Below is my undergraduate honors thesis discussing the history and rule changes in professional basketball. I thought you all would want to see the evolution of the game and my proposed rule changes to make it even better.
The History of the NBA
The game of basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith as a way for teenagers to pass time, stay out of trouble and stay in shape. Reproduced below from the USA Basketball website are his original rules.
Dr. James Naismith’s Original 13 Rules of Basket Ball
1. The ball may be thrown in any direction with one or both hands.
2. The ball may be batted in any direction with one or both hands (never with the fist).
3. A player cannot run with the ball. The player must throw it from the spot on which he catches it, allowance to be made for a man who catches the ball when running at a good speed if he tries to stop.
4. The ball must be held in or between the hands; the arms or body must not be used for holding it.
5. No shouldering, holding, pushing, tripping, or striking in any way the person of an opponent shall be allowed; the first infringement of this rule by any player shall count as a foul, the second shall disqualify him until the next goal is made, or, if there was evident intent to injure the person, for the whole of the game, no substitute allowed.
6. A foul is striking at the ball with the fist, violation of Rules 3,4, and such as described in Rule 5.
7. If either side makes three consecutive fouls, it shall count a goal for the opponents (consecutive means without the opponents in the mean time making a foul).
8. A goal shall be made when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those defending the goal do not touch or disturb the goal. If the ball rests on the edges, and the opponent moves the basket, it shall count as a goal.
9. When the ball goes out of bounds, it shall be thrown into the field of play by the person first touching it. In case of a dispute, the umpire shall throw it straight into the field. The thrower-in is allowed five seconds; if he holds it longer, it shall go to the opponent. If any side persists in delaying the game, the umpire shall call a foul on that side.
10. The umpire shall be judge of the men and shall note the fouls and notify the referee when three consecutive fouls have been made. He shall have power to disqualify men according to Rule 5.
11. The referee shall be judge of the ball and shall decide when the ball is in play, in bounds, to which side it belongs, and shall keep the time. He shall decide when a goal has been made, and keep account of the goals with any other duties that are usually performed by a referee.
12. The time shall be two 15-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between.
13. The side making the most goals in that time shall be declared the winner. In case of a draw, the game may, by agreement of the captains, be continued until another goal is made.
Note: Basketball was originally two words and these original rules were published January 15, 1892 in the Springfield College school newspaper, The Triangle.
Then and Now
The way basketball was played in The NBA when it was founded in 1946 would be completely unrecognizable to today’s 14-year-old. The demographics of the players, coaches and fans, the way the game is played and the physicality are all drastically different.
At the beginning, it was a sport dominated by white males who focused on technique, teamwork and finesse directed by the coaching staff and implemented by the players. Now, the game is dominated by superior athletes that are generally black, play is more flashy and dazzling to watch with less emphasis on technical rules such as palming and traveling. The original players were superior athletes to their peers, but did not compare well athletically to players entering the NBA even a decade later, let alone in 2013.
Basketball, at least professional basketball, is all about the stars and the myriad of isolation offensive sets they run during the course of the game. Isolation plays are run with the best player having the ball and the other teammates away from him so he can take his defender one-on-one.
Basketball is played differently than it was five decades ago. The pace has increased, as has the physicality.
The one thing that has changed the most is how the game is presented to the general public.
During portions of Larry Bird and Ervin “Magic” Johnson’s careers, NBA Finals games were tape-delayed. From 1975-79 they were live, but not during 1980 or 1981. The first game tape-delayed was game two of the finals between the Sonics and the Bullets. The less important earlier-round games were sometimes tape delayed during this period. The final NBA playoff tape delay was during a Western Conference Finals matchup between Los Angeles and Houston on May 16, 1986.
In 2013, that would be unthinkable. In fact, that person who decided to tape delay regular season or playoff games would probably be fired. America is crazy about basketball.
How did America fall in love with basketball?
It happened because of star power, with the most famous example being Michael Jordan. The chart in the link below shows a huge decline in ratings after the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird era, during Jordan’s baseball “career” and after he retired (the first time). His talent, clutch gene, demeanor and marketability captivated the nation and propelled basketball to new heights.
How did we get from peach baskets as hoops to where we are now?
There are some key rules changes and a merger that moved basketball in this direction.
The Shot Clock- The first, most momentous, and possibly the most interesting rule change came in 1954. The 24 second shot clock revolutionized basketball. No longer could tall centers “sit” just outside the free throw lane, posting-up and reposting until they eventually wore out their defenders. Those defenders in all probability were shorter, weighed less and were less athletic than these giants who had the luxury of waiting for the perfect shot. Instead the team was required to shoot at the basket and hit the rim within 24 seconds of gaining possession to reset the shot clock.
More importantly, teams would get a decent lead then hold the ball, forcing the other team to foul them. This endless free throw shooting is not what people would pay to watch.
Now players had to move the ball with urgency, lest they commit a turnover due to not being able to create a decent scoring opportunity. Teams now needed a sense of urgency in their offensive sets that wasn‘t there before. That was revolutionary. Additionally, this shot clock violation rule rewarded lockdown defenses that played solid defense, not gambling for steals, which is how you teach kids basketball anyway.
The NBA/ABA Merger- While not actually a rule change, this was one of the most influential changes pro basketball ever experienced.
In 1967, the NBA was comprised of 10 teams with white players who took a lot of long-range jump shots. An apt word that comes to mind is straight-laced. Alternatively, you had the American Basketball Association that was founded with the intention of merging with the NBA eventually and filled predominately with black players. The players in the ABA developed a much more entertaining style with flashy dribbling and passing, and most important of all, dunks. I cannot stress enough how glad I am the NBA absorbed the ABA in 1976 and brought famous players such as Julius Erving and Moses Malone over. The NBA gained a more watchable style of play, attaining their goal.
Three-point line- In 1979 the game was revolutionized again with the addition of the three-point line. No longer could you easily win a championship solely because you had an athletic center as the focal point of your offense, who could camp near the paint and dominate the game. This added the three-point specialists to NBA rosters, making smaller players relevant again. Of course you shouldn’t forget this wonderful invention brought on exciting pull up threes in transition. An unfortunate unintended side-affect was bigger guys (who are really legit power forwards) thinking they are stretch-fours and chucking up a bunch of shots from behind the perimeter. Stretch-fours are power forwards who can stretch the spacing on the floor with their accurate perimeter shooting.
George Mikan, commissioner of the ABA from 1967-69, stated during his tenure the three-pointer “would give the smaller player a chance to score and open up the defense to make the game more enjoyable for the fans.”
What the three-point line brought was hope. Now a team down two points with a few seconds to go can actually go for the victory. Instead of hoping to be fouled to tie or win the game with free throws, the game is now in your hands. Also, down three, you aren’t out of luck just yet. You can push it to overtime.
The addition of the three-point line brought about a faster pace because players wanted to stuff their stats with more points. Chucking up more shots, regardless that it’s at a worse percentage, helps you do that.
A faster-paced game in basketball is achieved by getting more shot opportunities (which was a result of the shot clock) or by scoring more points on your shot attempts. That is where the three-point line comes into play.
All these additions that the three-point line brought just made the game more exciting.
There were other, smaller rule changes that made the game more difficult to play, but made the competition more fierce, leading to a more excitement, which helps sell tickets.
These rules included five-second defense, eight-second backcourt, over and back, five-second inbounding, and possibly most important, offensive and defensive three seconds in the lane.
The five-second defense rule hardly ever gets called, mostly because players are too decisive and talented to be guarded for five seconds without passing or making any move toward the basket. This rule is partly nullified by the 24-second shot clock, because players already have an incentive not to hold the ball when their team is winning. If they do, it could cause a turnover, enabling their opponents to score and decrease the deficit.
The eight-second and over and back rules go hand in hand to decrease the available court size, forcing players to interact with each other, giving the defense the ability to help out on dominant players. The rules give the offense eight seconds to dribble or pass the ball beyond the half court line and the over-and-back rule prevents the ball from legally going back over half court unless a defensive player is the last player to touch the ball.
Whenever the ball is inbounded, the person inbounding the ball has five seconds to throw it in or risk a turnover. Typically, if the inbounder has trouble finding someone open, because the defense is locking everyone down, that inbounding team has to burn a timeout to regroup and try it again. Other rules about inbounding are that the defender cannot break the plane of the out-of-bounds line or move from the spot the referee signals them to use to inbound the ball.
Most important are the defensive and offensive three-second calls. These are the most common of the miscellaneous rules, because inexperienced big men and lurking offensive rebounders get caught sitting in the paint for too long. As does that indecisive defender who is trying to double-team a dominant post player but fails.
These rules really tightened the game, and made it more of a serious sport.
In the earlier years of the NBA, defensive hand-checking ran rampant. Even up until 2004-05, when the hand-checking rule was instituted, a small guard such as Allen Iverson would crossover his man then drive into the lane. His man would swipe at the ball, miss, but get Iverson’s arm. No call. As Iverson drove the lane, multiple players would “help off” their man (leave the player they were defending to help a teammate defend a dominant opposing player) getting in his way, bumping him as he tried to make a ridiculously off-balance layup. But there would be no whistle blown by the referees. After a while, this took a toll on those offensive players regardless of how sturdily they were built.
That is why the hand-checking rule was instituted. Defenses were getting too good, because they had license to do almost anything to keep the offense from scoring. That depressed scoring outputs, which made the game less fun to watch. That wasn’t something the league was going to let continue. Now defensive players aren’t allowed to touch the offensive player if they are facing each other, but only if the offensive player is backing down with his face away from his own basket.
Many offensive players eventually found a way to take advantage of this no hand-checking rule when facing up in the triple-threat stance (from which one can easily pass, shoot or, dribble) either on the perimeter or a little closer in at mid-range. Most notable was Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar, thought by some to be the second-best player in the league behind LeBron James. Durant’s signature “rip-through” move became popular around the 2011-12 season.
This move required Durant with his long arms to have the ball on the perimeter, standing in his triple-threat stance with the opponent’s best and most aggressive defender as close as possible, ready for anything (but set up perfectly for this move). After dribbling so his defender gets closer, Durant gets his defender to reach-in, brings the ball quickly and fluidly across his body, into contact with the defender’s arms and straight into his shot. He sometimes makes that shot, but until the rules caught up with him, he almost always got the officials to call a foul on his opponent’s best defender, and if he didn’t make it, got to shoot three free throws. This made the rest of the game easier, since his defender was in foul trouble and couldn’t be as aggressive. He was also able to shoot more free throws, and is now a career 88 percent shooter from the charity stripe.
Other players stole Durant’s idea and until the league recently changed the rules (to make that a non-shooting foul) offensive players feasted. This rule change gave the illusion the rules are equally fair to offensive and defensive players, but they aren’t and that’s what the league wants. The rules are slightly geared towards offenses, which seems to be why there is an emphasis of offensive dominance in the Most Valuable Player race.
All of these rules affect the pace of the game. Pace refers to how many shots both teams can attempt in 48 minutes of play. The pace has fluctuated as rule changes have been adopted. But it takes some time for the players and referees to be fully comfortable with the changes.
The final two rules changes are the most controversial and are still hotly debated today. It will be some time (if ever) before the NBA can fully resolve these issues.
The first is the block/charge rule. A block is if a defensive player is illegally impeding the progress of an offensive player. If the foul is called the offensive player will take the ball out of bounds, unless they were in the act of shooting. Additionally, the defensive player is assessed a personal foul. This is true on almost the entire court.
The controversial part comes outside the restricted circle inside the lane. The semi-circle that lies directly underneath the basket is free game, but a little bit farther out is where the charges happen. If both the defensive player’s feet lie outside of the restricted circle and his feet are set (meaning his feet aren’t moving) and the defensive player is knocked down by the offensive player, a charge is called. This results in a turnover on the offense and a personal foul on the offending player. These charges typically happen inside the paint, where offensive players want to get into the lane and to the rim for an easy basket, but are going too fast to stop. That crafty defender steps in front and sacrifices their body to earn the turnover for their team.
These block/charge calls become controversial when some veteran players use their experience and guile to slide underneath a player driving into the paint, drawing a charge call from the ref. This seems unfair because there is no way for that offensive player to avoid the defender, as they are already in the air. Referees have noticed what these defenders are doing, and the calls have balanced out, but there are still some bad charge calls. The reason veterans get these calls made in their favor is because they are respected and “sell” the call, but, they also know good defense is played with your feet and not with your hands. The veterans anticipate a player driving toward the rim, then move laterally, quickly, getting their feet set to draw that offensive foul. The more inexperienced players play defense with their hands and commit those ticky-tack fouls that coaches hate.
Flopping. What can be said? It is the NBA’s latest controversy that is still being resolved. Flopping is when any player over-reacts to contact from an opposing player resulting in an incorrect call from a referee. They make it look like some incidental contact was intentional and caused then to fall down, when they actually just threw themselves to the ground. These players exaggerate contact to the detriment of the integrity of the game. It is understood in the league that when you are fouled you “sell” the call. But that is “making sure” the referee understands there was a foul that should be called, not creating a foul by exaggerating incidental and legal contact into an outrageous call.
Some players are notorious for doing this including: the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili, the Pacers’ Luis Scola and the Clippers’ Blake Griffin. However, you know something is prevalent in your sport when your best and most recognizable player (LeBron James) shows a pattern of flopping, even though it isn’t on Ginobili’s level.
So far, the league has only levied fines on players who flop. There are two reasons these fines are laughable. First, they are given after the game by the league, so if there is a competitive advantage to flopping and paying the consequences later. It’s easily judged as worth their while. Second, the fines are such a small ratio compared to the salaries of the players, especially the superstars, it’s such a small slap on the wrist rather than an effective deterrent.
Competition Committee’s Effect on Business Propositions in the NBA
Sports is a business that capitalizes on the public’s need or want for entertainment in the form of competition, going all the way back to the gladiators in Roman times, if not beyond. The same is true for basketball in modern times. We want to see how and why these landmark rules changes were put into place and what resulted from them.
Sports is a business. Basketball is no exception. There are a few key factors that will illustrate why rules changes were needed to make the game of basketball more exciting and therefore more profitable. These factors will also show how the rules changed helped the popularity of the game.
Attendance: (the charts show average attendance to both NBA and ABA games over time corresponding to the data points below the graphs)
What we see from the attendance data is a steady increase in the average number of fans in the seats over time, which is what you would expect as the game grows in popularity.
In 1967, the first year the ABA began its operation to compete with the NBA with the hope of merging later on, the NBA was crushing the ABA in attendance by more than double. By 1975 when the merger occurred, the ABA’s average attendance had doubled (100 percent increase) to near the NBA’s former level, while the NBA had increased its average attendance by only 68 percent. The difference between the popularity of the leagues was shrinking. This could be because of the difference in the type of play (up-tempo and flashy) on the court in the ABA every night, as opposed to the NBA’s slower style.
In 1979 the three-point line was introduced to the NBA. One of the concepts infused into the NBA from its merger with the ABA was the three-point line. Attendance took a slight dip as everyone got acclimated to the new scoring system with the ability to score more points using the three-point line. However, then attendance started steadily increasing.
Other rule changes probably had a similar affect, but not on the same scale as these two.
Future Rules Changes and Additions I Think Should Be Implemented
Playoffs: I think the NBA should arrange the playoffs so the best teams actually play for the chance at a championship. This is necessary at the bottom of the standings. It is a travesty when one (and sometimes two teams) that are at or less than a .500 winning percentage in the top-heavy Eastern Conference make the playoffs just to get swept or easily taken out in the first round. At the same time better teams at or better than .500 in the significantly deeper Western Conference are the odd-man out even though they are a better team. They ended up having a better record despite playing tougher competition the entire season, since teams play other teams in their conference more often during the season. Should they be penalized for having a better record in a better conference? I think not.
How would this be solved though?
I propose in each conference all three division winners get the top spots in their respective conferences. Then the next threw slots in each conference are filled by the teams with the best records in that conference. That’s six teams in each conference and there are only four slots left to be filled.
I think they should be filled by the four best teams left and placed in the playoff brackets by winning percentage and by conference affiliation. So, first of the last four is a Western Conference team they go to that conference. Let’s say the second team is in the same position. One of the other final teams is from the Eastern Conference and the other one is from the Western Conference. They would both go to the Eastern Conference playoffs, because that is the only place there are still slots left.
This would increase competition among divisions (although a little unfair that a non-division winner gets better seeding than a division winner with a worse overall record). It would make the final two weeks of the season that much more exciting as teams have no clue who they are playing and can’t predict it as well. Every game counts for more.
The only downsides are being able to market inter-conference playoffs. You wouldn’t be able to say “Eastern Conference playoffs matchup” when one (or both) of the teams is from the Western Conference. But that should be able to be solved relatively simply, by continuing to work under “Eastern Conference Finals” and minimize the fact that a Western Conference team is participating. Or you could market it as an inter-conference battle, it would help if they are rivals.
Flopping: The two parts of the issue that need to be resolved are that the fines are not hefty enough to be effective deterrents and the nature of the way this issue is policed is a glaring problem.
The fines are only a few thousand dollars. When a superstar makes many times that for each game played they will consider it worth being fined to win the game. That leads me to my second point. The fines and suspensions are levied by the league days after the game in which the incident occurred. So fining the players for these flopping infractions is worth it to them, because it can’t hurt the outcome of the game.
The way you fix this is to have someone from the league sit courtside or in a room with a television and communicate with the league office as well as with the refs to determine if flopping has happened. If a team has two technical fouls, shots will be given to the opposite team. If you want to go even further have the opposing team gifted two or four points (no free throws needing to be attempted) if the league has deemed the unsportsmanlike flopping has happened.
FIBA (International Basketball Federation) goaltending rules: Currently in the NBA, if a shot goes up and you deflect or block it before it is on its downward arc, it’s a block, and if you hit it after it hits its peak, then that’s a goaltend and the shooting team is automatically awarded two (or three) points. This is regardless of whether the shot would have actually gone in if the defense had not interfered. However, there is reason involved. If there had been no interference, the ball needs to have landed near the hoop. You can’t just shoot anywhere, have someone goaltend it and you get the points.
What I propose is the overseas rules for goaltending, where any player can swipe the ball off the rim before it goes in the basket. They still wouldn’t be able to stick their hand inside the rim and poke the ball out though. This is a reason why Spain’s national team, featuring Pau and Marc Gasol, has such success on the international level.
I feel this would make the game more interesting and still keep the game fair as the defense couldn’t wait near the rim to swipe shots off the rim. It would encourage better shooting and make the game more exciting.
I would just want to see some investigation into this topic to see if the league office, players and coaches would like this rule. I know the Gasol brothers do.
International key/paint/lane: Another rule change that would help the NBA become even more exciting would be to adopt the international lane, which is restricted area near the basket where you can only stand for less than three seconds at a time. The American version is rectangular while the overseas version is more trapezoidal in shape. Essentially, the European version eliminates the “block” on each side of the paint, making deep post-ups near impossible.
This would make speed instead of height and weight more important which is key to a more exciting game.
Shot Clock: While a 24 second shot clock was ideal with the number of possessions per game (pace), the game can always get faster. I propose a 20 or 22 second shot clock. This would discourage multiple post-ups and create more shot opportunities and therefore more points. Who doesn’t want more points? Danny Biasone (owner of what is now the Philadelphia 76ers, who implemented the shot clock in pro basketball) decided that two teams did and should combine for 120 shot attempts per game. If you divide that number by 2880 (the number of seconds in a typical 48-minute basketball game) the result is the magical number 24; and so the shot clock was born. One-hundred and 20 shot attempts combined in a game? I say there should be more. So decrease the shot clock by a couple seconds and the pace will increase, making the game more exciting.
Another small rule that should and will continue to be tweaked is the kick out foul. This happens when a jump shooter raises up to shoot, does, then kicks his leg out into the closing-out defender, causing a cheap foul. This is similar to flopping, but more of a foul since the shooter is creating the contact. It needs to be eliminated since it is a way to deceive referees into giving a call to the offense that they shouldn’t. The league and referees also need to keep in mind the injury-prone nature of a jump shot. They have to make sure the defender doesn’t (intentionally or not) step underneath the shooter, injuring them.
Overall, the National Basketball Association is a business just like any other. Its product is the game, the players on the court displaying their skills for the world to see and marvel at year after year. But it’s a business. The ticket sales and merchandising as well as the advertising revenue are all tied to how well the teams perform. Every season is almost like a new slate, thus the need for each team to be competitive, striving to win championships to boost their bottom line.
The NBA also has to sell its product, competing with the other sports for broadcasting contracts and merchandising. To do this, the league needs to make the game palatable to the general public. What people want is exciting basketball, so to keep the customers coming back, the NBA gives them exactly what they wanted in the multitude of ways I’ve illustrated.