The following is going to be a comprehensive and very brief history of the NBA. Meaning we’re going to touch on all (most?) of the important era’s and events that form the long and complex history of the NBA. Buckle up.
What is the History of the NBA? The NBA came into being on June 6th 1946 when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was founded at the Commodore Hotel in New York with Maurice Poldoloff becoming the first Commissioner. On August 3, 1949 the BAA assimilated it’s smaller rival the National Basketball League (NBL) and rebranded itself the NBA. Up until that point professional basketball in North America had been full of short lived and disjointed leagues and teams. Between 1946 and 2023 the NBA would become the most dominant sports league in the world.
So that’s the basics of pre-1949 covered. The first official NBA game took place on November 1st 1946 in Canada. It would be the first of 129,476 Regular Season NBA games (and counting) in which some 13,371,064 points have been scored with a field goal percentage of 45.4%.
The first game after the 1949 rebranding to the NBA, was played at Wharton Field House on Saturday 29th October 1949 as the Denver Nuggets visited the Tri-Cities Black Hawks in Moline, Illinois. The Blackhawks would win 93-85.
The first NBA Superstar; George Mikan and the Lakers (1948 – 1956)
George Mikan was the original NBA Superstar. Before one game in New York his team mates pretended to get changed back into street clothes and leave the arena because the billboards advertising the game simply said “George Mikan vs the Knicks”. He drew the crowds, he was a wall on defense and he bent defenses to his will. So much so that the fledgling NBA changed several rules to try and slow him down. He won 5 NBA titles in his short career, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954. To add to the 2 he had won before the official 1946 formation of what became the NBA. He played for the Minneapolis Lakers and was as dominant in his era as any player. When he retired, overall league ratings slipped so badly he was coaxed into coming back for one more season. He propped the league up in the early years and gave it the credibility it needed to survive.
The introduction of the 24 second shot clock to the NBA (1954)
After Mikan’s first retirement the season was so badly received by basketball fans that the league decided to do something drastic. They planned to speed up the game by introducing a shot clock. Still used to this day the 24 second shot clock reduces the amount of time a team has with the ball before they have to take a shot. No longer would NBA fans be subjected to score lines like the lowest ever NBA score. Recorded in 1950 the Fort Wayne Pistons beat the Minneapolis Lakers 19-18 that day, in an attempt to thwart Mikan. They simply held onto the ball for the majority of the game.
24 seconds was calculated by Danny Biasone (Nationals owner) and Leo Ferris (Nationals GM). Biasone looked at the box scores from the games he enjoyed, “games where they didn’t screw around and stall” in his words. He saw that each team took about 60 shots. So he took 2,880 seconds (48 minutes) and divided that by 120 (60 shots per team).
The result was 24 seconds per shot, Biasone and Ferris then convinced the NBA to adopt it for the 1954–55 season and has been used every season since. The 24 second shot clock has now been adopted as the standard across the Basketball world. The introduction of the 24 second shot clock can perhaps be credited as the most pivotal moment in NBA and Basketball history. Changing it from a standard invasion game, to a fast paced frenetic ballet of athleticism.
The Bill Russell Celtics (1956 – 1969)
From George Mikan to the Steph Curry Warriors and whatever comes next, the NBA has always thrived when superstar led dynasties are on top of the world. For all the talk of parity (which has its place) the NBA is never more captivating than when one team, or one player sits solidly on top of the pile as THE team to beat.
The Bill Russell Celtics of the 50’s and 60’s were no exception. The late great Bill Russell played 13 seasons in the NBA between 1956 and 1969. He won 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics. After winning the title his rookie year, Russell would go down with an ankle injury the next year in the 1958 NBA Finals vs The St Louis Hawks, where the Celtics would lose. Following this defeat they won 8 titles in a row. Before finally being beaten by Wilt Chamberlain’s Warriors in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1967. Russell and the Celtics would rally to win 2 more titles in 1968 and 1969 before Bill would pack it up for good. By any stretch of the imagination 11 titles in a 13 year career is dominant. Despite racial tensions in the US at the time, not least in the Celtics home town of Boston, Russell punched through and was an icon even in his own time.
When he passed away in 2022 the NBA decided to retire his number 6 jersey across the entire league.
The ABA: The NBA Merger (1976)
The American Basketball Association (ABA) held its inaugural season in 1967-68 having formed as a rival league to the NBA. The ABA can best be described as a market disruptor. It became clear in the years following its merger with the NBA that a merger had been its goal the entire time. The ABA’s goal had been to force a merger with the NBA by becoming such a big rival, it only made sense to join forces. The ABA was pitching this vision to future investors making clear that they could purchase an ABA team for half of what it might cost to get an NBA expansion team, if such an opportunity even arose. ABA officials said their investment would more than double when the NBA merger finally took place.
The ABA was a disruptor in other ways as well. They pushed the limit of innovation on court using the three-point line that had been trialed in the now defunct ABL. The ABA used a colorful (and now iconic) red, white and blue ball, instead of basketball’s standard orange ball. They pushed the “street” style of play, encouraging high flying acrobatic plays that would excite the crowd and allow the most creative players to flourish.Along these lines the ABA pioneered the now ever present annual All Star Slam Dunk Contest.
Away from the court the ABA tried to disrupt the model as well. Setting up several regional franchises, like the Virginia Squires and the Carolina Cougars, who played games in several cities, rather than having a fixed single city home. This was a bold attempt to grow fanbases in forgotten areas of the country.
The authentic and exciting style of play would win over fans, however the lack of a national TV deal and poor financial planning as they tried to outspend the NBA for talent would lead many franchises into trouble. By 1976, its last year of existence, the ABA was down to just 7 teams.
One of these teams, The Nets, had something that the NBA desperately wanted. The playing contract for Julius “Dr J” Irving who was signed with the New York Nets. On the back of this and some dominance in markets away from typical NBA territories the ABA succeeded in forcing a merger with the NBA in the 1976 offseason. Four ABA teams were absorbed into the older league: the New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs. All four of these franchises are still thriving in the NBA today.
Perhaps the biggest thing the NBA took from the ABA (aside from NBA MVP and Champion Dr J) was the disruptor spirit. Of all the high profile professional sports leagues in the world, the NBA has always been ahead of the curve in player empowerment, civil rights and fan engagement. They may not have always been perfect or fast enough, but they have consistently been ahead of most.
The Three Point Line (1979)
The Three Point line has changed the physical dynamics of the game of Basketball. Although it had been experimented before the ABA’s formation, it was the ABA that popularized it and brought out it’s full potential as a crowd pleaser. The NBA had always seen it as gimmicky and even after the 1976 merger with the ABA refused to adopt it. Then in 1979, with its following and revenue declining, the NBA decided to roll the dice and introduce the 3 point line.
The sport of Basketball has never looked back. Though the distances differ between all levels of basketball, the 3-point line has become universal. The NBA has a 22-foot 3-point line in the corners and a 23-foot, 9-inch line elsewhere. The WNBA and the international game plays with a 20-foot, 6-inch line. The NCAA men’s game has a 20-foot, 9-inch line while the NCAA women and high schools have a 19-foot, 9-inch line.
The 3-point shot gave a fresh advantage to smaller players who might otherwise struggle to score amongst the giant players that controlled the world inside the paint. While players were always allowed to shoot from anywhere on the court, the assignment of a higher value to a shot from beyond the arc made it more valuable. Suddenly defenses had to adjust.
To make it simple let’s look at a player taking 100 shots from close range and 100 shots from beyond the 3-point line. If a player shoots a pretty reasonable 50% from close range, over 100 shots they will get 100 points. If a player shot just 35% from beyond the 3-point line, they would net 105 points over 100 shots, if those shots were still worth 2 points they would only net 70 points.. It is in this simple bit of math, that the game changed.
Defenses now had to guard shooters out to 25 feet, whereas before the 3-point line they could sink off and clog the paint. This wasn’t just an advantage for the smaller more skilled shooters, because defenses had to spread out, it allowed more space for the bigs to operate inside. Leading to a much more aesthetically pleasing version of Basketball.
The 3-point shot didn’t immediately change the NBA, it took a while for the skill of players and trust of coaches to allow the 3-point shot to flourish, but flourish, it did. In recent years this has been taken to extremes, but more on that later.
Magic & Bird an NBA Rivalry (the 80’s)
In addition to the NBA introducing the 3 point line for the 1979-80 season, they also introduced two future icons of the game. Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson of the LA Lakers. In 1979 TV audiences were dwindling to the point that NBA Finals games were only broadcast on tape delay so the stations could show reruns of Dallas instead (seriously look it up). The NBA needed something, that something came in the form of a massive era spanning rivalry between the workmanlike Larry Bird in East Coast Blue Collar Boston and Magic Johnson the flashy leader of the Showtime Lakers in LA out West. Between them they won 8 of the 10 titles available in the ‘80’s. (5 for Magic 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988 & 3 for Bird 1981, 1984, 1986) meeting in the NBA Finals 3 times (83, 84 & 86).
By the time the 90’s rolled around their powers were starting to fade, but the NBA was in better shape than ever and on an upward trajectory. Magic’s Lakers had been swept in the 1989 Finals by Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boy Pistons. The Pistons would repeat in 1990 claiming the first title of the 1990’s and a new rivalry was born, because in 1984 an irresistible force had entered the NBA and by 1990 he was ready to take flight, carrying the NBA with him.
Michael Jordan (the 90’s)
Michael Jordan was pretty good at Basketball and he was a global, cultural phenomenon.
He won 3 NBA titles in a row after dethroning the Pistons in the 1991 Playoffs. 1991, 1992 and 1993.
He then skipped town to play Baseball for a bit.
Returning to win 3 more titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998 before retiring (as a Bull) for good this time.
Many many words have been written about the greatest player to ever play the game of Basketball. So we won’t say any more. Just leave you with this.
The NBA’s obsession with elite Wing scoring (1999 – 2015)
Michael Jordan wasn’t supposed to be the biggest star in the NBA. He got drafted 3rd overall, behind two 7fters. Building your team around a flashy, elite level wing scorer wasn’t how it was done in 1984. It wasn’t how most NBA teams did in 1998 when Jordan retired. But the results spoke for themselves and besides, every kid with a ball, a hoop and a bit of talent wanted to be Michael Jordan. So there was really no stopping what came next.
‘Hero Ball’ as it is often called as an often derisory moniker, is the go to style of play for the majority of the NBA in the 2000’s and half of the 2010’s. At it’s best it’s Kobe Bryant pairing perfectly with center Shaquile O’neil to win 3 titles in a row at the turn of the century. At its worst it’s Ricky Davis saying he thought Rookie Lebron James was going to be a great addition to come in and help him score.
Speaking of Lebron James, the man who in 2023 became the NBA’s all time leading scorer and is really the only name worth bringing up when we talk about whether Jordan really is the GOAT came into the league in 2003 as a 19 year old. He was tipped to be the next elite wing scorer in the mold of Jordan and Kobe. He has proved to be so, so, much more. Regarding himself more as a playmaker than a scorer (maybe Ricky had a point?). He is also 4th on the all-time assists charts.
Like Jordan before him and Kobe (when he wanted to be) he has also been an elite defender.
Lebron and Kobe’s careers crossed over nicely, giving the NBA a true superstar to lean on after Jordan retired. Sadly they never managed to face each other in the Playoffs.
Lebron, still playing in 2023, has outlasted hero ball and seen a dramatic change come over the NBA. In 2015 when Lebron lost his first Finals back in Cleveland to the upstart Golden State Warriors and future MVP Steph Curry the league stood on the edge of a new era in its history. The court was about to feel a whole lot bigger.
Steph Curry and the NBA Deep 3 (2015)
Steph Curry was a breakout star in the 2009 NCAA tournament for Davidson. He would follow his dad, Del, into the NBA that summer. The 6ft2 point guard with a lethal shot was drafted at number 7. In his early years with the Golden State Warriors he was plagued by ankle injuries and would sign a sub market contract extension due to fears his health wouldn’t survive the rigors of leading a team in the NBA. Then in 2014 everything changed. Steve Kerr took over the Warriors and the roster was tilted to suit Kerrs preferred ball movement offence. Curry got on top of his ankle issues and alongside his fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson they set about changing the NBA forever.
Prior to the 2015 NBA Finals it was believed that you couldn’t win an NBA title if outside shooting was your primary offencive weapon. Good for the regular season, but it wouldn’t hold up come playoff time. After despatching Lebron James newly formed Cavs in the 2015 NBA Finals, shooting would never be seen the same again.
The following season Curry, Klay and “small ball” center Draymond Green would go on to win a record 73 NBA games. Reaching the Finals again, losing to an elite Lebron James Cavs side in game 7. Needless to say every team in the NBA was scrambling for shooting at every position. The midrange was dead, deemed analytically inefficient. Lay Ups. Free throws and Three pointers was the order of the day.
Curry is now the leading all time NBA 3 point scorer and still going strong. He has 4 NBA titles under his belt and is the leagues only unanimous MVP. His popularity with fans across the globe is probably only second to Jordan and Lebron in NBA history.
The pull up Logo 3 is now an acceptable shot for NBA players to take, whenever they feel like it.
Basketball will never be the same again.
Unicorns, Tree’s & Three’s: The return of the NBA Big Man (2020)
After Curry led the Warriors to the NBA title in 2015 and smashed the Jordan Bulls all time regular season wins record the following year, small ball was the talk of the NBA. Every team seemed to want to downsize at the center position. Elite rim protectors like Roy Hibbert were now seen as a liability on both ends as they couldn’t guard switches on the perimeter and clogged the lane on offense. NBA Big men were dead.
After one of Jokic, Embiid or Giannis is crowned MVP for the 2022-23 NBA season it will be 5 years in a row that a 7 footer has one MVP. How did this turn around so quickly?
The secret of the Warriors success was never about them being small, it was about them being good. By having mobile defenders in every position and flooding the court with at least 4 good to great 3 point shooters at all times, it changed the geometry of the court.
What the NBA has realized in the years since 2015, is that if your small ball center happens to be a 7ft Greek God with elite handles, the ability to get to the rim at will, chase guards around screens and contain them off the dribble… then they don’t need to be small.
The search for the NBA Unicorns has begun.
Kevin Durant is maybe the original. Listed at around 7 ft tall he played much of his 2007 rookie season as a shooting guard. Joining Curry and the Warriors for 2 titles and 2 Finals MVPs in 3 years solidified his place as one of the best Basketball Players of All Time. Durant can do everything on a basketball court.
Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony Towns and a host of others have a similar mold. Nicola Jokic is a typical plodding center, who also happens to be one of the greatest shooters and Point Guards in the history of the NBA.
Brook Lopez used to be a behemoth post up machine, is the Brooklyn Nets all time scorer and rarely shot a 3. For his new team the Bucks, he protects the rim and spaces the floor averaging over 5 three point attempts a game at a very respectable 35%.
It’s not just about Big Men learning new skills and being more complete. Players like PJ Tucker and Bruce Brown have been able to play up at center. Bringing the traditional skills of a center at under 6 ft 4.
Throughout NBA history your style of play has been based on your physical profile, how you play on defense mirrored with how you are expected to play on offense. The modern era of the NBA has made that thinking totally archaic. Players are recruited and deployed based on the skills they can bring to the court. A truly positionless era of Basketball is on us.
Victor Wembanyama is coming.