The NBA Time Machine: 1951

Published September 15, 2022

The NBA Time Machine:

Changes Everywhere

League Stabilizes

The league’s contraction resulted in the death of several franchises. Four of the NBL expansion teams from the previous year – namely the Anderson Packers, Denver Nuggets, Sheboygan Red Skins, and Waterloo Hawks – demolished entirely, alongside the longer-tenured Chicago Stags and St. Louis Bombers.

The Washington Capitols only played thirty-five games before leaving the pack as well, resulting in only ten active franchises – the lowest total since the 1948 season. Most valuable players from the defunct teams found a place elsewhere in the NBA – for example, Max Zaslofsky of former Stags fame flocked to the New York Knicks and put together another respectable campaign.

The All-Star Game

In similar fashion to Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League prior, the NBA pushed its very first annual All-Star Game this season. Following a point-shaving scandal that was killing the buzz around college basketball, publicity director Haskell Cohen saw the opportunity to direct attention towards the professional league.

He pitched the All-Star Game as an event to showcase the best talent around. It was initially met with doubt, but was an instant success – fan attendance at the Boston Garden that day tripled that of an average regular season game. It helped that at least one player from each franchise got selected as well, ensuring every city was represented.

The All-Star Game was a very competitive event, held in high regard because of the tighter defense and scorers on every inch of the court. As a result, winning the MVP for the event was considered a remarkable honor.

Outlier Games

Two of the strangest games in NBA history happened this season, which would prompt the league to consider changing the rules moving forward.

The first was the lowest-scoring game of all-time, with the Pistons beating the Lakers 19-18. The latter had yet to lose a home game, and Fort Wayne decided to spoil the streak through intentionally holding and passing the ball without choosing to score. As there was no limit on how long a team could have possession, this caused an incredibly slow-paced contest that ended in angry fans.

The other was the longest game ever – a Royals vs. Olympians matchup that spanned over seventy-eight minutes because of six overtimes. Only eight points were scored per team before the sixth, in which Indianapolis pulled away with an extra two points.

These events caused the NBA to contemplate how it should tackle pacing, considering how problematic these situations could become. The shift towards a game of excessive fouls and few highlights was awful for its popularity.


Perhaps the most culturally important aspect of the ’51 season was the inclusion of black players in the NBA – three played this season. It begun with Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols, who only participated in a handful of games – however, Chuck Cooper (pictured above) and Nat Clifton secured bigger roles as rotational players on their respective teams.

The former was the first black player to be drafted (by the Boston Celtics), and the latter was the second to sign a contract (with the New York Knicks). The first black player to sign a contract was Harold Hunter of the Capitols, who was cut from the team during training camp.

The steady progress towards breaking the color barrier was by no means news to the basketball community at the time, but these pioneers paved the way for an integrated – and therefore increasingly talented – association.

Stat Updates

Rebounds became an officially recorded statistic, shedding light on the defensive capabilities of some players and teams. Rebounding specialists like Harry Gallatin benefited from this newfound recognition.

Standout Players

George Mikan

Mikan had the greatest statistical season of his career, leading the league in scoring and reaching a new high in efficiency. The Lakers also claimed the best record in the league for the first time, capturing forty-four wins with only three losses at home.

Ed Macauley

“Easy Ed” moved to Boston after his former franchise – the Bombers – folded. He immediately boosted the mediocre Celtics, leading them to their first winning season alongside rookie Bob Cousy. Ed’s combination of scoring prowess, rebounding and court vision were special for a center at the time.

Alex Groza

While Indianapolis had worsened since the ’50 season, Groza was still the second best player in the league. His efficiency was unbelievable, equipped with a plethora of inside moves and crafty hook shots to uplift his otherwise sluggish supporting cast.

Dolph Schayes

The Nationals had calmed down from their honeymoon phase with the league, but Schayes was still excellent. He was far and away the best rebounder, which was a byproduct of great rim protection and defensive instinct.

Paul Arizin

The rookie looked like Philadelphia’s newest phenomenon after Joe Fulks’ glory days. Arizin could do just about anything, lifting the small forward position to a new standard. It’s no surprise that the Warriors improved by fourteen games with his arrival.

Around the League

Team Standings

An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.
Note that the Washington Capitols folded during the middle of the season.

Eastern DivisionWLWestern DivisionWL
Philadelphia Warriors*4026Minneapolis Lakers*4424
Boston Celtics*3930Rochester Royals*4127
New York Knicks*3630Fort Wayne Pistons*3236
Syracuse Nationals*3234Indianapolis Olympians*3137
Baltimore Bullets2442Tri-Cities Blackhawks2543
Washington Capitols1025

Fun Facts

  • The Washington Capitols unsurprisingly folded mid-way through the season, due to a lack of financial and positional security.
    • The team’s players had been coaching themselves for the past two years, and they never returned to the dominance they displayed in the 1949 season. Before folding, they ranked bottom three in both offense and defense.
  • With the Capitols folding, the New York Knicks remained the only team to have a winning record in every season of the league’s history.
    • They also established themselves as one of the best offenses, even without star guard Carl Braun, who was serving in the military.
  • Excluding the dysfunctional Capitols, this was the first season where no team finished below twenty wins – this said a lot about the improvement in parity.

Notable Movement


The player stats listed are based on their last tenure, whether it be with their former team or the previous season.
Name(s) under the “Top Draft Picks” section with a plus (+) opted to play in another league instead of the NBA this season.

Name(s) under the “Top Draft Picks” section with an asterisk (*) were selected with a territorial draft pick.
p – points
r – rebounds
a – assists

Top Draft Picks

Boston Celtics
Baltimore Bullets
Philadelphia Warriors
Tri-Cities Blackhawks
Washington Capitols
Chicago Stags
New York Knicks
Fort Wayne Pistons
Indianapolis Olympians
Rochester Royals
Chuck Share
Don Rehfeldt
Paul Arizin*
Bob Cousy
Dick Schnittker
Larry Foust
Irwin Dambrot
George Yardley
Bob Lavoy
Joe McNamee


April 27, 1950Coach Red AuerbachTri-Cities BlackhawksResigned
April 27, 1950Coach Red AuerbachBoston CelticsHired
January 18, 1951Coach Buddy JeannetteBaltimore BulletsFired
January 18, 1951Interim Coach Walt BudkoBaltimore BulletsHired
February 22, 1951Coach Cliff BarkerIndianapolis OlympiansFired
February 22, 1951Interim Coach Wah Wah JonesIndianapolis OlympiansHired
April 10, 1951Coach Murray MendenhallFort Wayne PistonsFired
April 10, 1951Coach Paul BirchFort Wayne PistonsHired


PlayerTeam(s)Notable Accomplishments
Bob FeerickWashington Capitols3x All-BAA
Buddy JeannetteBaltimore Bullets1x Champion
1x All-BAA
Ed SadowskiToronto Huskies
Cleveland Rebels
Boston Celtics
Philadelphia Warriors
Baltimore Bullets
1x All-BAA

League Leaders


PTS – total points
TRB – total rebounds
AST – total assists
FG% – field goal percentage (percentage of shots that hit)
FT% – free throw percentage (percentage of foul shots that hit)

PTSGeorge Mikan (1932)
Alex Groza (1429)
Ed Macauley (1384)
Joe Fulks (1236)
Frankie Brian (1144)
TRBDolph Schayes (1080)
George Mikan (958)
Harry Gallatin (800)
Arnie Risen (795)
Alex Groza (709)
ASTAndy Phillip (414)
Dick McGuire (400)
George Senesky (342)
Bob Cousy (341)
Ralph Beard (318)
FG%Alex Groza (47%)
Ed Macauley (46%)
George Mikan (42%)
Jack Coleman (42%)
Harry Gallatin (41%)
FT%Joe Fulks (85%)
Belus Smawley (85%)
Bobby Wanzer (85%)
Fred Scolari (84%)
Vince Boryla (83%)


Division Semifinals

East / New York Knicks beat Boston Celtics, 2-0
The Celtics had a better regular season than the Knicks – not only were newly acquired star Ed Macauley and rookie Bob Cousy powering a strong offense, but they acquired veteran Bones McKinney from Washington as well. Going into the playoffs, this looked like fair game for the two teams.

However, New York’s experience was far more valuable than any scoring power – they took care of the thinner Boston team with ease in two games. Max Zaslofsky had a phenomenal outing in particular, stepping up greatly from a somewhat unimpressive regular season.
East / Syracuse Nationals beat Philadelphia Warriors, 2-0
A bit of an upset matchup, the Nationals repeated exactly what they did last season. The difference was that Philadelphia was a lot stronger this time around, so the Schayes-led team sweeping them was a shock.

Game 1 was a battle of veterans, with the late-40’s stars Joe Fulks and Fred Scolari taking over for their respective teams. Syracuse’s close win in overtime may have shot down the Warriors’ spirits though, as it seemed like none of them were locked in anymore besides Paul Arizin for Game 2.

That in tandem with a nice 24/16/4 statline from Schayes ensured the Nationals would have another shot at reaching for the championship.
West / Minneapolis Lakers beat Indianapolis Olympians, 2-1
Indianapolis’ pitiful offense was well-documented in this series – outside of Alex Groza looking like the best scorer in the world and Ralph Beard being a great second option, that team was anything but threatening.

George Mikan had developed a habit of opening series with statements, dropping forty-one points in Game 1. He followed that with an awful outing in Game 2 – which can realistically be attributed to injury – although he made up for it through leading the Lakers to a dominant comeback in the tiebreaker.
West / Rochester Royals beat Fort Wayne Pistons, 2-1
A battle of opposites, the defensive Pistons could not handle the Royals. It wasn’t even so much about Rochester’s arsenal of scorers as it was about Fort Wayne’s horrible offense, in which only two players managed to average more than ten points per game – and never more than fourteen.

Game 3 was especially embarrassing for the Pistons, with star Fred Schaus dropping only twelve points on four-of-eighteen shooting. When you realize that at least four Royals players outperformed him, it became obvious that something needed to change for Fort Wayne to become a playoff threat.

Division Finals

East / New York Knicks beat Syracuse Nationals, 3-2
The defending Division Champions faced a hungry Knicks team looking to make their first Finals, and it spawned a gritty, neck-and-neck scrimmage that was finally decided by a mere two points.

The two squads traded the first four games, and Syracuse looked far more composed going into the fifth. They had won their games by larger margins, and ultimately had the best player in Dolph Schayes.

However, Game 5 was a major choke job. The Nationals led by seven points going into the fourth quarter, and looked primed to reach the Finals again. They then proceeded to only score seventeen more points, and Schayes didn’t make a big enough difference – he only dropped fourteen total.
West/ Rochester Royals beat Minneapolis Lakers, 3-1
The Lakers, looking for their third consecutive championship, finally fell to their rivals for the first time.

They took the first match convincingly, but proceeded to lose three in a row afterwards. It was clear that George Mikan’s leg injury played a factor in a sub-par series (for his standards), not nearly as imposing on defense or scoring the way Minneapolis needed.

It was also becoming clear that the Royals may have been the most well-rounded group in the league. They had the best backcourt, a solid big man, and a wild card forward that upped his game in the playoffs – Arnie Johnson. Even with Mikan desperately dropping thirty-two in the deciding Game 4, Rochester remained diligent – now was their time.


Rochester Royals beat New York Knicks, 4-3
In the second Game 7 of NBA playoffs history, the closest Finals to date was played between two teams that had never reached it prior.

The Royals quickly jumped to a 3-0 lead, and it looked like the first Finals sweep ever was imminent. However, the Knicks – led by two veterans in Connie Simmons and Max Zaslofsky – forced a Game 7 with three straight wins.

The series ended on a close call, going down to the final possession. Rochester’s “big three” of Bob Davies, Bobby Wanzer, and Arnie Risen all played great, but the latter solidified his status as the unofficial MVP of the series. Despite being matched against one of the best playoff frontcourts in the league, Risen dropped twenty-four points and thirteen rebounds, confirming Rochester as the better of two New York teams.
The Rochester Royals win the 1951 NBA championship!


All-Team selections were not yet selected based on position yet.
Name(s) under the “All-Stars” section with an asterisk (*) were listed as the MVP of the All-Star Game that year.


All-NBA First TeamAll-NBA Second Team
George Mikan
Alex Groza
Ed Macauley
Bob Davies
Ralph Beard
Dolph Schayes
Frank Brian
Vern Mikkelsen
Joe Fulks
Dick McGuire


Eastern All-StarsWestern All-Stars
Paul Arizin
Vince Boryla
Bob Cousy
Joe Fulks
Harry Gallatin
Ed Macauley*
Dick McGuire
Andy Phillip
Red Rocha
Dolph Schayes
Ralph Beard
Frank Brian
Bob Davies
Dike Eddleman
Larry Foust
Alex Groza
George Mikan
Vern Mikkelsen
Jim Pollard
Fred Schaus
East beats West, 111-94

All-Time Championship Leaderboard

Lakers21949, 1950
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