Why does the NBA have a shot clock?
The newly founded National Basketball Association was struggling in the early 1950s. The league was having trouble attracting fans, positive media coverage was scarce, and games were often low scoring and not all that exciting. In those days, a team could hold the ball for as long as they wanted, and coaches often used a stalling strategy once their team took the lead. This would force the opposing team to have to foul to get the ball back, and NBA games essentially became rugged foul-fests played out at a lumbering pace.
As former Boston Celtics guard Bob Cousy describes, “That was the way the game was played — get a lead and put the ball in the icebox. Teams literally started sitting on the ball in the third quarter.”
This style of play was perhaps best displayed on a fateful night on November 22, 1950, when the Fort Wayne Pistons defeated the Minneapolis Lakers by a whopping score of 19 to 18, the lowest scoring game in NBA history. After the game, Minneapolis coach John Kundla commented that the Pistons had given pro basketball “a great big black eye.”
The NBA experimented with various rule changes in the 1950s to speed up the pace of play, but nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t until 1954, when Syracuse Nationals owner Danny Biasone and general manager Leo Ferris, who were determined to add some sort of time element to the game, experimented using a 24-second shot clock during a scrimmage. This exhibition was enough to impress the other NBA owners in attendance, and the league decided to adopt a 24-second shot clock for the 1954–55 season.
But why 24 seconds?
24 seems like such an arbitrary number. Why not make the shot clock 25 or 30 seconds? Well, according to Danny Biasone, we can thank math.
“I looked at the box scores from the games I enjoyed, games where they didn’t screw around and stall. I noticed each team took about 60 shots. That meant 120 shots per game. So I took 48 minutes (2,880 seconds) and divided that by 120 shots. The result was 24 seconds per shot.”
The impact of the 24 second shot clock was quickly felt around the league. That first year it was implemented, teams went from scoring 79 points per game to 93, and ironically, it was Biasone’s quick, fast-breaking Syracuse Nationals who took home the title that year. The league was forever changed.