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What is the Mikan rule?

How do you stop a dominant player? Players can try to play dirty and coaches can try to stay up late nights trying to scheme for a player, but a dominant player is not very likely to slow down significantly even then. But there is one more way to try and stop a dominant player, something that is a little more permanent: change the rules to change their game.

What is the Mikan rule? The Mikan rule refers to a change made by the NBA in the 1951-1952 season that widened the foul lane (also known as the paint) from 6 feet to 12 feet. This rule was widely seen as an attempt to deter the dominance of Lakers star Center George Mikan. The paint is now 16 feet in width, after it was changed again from 12 feet in 1964.

Who was George Mikan?

George Mikan was a center who played most notably for the Minneapolis Lakers throughout his career in the 1940s and 1950s. He is considered the first ever superstar the NBA has seen, with a number of accolades and achievements, but an even larger impact on the future of the NBA and basketball. Mikan was 6’10, notably taller than others, especially since basketball was somewhat considered to be for shorter and quicker players. Mikan adapted his game, moving like a guard while also using his size and his ambidextrous ability (thanks to the Mikan drill, which is now a popular exercise worldwide) to dominate players in the paint. Mikan won 7 titles and was a perennial scoring and rebounding leader of the league.

Why was the Mikan rule introduced, and what was its impact?

Mikan was taller than his teammates and opponents, so he liked to occupy a position close to the basket, which would be inside the paint. Because the paint was only 6 feet wide, Mikan would find himself very close to the basket at all times, which made it easier for him to score and rebound. His dominance frustrated others, especially his nemesis the New York Knicks, and soon the paint was made wider to 12 feet.

Original 6ft NBA Foul Lane – Basketball Courts

The reason why this was impactful was because there was a rule that players could only stay 3 seconds in the paint at any time. Because the paint was now wider, Mikan found himself further from the basket, which made it more difficult to score. Did it work? Well, kind of: Mikan’s scoring and efficiency did go down, but not by a lot. He was still a top scorer and rebounder and ended up winning the championship, against none other but the New York Knicks.

What other rule changes revolved around George Mikan?

Mikan was very revolutionary when he played, and the Mikan rule was not the only rule that was implemented due to Mikan. When Mikan was still playing college basketball at DePaul University, he was such an adept shotblocker that officials introduced a rule that we now know as defensive goaltending in 1944. The most incredulous thing about this rule change was that defensive goaltending wasn’t thought possible until Mikan started doing it regularly, so officials had to interfere and create a rule for something they thought wasn’t doable in the first place!

Unlike other rule changes that could be perceived to negatively impact Mikan, there is one that brought positive change for him. In a game against the Fort Wayne Pistons in the 1950-1951 season, Mikan had scored 15 of his team’s 18 points. When the Pistons made it 19-18, they were so sure that Mikan would score on the next possession (and subsequently help his team win), they decided to hold on to the ball and pass to each other until the game finished. This game was very instrumental into the creation of the shot clock, which was introduced 4 years later to limit the time an offense has the ball.

What other changes to the paint have there been since the Mikan rule?

The width of the paint was changed again in 1964, from 12 feet to 16 feet. Once again, this change was to combat the effectiveness and dominance of large centers, although now the target of the rule changed from Mikan to Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the most dominant player in NBA history. It is important to note that the NCAA still adheres to the Mikan rule with a paint 12 feet in width. 

What other players are widely recognized to have caused rule changes?

As previously stated, Wilt Chamberlain was one of the most dominant players ever. While he was similar in mold to Mikan in terms of size and skill, Wilt was frankly bigger and better than anyone who came before him or even after him. His athleticism was so unprecedented that he would dunk his free throws (so they introduced free throw rules) and grab any shot mid-air and dunk it (so they introduced basket interference and offensive goaltending rules). These rule changes only forced Wilt to adjust, and he had no problem doing that, as no other player as dominant as him as come along since.

Dunking the basketball was once not allowed, thanks to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. When he was still playing college ball at UCLA, Kareem was so good at dunking that the ball that they banned dunking for nearly 10 seasons due to him. Kareem was another big, dominant center, inspired by George Mikan, so the rule change didn’t faze him; instead, he developed the sky hook, which might be one of the most iconic basketball shots ever.

Most of the major rule changes were to mitigate the impact of dominant centers, who were simply so much bigger and better that officials decided they needed to step in. Other rule changes have been inspired by or attributed to certain (relatively smaller) players, such as the removal of hand-checking, which was attributed to Kobe Bryant. Another rule adjustment was made to what moves can draw a foul, known as the Harden rule, alluding to James Harden and his uncanny ability to draw fouls.

George Mikan was the first dominant basketball player. His physique but also his skillset completely changed the way that basketball was played, so much so that opposing coaches and teams were successful in instituting rules to try and slow him down. In the end, it wasn’t very successful; Mikan put together a very successful and celebrated basketball career, and his legacy and impact trump that of any of the other individuals who tried to bring him down.