This is the seventh in a series of articles featuring a countdown of the Top 16 Greatest Lakers of All Time, as decided by the followers of Lakers UK on Twitter and Instagram.
Continuing with number 10 – George Mikan. We’ll take a look at the rule changes that came into force because of his revolutionary play.
The game’s first star, Mikan never played for the Los Angeles Lakers but is indoctrinated into being a Laker legend by the fortune of playing his whole 7 season career with the Minneapolis Lakers.
Between 1948-56 he played in 509 games and scored 11,836 points. It is also notable that Mikan played 9,850 minutes between ’51-’56. The NBA only started measuring minutes in the 1951-52 season.
Nicknamed Mr. Basketball, from the moment he entered the league Mikan was the star man for Minneapolis, averaging 28.3 points per game in his rookie season. His size helped this, of course, standing at 6-foot-10 and weighing 245 lbs. He is fondly remembered as one of the games first ‘giants’. Playing a major role in the Lakers’ first 4 NBA titles, as well as a major role in the BBA title won in 1949, the last season before the NBA was created.
Because of the lack of film footage of Mikan available for analysis, by virtue of it being the 1950s, we have opted to review the rule changes that were put into force as a direct result of the All-Star big man’s influence.
The Star That Changed the Rules:
The Mikan Rule –
The first rule that has to be brought up when talking about George Mikan has to be the one named directly after him because of his role in making it a reality.
The enforcement of this rule would see the lane widened from 6 feet, to 12 feet. This was an attempt to slow Mikan’s impact on offence, creating an extra 6 feet in the post that offensive players could only be in for 3 seconds at a time helped. This rule came into effect in 1951, lasting the whole of Mikan’s prime.
In 1964, the lane was widened again by a further 4 feet to try and deal with the dominance of Wilt Chamberlain, creating the basketball court we recognise in the NBA today.
This rule shows that Mikan played a key role in giving the advantage to the ‘small ball’ line ups that we see in the league today. The widening of the lane made it more difficult for dominant big men to play a back to the basket style. This shows in the centers of today’s game. Players like Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns are both good examples of 5s in today’s game that need to be capable of playing not only in the post but primarily from the perimeter.
The Goaltending Rule –
Being the first ‘big man’ in the NBA, at 6-foot-10, Mikan had the coordination and skill to catch an opponents shot on its way down, even while playing in the NCAA for De Paul University. This resulted in the NCAA banning goal-tending in 1945.
Designed to slow Mikan down defensively, it only made him more dominant on the offensive side of the floor. Smartly so he adapted his game, perfecting his skyhook and making it a signature move as it was now unblockable once the shot reached its apex.
This rule, of course, is still required in today’s game, with players being much taller and more athletic, very much capable of taking a ball off the rim. Mikan was revolutionary in proving that players of his stature could play the game, in the 1940s/50s players of his size were considered too awkward to ever be able to play basketball at the level he did.
Paving the way for some of the greatest centers of all time, if Mikan wasn’t able to play at the NBA level, players like Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwon would never be remembered as some of the greatest of all time. After Mikan’s death in 2005, O’Neal echoed this sentiment, saying “Without number 99 [Mikan], there is no me”.
The Introduction of The Shot Clock –
In the days before the shot clock, a team could hold the ball for as long as they liked. This is exactly what the Fort Wayne Pistons (later the Detroit Pistons) did against the Lakers in the 2nd game of the 1950-51 season in order to keep the ball from Mikan, the game finished 19-18 in the Pistons’ favour. Mikan scored 15 of the Lakers 18 points in the game, giving him the highest percentage of team points scored by a single player ever at 83%.
Another example of Mr. Basketball revolutionising the game, the first star of the game made teams gameplan for him in such a way that the only way to slow him down was to reduce the number of possessions in the game. This forced the NBA to change the rules, introducing the shot clock in the 1954-55 season helped shape the game we see today. Without the shot clock, what would motivate teams like the Showtime Lakers or the 2018-19 Milwaukee Bucks to play the exciting fast-paced style they did.
The 3-Point Line –
Looking back at the NBA’s 73 season history, all rule changes have discouraged big physical play, instead of ruling in favour of a smaller, more perimeter orientated style. Although it is thought that ‘small ball’ is a very 21st-century approach to playing the game of basketball, one of its routes sits deep in basketball history, the founding of the ABA.
The ABA operated between 1967-76 and it differed to its established counterpart in its openness to ideas that change the structure of the game. They played with a red, white and blue basketball (the one still present today at All-Star Weekend), they had a slam-dunk contest, and of course, a 3-point line. The commissioner of the league at the time was non-other than George Mikan, famously stating that its “time to give the small guy a chance”, by introducing a way to score efficiently without having to battle 6-foot-10 players, such as himself.
The NBA would later adopt the rule in 1979 – in Larry Bird and Magic Johnson‘s rookie season. The 3-point line, by design, opened the door for guards to succeed in a big man league. Players like Damian Lillard, James Harden and Stephen Curry would have nowhere near the same impact without the advantage of earning an extra point for shooting from outside 22 feet, it’s more than possible that they wouldn’t be in the league at all.
The perimeter players of today most definitely have to give Mikan some credit for there fame and fortune. Without his innovative way of thinking they may never have been pushed to pursue basketball, considered too small. Almost poetic that the player who was considered too tall to play basketball opened the door for the smaller players to dominant once again.
Mikan played at De Paul University for 4 years before signing with the Chicago American Gears at the end of the 1946-47 NBL season. He played with the team for 25 games, leading them to a championship whilst scoring 16.5 PPG. The owner, Maurice White, then pulled the team from the league, with the plan of creating his own 24 team league in which he would own every team and every arena.
The league lasted a month before collapsing, resulting in all players contracted to White’s team’s to be redistributed to the other 11 NBL teams at the time. Each team had a 9.09% chance of landing Mikan, who would, of course, end up with the Minneapolis Lakers.
Mikan made his debut with the Lakers on the 4th of November 1948 against the Baltimore Bullets. He would go on to win a rebounding title, 3 scoring titles, 4 All-Star selections, 1 All-Star MVP, 5 All-NBA selections (1 All-BAA selection), 4 NBA Championships (1 BAA Championship), and an induction into to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
He never played in Los Angeles, but his name certainly deserves its place in the rafters of the Staples Center, among his fellow Laker greats.