NBA 101: Beginner’s Guide to How the NBA Works

History

James NaismithThe sport of basketball was born in December of 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts by Canadian physical education teacher James Naismith. Naismith was in search of a competitive team sport for his students to play that would make them less susceptible to injuries than football. Naismith’s boss wanted him to find a sport that could help the students maintain strong physical condition even in the cold winter months, so he developed the indoor sport of basketball. It was originally played with peach baskets as the hoops and a soccer ball. Needless to say, basketball has come a long way since then.

First Professional Game

The first professional basketball game took place in Trenton, New Jersey in 1896. Two years later the National Basketball League (NBL), the first-ever professional basketball league,  was founded on the East Coast. Over its 6-year span of existence, the Trenton Nationals, New York Wanderers, Bristol Pile Drivers, and Camden Electrics became NBL champions. The NBA disbanded in 1904, and other professional leagues in the Eastern Basketball League, Metropolitan Basketball League, and American Basketball League would come and go over the next several years.

Formation of the NBL

bill russell 1

In 1937, the National Basketball League (NBL) was formed (no affiliation to the 1898 NBL). As many as 38 teams would come through this league over the next decade, with notable franchises being the Minneapolis Lakers (now the LA Lakers), the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons), the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), the Buffalo Bisons/Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks), and finally the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers).

Formation of the NBA

In 1946, the Basketball Association of America was formed as a rival league to the NBL. In its first three years, the Philadelphia Warriors, Baltimore Bullets, and Minneapolis Lakers would win championships. The BAA would remain for just three seasons, as in 1949 it merged with the NBL to create the National Basketball Association (NBA). The NBA generally claims the history of the BAA as its own. At the time the leagues merged, the BAA had established much greater commercial success – it was playing in major arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden while the NBL was playing in small gymnasiums primarily in the midwest.

michael jordanWhen the NBA was first created, it was home to 17 different teams. However, over the next several years many teams were disbanded due to a lack of revenue as consistent fan interest was not established. By 1955, the NBA was whittled down to just 8 teams. However, that year the Association introduced the 24-second shot clock which increased pace of play and, with it, fan interest.

The NBA Becomes Mainstream

Over the late 1950s and 1960s, the NBA began to achieve universal recognition as Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Oscar Robertson became household names across the nation. Bill Russell, in particular, achieved early success as his Celtics won 11 championships in 13 seasons. However, basketball did not begin to resemble the modern game until the 3-point line was added for the 1979-1980 season.

Superstar talents such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and more recently LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have dominated the NBA. Basketball has always been a star-driven sport, perhaps more than any other league.

Cheat Sheet

Teams: 30

Players on Each Team (Roster): maximum 17, minimum 8 per game

Players on Court at a Time: 5 on each team

Court Dimensions: length: 94 feet, width: 50 feet, rim: 10 ft

Length of Game: 48 minutes, 12-minute quarters, 24-minute halves, 24-second shot clock

Basic Play: Team A and Team B are attempting to shoot the basketball through the hoop on either side of the court. If Team A successfully does so when they have possession, then Team B takes possession. If Team A is unsuccessful – shooting and missing or turning the ball over, then the ball is up for grabs for either Team A or Team B to take possession.

Basketball-Court-dimensions

Positions

In the NBA, there are 5 main positions – point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. In the modern league, positional versatility is incredibly valuable and most players will play major minutes at multiple positions. Here’s a basic breakdown of what each position does:

Stephen Curry

Point Guard (PG): Traditionally, the point guard is the smallest player on the court. They are responsible for running the offense, typically filling the role as the main playmaker on their team. The point guard usually brings the ball up the court after the other team scores. Historically, some great players to have played point guard include Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, Stephen Curry, and Steve Nash. Also known as the point, 1, point man, etc.

james harden

Shooting Guard (SG): The shooting guard typically plays alongside the point guard in what is known as the “backcourt”. They are often the leading scorer on the team and a high level of shooting is typically one of the most important parts of their role, as the name implies. Some teams also ask their shooting guards to bring the ball up the court – these players are known as combo guards. Some of the best shooting guards in NBA history include Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, and Allen Iverson. Also known as the off guard, 2-guard, 2, etc.

Lebron James

Small Forward (SF): It’s important for small forwards to offer a versatile skillset – they are usually shorter, leaner, and quicker than the power forward and more physical than either guard. Small forwards are responsible for a variety of roles – scoring, shooting, rebounding, passing, etc. They are also often the best defender on the roster. Some of the best small forwards in NBA history include LeBron James, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Julius Erving, and Kevin Durant. Also known as the 3.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Power Forward (PF): Power forwards are usually bigger than small forwards, but not quite as big as centers. In the past, power forwards were bigger, plodding players who filled very similar roles to centers – rebounding, defense, and interior scoring – but in the modern NBA they are required to shoot more from outside and display more range and athleticism. Some of the best power forwards in NBA history include Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Karl Malone, and Charles Barkley. Also known as the 4, stretch 4, tweener, etc.

nikola jokic

Center (C): The biggest player on an NBA roster is typically the center – they play around the rim and are relied upon to set screens and score inside on offense. On defense, they protect the rim and block shots. Centers are almost always the leading rebounder on their roster. In the modern NBA, centers have become increasingly rangy on both ends of the court. Some of the best centers in NBA history include Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Shaquille O’Neal.

Management

Each NBA team employs a head coach as well as several assistant coaches that typically contribute to specific facets of the game – offense, defense, rebounding, interior scoring, player development, etc. Some of the best coaches in NBA history include Phil Jackson, Larry Brown, Red Auerbach, Don Nelson, Jerry Sloan, etc. NBA teams also employ a diverse number of front office staff including a general manager, president of basketball operations, and others. Some of the best executives in NBA history include Don Nelson, Jerry Colangelo, Jerry West, Pat Riley, RC Buford, etc.

Gameplay

Each NBA team starts with 5 players in the game – typically one of each of the following: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. The game begins with a tip-off between the two biggest players on the floor, usually the centers, where the referee throws the ball in the middle of the two players. A player wins the tip-off by tipping the ball back to a teammate and gaining possession to start the game. When a team has possession, they have 24 seconds to score a basket or at least hit the rim (this is known as the shot clock).

If the offensive team shoots within 24 seconds, fails to score, and rebounds the ensuing miss (an offensive rebound), they will have an additional 24 seconds to score the basketball. After a made basket, the opposing team will gain possession and have the opportunity to dribble the ball the other way for their own offensive possession. The game lasts 48 minutes, split into four 12-minute quarters, and the winning team is the one that has more points at the end of the contest.

If an offensive player attempts a shot and is fouled by the opposing player, he still has the opportunity to finish the shot attempt – as long as he doesn’t continue to dribble. While this discrepancy is sometimes subjective, it’s known as continuation and it’s integral part of the way the game is officiated. If an offensive player finishes his shot attempt and scores the basket through the opposing contact, he will have an opportunity to tack on additional point at the free-throw line.

Scoring Breakdown

1 point: An NBA player can earn 1 point for his team by making a free throw. Free throws can be awarded for fouls while the player is in the act of shooting, other personal fouls if his team is in the bonus, or technical fouls depending on the severity of the foul.

2 points: An NBA player will earn 2 points for any shot made from inside the 3-point line. If a player is fouled while in the act of shooting a 2-point shot, they will be awarded two free throw shots.

3 points: An NBA player will earn 3 points for any shot made from outside the 3-point line. The 3-point line is 23.75 inches away from the basket at its longest point and 22 inches away from the basket in either corner of the court.

Penalties

Fouling Out: Each NBA player is allotted 6 personal fouls over the course of a full game. If a player exceeds this number of fouls, they will be forced to remove themselves from the court for the rest of the game.

Team Fouls: In each quarter, an NBA team is allotted four personal fouls with the only penalty being the possession of the ball for the team being fouled. Once the team gets past those four personal fouls, the opposing team will be rewarded two free throws for each subsequent foul.

Personal Fouls: These are fouls that prohibit players from making contact on opposing players which results in “the re-routing of an opponent”. The NBA rulebook has all kinds of detailed examples for what constitutes a personal foul, but the basic premise to know is it occurs when a player makes illegal contact on an opponent.

Technical Fouls: These fouls are not a result of personal contact, instead, technical fouls have to do with a team not following the rules of the game which have been set out. Examples include excessive timeouts, delay of game, number of players on the court, unsportsmanlike conduct, etc.

Flagrant Fouls: There are two levels of flagrant fouls. A flagrant foul 1 is committed when contact against a player, with or without the ball, is deemed to be unnecessary, and a flagrant foul 2 is committed when contact against a player, with or without the ball, is deemed to be unnecessary AND excessive.

Shot Clock Violation: If a team with possession of the ball on offense fails to create a shot that hits the rim or goes through the basket within 24 seconds, the opposing team will be awarded possession. If the offensive team hits the rim, rebounds the ball, and fails to create another shot that hits the rim or goes through the basket within the ensuing 14 seconds, the opposing team will be awarded possession.

Excessive Timeouts: Each NBA team is permitted up to six timeouts during regulation play. If they attempt to utilize more than six timeouts, it is charged as a technical foul.

Delay of Game: This is an example of a technical foul and is called for interfering with the ball in any way, crossing the boundary line on a free throw before the ball is released, or preventing play from commencing in any way.

Charging: In basic terms, the official will call a foul for charging if the offensive player creates unnecessary contact against the defender when their feet are already set.

Blocking: This can look very similar to charging as it is called for unnecessary contact between players, but the key difference is it will be called on the defensive player if their feet were not properly set.

Traveling: There is some nuance to calling an offensive player for traveling, but the basic premise is if the ball-handler illegally shifts one or both of their feet then the official will call for traveling. If a player takes more than three steps on a layup attempt, the official will call for traveling.

Carrying/Palming: If the offensive player continues to dribble after letting the ball come to rest in one or both of his hands, he will be called for carrying, or palming as it is known colloquially.

Double Dribble: If a player ends their dribble by catching or resting the ball in one or both hands and then dribbles it again, the official will call for a double dribble. If the player touches the ball twice before it hits the ground, the official will call for a double dribble.

Held Ball: When two opponents have one or both hands firmly on the basketball, the official will likely call a held ball. The result is a jump ball between the two players – one team maintains possession after the jump ball.

Goaltending: When the basketball is on its way down from the apex of its arc following a shot by an offensive player, a defensive player is not allowed to interfere with the trajectory of the ball. If they do, the official will call goaltending and the offensive player will still be awarded points.

Backcourt Violation: If the offensive team brings the basketball up the court and past the midcourt line, they are not allowed to bring the ball back across the midcourt line. If they do, the other team will be awarded possession – this is known as a backcourt violation.

Glossary

2-for-1: When the offensive team has possession of the ball at the end of the quarter, they might attempt to hurry up their shot attempt to ensure they will regain possession again before time runs out in the quarter. This is especially prevalent in the end of the 4th quarter when teams are attempting to finish off a close game.

3-and-D: An NBA player that specializes in 3-point shooting and defense is known as a 3-and-D player. Role-players will generally be given this label, not star players.

3 Seconds Rule: This rule dictates that a player should not be allowed to stay in the opponent’s restricted area for more than three seconds while the opposing team has possession. This is designed to open up the middle of the court and allow offensive players to drive to the rim.

Airball: A shot that results in no contact with any part of the backboard or rim is known as an airball. If a player on the away team shoots an airball, he is typically met with an embarrassing series of “Air Ball! Air Ball!” chides from the opposing team’s home fans.

Alley Oop: This is a special type of pass where the ball-handler tosses the ball up near the rim for their teammate to catch and score, typically with a slam dunk.

And-One: When an offensive player scores a basket while being fouled, they will have an opportunity to tack on one more point to the possession with a free throw. This is known as an and-one opportunity.

Assist: An offensive player is credited with an assist if their pass directly leads to a made basket by one of their teammates. The point guard is typically the player who ends up with the most assists at the end of the game. Other names for assists – dime, dish, etc.

Ball Hog: An offensive player who dominates possession of the ball and looks to score for themselves rather than passing to teammates is a ball hog. This type of behavior can draw ire from teammates. See: Carmelo Anthony.

Backboard: The flat, vertical, rectangular board behind the rim of the basket is called the backboard. Regulation backboards are 6 feet wide and 3.5 feet tall and usually made out of plexiglass or temper glass. After a series of broken backboards delayed NBA games, the league decided to add a breakaway rim to the backboard. See: Shaquille O’Neal.

Backcourt: The half of the court that the particular team is playing defense on is known as the backcourt. The backcourt can also describe the point guard and shooting guard as contrasted to the frontcourt which describes the forwards and center.

Bank Shot: A shot that hits the backboard on its way through the basket.

Baseline: The line that marks the boundary of play on either side of the court – if a player dribbles over this line, it counts as a turnover with possession going to the opposing team.

Bench: The area where the substitute players sit, in colloquial terms the bench just refers to the group of substitute players on a roster.

Block: When a defensive player swats away an oncoming shot and prevents it from going into the basket it is known as a block – if the ball is on its way down from the apex it is called goaltending (see above).

Box Out: This refers to the positioning of an offensive/defensive player to enable them to secure a rebound – it includes widening their stance and using their arms/body as a barrier to the other player.

Bonus: This occurs when an NBA team exceeds their allotted number of fouls (4 personal fouls) in a quarter and leads to automatic free throws for each ensuing foul on the opposing team.

Bounce Pass: This refers to a pass that hits (bounces) off the court once before reaching the receiver of the pass.

Brick: A shot that hits off the rim and does not fall through the basket can be referred to as a bricked shot.

Buzzer Beater: A basket that is scored as time expires in the quarter, half, or game is called a buzzer-beater because there is a loud buzzer noise that signifies the end of the period of time.

Chest Pass: When a player passes the ball forcefully from his chest to another player’s chest.

Chucker: When a basketball player takes frequent and inopportune shots at the behest of teammates he is known as a chucker; popularized by Seinfeld.

Dagger: When an offensive player makes a shit late in the contest which effectively puts the other team away, you will often hear announcers call it a dagger.

Dime: High-level assists are often called “dimes” – “dime-dropping delights is what I’d call it!”

Did Not Participate – Coaches Decision (DNP-CD): This shows up on the box score when a player does not play any minutes, not because of health issues but because the coach decided not to play them.

Double-Double: This refers to when a player has accumulated double-digit numbers in two different statistical categories – commonly 10+ points and 10+ rebounds or 10+ points and 10+ assists.

Euro Step: When an offensive player picks up their dribble, takes a step to one side and quickly takes another step to the other side before shooting their layup.

Fadeaway: When an offensive player takes a jump shot while facing the basket but falling or fading away from the rim – this makes the shot much harder to block by creating space between them and the defender; see: Dirk Nowitzki.

Fast Break: When the offensive team attempts to advance the ball to the frontcourt as quickly as possible, typically after a turnover, it gives them a much better chance to score as the defenders are unable to get set. This is also known as transition offense.

Field Goal: Any shot attempt from the field which is not a free throw is known as a field goal.

Finger Roll: This is a special type of layup that involves the offensive player rolling the ball off his fingertips with a high arc to make it more difficult to block. Floaters are very similar shots and both are typically utilized by smaller guards to help them score against big men.

Flop: When a player insinuates contact and exaggerates the impact of the contact to the effect of forcing the referees to call a foul.

Granny Shot: When an offensive player shoots the ball with underhand form, particularly on free throws; see: Rick Barry.

Half-Court Offense: In contrast to transition offense, when an offensive team attempts to score against a defensive team that has established position.

Hang Time: The amount of time an offensive player spends in the air after elevating for a layup or dunk.

Heating Up: When an offensive player starts to make a series of baskets in a row, the announcers will often say he is heating up; see: NBA Jam.

Isolation: When an offensive player takes the liberty of attempting to score in a one-on-one setting without passing to teammates, they are working in isolation.

Jump Shot: When an offensive player takes a shot while jumping in mid-air.

Jump Ball: This is what starts each game – one player lines up from either team to compete for the jump ball or tipoff. The winner gets possession to start the 1st and 3rd quarters while the loser gets possession for the 2nd and 4th quarters.

Key: The area of the basketball court which is the restricted area and the free-throw lane. Also known as paint.

Mid-Range: The area of the court between the restricted area and the 3-point line.

One-And-Done: When a basketball player spends one year playing in the NCAA and then goes to the NBA, as soon as they are eligible. The best prospects will generally do this. See: Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, etc.

Pass: To throw the ball to a teammate.

Player Efficiency Rating (PER): This is an advanced metric that consolidates all basic NBA statistics and measures how efficient each player is overall.

Pick/Screen: To set a pick/screen is to prevent an opponent from guarding a teammate by getting in the way of their path to the ball.

Pick/Screen and Roll: An offensive play during which a player sets a pick/screen for a teammate who is handling the ball and then slips past the defender to accept the pass (this is the roll).

Pivot: When the ball-handler has the ball they have one pivot foot which must remain on the floor to avoid traveling – the other foot can reposition.

Point Forward: A small forward/power forward who has the size to play in the frontcourt but the ball-handling/passing skillset to run the offense. See: LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Kevin Garnett, Grant Hill, Scottie Pippen, etc.

Post Up: When a player positions themselves inside the painted area and turns away from the basket to accept the pass from a teammate.

Pump Fake: A faked shot attempt from an offensive player.

Putback Dunk: When an offensive player grabs the rebound and dunks it back through the basket.

Quadruple-Double: When a player accumulates double-digit numbers in four different statistical categories (ex: 10+ points, 10+ rebounds, 10+ assists, and 10+ steals).

Rebound: The act of corralling the loose basketball following a missed shot attempt.

Role Players: Compared to star players on the roster, role players typically excel at one or two things and fill a specific role for their team; see Trevor Ariza, Danny Green, Tristan Thompson, etc.

Shot Clock: The timer which counts down on each offensive possession, the offensive team must have attempted a shot by the time the shot clock runs out; this is intended to increase the pace of play.

Sixth Man: The leading scorer of a team’s bench is typically referred to as the team’s sixth man; see: Lou Williams.

Slasher: A player who excels at getting to the rim and converting layups.

Stretch Four/Five: A player who positions at the power forward or center spot and specializes in shooting 3-pointers.

Star Players: As compared to role players, star players are the faces of the franchise, the most highly billed players on the team; see: Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Steph Curry, etc.

Swish: When a ball sinks through the basket without making any contact with the rim or backboard it makes a swish sound, also called splash or nothing-but-net.

Switch: When a player changes who he is guarding, his defensive assignment, in the middle of the opposing team’s offensive possession.

Triple-Double: When a player accumulates double-digit numbers in three different statistical categories (most commonly 10+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 10+ assists).

 

NBA FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

Who owns the NBA?

There is no one owner of the NBA. Instead, it is a coalition of different business entities – 30 teams that are each owned by a different individual or group. Some well-known NBA owners are Mark Cuban (Mavericks), Michael Jordan (Hornets), Dan Gilbert (Cavaliers), Joe Lacob (Warriors), and Steve Ballmer (Clippers).

What team has the most wins in NBA history?

The Boston Celtics, one of the NBA’s oldest franchises, have the most wins all-time with 3,378. The Los Angeles Lakers (3,333), Philadelphia 76ers (2,857), and New York Knicks (2,778), and Golden State Warriors (2,772) round out the top five. The Boston Celtics also have the most NBA championships won of all time with 17. The Los Angeles Lakers have the second-most with 16, but they have had 31 appearances compared to the Celtics’ 21. The Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls come in after those two teams with 6 championships each.

Can NBA players and coaches be traded?

NBA players can be traded from team to team, and often are, with a trade deadline taking place in early February every year to maintain integrity for the playoffs. NBA coaches can be traded for players or draft picks, but it is a far less common occurrence. One notable head coach trade took place in 2013 as the Celtics moved longtime coach and championship winner Doc Rivers to the LA Clippers.

Is the NBA more profitable than the NFL?

In the 2018-19 season, the NBA grossed just under $9 billion across its 30 teams while the NFL grossed $15 billion across its 32 teams, despite playing much fewer games.

What is the minimum salary in the NBA?

The minimum salary in the NBA is dependent on how much experience any given player has in the league. The following was the minimum in the 2019-20 season for each number of years played in the NBA: rookie – $898,310; 1 year – $1,445,697; 2 years – $1,620,564; 3 years – $1,678,854; 4 years – $1,737,145; 5 years – $1,882,867; 6 years – $2,028,594; 7 years – $2,174,318; 8 years – $2,320,044; 9 years – $2,331,593; 10 years – $2,564,753.

What is the average salary in the NBA?

The median salary for an NBA player is $2.5 million compared to $31,000 for the average American citizen. The average NBA salary in the 2019-20 season was $7.7 million. Historically, this type of money was unheard of for an NBA player, but the salary has shot up in recent years with an influx of TV money.

Do NBA or NFL players make more money?

The average NBA salary for the 2019-20 season was $7.7 million while the average NFL salary for the 2019-20 season was $2 million. However, this is slightly misleading. The NFL has two more teams and 45+ more players per team, so the gross income is greater. Additionally, the NBA plays many more games per season than the NFL, so an average player’s per-game salary is greater in the NFL.

How does NBA free agency work?

The NBA has its free agency period starting in June during which players whose contracts have run out with their former teams are free to sign with whomever they choose – this is called unrestricted free agency. There can be restricted free agents, as well, whose prior teams have the right to match any offer made to them in the open market and keep them on the roster for the future. NBA teams must stay within a certain range, below the salary cap but above a minimum, for contracts. This amount fluctuates every year depending on earnings by team owners.

  
What's up, I'm Jacob. I grew up watching Peyton Manning play and stuck with the Broncos after he retired. I'm also probably the only Clippers fan you'll ever meet. I'm from Southern California but I'm a junior at the University of Michigan studying sport management. Beyond my passion for sports I play guitar, grill a mean rib eye, and enjoy gambling on pretty much everything.

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