When you wade deep enough into the trenches of NBA Twitter, you find a couple of obscure terms not often spoken on ESPN or TNT’s Inside the NBA. Those terms are portability and scalability. In short, portability is a player’s ability to fit into any team context without disrupting that team’s ecosystem (hence “portable”). According to Ben Taylor, Scalability is “how a player’s overall impact changes as his team quality scales up” meaning that a scalable player retains or even improves their value as their overall team quality improves. Today, I would like to introduce a third term to this triad: shiftability.
Shiftability is how well a player can increase or decrease their offensive role within a team context while retaining their creation/scoring efficacy. In other words, can a typical third option take the reins of an offense as the first option through increased assists, efficiency, and/or scoring? Can a first option shift down to a role as a second or third option in a more off-ball role?
Even though shiftability exists near the metaphysical nexus of portability and scalability, it is possible for a player to be many combination of these three: portable and scalable but not shiftable (Draymond Green); portable, scalable, and shiftable (Stephen Curry). For this article, my goal is to discuss statistical indicators that point towards offensive shiftability by mainly looking at the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks.
Why We Should Care About Portability, Scalability, and Shiftability
In a recent article, I stated that my most important maxim for team building is “Players who toggle between being a primary and secondary creator are invaluable. This includes big men who can operate in the post.” In essence, I’m describing the need to include shiftable players. In an ideal situation, if every single player on your roster had the ability to embody this “next man up” mentality and shift up or down to the next offensive role (5th option, 4th option, etc.), that would easily be the best team in history. That team could theoretically lose their first five options, and the first five players off the bench could slot in perfectly going forward.
While that idea is likely an impossibility, the Brooklyn Nets achieved this on a much smaller scale with James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving. What made that team so potentially deadly isn’t just that their three best players have a 90+ rating in 2K; it’s that any one of them could step up and be a top 10 “first best player” for stretches. Furthermore, Kyrie and Durant especially could shift down offensively without encroaching on the others’ skill sets. (One needs to look no further than the titanic “Death Lineup” Warriors or the 2nd stint LeBron Cavaliers to see this illustrated). There’s nothing inherent to that Brooklyn trifecta that makes them so deadly.
Ideally, you want players who are portable, scalable, and shiftable, but like Durant, KG, Curry, and Larry Bird, that combination is exceedingly rare. Once the shiftable few are off the table, teams must then fill their rosters with players who will naturally fit next to whatever ecosystem they’ve created. These are the journeyman role players who plaster over any holes remaining in the roster. Think of guys like Robert Covington, Andrei Kirilenko (who I’ve called the most portable player in history), Shawn Marion, and Marcus Smart. You can plop any of them on your team, their impact increases as the team’s quality improves, but if they need to shift up to be a first or second option, their values start to plummet.
Shiftability and the Finals
As you look at the Bucks’ and Suns’ rosters, it looks like a clear example of big three vs. big three: Giannis/Middleton/Holiday against Paul/Booker/Ayton. Viewing the teams through that lens, the Suns might look like they have a better roster because of the other players surrounding their big three. Giannis’ brilliance aside, a significant reason that the Bucks big three outplayed Phoenix’ is that they were individually more shiftable.
A team’s goal—especially in the playoffs—is to have its best player on the court as much as possible. It seems silly to even say the reason, but for clarity’s sake, it’s because the best players do important things (scoring, creating, etc.) more often and more efficiently. When that best player goes to the bench, the team responds by either having another player take that role, or the team shifts up by committee. Seeing as neither the Bucks nor the Suns had particularly good seventh or eighth rotational players, the ability to individually shift up became all the more important.
Statistically, the clearest (and most accessible) indicators to determine shiftability are with or without you (WOWY) points/75 possessions, true shooting percentage, assists/75 possessions, and team relative offensive rating. (In a perfect world, one might want to look at WOWY box creation, ScoreVal, PlayVal, and AuPM, but those are considerably more challenging to procure). For the Suns, I looked at how Booker, Ayton, and Bridges performed in these indicators with/without Paul on the floor. For the Bucks, I did the same with Middleton, Holiday, and Brook Lopez. Here are the results.
Unpacking the Numbers
Remember, everything that I discuss here is based solely on the aforementioned statistical indicators.
Broadly speaking, the Bucks had two shiftable players during the season in Middleton and Holiday whereas the Suns only had one in Booker. From my sampling, very few players increase their scoring, efficiency, and creation when the star goes to the bench (more on this later). Of the players in the Finals, only Booker and Middleton did so. The next tier of shiftable players increase some combination of scoring/creation or scoring/efficiency which only includes Holiday.
In fact, Ayton’s and Bridges’ scoring decreases when Paul goes to the bench. Bridges also sees a dip in his efficiency. Technically both of their assists increase, but like Middleton’s change in assists, it’s negligible. Both Ayton and Bridges were lauded as perfectly portable (and after this season, scalable) players in Phoenix’ system, but neither proved to be shiftable. In a Finals devoid of the usual star power, this was a key difference.
Holiday is particularly interesting because his regular season numbers painted him as a highly shiftable player. While I spent a fair share of time (justly) criticizing Holiday during the playoffs, viewing him through this scalable lens reveals the same kind of impact.
Despite profoundly dreadful efficiency, Holiday turns himself into a 20/10 per 75 possession point guard without Giannis. On a team with few primary creators, Holiday’s ability to approximate that role in bursts was invaluable especially next to another creator who played near Booker’s level in the same situations. More than anything, his ability to get two feet in the paint while whipping the ball to start a chain reaction of ball movement greased a historically hapless Milwaukee bench.
Besides Giannis’ unimpeachable dominance, Holiday and Middleton shifting better than anyone else not named Booker on the Suns was a main key to their success.
Wait, Mikal Bridges Slander?
Right now, Bridges is maybe the most portable player in the NBA. Aside from his shooting and slashing abilities, he’s got the defensive chops to guard some of the most valuable offensive threats in the league.
However, I don’t see him as shiftable. Yet. I say yet because some of you might be like, “But Jackson Frank tweeted about his self creation! In a better role, he could do that more consistently!” Sure, here are the tweets you’re talking about.
If you’re going to use those as evidence that he’s a hidden gem of a self-creator, I’m going to point out that neither of those show him creating a particularly efficient advantage for the Suns. Nevertheless, that’s not my final conclusion on him! Bridges is young (just like Ayton), and him flashing the speed and handle to drive in these situations can only mean good things about his ability to develop his self-creation equity. While he shows moments of “low viscosity” off-ball passing, I haven’t seen enough evidence of on-ball (handling in the pick-and-roll/isolation) creation for others to dub him a clearly shiftable prospect.
Unlike players like Covington, Bridges has the potential to add shiftability to his immense portability. He wouldn’t be the first player to greatly improve his pick-and-roll passing ability.
The Fleeting Wizards Duo
Before ending, I want to take a second to apply this lens to Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook (now of the Los Angeles Lakers). Beal has consistently been an offensive colossus, yet the Wall injuries have stalled his ability to make playoff runs. Because of his lack of recent playoff success, Beal seems to have dropped from the conversation about best offensive players in the league. However, his numbers without Russell Westbrook this last season (including the playoffs) are nothing less than astounding.
Without Westbrook, Beal increases every indicator of shiftability. His scoring and creation in particular skyrocket. Obviously winning is the key to every fan’s heart, but wherever you have Booker on your top players list, I strongly believe that swapping Booker for Beal this year would’ve been an upgrade for the Suns.
On the other hand, the Lakers’ theory of signing Westbrook is that he could champion their offense if LeBron or Anthony Davis catch the injury bug again or simply need to sit. If last season is any indication, effective, life-raft Westbrook may not be as valuable as his reputation holds. I want to be clear though: I am not saying that Westbrook won’t be Westbrook of old. I’m just saying that the recent indicators of shiftability aren’t reassuring.
More than anything, my current team-building philosophy is that teams need to have the flexibility to handle any sort of offensive/defensive scheme. Finding shiftable players is one tool for unlocking flexibility especially on offense. A team that preps for your best offensive player won’t be able to establish the terms of engagement if a secondary (or even tertiary) player can scale up with a different style.
It’s not feasible to completely build a team of scalable players which is why portability becomes one of the next highest priorities. However, as the most recent Finals foreshadows, shiftability (with a healthy dose of portability and scalability) eclipses pure portability.
Cody Houdek is a writer and podcaster for Premium Hoops where he co-hosts 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.