What exactly constitutes the modern era of basketball? It’s a term you hear talking heads on television, content creators, and random commenters use in basketball debates, but there’s not even a consensus definition of this supposed era. Recurring readers may remember my examination1 of the early years of professional basketball and the biological terms used to describe certain events throughout the sport’s history. I won’t be doing much of that today as I’ll focus more on the first ten years of the NBA or the tin anniversary if you will. However, I will quickly state using the term modern era is a misnomer.
Originally, usage of the term began in the mid-’60s as the Celtics were running the table during their eight consecutive championship seasons but whose stars were aging. League-wide scoring efficiency had increased to the 40 percent range by the ’60s, exciting college prospects such as Lew Alcindor were on the way, and the ABA had emerged as direct competition and a future merger partner. The NBA widened the key to 16 feet in the 1964-65 season, just 13 seasons after widening the lane from six to 12 feet in the 1951-52 season. The NCAA introduced goaltending in 1944, later adopted by the NBL, and both the NBA and NCAA introduced offensive goaltending in 1958. The NBA began tracking rebounds in the 1950-51 season, allowing us to view team pace since that season, and most importantly, the shot clock’s invention for the 1954-55 NBA season sped the pace of the game up.
These were exciting times, but as we know, the game didn’t stop evolving from there. The NBA finally installed a three-point line in the 1979-80 season, another time commonly labeled as the beginning of the modern era. It makes sense; the court began largely resembling what it looks like today; the pace was still high but not nearly as high as the average pace of the late ’50s, ’60s, or even earlier in the ’70s. Turnovers finally started being recorded in 1977-78 after the NBA-ABA merger, four seasons after the NBA finally started recording blocks and steals. I failed to mention it in my older article, but teams used to have a jump ball situation after every made basket until 1938, when the team scored on would receive possession in the fashion we still know today. This decision improved the game’s fluidity; however, every quarter started with a jump ball until the NBA finally began awarding possession of the ball to the loser of the opening tip-off at the start of the second and third quarters in 1975. The NBA introduced the “three to make two,” “two to make one,” or “one for one” free throw rules in the 1954-55 season but had done away with them before the 1981-82 season.
The pace slowed down by the mid-’90s, and rugged defenses reigned supreme. To combat this, the NBA introduced the restricted area underneath the basket to prevent defenders from sagging into the paint and getting charges under the basket. However, even further modifying the court’s appearance wasn’t enough to curtail the tough defense of the era. In response, the NBA re-imagined the five-second violation to include a player below the free-throw line with his back to the basket for five seconds in 1999, began allowing zone defense in the 2001-02 season, and introduced the defensive three-second violation that same season. It took several seasons, and while it appears to have come with no rule changes, we’ve allegedly entered another modern era once Steph Curry kicked off the three-point revolution.
Whatever you define as the modern era is likely the era of the game you grew up watching as a child. Many people find history class a boring subject in school as a child and then carry that attitude with them for the remainder of their adult lives, no matter the topic. It’s not hard to imagine then that sports fans would choose not to look into the history of what they perceive as dull and unathletic old footage of yesteryear’s so-called stars. The same unimpressed regard some have for blurry 144p VHS recordings of Michael Jordan dunks will be the same disregard they’ll hold for 16k virtual reality highlights of whoever the best player in the NBA is in 2120. It’s why I’d like to focus on the first ten years of the NBA today, as usually in childhood, habits and thought processes become formulated; it should be no different for a sports organization.
Of the ten players who made the NBA’s 25th Anniversary Team, two did not make the 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams; Bob Davies and Joe Fulks. Fulks retired the year before the implementation of the shot clock, while Davies retired following that season. Both had captured a championship in that time, with Mikan’s Lakers, the now-defunct original Baltimore Bullets, and Dolph Schayes’ Syracuse Nationals also having won a title in the first nine seasons of the NBA. Fulks’ Warriors won the title the season after Davies’ retirement, led now by another player on the NBA 25th Anniversary Team, Paul Arizin, with Neil Johnston as all-star support. That 1955-56 season was the decennial; while the next three seasons are also worth extensive examination, one could argue in broad terms it was just the beginning of the Auerbach-Russell Celtics dynasty, and it wouldn’t be false.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that in 1956-57, the first Celtics championship, they beat the then St. Louis Hawks, who had a losing record2 at 34-38, in seven games, with the deciding Game 7 still being the only Game 7 in NBA Finals history to go into double overtime, as of this writing. Bill Russell’s ankle injury in Game 3 of the 1958 NBA Finals kept him out of Game 4 and Game 5 while limiting him to 20 minutes in the deciding Game 6. Bob Petitt, also named to the NBA’s 25th Anniversary Team, got revenge for the year prior and won Game 6 by one point behind his 50-point, 19-rebound effort. The 1957-58 season would be the first of only two times the Celtics were eliminated from the playoffs during Russell’s illustrious 13-season career and the single Finals loss on his resume. The Celtics avenged this loss twice, beating the Hawks in seven games in the 1960 Finals and five games in the 1961 Finals. In 1958-59 however, the second team with a losing record made the Finals as a rookie Elgin Baylor reenergized a Minneapolis Lakers franchise that had struggled following Mikan’s first retirement in 1954, including during his brief comeback in 1956, Jim Pollard’s retirement in ’55, and Slater Martin’s trade in ’56. They bottomed out in 1957-58, going 19-53, worst in the NBA, and then went 33-39 the following season, composed of mostly the same roster but with less filler now that they had Baylor.
They got swept, the first victim in the Celtics’ eight consecutive championships and the second overall of their dynasty. Following financial difficulties and poor attendance after a 25-50 record in the 1959-60 season, the NBA approved their bid to relocate the franchise to Los Angeles3. In 1971, the NBA announced their silver anniversary team, with the caveat that only retired players would be eligible for consideration; since the Celtics ran the gamut in the ’60s, let’s shift our attention back to the tin years.
You’ll quickly notice, much like today, that star players compiling phenomenal statistical achievements and having a high impact on the outcome of the game have always been a part of the game. Star players with a good team built around them usually won championships; still de facto. These are all things I’ve highlighted before, along with the first BAA Finals and how it and the following BAA Finals became arranged, allowing me to jump straight into those 1948 BAA Finals.
Fulks’ Warriors had gone through the same path the Stags had the year prior, battling the St. Louis Bombers in a seven-game series Semifinals to reach the Finals. Meanwhile, the now defunct Baltimore Bullets, who joined the BAA that season after forfeiting their chance in the 1947 ABL Finals to play in the World Professional Basketball Tournament, had a one-game tiebreaker, then had two three-game series in the Quarterfinals and Semifinals. I questioned why the BAA would go with this approach only to seriously alter the playoff framework the following season upon Mikan and the Lakers’ arrival. I concluded that the BAA wanted to cement Mikan’s reputation as the sport’s top dog, especially after absorbing the NBL, and redeveloped a fairer postseason system to accentuate that fact. Regardless of the intention behind the change, glossing over the now-defunct Baltimore Bullets’ 1948 BAA Championship does a disservice to their accomplishment.
The Celtics traded Connie Simmons to the team that had gone to the ABL Finals for three consecutive seasons with just a little over two months left in the regular season, and he would have won Finals MVP had it existed back then. He led the Bullets in scoring with 15.2 points per game over the six-game series while placing second on the team in assists per game and field goal percentage in the 1948 BAA Finals with 1.3 assists per game and a 34.1 field goal percentage. However, one player alone can’t win a championship, so it’s imperative to mention the contributions of Paul Hoffman, Kleggie Hermsen, Buddy Jeannette, Chick Reiser, Dick Schulz, Grady Lewis, and Carl Meinhold. That excludes the other two Bullets who received playing time in the Finals, but even they were important, as every roster member was necessary to get over their competition. After all, the final margin of victory between the two teams in the average point total was just half a point, 74.3 to 73.8.
Fulks, to his credit, averaged 23.5 points per game during the series at a 26.5 field goal percentage and was the high-scorer in every game except Game 1. Chick Halbert, a 6’9″ center who lost to Fulks’ Warriors as a member of the Chicago Stags in the previous year’s BAA Finals, was traded to the Warriors six games into the 1947-48 season. While he played his role well, being second on the team in scoring in the 1948 BAA Finals with 12.8 points per game at a 27.3 field goal percentage, the Bullets possessed better cohesion. Howie Dallmar, the Warrior who hit the series-clinching shot in Game 5 the year prior, had some shooting difficulties in this series but still led the Warriors in assists and was fourth in scoring. George Senesky and Ralph Kaplowitz provided adequate support for their top two players; the rest of the team was not as beneficial as last year. While the Warriors, particularly Fulks, outshot the Bullets from the free throw line in attempts, makes, and percentages, they did not attempt, convert, or shoot better percentage-wise than the Bullets from the field. In an era with no shot clock and no three-point line, attempting 30 fewer shots than your opponent while converting them at a 13% worse rate is an effective death sentence.
So a well-constructed team took down the superstar-powered defending champions in the second and penultimate season of the BAA. How does the league follow up on this fascinating turn of events? It’s no exaggeration to say they landed the biggest fish in the pond when the Minneapolis Lakers left the NBL and joined the BAA. George Mikan was now on the marquee.
The Lakers went 44-16 during the regular season, second to the Rochester Royals’ 45-15 record in the Western Division, but swept the Royals 2-0 in the Western Division Finals. In the Eastern Division, the Washington Capitols ran away with the top record at 38-22, while the second-place New York Knicks finished 32-28. The Knicks beat the defending champion Baltimore Bullets in the Eastern Division Semifinals 2-1 before falling 2-1 to the Washington Capitols in the Eastern Division Finals. Mikan would have won Finals MVP if it had existed for the ’49 BAA Finals, averaging 27.5 points per game over the six-game series, including 42 points in Game 1 and 35 points in Game 3. His 68 free throw attempts during the series led all players, and his 83.8 free throw percentage during the 1949 BAA Finals wasn’t just the top free throw percentage of his team but nearly everyone on the Capitols, save for Sonny Hertzberg, who took 46 fewer attempts. 31-year-old Capitols coach Red Auerbach had the scoring load balanced effectively amongst his roster, including former Bullets players Kleggie Hermsen and Dick Schulz, with Jack Nichols leading the way with 14.2 points per game in the series. Fred Scolari and Hermsen also averaged ten or more points per game throughout the ’49 Finals, while Hertzberg and Bones McKinney chipped in with nearly ten points as well; Mikan’s teammates Jim Pollard and Herm Schaefer both averaged almost 13 points per game.
It’s easy to see why the Lakers walked away with the championship in six games, even if this wasn’t the full-powered Mikan dynasty Lakers yet. Mikan’s teammates contributed to his dominant performances throughout the Finals, with the average margin of victory at a comfortable six points between the two teams in the final average score. Auerbach jumped ship following the Finals loss, coaching the Tri-Cities Blackhawks for a season before finally landing in Boston to start the 1950-51 NBA season. That 1949-50 season was the first official season of the NBA and played out a similar result to the prior season, with the Lakers running undefeated through the early rounds of the postseason before winning the 1950 NBA Finals in six games over the Syracuse Nationals. Dolph Schayes, a player whose name I brought up earlier and who you’ve no doubt noticed on the statistical leaderboards provided above, was also named to the NBA’s 25th Anniversary Team, and even he couldn’t overcome the high-powered Lakers.
In fairness, Schayes had plenty of help as well. Schayes led his team in scoring with 17.3 points per game in the 1950 NBA Finals, but Johnny Macknowski averaged 13.7 points per game in the series, while Alex Hannum and George Ratkovicz each chipped in with ten points a piece. Paul Seymour, Bill Gabor, Al Cervi4, Ed Peterson, Andrew Levane, and Leroy Chollet rounded out the scoring, working meticulously as a unit to combat Pollard’s 13.7 points per game and Mikkelsen’s 12.5 points per game. However, the Nationals had no answer for Mikan and his 32.2 points per game average in the Finals. The Lakers needed every one of Mikan’s points, with the average final score being 84.5 to 80.2; the Nationals matched up evenly against Mikan’s teammates but couldn’t sufficiently slow the big man himself down. His 40-point performance in Game 6 would be enough to seal their second consecutive championship in a 110-95 win at home.
The NBA had contracted to start the 1950-51 season, bringing the total number of teams from 17 to 11, and then ten once the Washington Capitols folded as well midway through the season, leaving these players to be picked up by the remaining teams through a dispersal draft. The NBA also began officially tracking rebounds at the start of the season, with Schayes and Mikan finishing first5 and second in total rebounds and rebounds per game with 16.4 and 14.1, respectively. Mikan also led the NBA in scoring for the third consecutive season, breaking his career-high in scoring that season, averaging a career-high 28.4 points per game with 1,932 total points scored.
While Mikan was the leading scorer in the BAA/NBA in 1948-49 and 1949-50, Bob Davies led the BAA in assists and assists per game in 1948-49 while placing third and fourth in those same categories, respectively, in 1949-50. In both seasons, Davies’ team eventually fell in the playoffs, first to the Lakers in the ’49 postseason and then to the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1950, failing to win a game against either team. After several years of losing to Mikan’s teams in the NBL and the NBA and the Pistons, they avenged both losses in one fell swoop in the 1950-51 season. Davies must have been more pass-happy than ever, racking up double-digit assists and monopolizing the team system then? No, he continued his usual pace from the season prior while younger point guards such as Bob Cousy racked up assists and flew up the statistical leaderboard. Davies instead continued steering his team with all-around play, allowing everyone to perform their roles, such as center Arnie Risen, who finished fourth in both rebounding stats in 1950-51. Risen was also the Royals’ leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, while Davies finished second on the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game.
However, it wasn’t just a duo, as Jack Coleman and Bobby Wanzer chipped in with 11.4 and 10.8 points each, while Bill Calhoun, Red Holzman, and Arnie Johnson all chipped in with seven to nine points per game. It was a total team effort as the slowest-paced Royals beat the Pistons, 2-1, in the Western Division Semifinals, and the Lakers, 3-1, in the Western Division Finals. It took them seven games, the first seven-game Finals in NBA history, but the Royals overcame the Knicks to hoist their first, and to date, only championship in franchise history. They outshot the Knicks from the field by 34%, outshot them from the free throw line by 6.7%, grabbed nearly seven more rebounds, and averaged five more points in the average final score. Max Zaslofsky, through the dispersal draft, and Nat Clifton, one the first black players in the NBA, joined a solid Knicks core consisting of Ernie Vandeweghe, Connie Simmons, Dick McGuire, and Harry Gallatin that season but suffered their first of three consecutive Finals losses. Carl Braun, their shooting guard, served in the U.S. Army during the 1950-51 and 1951-52 NBA seasons, and his scoring presence was certainly missed as Davies averaged 17 points per game against the Knicks backcourt in the Finals; McGuire was only able to respond with 4.1 points per game. Zaslofsky challenged the Royals, as his 19 points per game came slightly under Risen’s average of 21.7 points per game; however, Gallatin and the Knicks frontcourt could do nothing against Risen’s 14.3 rebounds per game in the Finals in conjunction with Jack Coleman’s 13.1 rebounds per game.
It came at a time of upheaval, but the Royals had finally ascended to the mountaintop. Risen didn’t walk away with the Finals MVP since it didn’t exist yet, but he and Davies did walk away with a championship ring forever etched in the history books. That 1950-51 season saw records set for the lowest scoring game and longest-lasting game, with teams abusing the lack of a shot clock to force actionless victories. With teams holding onto the ball for long periods and doing nothing with it, owners were worried the game would stagnate as audiences grew bored of endless passing. A solution would come four seasons later, but for now, it appeared that teams had figured out ways to stall the Lakers into oblivion. The reality was that a chaotic imbalance such as the dispersal draft threw the natural course of events out of alignment. After time had caught up with the anomaly the following season, the Lakers were back on a roll, becoming the first three-peat champions in NBA history, despite the NBA doubling the width of the key in 1951-52.
After steamrolling the defending champs 3-1 in the Western Division Finals6, the Lakers battled the Knicks to a seven-game series win in the 1951 NBA Finals. The Knicks fought hard, and perhaps their efforts were rewarded in another reality, as they held Mikan to 35.3% from the field, lower than their team shooting percentage of 37.3%. The Knicks’ low shooting percentage wouldn’t be enough to overcome the Lakers’ 41.2% shooting from the field, though. Mikkelsen averaged his usual 13 points per game in the Finals; however, the Lakers’ new acquisition Pep Saul from the financially flailing Baltimore Bullets in January; also came through with 13 points per game in the Finals from the shooting guard position. Pollard had the highest-scoring Finals performance of his career, averaging 16.4 points per game on 47.1% shooting and 6.4 rebounds per game.
Mikan still led both teams in scoring with 21.7 points per game during the Finals and dominated the boards with an average of 17.4 rebounds per game. Despite the 1951-52 season being the first to track minutes as a statistic, it appears we don’t have the data for that in this Finals. It is worth noting Mikan was tenth in total minutes played, sixth in minutes per game, second in total points and points per game, and led the NBA in rebounds per game with 13.5 in 1951-52. He led the NBA in defensive win shares for the third consecutive season, scoring his career-high of 8.0 that season, and it translated well to the Lakers’ gritty seven-game series win. Gallatin and Clifton did their best in the post with 9.9 and 9.1 rebounds per game, respectively, but the Lakers outhustled them for rebounds, with a 46.3 to 41.1 average advantage on the boards, explaining the 82.6 to 79.4 average score. Connie Simmons chipped in with 6.6 rebounds per game for the Knicks during the Finals and led the Knicks in scoring with 14.7 points per game, but with Mikkelsen averaging 8.3 rebounds and Mikan dominating the Knicks frontcourt down low, it didn’t matter much. Zaslofsky averaged 13 points, Clifton and Vandeweghe averaged 10, and Gallatin and McGuire chipped in with nine, a total team effort that fell short.
The 1952-53 New York Knicks received a needed offensive injection when Carl Braun returned from U.S. Army service to resume starting shooting guard responsibilities from Zaslofsky. The Knicks finished 47-23, first in the Eastern Division, but still second to the Lakers’ 48-22 record. Their 48 wins that season was their second-best win total during the Mikan era. While they slowed down from 97.2 to 93.7 possessions per game, falling from third to fifth in pace and from first to third in opponents’ points per game, they maintained their first-place defensive rating while improving their offensive rating from seventh to fourth. Mikan once again finished second in total points and points per game while again leading the NBA in rebounds per game with a career-high 14.4, but also led the NBA in total rebounds with 1,007, becoming the second player to record over 1,000 rebounds in a season in NBA history.
Mikan’s field goal percentage that year at 39.9% was an improvement over his 1951-52 campaign finish of 38.5%, but it was still only good enough for a 12th-place finish. It was the closest he’d ever get to shooting 40% or above for what little remained of his career, but he still led the NBA in defensive win shares and finished fifth in offensive win shares, placing him second for total win shares for the second consecutive season. Mikkelsen picked up some of the scoring slack, finishing with a career-high 43.5 field goal percentage to go along with an even 15 points per game, the fourth-highest scoring season of his career. Martin and Pollard’s 13th and 15th-ranked finishes in assists per game, respectively, kept the offense running smoothly. Meanwhile, Mikkelsen’s fifth-place field goal percentage, along with Martin’s eighth-place finish in that category and Mikan’s 12th-place finish, ensured they made the most of their chances, finishing second in team field goal percentage.
The Knicks did keep the Lakers below 40% shooting in the Finals at 38.1%, but even with their improved offense and defense finishing third and second in their respective ratings, the Knicks mustered only a 34.7 field goal percentage in the Finals and fell in five games. Despite Braun returning to the starting lineup and finishing 11th in field goal percentage at 40% that season, he shot just 32.9% in the ’53 Finals and scored 14.8 points per game, the same as Connie Simmons, who shot 31.9% from the field. Vandeweghe averaged 14 points on 42.7% shooting, while Clifton and Gallatin chipped in with 10.2 and nine points, respectively. Rebounds aren’t verified yet for the 1953 Finals, but while Mikan averaged almost a point less than the previous season’s Finals at 20.8 and was less efficient from the field at 30.9%, he likely led both teams in rebounding once again. Martin picked up the one-point differential, jumping from 9.1 points per game in the 1952 Finals to 10.2 in ’53, and even more impressively, shot 51.4% from the field. Pollard and Mikkelsen were in their usual form, averaging 14.4 and 12.2 points per game, respectively, with Pollard also shooting 45.5% from the field. The Knicks got to the line more often than the Lakers did and shot better while there, but they had done the same the year prior; the Lakers were just a better team with the best player in professional basketball on their roster.
Zaslofsky had a season-ending injury7 in January ’53, playing in only 29 games that season, and was thus unavailable in the 1953 NBA Finals. His healthy presence would have been a boon to the Knicks in this short series, as he averaged 11.9 points per game on 38.4% shooting in the regular season in just 24.7 minutes per game for the Knicks that season before the injury. Zaslofsky was traded to the Baltimore Bullets that August, only for the Bullets to trade him that November during the 1953-54 season to the Milwaukee Hawks. The Hawks traded him the next month to the Fort Wayne Pistons, where he spent the remainder of his career before retiring following the 1955-56 season. He remained productive following his injury and found himself a comfortable all-around role with a team that had begun to gel and reach their potential in 1952-53 in the Pistons.
Those same Pistons gave the eventual champion Lakers a fight in the 1953 playoffs, going to a series-deciding Game 5 in the Western Division Finals. A nucleus of Larry Foust, Andy Phillip, and Fred Schaus had formed, and with the introduction of rookie Monk Meineke and the acquisition of Frank Scolari from the Baltimore Bullets, the Pistons won Game 3 and Game 4 at home by three points in both games. The Lakers blew them out at home in the deciding Game 5, 74-58, but had the Pistons played some cleaner defense and not allowed 12 more free throws throughout the series, and converted just five more free throws to give them a 72.3 free throw percentage instead of 69.6%; they may have snuck out a win. The final score average of 83.2 to 79.0 illustrates the importance of free throws in this series, as those five made free throws would have made the difference in the final average score. Mikan’s Lakers proved the difference with championship experience in these situations, and it’s why they were poised to three-peat nearly three-and-a-half decades before Pat Riley trademarked the term8.
The Lakers were once again best in the NBA in 1953-54 with a 46-26 record, but Foust had improved that season as well, and with the arrival of rookie George Yardley and Max Zaslofsky, the Fort Wayne Pistons improved to 40-32 that season. However, due to the dissolution of the Indianapolis Olympians following the 1952-53 season, the NBA set up a round robin tournament to decide who would make the Division Finals that year. The Pistons lost every game of that round robin, and with the Lakers beating an old Royals squad 2-1 in the Western Division Finals, they again faced off with the Syracuse Nationals in the 1954 NBA Finals, a rematch of the 1950 NBA Finals.
The Nationals were younger, had a star in their own right, and tied the Lakers in pace, but possessed a higher-ranked defensive rating that season. They topped the NBA in both categories and finished one spot higher than the Lakers’ offensive rating, fourth overall. Schayes was sixth in scoring, sixth in minutes, fifth in rebounding, fifth in offensive win shares, third in free throw attempts, second in free throw makes and free throw percentage, and second in defensive win shares that season. Not only was he second in defensive win shares that season, but four other teammates of his also made top 20 appearances on the statistical leaderboard in defensive win shares. Paul Seymour finished seventh, Earl Lloyd finished eighth, Wally Osterkorn finished tenth, and George King finished 12th. They weren’t just defensive specialists, however, with Paul Seymour and George King averaging 13.1 and 11.3 points that season to compliment Schayes’ 17.1 points per game. Meanwhile, Osterkorn and Lloyd averaged roughly nine points and seven rebounds a game, taking some pressure off Schayes in the post.
However, Mikan was the one who led the NBA in defensive win shares that season. His scoring and efficiency were not what they once were, but he was still good enough to average 18.1 points per game, fourth in the NBA, and finish second in rebounding. Mikan probably wouldn’t have won MVP had it existed back then, but he would have made a case for it; not like it mattered more than a third straight championship anyway. Mikan wasn’t the dominant force he had been in all his previous Finals appearances, averaging the same number of points he had in the regular season, but he still led both teams in scoring and did so at a 44.1 field goal percentage. While the Lakers increased their pace for the 1953-54 season, they were still technically slower than their last four seasons and kept their team field goal percentage at second while the Nationals finished seventh. The Lakers exploited that, forcing the Nationals to take 46 fewer shots over the seven-game series while shooting just 38.1% compared to the Lakers’ 40.3 shooting percentage. The Nationals tried making up for it by getting to the line 63 more times than the Lakers but still shot worse than them from the charity stripe, 62.5% compared to 68.2%.
It was a rugged, defensive series, but the Lakers frontcourt prevailed against Schayes and company. Seymour was the high-scorer for the Nationals, averaging 15.9 points per game during the 1954 NBA Finals, while Schayes averaged a disappointing 9.3 points per game. Osterkorn and backup power forward Bob Lavoy came to play, averaging 11.6 and 10.7 points during the Finals, but they needed their top guys to step up. With Schayes, Lloyd, and King averaging under ten points a game, the Lakers did what they needed to lock down the post and prevent the Nationals’ best players from getting into a rhythm. Rebounds and assists aren’t verified for this Finals either, but one can infer the Lakers’ defensive impact carried over on the boards. Pollard averaged 10.9 points during the Finals, but Mikkelsen and backup center Clyde Lovellette both chipped in with 10.4 points, while their backcourt did enough to facilitate and score when necessary; evidenced by Martin’s 8.7 points per game and Whitey Skoog’s 7.3 points per game. Pollard did come through in Game 7 at home, scoring a game-high 21 points as the Minneapolis Lakers won their fifth and final championship of the Mikan era9.
With Mikan’s retirement after the 1953-54 season due to wanting to spend time with his family and numerous injuries, such as ten broken bones throughout his playing career, the NBA appeared wide open. The Baltimore Bullets disbanded 14 games into the 1954-55 season, making the NBA an even eight-team league. Another dispersal draft occurred following this, mixing up the rosters further as the shot clock made its way into the game this season. The pace immediately increased, but perhaps most impressively, there were no significant alterations in expected team performance due to these circumstances. The Royals did fall off immensely, winning only 29 of 72 games, but being a much older team, they had to fall off the cliff at some point and give way to the Fort Wayne Pistons, who finished first in the Western Division at 43-29. Without Mikan, the Lakers were still a strong contender, finishing second in the Western Division with a 40-32 record, but wound up losing 3-1 to the Pistons in the Western Division Finals. The Pistons had finally hit their stride, with everyone growing into and performing their roles at a top-notch level, and a championship appeared imminent.
However, there were still the Syracuse Nationals. After tasting the sting of defeat twice, the Nationals needed to return to, and this time, win the Finals. They also went 43-29 in the regular season, dispatching the perpetual Eastern Division runner-up Boston Celtics in four games in the Eastern Division Finals to secure their dance with destiny. It was a definite clash of styles, as the Nationals ranked third in pace that season behind a first-ranked defensive rating. However, the Nationals’ seventh-ranked offensive rating made them second-worst in the NBA. Meanwhile, the sixth-ranked pace Pistons slowly but efficiently worked their opponents over, finishing third in defensive rating and second in offensive rating.
Typically, the NBA Finals going to a Game 7 and the final average score separated by half a point, 90.9 to 91.4, would mean the series was an all-time classic. However, one author10 has alleged the series with fixed, with multiple Pistons players conspiring with gamblers, most notably Jack Molinas, to throw the series. The Pistons drafted Molinas in 1953, but the NBA banned him after just 32 games into the 1953-54 season for betting on games, including his team. Molinas’ influence could still have been hovering in the locker room, but with the infantile league only being in its willow pottery anniversary, these fixed allegations were never seriously investigated. It’s scarcely ever mentioned when discussing the history of basketball, and, remarkably, the NBA managed to avoid a gambling scandal in the Finals nine years into its existence, just 36 years after MLB had to deal with the Black Sox Scandal.
Game 7, in particular, has been speculated as an indication of something going awry. The Pistons led the Nationals by nearly 20 points early in the second quarter before allowing them to make it close by halftime, 53-47. It remained a close affair the rest of the way, with both teams battling back-and-forth on each possession. In the final 18 seconds of the game, tied at 91, Yardley committed a palming violation, turning the ball over to the Nationals. Frankie Brian committed a foul on George King to give the Nationals a free throw attempt, allowing King to hit the shot and take a one-point lead. Phillip had the ball inbounded to him and then, with three seconds left in the game, down by one point, had the ball stolen from him by King to secure a Nationals championship. There were rumors and debates about a rigged Finals, but as stated earlier, the NBA made no investigation, and business went along as usual.
Regardless, the Nationals still had to show up and play whoever was in front of them. Schayes led both teams in scoring11, averaging 19 points per game in the ’55 Finals to go along with 11.9 rebounds. His team got outshot from the field, 39% to 34.2%, another indicator of something fishy going on, but in fairness, the Nationals were a shot-chucking team. They also got to the free throw line 34 times more than the Pistons, shooting 75.3% to the Pistons’ 78.9 free throw percentage, keeping them in close games. Schayes led the NBA in defensive win shares in 1954-55 and showed it in this series, as he was able to effectively perform to his regular season standards while backup center Red Kerr stepped his game up to provide 11.3 rebounds per game. Foust, Yardley, and Hutchins rebounding all dipped during the Finals, proving the Nationals’ frontcourt to be superior, even if they still grabbed only two rebounds more on average. Kerr, Red Rocha, King, Lloyd, and Billy Kenville averaged 8.4 to 12.3 points per game for the Nationals during the Finals, providing Schayes with adequate support to keep up with the balanced scoring effort of Foust, Yardley, Brian, and Hutchins.
Perhaps as a way to shake the fixing rumors, or maybe in an attempt to claim what they had denied themselves the year prior, the Pistons made it back to the Finals, representing the Western Division as the only team with a .500 or above record with a measly 37-35 record. The previous season’s Rookie of the Year, Bob Pettit, won the inaugural NBA MVP award in that 1955-56 season and led his 33-39 St. Louis Hawks to a deciding Game 5 loss to the Pistons in the Western Division Finals. With the lackluster competition in the Western Division, whoever represented the Eastern Division in the 1956 NBA Finals was likely favored. One would assume the Nationals were good enough to repeat, or at least make it back to the Finals; after compiling a 35-37 regular season record, they were bounced in the deciding Game 5 of the Eastern Division Finals by the top-seeded 45-27 Philadelphia Warriors. Now, I’d like to take a moment to jump back to those 1948 BAA Finals, as this 1955-56 Philadelphia Warriors team requires some retracing of old steps to discover how they ended up in this position.
After losing the 1948 BAA Finals to the Baltimore Bullets, the team began sliding out of the top of the standings, even as Fulks finished second in scoring in 1948-49. They went 28-32 that season and performed even worse the following season, finishing with a 26-42 record in 1949-50. Fulks’ scoring dropped drastically, going from one of the top two scorers the previous three seasons to 11th and 14th in total points and points per game, respectively, that season. Fulks was second in defensive win shares11 behind his teammate Howie Dallmar in 1947-48, finished third in that same category in 1948-49, and then dropped to 14th in 1949-50; the team was slowly fading out of relevancy as its star began feeling the effects of lingering injuries, age, and alcoholism. Hope appeared briefly in the 1950-51 season as a rookie Paul Arizin immediately made a difference, finishing eighth in rebounding, seventh in field goal percentage, sixth in total points and free throws, fifth in points per game, and fourth in offensive and overall win shares. Arizin’s presence alone seemed to reinvigorate Fulks, as he improved over his 1949-50 campaign, finishing fourth in scoring, eighth in free throw attempts and makes, fourth in defensive win shares, and led the NBA in free throw percentage. They finished the regular season with a record of 40-26, first in the Eastern Division, but were swept, 2-0, in the Eastern Division Semifinals by the Syracuse Nationals.
1951-52 proved to be a disappointing season for the Warriors as they regressed to a 33-33 record and again lost to the Nationals in the Eastern Division Semifinals. Arizin led the NBA in not just scoring but minutes, win shares, offensive win shares, and field goal percentage. Andy Phillip, future Fort Wayne Piston, had arguably the best season of his career, collecting five triple-doubles and leading the NBA in assists, but Fulks didn’t live up to expectations. Sure, he was 14th in total points and 12th in points per game, but that was all he could contribute anymore. Unfortunately for the Warriors, Arizin would be unavailable for the next two seasons due to his service in the U.S. Marine Corps, and they were dreadful in his absence. They bottomed out in 1952-53, posting a 12-57 regular season record, and marginally improved in 1953-54 with a 29-43 record. Luckily for them, their 1951-52 rookie Neil Johnston blossomed in Arizin’s absence, leading the NBA in scoring, field goal percentage, minutes, free throws, free throw attempts, win shares, and offensive win shares in 1952-53 while also finishing second in rebounding.
Phillip was sold to the Pistons 13 games into the 1952-53 season, forcing old George Senesky and rookie Danny Finn to pick up the point guard slack, but this move opened up the roster for a new nucleus. In that 1953-54 season, two core players to their championship team arrived, Jack George and Joe Graboski. Johnston again led the NBA in scoring in 1953-54, finishing first in minutes, win shares, offensive win shares, free throws, and free throw attempts, but finished third and sixth in field goal percentage and rebounding, respectively. While Johnston was achieving all these statistical feats, Fulks regressed to the point where he was averaging just 8.2 minutes per game and scoring an average of 2.5 points per game. They missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Fulks and Senesky both retired at the season’s end, and it seemed as if the Warriors were doomed to be a bottom-feeding franchise.
However, Arizin returned for the 1954-55 season, with Fulks and Senesky13 now retired; the Warriors drafted another core player in George Dempsey to help run a point guard platoon alongside Finn and their other rookie point guard, Larry Costello14. Johnston led the NBA in scoring for the third consecutive season, as well as free throws and free throw attempts, but also managed to lead the NBA in rebounding. Arizin picked up where he left off, finishing second in total points and third in points per game with an even average of 21 points. Arizin backed up Johnston with lethal perimeter scoring, leading the NBA in field goals and field goal attempts, but did finish only 16th in field goal percentage, shooting 39.9% from the field. Johnston earned another top-five field goal percentage finish as he ended up fourth in that statistic this season, shooting 44% from the field. Still, even with Johnston picking up first-place finishes in offensive win shares and overall win shares, combined with Arizin’s seventh and ninth-ranked finishes in each category, they missed the playoffs with a 33-39 record. Hardly a selling point for a potential future title run, but for the decennial, before the Russell Celtics completely took over, this team managed to put it together for a miracle run.
The Knicks began their downturn in the 1954-55 season, becoming a middle-of-the-pack team along with the Boston Celtics. The Celtics, to their credit, had been a consistent 39-to-46 win team since Red Auerbach’s arrival in the 1950-51 season. They drafted Ed Macauley from the 1950 dispersal draft, drafted Bob Cousy, and brought over some players from his Washington Capitols team for good measure. The following season, they traded for Bob Sharman and gelled enough as a core unit of Cousy, Macauley, and Sharman to peak with a 46-25 record in 1952-53. After that season, they won fewer games in the ensuing two seasons; however, with the Knicks beginning their downturn in 1954-55, the steadily consistent Celtics were at least able to enact revenge on them in the 1955 Eastern Division Semifinals.
The Nationals, a consistently good team, had lost perpetually to the Knicks in the playoffs in the early ’50s and once to the Celtics in the 1953 Eastern Division Semifinals, capitalized on the struggling competition to finally win a championship in those 1955 NBA Finals. Without the Lakers running at full strength anymore, the Western Division wasn’t nearly as potent. The playing field was truly level, even as the Rochester Royals sold the rights to Arnie Risen to the Boston Celtics in 1955. It didn’t matter anyway; the Warriors ran away with the best record in the NBA at 45-27. Bob Pettit may have walked away with the inaugural NBA MVP despite his team owning a losing record, but Arizin and Johnston walked away with championship rings.
Johnston still managed to lead the NBA in field goal percentage at 45.7%, win shares and offensive win shares, finished third in scoring, second in free throws and free throw attempts, fifth in total rebounds, and fourth in rebounds per game. Arizin took over as the leading scorer, finishing second in scoring, averaging 24.2 points per game while finishing second in field goal percentage, shooting 44.8% from the field. Graboski and George also placed in the top 20 for points per game, finishing 14th and 17th in points per game, respectively. Rookie shooting guard Tom Gola was 16th in field goal percentage, shooting 41.2% from the field, while Arizin, Johnston, and George finished seventh, ninth, and 18th in free throw percentage. Gola and Graboski joined Johnston in the top 20 for rebounding per game, finishing 11th and 13th, while George, Gola, and Johnston finished in the top 20 for assists per game. George and Gola, in particular, were top five in assists per game, with George finishing second and Gola finishing fourth. All five men mentioned in this paragraph were top 20 in minutes played and minutes per game.
One would assume the Warriors would have had an easier time in the Eastern Division Finals against the Syracuse Nationals. However, it would have been foolish to disregard a team looking to repeat, especially one that tied for the best record in the NBA a season prior. Schayes gave it his best shot, averaging 23.4 points per game during the full five-game Eastern Division Finals, on 40% shooting no less, and collected 14.8 rebounds per game during the contest. There were few options for the Nationals in containing Arizin and Johnston, who averaged 30.2 and 27 points per game during the series, respectively. Johnston averaged 17.6 rebounds during the Eastern Division Finals, while Gola, Graboski, and Arizin averaged 10.2, 9, and 8.8 rebounds. No other Nationals player averaged even seven rebounds per game. While the Nationals won Game 2 and Game 4 at home, both victories were by four points; the Warriors won their home games by scores of 109-87, 119-96, and 109-104. Game 5 was close and a tough win for the Warriors as, ironically, the Nationals shot a smidge better from the field in Game 5; however, Arizin scoring 35 points and Johnston scoring 25 while grabbing 18 rebounds was enough to seal the five-point victory.
The 1956 NBA Finals, by comparison, was, again, ironically, closer than the 1956 Eastern Division Finals despite the series going five games, the same as the ’56 Eastern Divison Finals. The Warriors’ final average score of 111.8 points on 41.5 field goal percentage paints a picture of dominance over the Nationals averaging 103.4 points on 38.1% shooting. They outrebounded the Nationals by ten boards, 63.2 to 53.0, but surprisingly, the Pistons outrebounded the Warriors, 58.4 to 55.0. The final average score was closer, 97.4 to 93.4, and the Pistons forced the NBA’s most efficient offense that season to below their first-place finish of 41% to 38.5% in the 1956 NBA Finals. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Pistons made it a gritty affair considering their slowest-ranked pace, fourth-ranked defensive rating, and fifth-ranked offensive rating, but that they were able to pull off outmuscling the better rebounding team is somewhat surprising.
Foust gave Johnston hell in the post, holding the NBA leader in field goal percentage to 33.8% shooting and 13.6 points per game. His 19.4 points per game and 13 rebounds give Foust the edge over Johnston on paper, as Johnston averaged 11 rebounds, but he, Hutchins, and backup shooting guard Chuck Noble also shot below their standards in this Finals. Foust mustered 37.5% shooting, but Hutchins and Noble shot poorly at 29.4% and 24.4%, respectively, which mightily contributed to the team shooting 36.5% from the field.
Yardley was the Pistons’ high-scorer and high-rebounder for the series, averaging 24.8 points and 15.2 rebounds on 41% shooting; Arizin battled him back with a series-leading 27.6 points per game average on 42.6% shooting, not to mention eight rebounds of his own. He would have won Finals MVP, as Gola, George, and Johnston averaged 13.8, in Gola’s case, and 13.6 points per game for the other two, while backup shooting guard Ernie Beck averaged 12 points. Graboski nearly averaged a double-double with 11 points and 9.8 rebounds, but Gola managed to average a double-double with his 13.8 points and ten rebounds. Gola would have had more consideration for Finals MVP than Johnston, as he was also second on the team in assists with an average of six per game, with George topping him at 6.2 assists per game. The Pistons won Game 2 at home by one point to tie the series at 1-1 after the Warriors won Game 1 on their home court by four points. The Pistons then lost the next three games by scoring differentials of four, two, and 11 points.
The hendecennial, or steel anniversary, was the end of the early BAA/NBA days, as Bill Russell’s arrival marked the beginning of the Celtics dynasty. The St. Louis Hawks drafted Russell second overall in the 1956 NBA draft, but the Celtics, who had already used their territorial pick to select Tom Heinsohn, traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the Hawks for Russell. The Celtics also picked K.C. Jones later in that same draft, but he didn’t play for them until the 1958-59 season due to his commitment to the U.S. Army. Russell himself sat out the Celtics’ first 24 games that season due to participating in the 1956 Summer Olympics; only appearing in 48 games but immediately vaulted their defensive rating to first in the NBA that season behind his signature defensive presence. Russell’s defensive abilities helped speed up their pace to first in the NBA, a distinction they’d hold for eight of the next nine seasons. Despite his contributions to the Celtics, who ran away with the best record in the NBA at 44-28, the NBA declared his former college rival and teammate Heinsohn Rookie of the Year, while his other teammate Bob Cousy won the MVP. While the Nationals got their revenge by sweeping the Warriors in the 1956 Eastern Division Semifinals, a new era had dawned on them, as they were subsequently swept in the Eastern Division Finals by the Celtics.
Pettit, the inaugural MVP from the season prior, led his 34-48 St. Louis Hawks to a sweep over the Pistons and the Lakers in the Western Division Semifinals and Western Division Finals, respectively. I already mentioned that the 1956-57 St. Louis Hawks were the first team to make the NBA Finals with a losing record and that this was, as of this writing, still the only Game 7 of the NBA Finals to go into double overtime. Russell likely deserved Finals MVP, but due to what the media perceived as a surly attitude, he probably wouldn’t have been rewarded for his 13.3 points per game average, even if it came with an NBA Finals rookie record of 22.9 rebounds per game. He shot 35.6% from the field throughout the Finals but made a clutch basket and then a clutch block to force the game into overtime while also grabbing 32 rebounds that game. However, Heinsohn scored 37 points and grabbed 23 rebounds of his own in Game 7, so even though Russell averaged a Celtic-high 41.7 minutes per game during the Finals compared to Heinsohn’s 36.3 minutes per game, Heinsohn averaged the Celtic-high in scoring with 24 and averaged 12.6 rebounds on 40.4% shooting. Heinsohn’s prettier numbers likely would have earned him the Finals MVP, but it matters little as the award still didn’t exist yet, and the Celtics claimed their first championship.
The Hawks improved the following season, going 41-31, but so did the Celtics, as they had drafted Sam Jones and signed Andy Phillip from the recently rebranded Detroit Pistons. The Celtics were once again best in the NBA with a 49-23 record but ultimately lost to the Hawks that season, mostly due to Russell’s ankle injury, just one of two postseason losses in Russell’s career. I’m regurgitating information already explained earlier in the article however, so before we go, how about one last image for my hypothetical MVP’s of the first nine seasons of BAA/NBA history?
Is it a little anti-climatic to award my hypothetical MVPs to just four players in nine years? Sure, but it’s also fairly straightforward. Mikan was undoubtedly the best player in the BAA/NBA from the 1948-49 season until 1952-53, and while his team did not win a championship in the 1950-51 season, MVP is a regular season award, and 1950-51 was his best statistical season. In 1953-54, Mikan was still widely considered the best player in the NBA, but his statistical dropoff was more noticeable this season, and with MVP running on narratives, I would have awarded it to Dolph Schayes. His team went second in the Eastern Division with a 42-30 record; Schayes didn’t lead the NBA in any category, but he was second in win shares and defensive win shares while stuffing the stat sheet and appearing on the top 20 leaderboards in every recorded statistic. Following Mikan’s retirement, Schayes’ continued statistical dominance and team success, as well as his first-place defensive win shares finish, would have given him a second consecutive MVP award, in my eyes. Fulks was a no-brainer as MVP in the BAA’s inaugural season, leaving Zaslofsky as the remaining MVP consideration.
Fulks averaged more points than Zaslofsky that season, but at that time, the BAA/NBA awarded statistical titles to whoever had the highest total rather than the highest average. Zaslofsky wound up walking away with the 1947-48 scoring title after scoring 1,007 points that year, but he also was fifth in field goal percentage, third in free throws and free throw attempts, and second in free throw percentage, win shares, offensive win shares, and points per game. The Western Division was competitive that year, as three of the four teams finished with identical records, 28-20, while the St. Louis Bombers finished first in the division with a 29-19 record. The Bullets went on to win the Finals over the 27-21 Warriors, who were first in the Eastern Division and defending champs, so it’s fair to say without Zaslofsky, the Chicago Stags would have been much worse off. However, that’s enough written words about basketball history for this article; go outside and enjoy the game in person.
- Havarti – 6/13/2021 – Professional Basketball’s Salad Days
- For some reason, certain websites fail to mention the Hawks had a losing record in the regular season and are the first of three teams, thus far, to make the NBA Finals with a losing record. Maybe it’s because they went a combined 5-0 in their divisional tiebreakers and the Western Division Finals to enter the Finals with a combined 39-38 record, while the 1958-59 Lakers were a combined 39-42 entering the Finals. However, going by that logic, then the 1980-81 Houston Rockets entered the Finals with a combined 50-47 record, and they’re considered the second team to make the Finals with a losing record somehow.
- stewthornley.net – 1989 – Minneapolis Lakers
- Cervi was 4th in total assists and 3rd in assists per game that season to go along with a third-place finish in free throw percentage. Cervi had a short NBA career since he was 32 years old by the time he made it to the NBA, but he had already played in the NBL in 1937 before serving in the United States Air Force from 1940 to 1945. Upon the conclusion of World War II, he re-joined the NBL, now playing for the Rochester Royals. When the Royals jumped to the BAA a season before the supposed merger, Cervi, already unhappy with his contract, instead joined the Syracuse Nationals. The Nationals met his salary expectations and made him player-coach, a duty he wasn’t relieved of until 1957, even after the BAA absorbed the NBL in 1949, which included the Nationals, and became the NBA.
- Schayes was the first player to record 1,000 rebounds in a season; in the very first season, the NBA began recording rebounds, no less. His 1,080 rebounds that year were an NBA record until Harry Gallatin recorded 1,098 rebounds in 1953-54, while his 16.4 rebounds per game remained an NBA record until a rookie Bill Russell averaged 19.6 rebounds in 1956-57.
- 1951-52 was the same season Davies began holding onto the ball more, leading his team in scoring with career-highs in total and per game points while also setting career-highs in total and per game assists. He finished third and fourth in total and per game assists, respectively, in 1951-52 while finishing fifth in total and per game scoring.
- New York Times – 2/21/1953 – KNICKS TO FACE WARRIORS; Vandeweghe in Starting Line-Up at 69th Armory Tonight
- ESPN – 5/21/2014 – Pat Riley files for ‘3-peat’ trademark
- If you want to get technical, it was the Lakers’ sixth championship in seven seasons if you include their 1948 NBL title and Mikan’s seventh in eight seasons if one considers the 1947 NBL championship he won as a rookie on the Chicago American Gears.
- Charlie Rosen – 11/9/2001 – The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball
- Schayes would have won Finals MVP if it had existed at the time.
- “Jumpin’ Joe” Fulks is remembered primarily for his pioneering style and wild jump shots. However, his defensive win share statistics prove “The Kuttawa Clipper” was more than a one-dimensional player.
- Senesky did retire to become the Warriors coach, so it’s not like he went anywhere.
- Unfortunately, Costello missed the 1955-56 NBA season due to serving in the U.S. Army and didn’t earn a ring that season.