Just How Bad Was the 1940s NBA?

We take for granted the high-flying, athletic, 3-pointers-from-the-logo NBA of today, where fast-paced, efficient offenses lead to a game seemingly every night where the teams combine to score 250 points, whether it’s a 126-124 “whoever has it last wins” squeaker or a 149-101 blowout.

But nearly 75 years ago, when the fledgling Basketball Association of America launched as a way to fill indoor arenas in between hockey games and before anyone could even imagine an entire nation of people going utterly stir crazy cooped up in the house with no sports to watch on TV, the quality of play was…atrocious? Unwatchable? Worse than today’s pickup games at the YMCA?

It was worse than that. It made the 2002 Eastern Conference semifinals (Game 3. Celtics 66, Pistons 64. Nuff said) look like the All-Star Game.

But, of course, there was no shot clock back then, no 3-point arc, none of the trappings of modern basketball.

At the same time, Bob Feerick led the league in field goal percentage at 40.1 in the BAA’s inaugural season in 1946-47. The top shooting percentage by a center, the guys who get their shots so close to the basket that DeAndre Jordan has made 70 percent of his shots three times in his career, was 36.9, by Ed Sadowski, who split his season between the Toronto Huskies and the Cleveland Rebels.

The next year, Feerick’s FG% dropped all the way to 34.0…and he finished second in the league behind Buddy Jeanette, a guard who was the Stephen Curry of his day hitting 34.9 percent of his shots.

For some perspective, Kobe Bryant, who was given the green light to chuck shots against all good sense on his farewell tour in 2015-16, shot 35.8 percent from the field, a shooting percentage so thoroughly awful that it wouldn’t have led the league in an era when pro basketball was short, skinny white dudes who had to have jobs in the offseason to feed their families.

Put simply, this was ugly, awful basketball.

So let’s get a time machine and try to imagine what we’d be up against if we took all these players from the Back When Times, brought them to 2020 with modern NBA field dimensions and rules, and let them play 48 minutes while retaining the skill level that was among the best in the league in 1947.

And yes, we’re going to be making a lot of assumptions here because statistical data is fuzzier than a picture from the TV screens that tuned to the first televised basketball game.

Specifically, let’s posit the following.

First, we’re going to play this game with a 24-second shot clock and assume that people not used to getting the ball up that fast would play at the relatively low end of the modern pace scale. The slowest team in the league in 2020 is the Charlotte Hornets, who play at a 95.8 pace, but all but three teams play at a pace of at least 98, so we’ll index everything to 98 possessions per side in our hypothetical game. That’s about the same pace as the Miami Heat.

League-wide, free throw rate is .258; let’s make this a nice round number and figure that players back in the old days played a much rougher, more physical game. The Heat lead the league in FTR at .298; our old-timers get a dead-even 3 free throw attempts per 10 field goal attempts, tops in 2020 but not so wildly implausible as to be a foolish assumption.

3PAR in today’s NBA is .382 league-wide. Good heavens, let’s not pretend that we’re going to turn Jumpin’ Joe Fulks into Bojan Bogdanovic in terms of how many of his shots are from long range.

But all the same, we’re not completely in the Dark Ages with this experiment. Let’s call an even third of the FGA as 3-pointers; that .333 3PAR would be 28th in the league today, ahead of the Spurs (.321), Knicks (.318), and Pacers (.311.)

As for shooting accuracy? League-wide, the average shooting percentage was 27.9; the Chicago Stags led the league at 29.8 percent.

Which…yikes.

But anyway, that Stags team didn’t appear to have that recognizable a differential between the shooting percentages of the tallest and shortest players on the court. We’re going to have to standardize these numbers somehow and give a bit of the benefit of the doubt (such as it is) to guys shooting in close.

So we’re going to distribute the shots this way.

A third of the shots will come from 3-point land.

Another 40 percent will be layups and dunks, if anyone can dunk. Could anyone dunk back then?

If Bob Feerick could hit 40 percent of his shots, we’ll assume we can get 40 percent of the shots to drop from in close. Granted, even the worst NBA player today can do better than that (minimum 100 shots, the worst shooter from 3 feet and in is Darius Garland at 46.8 percent; last year, that dishonor went to Tyreke Evans at 49 percent. These oldsters never showed signs they could even be that good.)

Outside shooters back then are a different story. Using the Basketball Reference Play Index, it seems 122 players classified as guards put up at least 200 shots in a season in the first three years the BAA existed, and the median FG% was .294.

27 percent of our overall shots will be midrange jumpers, and just for simplicity’s sake, let’s give these players an 8:7 ratio on FG% between midrange and 3-point shooting (in 2020, with generous rounding to make the math simple, players shoot about 40 percent from outside the restricted area and inside the arc; they shoot a little better than 35 percent from long range.)

Preserving that ratio, we’re saying 32 percent from midrange for the old-timers and 28 percent from 3-point land.

Which means the average 1947 BAA player is a better 3-point shooter than Charles Barkley (26.6 percent for his career), and none of them could win a 3-point contest on national television against Ernie Johnson either.

As for rebounds, there are going to be a lot of them, as there were back in the old days. Wilt Chamberlain once pulled down 55 rebounds in a game (to this day an unbreakable single-game record). Today, a player would have to pull down half of the available rebounds at both ends of the floor while playing 48 minutes and even then he may not get 55.

For our box score purposes, we’re going to assume that since so many bricks are coming in close, the offensive rebound rate is going to be on the high end of where it is in today’s league. The Knicks lead the league in offensive rebound percentage at 25.8 this year; last year, three teams exceeded that, while the year before, the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled down 27.7 percent of the offensive boards, giving us an idea of the upper limit of offensive rebounding in the modern game.

Let’s say that of every 11 missed shots, three are rebounded by the offense (27.3 percent.)

As for assist and turnover rate, nobody has the beginning of a clue how many times teams turned the ball over in the old days (turnovers weren’t kept as a stat until 1973-74).

Since turnover rate began to decline around the same time someone actually thought to count them, let’s go ahead and posit that one in six of our possessions in this game will end in a turnover. Turnover rate was 16.5 percent back in 1974; it’s 12.8 now, but turnovers are less a part of “modern basketball” and more a function of better players making better passes.

Speaking of, our assist rate will sit at about 4:3 (1.33 AST/TO). It was 5:4 in 1974, it’s more like 3:2 now. That will help us compile a box score, even though ultimately the final score of the game will hinge purely on made shots.

Oh, and free throws? Those haven’t changed in 75 years. League-wide FT% was 64.1 percent back then. It’s going to be 64.1 percent whether it’s 1947, 2020, or the 29th century that you haul these 1947 players into in a time machine.

So out of 98 possessions per team:

16 will end in a turnover.
80 or so will end in a field goal attempt.
Of those FGA, teams will go 13-of-32 from in close, 8-of-27 from 3, and 6-of-21 from the midrange
Each team will go about 24-of-37 from the line.
Of that 27-of-80 shooting night, there will be 14 offensive and 39 defensive rebounds per team.
Of the 27 shots to go in, 21 of them will be assisted. That’s over 77 percent. Hmm. Maybe that assist total is way inflated and assist rates will be lower, but we have no way of knowing what percentage of shots in the Back When Times were assisted on by the 2020 definition of an assist.

But honestly, this is a silly little thought exercise and I’m not going to sweat it.

And applying a little deviation since these are going to be averages and one team must, by its nature, do better than the other team, let’s call it a four-point margin, swing the score two points either side from this theoretical perfect average, blame the refs for the difference, and…

Your final score? 88-84 in favor of the winning team in an ugly game with a ton of fouls and some truly cover-your-eyes shooting.

Eh…still better than the NBA in 2002. But nowhere near as good as the league can be today.