The NBA’s 8 Eras and Their Effect on Today’s Game
Have you ever been watching a game and heard an announcer talk about the “way the game was meant to be played” or speculated on how some star from today would fare in yesteryear or vice versa?
Have you ever seen a debate raging on Twitter when someone weighs in, stipulating: “You can’t compare players from different eras!”?
Then, such discussions evolve into comparing eras and why one was better than the other?
There is some truth to all of this. Eras change, and some players would experience more success in the era they played in than they would in another. But that also has something to do with them developing according to the era they played in.
It’s like arguing whether a woolly mammoth could survive in Africa better than an elephant could survive in the Ice Age.
I imagine at some point in time, some old-timer was complaining about how, in his day, they weren’t allowed all this “dribbling” nonsense, and how if you wanted to score the ball you had to run around and get the pass and shoot it.
He probably bellyached about how lazy “today’s” players were when they stopped climbing up to get the ball out of the peach basket instead of letting gravity do the work.
Yes, basketball evolved and changed a lot over the years, long before it became a centralized league. A few gleanings from my recollection of various basketball history books:
When certain inventive players passed the ball to themselves by bouncing it off the floor, they invented the “self-pass”—the origin of dribbling. At the time, however, the game balls weren’t as perfectly spherical as today, so the dribbles were often errant. As a result, players would run down the court juggling the ball from hand to hand, as the rules permitted at the time.
The nets were too close to the fans, who would reach out and tip the ball to keep it from going into the net, or aid it, depending on the result they wanted. That’s why backboards were invented.
For a while, the game was played inside cages, which was one of the more violent periods in the game’s history. It had elements of hockey to it, with players checking each other into wired fencing. (Folks who talk about the”physical” 90s game should take a look at the 20s.)
There’s a lot more to what existed pre-NBA than a lot of fans consider, and so when we talk about how the game was “meant” to be played, we need to be less static. And, by the footage above, maybe recognize that the players, even then, had more skill than you might think.
Before the 50s, “professional basketball” was considered to be something less than college basketball. That all changed in the 1950-51 CCNY point-shaving scandal, which shattered college basketball’s reputation for years.
The timing more or less coincided with the merger of the two largest pro leagues—Basketball Association of American and the National Basketball League—to form the National Basketball Association following 1948-49 season. The combination of these two events fashioned the NBA into a new focus of the basketball world.
And then there was the emergence of the dominant big men. The 6’10” George Mikan dominated the league in such a way that the league was forced to widen the lanes from 6 feet to 12 feet. Mikan made the game about bigs, and 25 of the first 27 MVPs were centers.
The shot clock, introduced in the 1955-56 season, changed everything again. Scoring went from 79.5 (the lowest in the history of the league) to 118.8 (the highest) within five years.
Three things impact the 60s, though two of them had their genesis in the late 50s.
First was Wilt Chamberlain, whose dominance from an individual standpoint was such that he once averaged 50 points per game while literally playing all but eight minutes of the season, averaging 48.5 minutes per game because of overtime. His lone absence due to an ejection.
(By contrast, this season’s leader, James Harden, is averaging 37.5, which is 1,005th in NBA history.)
To curb Wilt’s influence, the league widened the lanes again, this time to 16 feet.
The second factor was the dominance of the Boston Celtics. The true impact they had on the league is often missed, but Red Auerbach’s system laid out the foundation for the positions (point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center) that became the standard for the next 50 years. Only now are some of these concepts starting to change.
The third factor was when the Celtics put out the league’s first all-black starting lineup in 1964, breaking the unofficial “quota” of four black players per team. From then on, teams started adding more African Americans, the game picked up speed and then elevated to one above the rim.
Some say that the athletes of this era were not as good, but there’s a very long and convoluted discussion there which goes both ways.
On the one side, there were great athletes: Bill Russell once jumped over a defender dribbling the ball down the court at full speed (see above). Wilt Chamberlain went on to have a Hall of Fame career in volleyball after retiring from the NBA and had fooled around with becoming a decathlete in college.
However, it’s also true that conditioning and training were nowhere near what they are today. Then again, players of yesteryear would have benefited from those improved standards too.
The 70s were an intriguing time for basketball, as the American Basketball Association (which started in 1967-68) rose to compete with the NBA. It grabbed some of the star players, such as David “Skywalker” Thompson and Julius “Dr. J.” Erving. It was flamboyant and colorful, all the way down to the ball, which was red white and blue instead of orange.
The new league played at a faster pace and had a 3-point line, too, things which later became part of the NBA when the leagues merged in 1976.
The NBA, by comparison, was slow and stodgy. While there were some truly great NBA players, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA went through an era of parity while real “change” seemed to be happening in the ABA.
In some ways, there was a kind of “reverse hegemony” that happened when the NBA ultimately won the battle between the leagues. The NBA “won” the war, but ultimately, the faster paced, “fun” game the ABA played won out over the NBA. (Minus the ball, of course.)
From the mid-70s (a byproduct of the ABA) to the end of the 80s, the NBA played at its fastest measurable pace ever. (Though the early 60s were probably much faster, we can’t figure out pace from then because rebounds weren’t distinguished between offensive and defense, nor were turnovers counted prior to 1972. And those are essential to determining pace.)
Larry Bird of the Celtics and Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers were the league’s stars. They had a personal rivalry (dating back to their college days) that captured the imagination of the nation and pitted their respective teams against one another in the Finals three times. All of this happened as the nature of the TV audience experienced a massive transition.
Instead of catching select games—even the NBA Finals were previously on tape delay—the growth of cable TV was making it so that fans could watch all their hometown teams live. The ratings leap of the 80s pushed the league towards the nation’s second-most popular sport after baseball.
That meant more money, and more money meant better pay for players, better hotel rooms, better travel conditions and so on.
The Bird and Magic rivalry also made for a change in the way audiences perceived the game. While the first half of the NBA’s MVP award was dominated by big men, 27 of the last 32 awards since have gone to the team’s primary ball-handler.
Oh, and let’s not forget Tom Chambers becoming the first unrestricted free agent. To that point, team building was done two ways: draft or trade. But free agency was a game-changer. Building a championship team no longer meant you could just keep it together forever.
Do you think a team could keep eight Hall of Famers together the way the Celtics of the 60s did with unrestricted free agency?
The 90s are almost synonymous with Michael Jordan, who combined the unprecedented scoring ability, charisma, statistical and championship success made him a star beyond the NBA. He was a bonafide international celebrity. His combined 21 scoring titles, NBA Finals MVPS and MVPS is something no one else has even approached.
He was the G.O.A.T. Everyone wanted to be “like Mike.”
He elevated the popularity of the game beyond even what Magic and Bird had done. Only now, the popularity wasn’t restricted to America.
In 1992, the Olympic committee allowed NBA stars to participate in the Olympics, and the Dream Team was born. Magic, Larry, Michael, along with such stars as Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Patrick Ewing and others formed the greatest team ever assembled.
A whole generation of European fans fell in love with basketball, and those kids grew up playing, with some of them going on to become NBA players.
Before those Olympics, there were 24 foreign-born players in the NBA. This season, 113 have suited up. That’s nearly a quarter of the league, the ripple effect of the Dream Team.
There’s a false premise floating around that the league is “thinned out” because there are 30 teams instead of eight. However, the US population has nearly doubled in the last 50 years, and the internationalization of the game has made the “talent pool” the entire globe.
High school development is at another level, as is college. There are leagues in Europe, China, South America and Australia. There’s the G-League. Not only is the pool of players larger, it’s more developed.
The Association is as deep as it’s ever been, and a lot of that goes back to the Dream Team.
The league was concerned about Jordan’s retirement at the turn of the century: Who was going to carry the league in his absence?
To “create” a new Jordan by “opening up the game”, the league made a series of rule changes.
Commonly just referred to as “taking away the hand check” (which actually happened in stages), the rule changes were rolled out over 11 years, beginning in 1994-95 and ending in 2004-05. Illegal defenses and defensive 3 seconds were implemented as well, and each had at least as much impact.
Contrary to popular opinion, the rule changes helped defenses more than offenses, even if it also aided high-scoring swingmen like Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.
Teams were able to assist on defense in ways they couldn’t before. Prior to the rule change, you had two options: man-to-man or double-team. If a defender helped, he had to commit to the double-team, meaning his man was left open.
Now, things like hedging and icing were allowed. All of that made offenses less efficient. Tom Thibodeau in particular, with his “five men on a string” view, helped perfect these defenses, and all the league copied him.
The shooting percentages and offensive rating for the aughts were the lowest since the introduction of the 3-point line. When people are talking about Bryant’s place in history, they should remember the era he played in prioritized inefficient mid-range shots and post ups. That doesn’t make him “better” or “worse.”
It makes him good at what he did in the era he was in.
During the 2014 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs put on a shooting display that had the Miami Heat running all over the place as the 3s kept pouring in—55 over the four games, on just 118 tries.
The Spurs unlocked how to destroy the Thibodeau defense: Stretch it out.
Less than five years later, those Finals numbers seem relatively pedestrian. The whole league seemed to be shooting more 3’s the following season, as 11 of the top 30 teams in league history took the court.
But that was just the beginning. The league averaged 20.5 3’s in 2013-14. This year, it’s jumped to 31.5.
The LA Clippers, who are averaging a league-low 24.8 this season are still attempting more than all but 20 teams in history before the 2013-14 season.
Stephen Curry and James Harden are redefining once again what it means to be the MVP by creating 3’s at an unprecedented rate. They’ve won three of the last four awards, and if Harden continues his present pace, it may soon be four of the last five. Both led league in 3’s made each year they won.
Because scoring is up and more efficient, some people want to patch anyone from history into this era and say they would score 50 if they were shooting as many 3’s.
But there are problems with that if the player wasn’t a great shooter. Bryant (32.9 percent for his career from deep) or Jordan (32.7 percent) wouldn’t necessarily be lights-out 3-point shooters in this era. (Contrarily, they likely would have been practicing the shot a lot more during their younger years as is happening today.)
Ultimately, you can’t compare eras because they involve different skills, different rules, different teams and team building concepts, different training methods and even differences in racial tolerance and diversity.
What you can do is appreciate what the different eras are and what made great players great in the eras they played.
You can only do that, though, if you know the history.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.