the offense. Collin Sexton is one such player that can easily be stifled by its strict dimensions.

Mar 30, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton (2) drives past Los Angeles Clippers forward JaMychal Green (4) and guard Garrett Temple (17) for a basket in the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll see how Beilein adjusts—there’s no doubt he has to. Exactly what he does to adjust remains to be seen.

Perhaps most excitingly for the Cavaliers, Beilein has proven to be a stringent talent evaluator and adept at player development. His Michigan teams (and elsewhere, for that matter) have achieved success without elite high school recruits.

If the Cavaliers are hoping to maximize a group of unheralded players and want to keep their salaries low, a guy like Beilein is the right man for the job. He’ll continue to run his system, augment the skills of one or two focal points and be able to fill in the gaps. The familiarity between him and the Cavaliers number-two in the front office Mike Gansey—a former player for Beilein at West Virginia—will help identify talent that fits their mold.

Beilein is a good hire for Cleveland. He’s a proven winner, and the stigma surrounding college coaches jumping to the pros is slowly dissipating.

By no means is Beilein a slam dunk hire, however. I love the offense he runs and the ability he has to maximize the group he has.

I just wonder about those skills being better-suited for a collegiate environment.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference and Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of May 13, 2019.