Published September 15, 2022
The NBA Time Machine:
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.
Note that the Washington Capitols folded during the middle of the season.
- 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.
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
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)
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.