By Adam Criblez
There have been some great shooters in the past. . . . But here again, when I played years ago, if you shot a shot outside and hit it, the next time I’m going to be up on top of you. I’m going to pressure you with three-quarters, half-court defense. But now they don’t do that. These coaches do not understand the game of basketball, as far as I’m concerned.
For better or worse, basketball fans love to compare different eras of their favorite sport. Could today’s players deal with the more physical play of the 1970s? And how might retired NBA legends fare in today’s game? From there, it’s just a short jump to comparing players from the past with present stars. Could the “Rolls-Royce Backcourt” of Walt “Clyde” Frazier and Earl “The Pearl” Monroe handle the modern-day Golden State Warriors’ “Splash Brothers”? What about “Dr. J” Julius Erving against LeBron James? Oscar Robertson versus Russell Westbrook? The potential matchups are endless (and, to be honest, probably pointless).
These debates boil down to a very simple premise: basketball was different in the past. When Dr. James Naismith nailed a peach basket to a spot ten feet above the gym floor, he didn’t account for dribbling, let alone slam dunks, hyper-athletic seven-footers, or J.R. Smith. Until researching my upcoming book, Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA, I didn’t realize how many of these changes actually occurred during the 1970s, when the NBA arguably entered a modern age. (Editor’s Note: For a brief excerpt of the book, click here; for author reflections, click here.) Although many small changes took place during the seventies, three major changes rocked the very foundation of the league: its embrace of the slam dunk and three-point shot; salary escalation; and the arrival of free agency.
One big on-court change was the three-pointer, arguably the most exciting part of the modern NBA. The league officially adopted the three-point field goal in 1979 and the San Diego Clippers led the NBA that season with 543 three-point attempts (making 32.6%). By comparison, Steph Curry attempted 789 three-pointers *himself* this season (connecting on 41.1%) and the Golden State Warriors hoisted over 2,500 (making 38.3%) as a team. In 1979, few players specialized as three-point marksmen. Instead, coaches demanded that players only take the shot during late-game rallies to overcome huge deficits, often done in concert with a full-court pressing defense, hoping to create turnovers. In fact, Hubie Brown’s Atlanta Hawks attempted just 75 three-pointers all season (making just 13). Mostly, players shot three-pointers out of desperation, not as a strategic element.
Why did NBA players not shoot more three-pointers in the late seventies and early eighties? The easy answer would be to point to a lack of analytics (seriously, how did they survive without WAR, BPM, or VORP?). Just kidding. Another, less easily explained difference, is that NBA players coming of age in the seventies grew up playing a game in which *every* shot counted for two points. They were drilled at an early age to work the ball into position for a shot close to the basket. Why take a 30-foot jump shot if making it counted for the same as a two-footer? Legendary Boston Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach suggested–perhaps tongue-in-cheek–that if points were added to reward especially deep shots, uncontested layups should only receive a single point. Regardless of the cigar-chomping coach’s recommendation, the league introduced the three-point shot in 1979 and never looked back.
The other big on-court change during the decade was that NBA players began embracing the slam dunk as a form of artistic expression. For example, Oscar Robertson was one of the most athletic players of his era–just Google “Oscar Robertson splits” (I’ll wait). Impressive, right? And he never dunked in an NBA game. Not once. There was no need to, Robertson later explained, because a layup counted the same as a dunk.
Then the American Basketball Association (ABA) came along and celebrated the showmanship of their top stars. “Dr. J” Julius Erving and “Skywalker” David Thompson headlined the league’s first slam dunk contest in 1976, but their in-game dunks might have been even more impressive. Understanding the marketability of high-flying, slam-dunking showmen, the NBA copied the dunk contest concept in 1977 (won by Indiana Pacer “Dr. Dunk” Darnell Hillman) and the fans’ love of the dunk only grew, peaking in the eighties with the powerful dunks of Dominique Wilkins and the tongue-wagging exploits of Michael “Air” Jordan. But a decade before kids wanted to “Be like Mike,” they wanted to operate above the rim like “Dr. J.”
Like it or not, the three-point field goal and the slam dunk have greatly changed the on-court product in the NBA. But they seem inconsequential when compared to the off-court changes that took place in the seventies.
In 1970, the average player earned a $35,000 salary (equivalent to around $224,000 today). By decade’s end, that had jumped to $180,000 ($641,000 today). Before the seventies, many players spent their summers barnstorming (making a few hundred bucks for a week or two of work) or working a white-collar job selling insurance or cars. Now players could subsist without off-season work and, for the first time in league history, make life-changing money playing pro basketball.
Why did salaries increase so much during the decade? Two answers: the ABA and free agency.
Investors founded the ABA in 1967 as a rival to the more established NBA (then just an eight-team league). To woo top-tier college talent and lure elite players to jump leagues, ABA owners offered much higher salaries than their NBA counterparts. Rick Barry, a two-time NBA All-Star, made $45,000 in the NBA and jumped leagues for a $75,000 payday. Mel Daniels, drafted by both leagues out of New Mexico, signed with the ABA’s Minnesota Muskies (great name, by the way) for $36,000–triple what he was offered to play in the NBA. The competition between the two leagues became fierce. When Lew Alcindor graduated from UCLA in 1969, both sides negotiated for his services. ABA Commissioner George Mikan held a $1 million check he was to give Big Lew. For whatever reason, he kept it in his pocket and Alcindor signed with the Milwaukee Bucks for a $250,000 annual salary. Bidding wars almost bankrupted both leagues and soon even marginally talented players made six-figure salaries.
After the 1976 ABA-NBA merger, team owners hoped salaries would normalize. They didn’t. Part of the merger agreement was the settlement of the Oscar Robertson lawsuit, which ended the dreaded reserve clause. Before 1976, NBA players were bound to their teams through a reserve clause similar to that which existed in Major League Baseball. Despite the creation of the National Basketball Players Association in 1954 (the first team sports’ player’s union), NBA owners held most of the power in the league until the merger. Fearing bankruptcy and finally willing to concede to player movement, the summer of 1976 witnessed the first crop of NBA free agents.
Initially, free agency was restricted. If Team A signed a player from Team B, A owed B some combination of players, draft choices, or money in compensation. When Bill Walton signed a huge contract with the San Diego (later Los Angeles) Clippers in 1979, his former team received two players and a first-round draft pick in return, essentially gutting Walton’s new team. More famously, when the New Orleans Jazz signed aging guard Gail Goodrich away from Los Angeles in 1976, the league awarded the Lakers three first-round draft picks (one of which became Earvin “Magic” Johnson). Owners hoped this would disincentivize large contracts. It didn’t.
Most importantly, free agency also gave players newfound leverage in negotiations. In 1977, the Denver Nuggets signed their star guard, David “Skywalker” Thompson to a record-setting, five-year, $4-million deal, because they knew he would receive similar offers from other teams (*cough* the Knicks *cough*), should he enter free agency. The anticipated plateau of salaries never arrived, and continues today.
So whether or not you believe the Rolls-Royce Backcourt could defuse the Splash Brothers or that Dr. J could take LeBron to school, there’s no denying the league as we know it today–full of three-pointers, highlight-reel dunks, and multi-millionaire free agents–was born in the 1970s.
Adam Criblez is an Assistant Professor of History at Southeast Missouri State University and the author of the new book Tall Tales and Short Shorts: Dr. J, Pistol Pete, and the Birth of the Modern NBA. Check out his website at https://www.adamcriblez.com/. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @AdamCriblez.
 Curious as to what these terms mean? Check this out: http://www.basketball-reference.com/about/bpm.html