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Blazing the Trail: Chris Webber, the read-and-react king

Blazing the Trail: Chris Webber, the read-and-react king

Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective skills.

In this final installment, Mat goes in-depth on the playmaking hub, Chris Webber. He explains how Webber's passing and decision-making skills unlocked the Sacramento Kings' revolutionary offense, with former coaches Elston Turner and Bob Staak and former teammate Jason Williams.

If you were given the words “Chris Webber” and “revolutionary” and told to configure them in a sentence, you would likely come up with something like this:

“Chris Webber was the main attraction of the revolutionary Fab Five.”

That statement is true, but that isn’t why he’s the final subject of Blazing the Trail.

Like many basketball pioneers, after his legendary run at the University of Michigan, Webber continued his transcendence in the NBA.

However, this time, he did it a different way; not as a cultural revolutionary, but as a schematic one.

When Webber donned the purple and black in Sacramento, not only did he become the franchise’s most accomplished star, he also played an essential role in the re-imagination of NBA offense. 

WHAT MADE WEBBER SPECIAL

Somewhat paradoxically, the trailblazing Webber’s scoring game was an ode to the great bigs of the 1990s. He greatly admired the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. And he even admitted to borrowing parts of their games during different portions of his appearance on the Knuckleheads podcast

In his bag, he had Olajuwon’s jump hook, Malone’s pick-and-pop jumper and Barkley’s tendency to jostle for deep position in the post:

While his scoring was a bit old school, his passing and playmaking at his gargantuan size were well ahead of his time. 

His exploits in the former were matched by only a few of his contemporaries. In 2002-03 (the year he likely peaked as a passer), Webber ranked first among all All-Star power forwards and centers in Ben Taylor’s Passer Rating metric (an estimate of a player’s passing ability on an ‘approximately’ 1-10 scale): 

Visual Provided by Sports Aptitude 

Nearly every pass available to bigs at the time was within Webber’s reach, and he flashed that entire arsenal during his seven-year tenure with the Kings.

His former teammate Jason Williams — one of the most creative passers in NBA history — told Basketball News that Webber “saw the game as well as anyone [he] had ever played with.”

Webber needed all of his playmaking powers to survive within the offensive ecosystem of legendary offensive coach Pete Carril. 

“You must be skillful,” the late, great Carril explained in a 2010 interview with BBallBreakdown

What the former college and professional coach was referring to is the Princeton Offense he is often credited with popularizing. The offense was a motion-heavy scheme primarily predicated on constant passing and cutting. (To learn more about the inner workings of the scheme, check out this video by Jordan Sperber).

“The minute you have the ball in your hand, you are the point guard,” Carril continued. “And if you can’t pass or see anyone to pass it to, you’re stuck.”

Carril spent 13 seasons as an assistant with the Kings (including the entirety of Webber’s tenure). But even with his massive imprint on the team, the offense they ran was not the “pure” brand he deployed at the University of Princeton.

“The actual system was a piece of Rick [Adelman] and a piece of Carril,” former Kings assistant Elston Turner told Basketball News. “We didn’t run an all-out Princeton offense. [If we did], we probably would have shot the ball late in the clock.”

One of the hallmark features of "pure" Princeton Offense is its grind-it-out nature. Princeton teams would run their sets continuously throughout the shot clock until the defense slipped up.

The Adelman-led Kings liked to strike quickly. From 1998 to 2003, the group finished top-two in pace every season. Adelman blended Carril’s Princeton scheme with his Corner Offense — a system partially based on the offense his former mentor Jack Ramsay would run with his passing big man Bill Walton in Portland.

The Corner Offense prioritizes getting into offensive sets early in the shot clock, feeding the ball to your facilitating big at the elbow and letting that player operate from there. 

A common play the Kings would run that combined the two coaches' philosophies was the Low-Post Split Action. As the diagram below demonstrates, a perimeter player would pass the ball to Webber at the elbow, then immediately screen for his other teammate in the corner and slip. 

Here’s a demonstration of the play in theory and practice:

Visual diagram presented by Luceo Sports

This play gave Webber three options:

1) He could hit the slipping cutter.

2) He could hit the shooter on the perimeter (like in the clip above).

3) He could take matters into his own hands and attack while the defense is occupied handling the split. 

Sacramento's offense worked because of Webber’s decision-making prowess. Oftentimes, the onus was on him to read the defense and choose the best available options, and more times than not, he made the correct call.

His processing speed made it possible for the Kings to run multiple actions in quick-time succession (something that is commonplace today but was a rarity at the time).

In the next clip, Sacramento started with the Low-Post Split, immediately shifted into a dribble handoff when that petered out and finally settled on a pick-and-pop when the DHO proved futile (all in under 10 seconds).

“He was special in that way,” Turner recalled of Webber. “He made everybody a threat when he had the ball. So many guys are threats [for] themselves when they have it, but everybody was a threat [when he did].”

ON-COURT PRODUCTION

Not just any team could execute this free-flowing style. As Turner pointed out, it takes a specific type of personnel.

“You gotta find a certain group to play that way,” Turner noted. “It requires sharing the basketball.”

For instance, after their time together in Sacramento, Turner joined Adelman’s staff again in Houston from 2007 to 2011. There, Adelman attempted to install the Corner Offense, but struggled to recapture that lightning in the bottle, never placing higher than 14th in the league in Offensive Rating in his first three seasons.

In comparison, when the Kings were firing at all cylinders in 2001-02 and 2002-03, they finished third and sixth in the league in ORTG, respectively.

While many factors contribute to this, a large reason for this disparity was Yao Ming’s inability to read the floor as swiftly as Webber (as illustrated by his Passer Rating in the chart from the previous section).

These shortcomings were no fault of Ming’s — he was a solid passer at his position for the era. It was Webber who was just way more advanced and ahead of the curve for his era.

“Unlike most power forwards of that time, he was an all-around player,” Turner summarized.

As an NBA player for eight seasons and a coach for another 24, Turner has a great eye for these things. However, even he may be underselling how well-rounded Webber was for his time — on both ends of the floor.

Using Cerebro Sports’ Global Search tool that we introduced in our ninth installment, we can better understand the statistical outlier that Webber was during his prime.

Cerebro uses five skill metrics to help assess a player’s strengths and archetype. These metrics are Pure Scoring Prowess (PSP), Three-Point Efficiency (3PE), Floor General Skills (FGS), Around The Rim (ATR) and Defensive Statistical Impact (DSI). Each metric uses a soft scale ranging from 0 to 100. (To learn more about how these metrics work, click here). 

Frankly, 3PE isn’t that relevant to Webber since he didn’t shoot many threes (most bigs at the time didn't). But out of the other four metrics (PSP, FGS, ATR, DSI), from 1990 to 2010, only five players managed to score 75 or higher in each category.

Out of these five, the only players to accomplish this feat more than two times during that 20-year period were Kevin Garnett and, of course, Webber. And keep in mind this search encapsulates all five positions — not just bigs.

His standing in those three offensive metrics makes sense for all the reasons we highlighted above, but Webber's defensive impact is what truly jumps out.

The Kings finished top-10 in Defensive Rating every season from 1999 to 2003, peaking at second overall in the 2002-03 campaign.

We’d be remiss not to mention that Sacramento had solid defensive pieces surrounding Webber. Doug Christie was a four-time All-Defensive Team guard. Meanwhile, his interior co-star Vlade Divac was a strong, positionally sound big who may or may not have been at the forefront of the flopping movement. 

Still, Webber was likely the catalyst of this unit. After the Kings finished second in the NBA in 2002-03, the All-Star power forward went down with a knee injury in the playoffs that sidelined him for most of 2003-04.

During that time, the Kings inserted Brad Miller into Webber's place, and despite much of the supporting cast remaining the same, Sacramento fell all the way down to No. 21 in DRTG that season.

WEAVING THE THREAD

As we established earlier, Webber studied many greats, but the one he aimed to emulate most of all was Syracuse standout, former No. 1 overall pick and New Jersey Nets All-Star big man Derrick Coleman.

“Derrick Coleman,” Webber responded when asked which player he most patterned his game after. “He was the coldest... where I was from.”

“I wore [No.] 44 in high school because of Derrick Coleman. I wore [No.] 4 in the NBA because of Derrick Coleman,” Webber explained on the Knuckleheads podcast (Coleman wore No. 44 during his time at Syracuse and throughout his 15-year NBA career).

Coleman not only provided a young Webber with a local hero (both of them grew up in Detroit, Michigan), but he also gave him a template for how to craft his game.

Like Webber, Coleman was a futuristic big who could face-up, pass and handle the ball like a guard. Unfortunately, injuries derailed Coleman’s career — even faster than Webber — and we never had a chance to see him deployed in a modern scheme that amplified his revolutionary tools.

When asked about the comparison, Bob Staak, Webber’s former coach in Washington, explained it like this:

“[Webber] was a better passer, [Coleman] was a better shooter with range... I think [Coleman] could have been one of the best power forwards ever,” Staak told Basketball News. “It just... never really materialized, whereas [Webber] was one of the best power forwards to play the game.

“And obviously, him being inducted into the Hall of Fame proves that.”

IMPACT ON TODAY'S GAME

Currently, Turner serves as an assistant coach on Chris Finch’s staff in Minnesota. Before joining the Timberwolves, Finch spent a season with the Denver Nuggets, functioning as their de facto offensive coordinator. During that stretch, he helped install Corner concepts into their offense (something he mentioned off-hand during a FIBA Coaching Clinic in 2018).

Finch hasn’t been on the staff in a half-decade, yet those concepts are still alive and well in Denver. (It’s worth pointing out that David Adelman, Rick’s son, is also on the staff). And the reason the Nuggets can run this read-and-react offense is largely due to the passing and decision-making chops of their MVP big man, Nikola Jokic — a player many cite as the modern-day Chris Webber. 

“I see some of [Webber in Jokic],” Williams told Basketball News. “They both kind of play lethargic, not very quick, not really very athletic. If you look at the list of most athletic guys in the NBA, they both wouldn’t be very high on the list, but they both just want to win.”

Furthering his praise, Williams referenced the knowledge of legendary coach Hubie Brown and his teachings in Memphis.

"Brown was pretty simple. He had three rules for NBA guys... be on time, know when to shoot and know when to pass. The reason I say that is because Jokic and Chris Webber knew when to shoot and [knew] when to pass," Williams said.

Webber sees the similarities, even telling the All the Smoke podcast that one of his favorite players to watch in today’s game is Jokic.

“I’d love to play today... especially on the high post,” Webber admitted. “That’s why I love watching Jokic.”

The other player he name-dropped was Joel Embiid, whose blend of low-post scoring and passing bears a great deal of resemblance to his.

"I like watching Embiid when he’s going to work in the post," Webber added.

Modern-day doppelgangers aside, Webber and his Kings legacy live on offensive innovation.

“It was a spontaneous creativity offense,” Turner said. “It was an offense where you put the system in, but the system allowed players to play in it freely based on what their opponent did... There [weren't] a lot of play calls. You know, you [used to] see coaches every time they gain possession, they stand up and call a play and let the whole arena know what's coming... Adelman would just sit there most of the time. The guys... knew how to play out of the system based on what they saw.”

“Carril... one of his sayings was, ‘Watch the guy in front of you, he’ll tell you what to do.’”

And Webber and the Kings did just that.

The play above is only a small example of the read-and-react nature of the offense, but it highlights the main ingredients nonetheless.

Webber gets ready to initiate a dribble handoff action with teammate Peja Stojaković, reads that Stojaković’s man is overplaying the handoff, and then immediately opts for a quarterback keeper (similar to the way Bam Adebayo does today).

“[Carril] and [Adelman] put offensive sets in for them, but then I think they just figured the rest out,” Williams said, reiterating Turner’s claim.

Webber and the Kings helped craft a borderline militaristic, structure-laden sport into a discipline that rewarded artistry and creativity.

Without Webber pushing things forward in Sacramento, beloved teams like the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns, the "Beautiful Game" San Antonio Spurs and the dynastic Golden State Warriors of the present may never have seen the light of day. 

Like all the players spotlighted in Blazing the Trail, Webber helped craft the game into what it is today. And for his contributions to the field, he deserves all the accolades and achievements his career yielded.

“I was at his [Hall-of-Fame] enshrinement,” Turner ended. “Him and Rick Adelman.

“It was well-deserved for both of them.”

Yes, it was, Coach. Yes, it was.

Thank you for joining us on this journey through history. To read each installment of Blazing the Trail, click the links below:

Click here to read Part IX: Chauncey Billups, the basketball cheat code

Click here to read Part VIII: Anfernee 'Penny' Hardaway, the floor giant 

Click here to read Part VII: Dirk Nowitzki, the unicorn that became world champion

Click here to read Part VI: Shawn Kemp, the aerial artist

Click here to read Part V: Andrei Kirilenko, the five-tool defender

Click here to read Part IV: Reggie Miller, the moving target

Click here to read Part III: Shane Battier, the data-ball defender

Click here to read Part II: Rashard Lewis, the All-Star stretch 4

Click here to read Part I: Steve Nash, the magician who danced in the paint

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