The National Basketball Association has endured a long, tumultuous, and fascinating history to arrive at where the league stands today. Through the decades, the league has gone through numerous different eras, with different franchises dominating large swathes of time and creating legendary players along the way.
We’ve seen the league grow from airing tape-delayed finals games to being launched to the height of popularity thanks to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s rivalry that began in college.
In the ‘90s, basketball hit the next level, fueled by Michael Jordan’s excellence. During his prime, many of the top performances in NBA basketball history were created, and the league was stacked with talent. During that same decade, the association expanded into Canada and showed what their best players could do by sending the Dream Team to Barcelona in 1992.
In the post-MJ world, the NBA was desperate for a new face of the league. In his void emerged athletes like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, and more.
This article is going to highlight the most significant moments in NBA history, starting from the beginning, in 1946. After a brief overview of all the most important events, we’ll cover the various eras that have taken place throughout league history and examine the organizations and players who have owned them. The sport has come an astronomically long way since its earliest days and continues to evolve and change and make new history on a year-to-year basis.
1946 – The Basketball Association of America
What would eventually become the NBA was founded in 1946 by a group of ice hockey rink owners in the US and Canada. The upstart league began with 11 teams before dropping to 7 and then settling at 12 in 1948-49. The first game in history was held on November 1, 1946, in Toronto, and was played between the New York Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskies.
1949 – Merger and “NBA”
In 1949, four of the National Basketball League’s teams joined the Basketball Association of America. After the season, another six teams from the NBL merged with the BAA, bringing the total number of clubs in the new league to 16. This new combined entity was renamed the National Basketball Association.
1950 – Lloyd, Cooper, and Clifton Break the Color Barrier
Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton all broke the NBA’s color barrier in unique ways. Cooper was the first black player drafted by an NBA team. Lloyd was the first African-American to play in an NBA game. Clifton was the first to sign a contract. By making history in 1950, these men paved the way for the league, which is now mostly African-American.
1955 – Struggling to Stay Afloat
By 1955, the NBA was struggling financially and back down to only eight franchises after the other half folded. Fred Zollner, the owner of the Fort Wayne Pistons, kept the league afloat during this difficult time. Eight teams would remain the size of the association for the next six years.
1957 – Bill Russell Enters the League
The Boston Celtics drafted Bill Russell in 1957, one of the best decisions they ever made. Coached by Red Auerbach, the Russell-led Celtics created an instant dynasty, winning eleven titles in only thirteen years.
1962 – Wilt’s 100-Point Game
While his rival Bill Russell was collecting championship rings, Wilt was racking up the individual statistics and accomplishments. In 1962, as a member of the Philadelphia Warriors, Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game, a single-game scoring record that still stands to this day. The Warriors beat the Knicks 169-147 in an absurdly high-scoring contest.
1966 – The First Expansion Team
In 1966, the Chicago Bulls became the NBA’s first expansion team. While the Chicago Packers (who eventually became the modern-day Washington Wizards) technically joined the league first, the Bulls took part in an expansion draft, giving them the distinction of “first expansion franchise.”
1966 – 1968 – Rapid Expansion
From 1966 through 1968, five teams joined the nine-team league. Besides the Chicago Bulls, the San Diego Rockets (now Houston), Seattle SuperSonics (Oklahoma City Thunder), Phoenix Suns, and Milwaukee Bucks were all added. All of these franchises continue to exist in some form to this day.
1967 – The ABA Is Born
A rival league called the American Basketball Association was established in 1967 and became an immediate threat to the NBA. The new association featured players like “Dr. J” Julius Erving and Rick Barry, who jumped ship from the older organization. The ABA was known for a more exciting, flashier style of play.
1969 – The Logo; Bill Russell Retires
In 1969, the current NBA logo was designed, inspired by a legendary photograph of Hall-of-Fame player Jerry West. This was also the year that Bill Russell retired from the Celtics after winning one last title as a player-coach. He would finish with eleven rings in only thirteen seasons, an unprecedented run of success that made him the game’s greatest champion.
1970 – Willis Reed’s Heroic Return
One of NBA basketball’s highlight moments took place at Madison Square Garden in 1970. The New York Knicks were facing the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7, but their captain, Willis Reed, was suffering from a severely injured leg. Neither the fans nor his teammates knew if Reed was playing until he hobbled onto the court for the opening tip. He scored the first two buckets, which were enough to inspire his team to finish the job, earning the Knicks their first NBA title.
1972 – Lakers’ Record-Breaking Win Streak
On January 7, 1972, the Los Angeles Lakers set a record that still stands today. Led by Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain, LA won thirty-three games in a row. They would eventually also go on to win the championship, the first since relocating to Los Angeles. Teams have come close to matching this streak, but none have reached thirty-three since.
1976 – The Merger
By 1976, the NBA had already grown to 18 franchises. Following that year’s season, the NBA and ABA came to an agreement to merge, and four American Basketball Association teams joined the league, bringing the total number of rosters to 22. The teams were the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, and New York (now Brooklyn) Nets, all of which still exist today.
1979 – The Three-Pointer
With declining ratings and a cocaine epidemic threatening to destroy the league, the NBA decided to make the game more exciting and open up the floor. They did this by creating the three-point line, an idea they adopted from the ABA.
1979 – Bird and Magic
Also in 1979, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were drafted into the association after their storied college rivalry. With Magic joining the Lakers and Bird being acquired by Boston, they continued right where they left off. Both players starred on legendary teams and competed against each other regularly, including in the finals.
The intense professional rivalry renewed public interest in the sport and brought the NBA into the modern era of the game.
1984 – David Stern and a Legendary Draft Class
David Stern began his reign as commissioner in 1984. While sometimes controversial, Stern is credited with growing the league and broadening its appeal overseas. This is also the same year that a legendary draft class entered the NBA. In 1984, Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, and Sam Perkins were all taken.
1986 – MJ’s Playoff Scoring Record
When a young Michael Jordan’s Bulls met the 1986 Boston Celtics in the NBA Playoffs, the budding superstar left quite the impression on Larry Bird. After only playing 18 regular-season games due to a foot injury, Jordan went into the Boston Garden and put up 63 points.
After the game, Bird would describe the record-breaking performance by saying that was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” The playoff single-game scoring record still stands.
1988-89 – Four More Teams
With the league now becoming a fan favorite, more cities were clamoring for their own NBA franchise. The commissioner brought on four new expansion franchises between 1988 and 1989, bringing the league total to 27 teams. The new organizations were the Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat, Charlotte Hornets, and Orlando Magic.
1991 – Magic Johnson’s Retirement Announcement
Magic Johnson stunned and devastated the world in 1991 when he announced that he was HIV-positive, forcing the all-time great into an early retirement. At that time, there still wasn’t much known about the disease, and most fans feared this would be the end of one of the biggest fan favorites in the history of the game. Fortunately, it was not the last we saw of Magic Johnson.
1992 – The Dream Team
After some disappointing performances in the summer Olympics, it was decided that NBA players would be allowed to compete in the event. The United States assembled the most exceptional basketball roster ever made and called them the Dream Team. The team included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Chris Mullin, Charles Barkley, and Christian Laettner. The team decimated all of the competition on their way to the gold medal.
1993 – Jordan’s First Retirement
After winning three consecutive NBA titles, Michael Jordan abruptly announced his retirement from the league in 1993. His stated purpose was to go try his hand at Major League Baseball, but the decision has always been a mystery to sports fans. Most believe it was a secret suspension given to Jordan for gambling on basketball games.
1995 – Expansion to Canada
The National Basketball Association continued to grow in 1995, this time granting two expansion teams to cities in Canada. The two clubs were the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. While the Raptors are still in Toronto today, the Grizzlies failed in Vancouver and were moved to Memphis in 2001.
1995 – Michael Jordan Returns
After a brief one-and-a-half-year hiatus playing baseball for the Chicago White Sox’s minor league team, Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls. Wearing the number 45, Jordan didn’t immediately revert to his previous unstoppable form. However, after only being back for five games, he blasted the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, putting up 55 points, just like the old days.
1996 – Another Remarkable Draft Class
Every decade or so, a special draft class emerges that completely shapes the next several years of the NBA. The 1996 draft was one of those groups. The first pick was Allen Iverson, who was then followed by players such as Marcus Camby, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Stephon Marbury, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Kobe Bryant, Peja Stojakovic, Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Žydrūnas Ilgauskas, and Derek Fisher.
1996 – The WNBA
1996 was also the year that David Stern launched the WNBA, a professional basketball league for women. The new association began with eight charter franchises: the Charlotte Sting, Cleveland Rockers, Houston Comets, New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury, Sacramento Monarchs, and Utah Starzz.
1998-99 – The Lockout
The 1998-99 season was severely shortened after the owners initiated a lockout. It lasted for 191 days and resulted in the cancellation of the All-Star game, and only a 50-game season. The San Antonio Spurs won their first title that season, becoming the first former-ABA club to do so.
2001 – MJ Is a Wizard
After completing his second three-peat for his sixth NBA title in 1998, Michael Jordan allegedly retired for good this time. The retirement barely lasted longer than his baseball hiatus, and less than two years later, he returned to play for the Washington Wizards, the team for which he’d been working as the President of Basketball Operations for the previous year and a half. An injury cut his season short to only 60 games, and while he wasn’t the MJ from his prime years, he still averaged 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game.
2003 – LeBron and Company Enter the League
After a year of showing his high school games on ESPN and eagerly awaiting the arrival of the next “King” of the NBA, LeBron James was finally draft-eligible in 2003. Along with him was another once-in-a-decade draft class. Besides King James, the 2003 class included Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, David West, Boris Diaw, Chris Kaman, Josh Howard, Mo Williams, and Kyle Korver. This draft class is responsible for numerous championships and MVP awards.
2006 – Kobe’s 81
On January 22, 2006, the Los Angeles Lakers were playing against the Toronto Raptors in what was supposed to be a typical regular-season matchup. That was until Kobe Bryant caught absolute fire and began draining every shot he took. Since Wilt’s 100-point game in 1962, the 70-point threshold had only been passed six times, with only two of those feats coming post-1963. That’s what made the 81 points Bryant scored that night so remarkable. It was the most impressive scoring output in modern NBA history.
2009-10 – Phil Jackson’s 10th and 11th
Red Auerbach’s record for most championships as a coach stood for 43 years, but finally, someone came along that could beat it. Blessed with inheriting the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls and the Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal Lakers for the bulk of his wins, Phil Jackson was the man in charge of some of the most talented teams the league has ever seen.
In 2009, he tied the record when the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic thanks to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Then, in 2010, he became the only coach with eleven rings by toppling lifelong Lakers rivals the Boston Celtics in a tight seven-game series. The last two wins were particularly impressive, as they were probably the least talented of his eleven championship teams.
2010 – The Decision
After suffering a string of disappointing playoff exits, the NBA media and fandom began wondering aloud if LeBron would ever win a ring. Some even went so far as to call him a choker. After one last infuriating exit, James entered free agency in the offseason. For weeks, all anybody could do was speculate as to where the several all-star-caliber free agents would land.
LeBron’s announcement was scheduled as an ESPN special called “The Decision.” In front of a crowd of Boys and Girls Club children, the prodigious player announced that he’d be “taking his talents to South Beach,” stabbing all Cleveland fans in the heart and damaging his public image. In Miami, he’d team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and become the NBA’s villains for a few seasons. The Decision presentation was widely seen as a misstep, a fact that James eventually admitted to himself.
2011 – Another Lockout
Following the thrilling 2011 Finals, in which the Dallas Mavericks absolutely stunned everyone by beating the revamped Miami Heat, the owners once again announced a lockout. The negotiations still resulted in a shortened season; this time, the regular season was reduced to 66 games. When the league finally re-emerged, the Heat lived up to their potential and earned King James the first title of his career.
2014 – David Stern Retired
It was the end of an era when David Stern finally retired in 2014, about four years too late. Stern was an integral part of the NBA’s success, particularly in the ‘80s and ‘90s when he both increased the size of the league and grew the sport exponentially internationally.
His last few years at the helm were mired in controversies such as the Tim Donaghy scandal, the Seattle SuperSonics relocation, and the mishandling of the New Orleans Hornets. He was replaced by longtime mentoree Adam Silver.
2015 – LeBron Returns Home, and the Warriors Emerge
After leaving his hometown team for Miami, devastating the fan base to the point where they were lighting his jerseys on fire, LeBron was a free agent once again. There was complete radio silence; nobody had any inkling of where he might land this time.
Then an essay was published that spread like wildfire on the internet. LeBron decided to return home with his two rings in hand and lead the Cleveland Cavaliers once again. His only goal was to win a championship for the city, a goal he eventually accomplished in 2016.
Eras of Dominance
NBA history can be broken up into eras in which a team, or maybe two, is able to find sustained success over the course of several years. This happened more frequently in the early years of the league when talent-rich teams like the Lakers and Celtics dominated entire decades.
In the modern league, they strive for more parity, but teams like the Spurs and the Warriors still find a way to stay at the top of the standings year in and year out. These are some of the more significant eras in league history.
1948 – 1954 – Minneapolis Lakers’ Era
The earliest dynasty in NBA history actually began in the NBL and took place between 1948 and 1954. After their establishment in 1947, Minneapolis built a solid roster around Jim Pollard, Herm Schaefer, and their center, George Mikan. They won the NBL title in their inaugural season before leaving for the BAA, the precursor to the NBA. In the BAA, Mikan led the Lakers to titles in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, and 1954.
1957 – 1969 – Boston Celtics’ Era
The next great era was owned by the Boston Celtics. After drafting Bill Russell in the 1956 draft, the Celtics began winning at a rate never seen before or since. Under the leadership of their Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach, the Russell-led Boston squads won eleven titles in only thirteen years.
When Auerbach retired in 1966, Bill Russell took over as player-coach and continued collecting championships with the team. This was the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen.
1980s – The Lakers and Celtics Rivalry
Once again, the two most storied franchises in NBA history were the focal point of an era, this time in the 1980s. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson went from competing in college to playing for rival franchises in the league, with each man playing on phenomenally loaded teams.
Magic’s Showtime Lakers took home five titles, while Bird’s Celtics won three of their own. Boston’s 1986 team is widely regarded as the best NBA team of all time. These two teams won 8 of the 10 possible titles of this decade and made the league popular again.
1990s – Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls
The NBA in the ‘90s was all about the Chicago Bulls. After some early-career playoff struggles, Michael Jordan finally got the right coach and the help he needed. Both Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen showed up just at the right time to get things started.
The Bulls immediately won three titles between 1991 and 1993. Then, while Jordan briefly retired, the Houston Rockets won back-to-back titles in ‘94 and ‘95. When MJ eventually came back, Chicago got right back to business. Once again, they won three consecutive championships and won 72 regular-season games in 1996 to boot.
2000s – The Lakers and Spurs
After Michael Jordan retired again, Phil Jackson made his way to the LA Lakers, just in time to coach a young Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers, led by an unstoppable Shaq in his prime, won three straight titles themselves before egos broke them apart.
The LA three-peat was bookended by Spurs titles, with wins in 1999 and 2003. The two teams battled in the playoffs nearly every year, with the Spurs taking home additional rings in 2005 and 2007, while the Lakers took 2009 and 2010.
2010s – Lebron and the Warriors
The 2010s have been all about LeBron’s teams in the Eastern Conference and the creation of the Golden State Warriors juggernaut. Once Steve Kerr took over the Warriors in 2014, they became a nearly perfect basketball machine. Led by Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, Golden State plays a beautiful version of the game, making numerous passes before finding an open shot.
On the other side of the country, LeBron has had a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference for years. Every season, his teams represent the East in the Finals, whether that happens in Cleveland or Miami. The King’s first season back with the Cavs saw his injury-riddled team defeated by the Warriors despite an inspiring performance from James. The next year, he bounced back, upsetting a Warriors team that won a record 73 regular-season games.
After a fluky salary cap jump allowed Golden State to add Kevin Durant to their already-loaded team, things got unfair. The two squads found themselves in the finals once again, but this time, the Warriors won with relative ease.
They are expected to continue meeting in the finals for the foreseeable future, so this era is definitely all about LeBron and his personal rivalry versus the almost unfair Golden State roster.
A History of the NBA’s Champions and MVPs
|Year||NBA Champions||Finals MVP||Regular-Season MVP|
|1956||Philadelphia Warriors||N/A||Bob Pettit|
|1957||Boston Celtics||N/A||Bob Cousy|
|1958||St. Louis Hawks||N/A||Bill Russell|
|1959||Boston Celtics||N/A||Bob Pettit|
|1960||Boston Celtics||N/A||Wilt Chamberlain|
|1961||Boston Celtics||N/A||Bill Russell|
|1962||Boston Celtics||N/A||Bill Russell|
|1963||Boston Celtics||N/A||Bill Russell|
|1964||Boston Celtics||N/A||Oscar Robertson|
|1965||Boston Celtics||N/A||Bill Russell|
|1966||Boston Celtics||N/A||Wilt Chamberlain|
|1967||Philadelphia 76ers||N/A||Wilt Chamberlain|
|1968||Boston Celtics||N/A||Wilt Chamberlain|
|1969||Boston Celtics||Jerry West||Wes Unseld|
|1970||New York Knicks||Willis Reed||Willis Reed|
|1971||Milwaukee Bucks||Lew Alcindor||Lew Alcindor|
|1972||Los Angeles Lakers||Wilt Chamberlain||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|1973||New York Knicks||Willis Reed||Dave Cowens|
|1974||Boston Celtics||John Havlicek||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|1975||Golden State Warriors||Rick Barry||Bob McAdoo|
|1976||Boston Celtics||Jo Jo White||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|1977||Portland Trail Blazers||Bill Walton||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|1978||Washington Bullets||Wes Unseld||Bill Walton|
|1979||Seattle SuperSonics||Dennis Johnson||Moses Malone|
|1980||Los Angeles Lakers||Magic Johnson||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar|
|1981||Boston Celtics||Cedric Maxwell||Julius Erving|
|1982||Los Angeles Lakers||Magic Johnson||Moses Malone|
|1983||Philadelphia 76ers||Moses Malone||Moses Malone|
|1984||Boston Celtics||Larry Bird||Larry Bird|
|1985||Los Angeles Lakers||Kareem Abdul-Jabbar||Larry Bird|
|1986||Boston Celtics||Larry Bird||Larry Bird|
|1987||Los Angeles Lakers||Magic Johnson||Magic Johnson|
|1988||Los Angeles Lakers||James Worthy||Michael Jordan|
|1989||Detroit Pistons||Joe Dumars||Magic Johnson|
|1990||Detroit Pistons||Isiah Thomas||Magic Johnson|
|1991||Chicago Bulls||Michael Jordan||Michael Jordan|
|1992||Chicago Bulls||Michael Jordan||Michael Jordan|
|1993||Chicago Bulls||Michael Jordan||Charles Barkley|
|1994||Houston Rockets||Hakeem Olajuwon||Hakeem Olajuwon|
|1995||Houston Rockets||Hakeem Olajuwon||David Robinson|
|1996||Chicago Bulls||Michael Jordan||Michael Jordan|
|1997||Chicago Bulls||Michael Jordan||Karl Malone|
|1998||Chicago Bulls||Michael Jordan||Michael Jordan|
|1999||San Antonio Spurs||Tim Duncan||Karl Malone|
|2000||Los Angeles Lakers||Shaquille O’Neal||Shaquille O’Neal|
|2001||Los Angeles Lakers||Shaquille O’Neal||Allen Iverson|
|2002||Los Angeles Lakers||Shaquille O’Neal||Tim Duncan|
|2003||San Antonio Spurs||Tim Duncan||Tim Duncan|
|2004||Detroit Pistons||Chauncey Billups||Kevin Garnett|
|2005||San Antonio Spurs||Tim Duncan||Steve Nash|
|2006||Miami Heat||Dwyane Wade||Steve Nash|
|2007||San Antonio Spurs||Tony Parker||Dirk Nowitzki|
|2008||Boston Celtics||Paul Pierce||Kobe Bryant|
|2009||Los Angeles Lakers||Kobe Bryant||LeBron James|
|2010||Los Angeles Lakers||Kobe Bryant||LeBron James|
|2011||Dallas Mavericks||Dirk Nowitzki||Derrick Rose|
|2012||Miami Heat||LeBron James||LeBron James|
|2013||Miami Heat||LeBron James||LeBron James|
|2014||San Antonio Spurs||Kawhi Leonard||Kevin Durant|
|2015||Golden State Warriors||Andre Iguodala||Stephen Curry|
|2016||Cleveland Cavaliers||LeBron James||Stephen Curry|
|2017||Golden State Warriors||Kevin Durant||Russell Westbrook|
The NBA has come a long way since being founded in 1947. The league weathered the storm in those early years, surviving financial troubles and competing leagues to eventually become the premier basketball association in the world.
For most of the league’s history, the same teams have remained at the top of the standings. Franchises like the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers have far and away the most championships after several impressive dynasties that owned their eras.
In the ‘70s and early-‘80s, things were looking bad for the league. A large percentage of the players were struggling with drugs, and viewership and attendance numbers were crashing. Fortunately, that’s when Bird and Magic showed up.
Their rivalry reignited the spirit of the fanbase and provided the perfect handoff to Jordan’s unstoppable Bulls. While Chicago owned the ‘90s, the league became more popular than ever, expanding to 30 teams, including two franchises in Canada.
The league remains in good hands, with LeBron James cementing himself as a Hall of Fame player and a legitimate contender for the title of “best player ever,” while another dynastic group is being built in the Bay Area that will rival some of the early Lakers and Celtics dynasties. All we can do now is sit back and watch history be made.