Quick, who are the most portable superstars in NBA history? Actually, hold that thought for a second. First, we need to define portability. Back in 2018, Ben Taylor defined it as such:
Portability…is about interfacing in different basketball environments. More specifically, it’s about players maintaining impact, or scaling up, on better and better offenses, which is critical when building championship-level teams.The Thunder are who we thought they were, Ben Taylor, 2018
Building from this, I want to include defense in my definition of portability going forward. Take Rudy Gobert and prime Draymond Green for example. Rudy Gobert is a defense unto himself because shutting down rim attempts is the single most valuable thing a player can do on defense. However, what happens if you have a lineup of five Rudy Goberts? Secondary rim protection is important, but so is closing out, point-of-attack, nail, isolation, and team defense. Rim protection is important until it isn’t as important as other kinds of defenses.
Now, imagine a lineup of five Draymond Greens. While that’s not a flawless defensive lineup, it’s much more difficult to identify weaknesses in that lineup than five Goberts. Draymond isn’t anywhere near the rim protector as Gobert, but just like heliocentric offensive players, at some point, you need to bring in other facets of defense.
Back to the Question Leading to the Real Question
Let’s return to the original question. Who are the most portable superstars in NBA history? Take a couple of minutes to think this through.
Here are the first five names that come to my mind: Stephen Curry, Kevin Garnett, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, and Bill Russell. Exactly two of those players are above average three-point shooters, one never made more than 37 threes in a season, and the other played before the three-point line. This begs the question that inspired this article: is shooting overrated when considering portability?
Case Study: Jason Kapono
Fourteen years ago, Jason Kapono led the league in three-point percentage with a blistering 51.4%. During the next season, he led the league again with a substantially worse and truly embarrassing 48.3% mark. He was primarily a backup marksman whose one job was to spread the floor and not miss threes, and he did that one job well. Unfortunately, there’s one issue: his team’s performance.
In 2007, the Miami Heat’s net rating was -0.9 with Kapono on the floor, and his on/off rating was -0.3. The following season, the Toronto Raptors’ net rating was -0.3 with Kapono on the floor, and his on/off rating was -6.0. How could two teams in a row play worse with the most accurate three-point shooter in the league?
The issue is that shooting on its own isn’t particularly valuable. During those seasons, his passer rating never surpassed 2.8 (a bad mark for a wing player) and his box creation topped out at 1.5 (another poor mark). Furthermore, he wasn’t athletic enough to reliably defend on the perimeter, in space, or in the paint. All of these facets of his game, including his premier shooting ability, manifested in a player whose BPM and PIPM never rose above 0 on either offense or defense.
Case Study #2: the 2004 Sacramento Kings
If you put the best relative offenses since 1990 in order from best to worst, where do you think the 2004 Kings, a team missing Chris Webber for nearly 60 games, ranks? Out of 876 team seasons, the Kings rank 10th with a starting lineup of Mike Bibby, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic, Vlade Divac, and Brad Miller. Stojakovic’s efficiency was off-the-charts that season, but nobody else shot over 40% from three, none of the wing players were considered primary initiators, and both Divac and Miller were full-time centers every other season. The secret sauce that made this offensive engine rev was their stellar passing.
Ranking by passer rating, the two best passers were Divac (an all-time 9.6) and Miller (7.4). Instead of taking the team-building philosophy du jour of five guys who can space the floor through shooting, they opened up the court by having a lineup that could create for each other. Again, the importance of rim protection is that it defends the most efficient space during live action, but strong passers at every position flip that on its head by making it easier for teams to score at the basket. Shooting is important, yes, but without strong passing (as seen with Kapono), it is rendered less effective. Smart passing is a form of spacing.
But Shooting is Important for Portability! Haven’t You Seen Analytics?
Of course shooting is important. In NBA discourse, I just think that shooting gets too much credit over other portable skills. For instance, let’s focus just on offense right now. Watch this play from the Jazz a few nights ago.
Not counting Gobert, the Jazz’s worst three-point shooter is Mitchell who is hitting them at a 39.7% clip (as of February 13th). Without the fear of the Jazz’s devastating shooting, the Heat wouldn’t need to maniacally closeout. However, a couple of other factors are at play here:
- Gobert’s rim gravity matches the shooters’ perimeter gravity requiring multiple Heat players to tag him in the paint.
- While the Heat players are out of position, the other four Jazz players quickly swing the ball to beat the rotations.
- Nunn is beaten off the dribble TWICE facilitating another dent in the defense.
- Bogdanovic, while maybe missing a lob pass a beat or two earlier, finally gets the open Gobert the easiest shot in the game: a dunk. Gobert is shooting 90.7% on dunks which equals 1.94 points per possession.
Three-point shooting was a key factor that led to this easy basket, but it is far from being the only factor. Furthermore, it’s debatable as to whether it is the most important factor.
Revisiting the Most Portable Superstars
Let’s circle back to the five portable superstars that I selected: Curry, Bird, Garnett, Pippen, and Russell. Curry and Bird, two of the greatest shooters to have ever lived, brought so much more to the table than their shooting. Along with his shooting, Curry is maybe the best off-ball mover, one of the best dribblers (Iverson certainly thinks highly of him), and an all-time point guard finisher on drives. Besides his shooting, Bird crashed the offensive glass, never stopped moving, and was the best secondary passer in NBA history.
To say that Bird and Curry are portable “because of their shooting” is to criminally underrate the other myriad skills that they bring on offense. Would they be so portable without their shooting? Absolutely not, but Bird wouldn’t be nearly as portable without his passing, and Curry wouldn’t be as portable without his ballhandling. This is why both were included in my perfect hypothetical NBA offense.
That leaves us to talk about Pippen, Garnett, and Russell. Offensively, Pippen proved his portability by seamlessly coexisting next to the GOAT offensive perimeter player in Jordan. Pippen could space the floor, but his shooting game was lacking, and he made up for that by being a solid offensive rebounder, a strong dribbler for his size, and a smart primary and secondary passer. Garnett toiled away as a miscast primary offensive player who boasted perhaps more portable skills than Pippen on that end.
Undeniably though, these three players derive the majority of their portability from their defensive chops. Russell captained the literal greatest defensive dynasty in NBA history, Garnett’s 2008 Celtics boasted the 2nd best relative defense since 1990, and two of Pippen’s Bulls landed in the top 50 defenses in the last thirty years. What makes their defense more portable than the likes of Gobert is the same thing that makes the lineup of Draymonds more effective: these three can do it all defensively.
Russell was the original “horizontal big” who was able to slide with anyone while protecting the rim. In that respect, Garnett is a similar albeit longer and taller version. Pippen dominated more on the perimeter while being able to shift to the paint as a strong secondary rim protector. In other words, regardless of the other defenders next to these three, they would retain their defensive value. If Garnett was a +3.5 on defense, then he’d be a +3.5 on any defense.
Shooting is Important, but so are Other Traits
I spent quite a few hours during the pandemic participating in all-time NBA drafts. Once the first few rounds are finished and most of the superstars have found a home, drafters hone in on portable skills. Without fail, the players from each decade with the highest three-point percentage start going sooner and sooner than I expect (check out my complaint about this happening with Duncan Robinson…twice!). Partially, I think this happens because of the portable offensive skills, shooting is the easiest one to search in Basketball Reference.
Once these drafts are completed, the drafters convene to discuss which teams would prevail in certain matchups. Many participants have to defend their team’s “lack of spacing” which invariably means they don’t have multiple shooters.
My goal with this article is to move us away from that incomplete view of portability and spacing. Being a great shooter does not necessarily make a player portable, valuable, or a spacer. However, when paired with other portable skills such as quick passing, rim gravity, ballhandling, and feel, it becomes the the bow that ties those skills together. NBA analysis is finally coming to terms with the three-point centric offense, but it is still missing the established historical importance of the other portable skills.
Cody Houdek is a writer for Premium Hoops, and he also cohosts the Premium Hoops podcast, Sense and Scalability. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articles, videos, and podcasts) here.