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10 Changes the NBA Has Seen

Updated on January 22, 2015
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Wilt, Magic, Bird, MJ, Kobe, LeBron…The NBA has surely showcased the great talents that will forever remain unforgotten, but the game they all played was not always the same. As the organization underwent change, gained more traction, and continued to generate revenue, it’s competition, equipment, and apparel soon followed. With such a multifaceted sport, changes were inevitable. They say change is good, however, perhaps not all the changes were for the better. It has grown up from the time of it’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith’s nurturing, so let’s take a look at how these changes have shaped the game to what it is today.

1) BASKETBALL

The basketball has come a long way from soccer balls being shot into peach baskets. Currently, the men’s ball measures a 29.5 inch circumference while the women’s ball is smaller, measuring at a 28.5 inch circumference. However, they weren’t always the smooth leathery ball we know and love. They had laces at one point, so you can almost imagine dribbling now, with the feel of laces brushing against your finger tips with a somewhat lopsided roundness! And so, as the game continued to develop, so did it’s precious rock.

In 1983, Spalding’s full-grain leather ball became the official ball of the NBA. By this time, the game’s “Greats” took to the stage. Jordan’s game winners, Barkley’s slams, and Magic’s feeds were all done with the classic game ball we’ve seen on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the ball remained the same for quite some time.

Some advancements in different composite leathers and outdoor grains made it’s way into the consumer markets. But there was one innovation that made it’s mark to a product that remained fairly vanilla throughout the decades. The Spalding Infusion was introduced to the world in 2001 with a built in pump and wow-ed it’s way into the basketball world. There was no need to bring a tire pump or sift through gym bags trying to locate a misplaced needle, a true innovation for pros and pick-up game ballers alike.

With such a reputation, Spalding was sure to continue it’s good work for the basketball community. Unfortunately in June of 2006, this would be held as untrue. The introduction of the Spalding Cross-Traxxion Technology basketball would reign as the official game ball of the NBA for a short half of a season. From far, it’s design looked promising, but the feedback would be far from that. A ball that never needed inflating and bounced more consistently was the promise that players got, but the complaints outnumbered the praises and the new ball was retracted from the shelves following the disaster. Perhaps it needed some time for the players to get used to since there wasn’t even a chance to test the ball before the season. Or perhaps they shouldn’t have tried to meddle, trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. The official game ball switched back to it’s predecessor after the debacle, but perhaps in the future there’ll be another innovation that will sweep the players off their feet. Or even, the current game ball will remain for centuries.

2) BACKBOARD

photo credit: 5150fantast via photopin cc
photo credit: 5150fantast via photopin cc

Standard backboards are 6 feet wide and 3.5 feet tall with it’s inner square measuring 24 inches wide and 18 inches tall. I mentioned peach baskets before. But they were just that, peach baskets attached to railings or 10 foot poles. There were no backboards. Seems like a bit of a problem gathering rebounding stats, no? Well, there was no rebounding yet. And how could you hit a nice soft bank shot off of a sweet fade-away then? Well, you couldn’t (And I don’t think they had such slick moves back in the day anyway). After some time however in 1985, backboards made of chicken wire were implemented, but not as an aid for scoring. Instead, they served as a prevention from spectators sitting in the balconies interfering with balls in play. Wood made it’s way as the backboard material in 1909. They were also mounted directly to walls but this didn’t serve too good of a purpose as players would use the walls to boost a jump maneuver. So in 1916, they set them up 2-feet away from the walls and were later moved even farther away at 4-feet in 1939. This allowed for more play beneath the basket.

Glass backboards didn’t see the light of day until 1910 and then briefly banned in 1916. A little before 1920, glass backboards were reintroduced and made popular as spectators’ views were no longer blocked. Since then, glass has been the backboards we see today with some changes in the kind of glass used such as acrylic, tempered, or fiberglass. They were problematic for a time since players such as Darryl Dawkins shattered the glass on two occasions with monstrous dunks in the 1979 season.

With the high flying slammers of today’s League, it’s a wonderful thought knowing there’ll be no game delays with such an incident. Well, we’ll see.

3) JERSEYS

photo credit: ye-wa via photopin cc
photo credit: ye-wa via photopin cc

Jerseys weren’t always the decorative type we see today. The first 25 years of basketball saw some interesting basketball gear, showcasing knee-length padded pants and shorter pants with knee-length tights. The tops consisted of quarter length sleeved shirts and a sleeveless version. During the 20s, the uniforms evolved to medium-length shorts. Can you imagine playing basketball in wool? Well, during that time materials used were wool but changed to a light polyester and nylon synthetics in the coming years. The evolution continued into the 50s as elastic waist bands paved their way into the uniform scene, canceling out the need for belts. (I know! Belts, right?)

The classic look around the 70s were more tightly fit. Who could forget Walt Frazier and his short-shorts? He wasn’t always in loudly patterned suits. Also during this time, satin shorts and heavy polyester were the uniform standard which, in comparison to now, doesn’t sound too absorbent. It was also during this time that the NBA logo was seen on the shorts. It wasn’t until Jordan made a request in the late 80s to lengthen his shorts that set this trend as a kind of standard. One of the main reason for this was so he could more comfortably wear his alma mater UNC basketball shorts under his NBA uniform. Thus began the longer shorts movement, although not every player complied. Just ask John Stockton.

It wasn’t until 1986 that the NBA logo was added to the uniform tops. Champion was the league’s exclusive outfitter in 1989, standardizing the uniforms for the NBA it was during this time into the 90s that teams sought out more elaborate jersey designs. In the late 1990s, Starter and Nike entered the game and introduced newer uniform fabrics which dealt better with moisture and lightened the overall weight of the jersey. It was a time of experiment where softer fabrics were being made to increase player comfort. Shoulder widths changed, logos changed, and appearances on the court seemed a lot more fashionable. It was then that a surge in fan based jersey-wear became more prevalent in comparison to the 50s-80s period, but then again, those were times of flannel suits and fedoras, tracks suits and tie-dye. It soon entered into street wear fashion and made more popular with celebrities.

In 2001, Reebok entered the stage as the NBA’s outfitter and continued to change with the game’s influx of talent year by year. With more talent, came more personalities on the courts and with that, came jersey sales. 2006 marked Adidas as the official outfitter as more uniform versions among teams became the trend. This certainly wasn’t the case decades ago when pros had one set of jerseys to bring with them from game to game.

In time, accessories were added. Protective padded shorts, headbands, and shooting sleeves made the floor look much more colorful than the eras before. We’ll have to wait and see what trends will follow.

4) FREE THROWS

photo credit: Dinur via photopin cc
photo credit: Dinur via photopin cc

Free throws weren’t originally in Dr. Naismith’s basketball rules. Back then, if team committed three consecutive fouls, the other team would be awarded one point. The weight of a foul was equal to a field goal which was also one point which proved to be an unfair reward. So field goals were decidedly turned into 3 points and fouls would be worth one point. But that wasn’t quite right either so Naismith changed the rules again where players fouled would receive a 20-foot shot opportunity and if made, would count as a field goal. Fair is fair? Well, not quite…Among the changes made was the free throw line moved up to 15 feet and a field goal counted as two points and one point for free throws. But a funny thing during that time was that a team had a choice of who shot the free throws, a loop-hole so to speak which allowed the best shooter take the shots; now fair is definitely not fair. It was not until 1924 that the player fouled had to shoot their own free throws.

From then on, things remained fairly locked in but changes did occur within the NBA. For instance, In the 1950-51 season, a jump ball followed a free throw in the last 3-minutes instead of possession to the foul committing team. In the 1977-78 season, following a missed free throw attempt, a player was allowed to tip-in the ball without needing to return to the floor with a rebound. In the 2000-01 season, a player fouled with a clear-path-to-the-basket received one free throe and possession of the ball at midcourt. Today, the same call gets the player two free throws and possession at the sidelines. With technological advancements in cameras over the decades, instant replay was allowed beginning in the 2002-03 season. It would be used to determine a foul resulting in free throws which could have affected the final outcome of the game as in zero time remaining in the 4th quarter or overtime.

Free throws also affected rebounders and the shooter. Shooters would attempt to purposely miss the free throw shot and immediately follow up with a put-back or alley-oop before any of the rebounders. Shooters are now not allowed to cross the free throw lane until the ball hits the rim or backboard. As rules are modified over the years, the free throw seems to be settling in properly where hopefully no further tweaks need be made but of course, that could all change in the coming years.

photo credit: MattBritt00 via photopin cc
photo credit: MattBritt00 via photopin cc

5) SHOT CLOCK

Arguably one of the most game changing events in the NBA was the adoption of the shot clock in Oct. 30 of 1954. Prior to its official adoption, games would be played in a manner closer to sitting on the bench. One account of this slow-paced game was on Nov. 22, 1950, between the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers, a game that would result in a 19-18 win for The Pistons. It was also the lowest scoring game in NBA history.

Let’s compare that to the highest-scoring regular season NBA game between the Detroit Pistons and the Denver Nuggets on December 13, 1983. The Detroit Pistons’ 186–184 win had a total combined 370 points vs. the 37 combined points of the 1950 game. (What?!) Well, the disparity between the two games reflects a number of differences as in player skills, game-speed, and mentality of the game played during those times. One of the most notable differences would be the shot clock which increased the amount of field goal attempts and overall game-speed.

The 24 second shot clock times the possessions by the offensive team. If a team doesn’t attempt any field goals within the 24 second limit after gaining possession, they lose possession of the ball. It’s also reset following different circumstances such as after a personal foul is called, illegal defense violation, or if the ball hits the team-in-possession’s rim.

Thanks to the shot clock, we don’t have to call our friends over to watch an amazing 19 -18 Knicks win. With the shot clock, a new element of urgency to make plays provided more action driven game. It let the natural motion of the game breathe, move, and progress.

6) TIMEOUT

photo credit: fi_chince via photopin cc
photo credit: fi_chince via photopin cc

The game originally didn’t have timeouts when compared to today’s seemingly unlimited number of timeout calls. But it’s quite interesting to think that only coaches were allowed to call timeouts starting around 1950. But let’s move forward.

In today’s game, each team has 6 timeouts for each game, four of which are mandatory and used at specific times in each quarter. Both teams also have two 20-second timeouts, one per half and without carry-overs. Compare that to when there were none and one could see two very different games being played.

There weren’t always commercial breaks though. It was basketball for the sake of basketball but obviously now, it has become big business. This isn’t an issue per se, however, the amount of breaks a game has changes things, or rather, can change everything. The calming of the pace in a momentum swing and a chance to set up defensive plays or offensive attacks all open up opportunity within a timeout. However, as we may see today, the last two minutes of a game can last painfully long as teams swap timeout calls, fouls to give, and fill up with TV mandated commercial breaks.

As time is literally money in the game, it’s a good time to check the mirror for how the game should be paced and played, and perhaps without so many deodorant and dish soap commercials.

7) THREE-POINTER

photo credit: BenSeese via photopin cc
photo credit: BenSeese via photopin cc

The three-pointer didn’t always exist. What a shame for the pre-three-pointer days when game-winners down by two could have gotten them the “W.” The “3” was actually implemented within the ABL around 1961, however with the short 1.5 seasons it lived, so did it’s 3-pointer. It wasn’t until the ABA, the rival basketball organization of the NBA (officially merged together in 1976), came along that the 3-pointer was kicked back into action.

Fast forward three years into 1979, and what you’d see is the 3-pointer being adopted into the NBA which had a bumpy road with its inception. For one, players and coaches weren’t quite accustomed to gameplay with the “3.” It wasn’t used in the same fashion as getting into the paint was, which was the driving force behind scoring points.

Originally set at a 25 foot radius from the basket, the distance was shortened in the ’94-’95 season to a uniform 22 ft. around the basket. Currently, the NBA’s three-pointer measures at 22 ft at the corners and 23 ft. and 9 inches around the key however, shooting talents today shouldn’t be too affected with any future changes, longer or shorter. With such shooters such as Ray Allen and Kyle Korver, living by the “3” will surely overcome dying by the “3.”

8) DEFENSE

photo credit: compujeramey via photopin cc
photo credit: compujeramey via photopin cc

As one of the tried and true statements goes, “defense wins games.” Depending what offense is being played has some influence over the defensive set.

All arrangements of 2-2-1s, 2-1-2s, and 3-2s are fundamental in the game but throughout the NBA’s history, some variation of the zone defense stands today. Prior to 1946, zone defense was allowed but during the 1946-47 season, zone defense was removed as an option of play. However, let’s remember that the NBA we know today wasn’t exactly in full form just yet.

In the NBA we know, zone defense wasn’t allowed until the 2000-01 season which would permit zone defense veering away from a strictly man-to-man approach. However, a defender may not remain in the paint for more than 3 seconds without an opponent to defend. Having a defender remain stationary in the paint, leaving an opponent unguarded would be a bit lazy for the NBA I’d say. Imagine…planting Joakim Noah or Dwight Howard within the center of the paint and what do we have? A semi-boring tree with waving branches that proves to be a pain to drive to the hole…

Nevertheless, they’ve taken some positive strides to implementing more “basketball” into the game. Knowing how to set up and/or attack against a particular defensive setup is one of the vital parts to the game. Coaches and players who still execute defense as they did at the alma maters could showcase their abilities on the trap, help, or swing defense. It is the beauty of breaking down a defense or stopping an offense as a team that reels basketball fans in.

9) SCOREBOARD

photo credit: Bari D via photopin cc
photo credit: Bari D via photopin cc

Games have always been 48 minutes long. Despite changes in other areas of the game from defense to the 3-point shot, four 12 minute quarters has been the given time for basketball lovers to remain glued to the screen or on the edge of their courtside seats. However, in an attempt to shake things up, the league proposed a test-run during the Boston Celtics vs. Brooklyn Nets October 19, 2014 pre-season game. Along with the 12 to 11 minute quarter length change, mandatory timeouts would be reduced as well.

The results reeled in some useful information as the game last one hour and 58 minutes, about 17 minutes shorter than the average NBA game. It’s difficult to say that it made an impact but with such a minor change many corners of the game could be affected. It would change substitution patterns, player rest, momentum, and overall game-speed. With such a long season ahead of them, players would potentially be less prone to injury and gameplay could pickup quicker.

As it was a temporary experiment, the games run at their normal 12 minute quarter lengths but it raises some interesting points as to how the NBA is evaluating its game, players, and schedule. When time is money, a change in game length could be debatable as other avenues should be explored.

10) The Draft

photo credit: Joseph Glorioso Photography via photopin cc
photo credit: Joseph Glorioso Photography via photopin cc

One of the most anticipated events of the NBA is the draft. It is a process that evokes excitement and frustration amongst fans who gather to speculate on their team’s fate and which future prospects would be the perfect addition. Anxieties high, and fear fresh in the air, new players see their chance to shine while old players see playing time numbers drop. Fans either praise or curse their team’s GM as coaches welcome new blood and what they might offer in the coming season. It’s high tide…and everyone rides the wave of new ballers.

The draft was implemented into the NBA in 1950 and since that time it has seen some changes. As it stands, no player may be signed without being eligible for at least one draft. College players who have completed their four-year college eligibility are automatically eligible for draft selection. Underclassmen need to declare themselves eligible while also giving up their college eligibility, a tricky decision making time for those caught in this struggle.

One of the most notable changes the NBA has seen involves high schoolers. Players such as Kobe, LeBron, Garnett, and Amare Stoudemire were all big names that got drafted out of high school. These names walked through fire but proved they’re belonging in the big league. However, starting in the 2006 season, that all came to an end as high school players were no longer eligible to enter the draft directly after graduating. The new age requirement was set for players to be a minimum 19 years of age by the end of the calendar year of the draft.

It’s debatable to say that future Kobes and LeBrons would have manifested post 2006. However, the rule would provide a better environment for the would-be-green-players who’d have entered a league of overwhelmingly powerful competition.


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