Golden State's Ties To The Past: How Abe Saperstein Created Mordern Basketball in 1961
The Golden State Warriors have perfected modern basketball. The rules have evolved to make shooting, slashing and spacing the keys to offensive success. The days of pounding the ball into the paint and working from the inside-out are over. How did this happen?
Basketball history story time! I have a point so please stay with me.
In the 1950s the NBA was young, and professional basketball was trying hard to build its popularity. Previously, professional basketball was a barnstorming tour of teams that made their money on the road or in regional leagues, but the National Basketball Association presented the idea of a basketball league that stretched across America. It worked for baseball, football was on its way up, but basketball? Well, let’s just say that hoops didn’t draw well. Before the shot clock was introduced the game had a slower pace, the jump shot had not been popularized and the game was a lot more physical overall. Basketball simply was not fun to watch.
The Harlem Globetrotters were the exception. Here was a team that was flashy, they played the game differently and they were world famous for being the best team in the world. And they were. The 1950s was a hard time for the NBA. Some teams were on the verge of folding at any given point. When that happened, NBA commissioner Maurice Podoloff would give Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein a call and request that the Globetrotters save an NBA franchise with a basketball double header which featured the most popular basketball team in the world. The Globetrotters would play the first game and draw a large crowd, the second game would be the NBA game and people might have stuck around for that, but the show was the razzle-dazzle Harlem Globetrotters.
This agreement came at a price. Sure Saperstein made money off of these double headers and it was good for the game, but Abe wanted more. Saperstein wanted to own the first NBA franchise in the City of Angels, Los Angeles. This did not happen.
THE ABA BEFORE THE ABA
The Lakers moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960. Equipped with rookie of the year, Elgin Baylor, and fresh off drafting future NBA logo, Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers were on their way to success in Hollywood. In case you hadn’t caught on yet, Abe Saperstein did not own the first NBA franchise in Los Angeles.
Saperstein retaliated to the moving of the Lakers to Los Angeles with the ultimate “Let’s play ball then!” response that to this day is the most evil-genius and insane attempt at revenge in basketball history.
Abe Saperstein started the American Basketball League.
Okay, I’m getting to the point. I wanted to bore you with the insanity that was the ABL, but I’ll make that quick: Future New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner owned the Cleveland franchise, there was a team in Hawaii (every team had a player quit after his free trip to Hawaii), hoops legend Connie Hawkins was banned from the NBA at the time so he played in the ABL. Really, great stories. Look them up sometime.
The most important things about the ABL was Saperstein’s amazing vision that we can tie into modern basketball and why these Golden State Warriors are the modern day Harlem Globetrotters.
HOW A DEFUNCT LEAGUE SHAPED THE MODERN NBA
The ABL was modern basketball in 1961. Basketball was 70 years old since it’s invention in Springfield and Abe Saperstein was basketball’s greatest mind and promoter. Saperstein was the owner and coach of the Globetrotters, a team that over basketball’s 70 years in existence was arguably the best team in the world for about 40 years. What was their secret? Their offense ran through the high pivot.
The pivot position in basketball is typically close to the basket. Saperstein had a different idea. In order to get looks at the rim the pivot moved to the high post and his job has now changed. In the Globetrotters hayday Meadowlark Lemon was the flashy passer out of the high post creating easy buckets for his teammates who used the weave to create separation from their defenders and cut to the basket. No one in basketball today is better at being their team’s Meadowlark Lemon than Draymond Green. When Green gets the ball in the high post he is looking to make a play reading cuts on his first options.
Saperstein found that high-post offense leading to more clear lanes to the basket style of play much more entertaining and effective than the traditional and boring back to the basket low-post style of play. Two problems plagued this offense ideology: 1) Giants of the game such as George Mikan and Wilt Chamberlain truly were more effective having the offense run through them on the low-post and 2) zone defenses would shut down high-post run offenses by clogging up the paint, forcing up shots over the zone or in double coverage.
Saperstein addressed both issues with rules we use in the modern day, kinda. The main ABL rules that come into modern basketball theoretics are the 3-point line and the trapezoidal (18’ wide) lane.
Above you see a modern version of the high pivot (Draymond Green) finding the cutter (Steph Curry) with a lead pass for a lay-up at the rim. Below you see the pivot (Meadowlark Lemon) finding the cutter (Wilt Chamberlain) for a dunk.
CREATING THE SPACING
The 3-point line was considered a circus shot. Saperstein liked that. The ABL 3-point line was the same as the modern NBA 3-point line. Although people often credit the ABA for the invention of the 3-point line, it really originated in 1961 with the ABL. Luckily, the ABA kicked the tires on the idea of longer shots being worth that one more point, because today the 3-pointer has turned into the most popular shot in modern basketball. There was no reason for anyone to shoot from beyond 20 feet in the 1960s and prior, unless you wanted to sit on the bench. Keep in mind, the jump shot was still a work in progress so percentages were bad and the 3-point line was still not as effective as closer shots. The same school of thought lasted the rest of the 20th century.
Fast forward to 2017 and now the NBA is full of a generation that grew up shooting 3-pointers. Literally for the first time in it’s history the basketball talent pool has a heavy population of long range shooters at every position, making stretch fours and centers shooting 3s a legitimate thing. With players able to knock down shots from all over the floor positions 1 through 5, basketball’s floor spacing in 2017 is at an all-time high and approaching its apex. Thanks to advanced statistics we have a better idea of what shots are the best to take, and it tells us 3-pointers will just be more and more a part of the game as it evolves. Abe Saperstein would have been in love with this Golden State team.
WIDENING THE LANE
Now here is what really helps the Warriors. A combination of NBA rules that makes their Globetrotter-like offense the path for modern basketball. Instead of an 18’ wide lane at the base of a trapezoid, the NBA has evolved to new rules to make high-pivot offenses more effective: the defensive 3-second call (introduced in the 2002 season) and the 5-second back to the basket call (recently introduced, also known as the Charles Barkley rule).
The NBA had zones outlawed for years, simply because the spacing was so tight that a zone defense of clogging the paint made scoring harder and the NBA had decided that scoring was more entertaining so the rule of illegal defense was implemented. It was a bad rule that limited teams to running a man to man defense. The problem with that is that even man to man defense has aspects of “zone” defense with defenders simply reading spacing to be in position to help if needed. In 2002, the NBA replaced the dumb rule with a brilliant one: defensive three seconds in the paint. This kept defenders from clogging the lane, thus more opportunities to score and fewer tough calls for the officials to make, speeding up the flow of the game, and bringing more defensive creativity to the game.
While the NBA lane will likely never widen more than its present 12’, the league implemented the five-seconds back to the basket rule. This sped up the game and changed traditional offenses flow. The game was and still is primarily run through the low-post, but in modern basketball the talent to effectively run a low-post offense is increasingly rare. Even if the talent is there, the evolution of the game is forcing these big men to also be able to at least hit mid-range jumpers and develop some passing abilities to be the aforementioned Meadowlark Lemon.
Notice the drastic difference in spacing between the pre-3-point line, back to the basket offense above and compare it to the .gif below with a high pivot offense and 3-point line spacing. Much more room to operate which leads to better shot opportunities. In the above .gif everyone is inside what would be the 3-point line. Below you see two shooters spacing the defense. Before the 3-point line that set would have been laughable.
THE WARRIORS ARE HERE TO STAY
Thanks to the ever growing use of the 3-point line in basketball and seeing how shooting 33% from 3 would be the same as shooting 50% on 2-pointers, it is likely that more teams will try to follow the Golden State plan of attack on the offensive end. The use of a big man having the offense run through them on the low block will come down to a personnel decision, but even big men like Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins will need to expand their offensive games out to the 3-point line and learn how to hit cutters. The creation of spacing and motion is just that important and will continue to be.
While Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson are all dangerous weapons, arguably the most important player is Dryamond Green. He keeps the offense from getting stagnant, finds shooters and cutters. Green has led the Warriors in assists the past two seasons and love him or hate him, he is just as good at controlling the highly entertaining offense as Meadowlark Lemon.