25 ways the NBA has changed in the last 50 years
In June 1946, Boston Garden owner Walter Brown was in New York City when he had an epiphany. He realized that ice-hockey arenas like his sat vacant most nights when the home team wasn't playing. Brown saw dollar signs when he realized he could fill the void by hosting basketball games on hockey's off nights. He created the Basketball Association of America, and, in 1949, his new league merged with the National Basketball League and the National Basketball Association, or NBA, was born.
Today the NBA generates $7 billion in revenue per season, or about $245 million for each of the league's 30 teams. There isn't a team in the league that's worth less than $1 billion, and three teams are worth more than $3 billion, with the Knicks topping the heap with a $4 billion valuation. The league's 30 teams sell nearly 22 million tickets a year to fans who pack their stadiums to watch the 1,230 games the NBA puts on every year—82 per team with an average attendance of 17,884 per home game.
From humble roots to big business, the NBA has undergone significant changes along the way. The last 50 years have been among the most dynamic and exciting in the league's history. Giants of the sport like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Dr. J, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James have attracted throngs of loyal fans, spearheaded dynasties, and sold more tickets, shoes, jerseys, and cable packages than can be counted. The game, however, has evolved and changed as each generation of greats has come and gone.
From rules and regulations to strategies and clothing, here's a look at how the NBA has evolved on its path from second-fiddle league designed to fill seats on off nights to a global phenomenon and billion-dollar worldwide business.
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Salaries soared from six figures to eight
Fifty years ago in 1969, NBA legend Bill Russell ended his NBA career with 12 trips to the All-Star game, five MVP titles, a whopping 11 NBA championships, and a peak salary of just $100,000—and he was one of the highest-paid players in the game. On the other hand, today's highest-paid baller is Stephen Curry. He signed a five-year, $201.16 million contract that will pay him an average salary of more than $40.23 million a year until he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
Players got taller and heavier
Professional basketball was always a big man's game, but big has gotten bigger. In 1969, the average NBA player stood a little over 6-foot-5 and weighed about 205 pounds. Today's average is about 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds.
Hand check penalty made the game faster
One of the most important changes in basketball history came in 2004 when the NBA completely banned hand-checking, which had been curtailed starting in 1994. The hand-check penalty forbids defenders from touching opponents with their hands anywhere except in the immediate vicinity of the basket, a strategy long employed by defenders to slow down and control the movement of their opponents. The change dramatically sped up the game, diminished the size advantage of the biggest players, and ushered in the modern era, where smaller, faster guards rule the roost.
Basketball became an international sport
More than 108 international players from 42 countries and territories graced NBA rosters on opening night in 2018—every single team claimed at least one foreign player, according to Sports Illustrated. The world began funneling its best players to the NBA around 30 years ago when the Soviet Union first allowed its players to migrate to America's premier basketball league at the close of the 1988 Olympics. In 1989, European elites like Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, and Sarunas Marciulionis opened the door to the NBA's rise as a truly international league, and today, basketball is the world's second-biggest sport after only soccer.
The 3-point line put a premium on outside accuracy
Today, players like Steph Curry are known for nailing 3-pointers as part of their foundational strategies, but the NBA didn't institute a 3-point line until 1979—long after several lesser leagues. An arc measuring 23-feet 9-inches from the center of the basket to its farthest point, fans originally thought it was a gimmick, according to Active.com, but quickly learned to love it and routinely leaped out of their seats when a player landed one. It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact the addition of the 3-pointer had on the game.
A thirst for 3s drives modern basketball
The rules of the game haven't changed much over the last decade, but the style of play has evolved dramatically as teams moved away from relying on size in favor of outside accuracy, like the kind put on display every game by Steph Curry. According to Blasting News, this paradigm shift has led to a huge increase in 3-point attempts at the expense of easier inside shots across all 30 teams. The team average of 3-point attempts per game in the 2007–2008 season was just 18.04, compared to 28.98 in 2017–2018.
The 3-point revolution increased possessions
Threes are harder to land than inside shots, and therefore don't go in as often. The huge increase in 3-point attempts over the last decade has led to more rebounds and far more possessions per team per game, which has dramatically increased the speed of play. Over the last 10 years, league-wide possessions per game jumped from fewer than 96 to about 101.
Individual output soared along with 3-point tries
The domino effect has been that more 3-point attempts have led to faster play, which has increased possessions, leading to a huge rise in individual productivity. League-wide triple-doubles are at an all-time high, up to 117 in 2017 compared to just 40 in 2008, reported by Blasting News’ Mitchell Oakes, based on data from the Land of Basketball.
Mid-range jump shots became rarer
The league's move toward banking on long-range sharpshooters is all but eliminating what was once a staple of the game: the mid-range jump shot, according to USA Today. Sure things like the slam dunk and layup have remained about the same over the last 15 years, but jumpers from inside the 3-point arc are now a relative rarity.
NBA stars became America's most marketable athletes
In the 1980s, Michael Jordan changed the nature of endorsement deals for athletes who double as corporate pitchmen through then-unheard of contracts with the likes of Nike and Gatorade. Today's players inherited that legacy, which has turned the NBA into a revenue-generating machine for corporate America, which isn't even in the same universe as the other three major sports. The NBA's 10 highest-earning endorsement stars pulled in a combined $234 million in 2018 off the court in 2018, compared to $90 million for the top 10 football stars, $25 million for baseball, and $20 million for hockey, according to Forbes.2018 All rights reserved.