GeoNBA: Baltimore's Western Life
Or how Chicago created and solved the NBA's geography crisis of the mid-1960s
Ed. Note: “GeoNBA” should be pronounced as Gee-own-bee-ay!
During the 20th century, the NBA engaged in some curious geographic decisions. And no one comes as well-qualified to criticize geographical decisions as I do. How many of you won your middle school’s geography bee?
In back-to-back-to-back years?
That’s right. I was the Tom Emanski of Geography Bees.
Anyhoo, I have long been baffled by how the NBA could look at a map and make the conclusions that it did over the course of its history.
And now I have decided to share these “curiosities” with you all, starting with the morass created by the Baltimore Bullets.
In the mid-1960s, the Bullets were posted in the Western Division. With only nine teams, the NBA had two divisions at the time, so no need for conferences, yet. This ridiculous situation for Baltimore began in 1963 and didn’t end until 1966. Looking at the geographic setup, it is absolutely absurd.
Eastern Division in 1963
Boston Celtics — Cincinnati Royals — New York Knicks — Philadelphia 76ers
Western Division in 1963
Baltimore Bullets — Detroit Pistons — Los Angeles Lakers — San Francisco Warriors — St. Louis Hawks
You know something is off when a “Western” Division in the United States spans from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The obvious teams to switch with the Bullets in this monstrosity are either the Cincinnati Royals or Detroit Pistons. Motown and Cincy are about parallel in their distance from the Atlantic Ocean, so either would work… and that was probably the problem... either of them was a good candidate.
And thanks to both having been in the Western Division for forever, inertia ruled the day. And when I say forever, I mean their presence as “Western” teams preceded the NBA.
The Pistons had started play in the National Basketball League in 1941, but the circuit was still small enough to have no divisions whatsoever. However, all the teams at that point were in the Midwest. Not until the 1944-45 season when the league reached six franchises were divisions instituted.
Located in Fort Wayne at the time, the Pistons placed in the Eastern Division along with teams in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Western clubs were in Sheboygan, Oshkosh, and Chicago. The next season (1945-46), the Royals—still in Rochester—joined the NBL and were also placed in the East with Fort Wayne.
For pro sports leagues of the era, all the franchises in the NBL were “western” since none were east of the Appalachians.
For the 1948-49 basketball season, the Pistons and Royals jumped from the thoroughly midwestern NBL to the Basketball Association of America. The BAA had teams in the Midwest, but it was heavily weighted toward the Eastern seaboard. So, when the Pistons and Royals (along with the Minneapolis Lakers and the Indianapolis Kautskys) showed up, they were tossed into the BAA’s Western Division.
Fast forward 15 years and that’s where all those franchises remained: the Western Division.
Even after the NBL-BAA merger that created the NBA in 1949.
Except the Kautskys. They folded in 1949 prior to the merger.
Speaking of folding, there was a lot of that in the 1950s for the NBA as teams birthed in the BAA and NBL fell by the wayside in this new basketball order.
Starting with 17 franchises in 1949, the NBA atrophied to just eight clubs by 1960. Among the casualties was the original Baltimore Bullets franchise. They were the true oddball of the inaugural NBA teams having begun in neither the NBL or BAA, but in the American Basketball League. These O.G. Bullets folded early in the 1954-55 season making them the last NBA franchise to go completely belly-up.
By 1961, the NBA had stabilized from the foldings and for some time had been shifting teams to larger markets, generally spreading further west out of its twin cribs of the Great Lakes and Northeast.
The Lakers were now in Los Angeles. There was loud talk of another franchise soon moving to San Francisco joining them on the West Coast. (Turns out the “lucky” franchise would be the Warriors who left Philadelphia in 1962).
Earlier, in 1957, the Pistons and Royals had both moved as well. Fort Wayne bid farewell to the Pistons as they moved to Detroit, while Rochester’s Royals went to Cincinnati.
All of this was just the NBA playing musical chairs, though.
1961 was when the league actually expanded its number of franchises.
And that’s where the geographic problems truly begin.
Any good student of NBA history knows that the current Washington Wizards were once the Washington Bullets who were once the Capital Bullets who were once the Baltimore Bullets. But the really good students know they began as the Chicago Packers.
Despite being such an enormous city, Chicago had been a graveyard for the NBL, BAA, and NBA. Even with all its Midwest proclivities, the NBL struggled to field a sustainable team in the Windy City. When they finally did have a winner—the Chicago Gears—the team’s owner turned out to be a coot, removed the team from the league in 1947, and started his own failed operation (the Professional Basketball League of America).
Another story for another newsletter.
Bottom line: failure for the NBL.
The BAA had the Chicago Stags, who performed well enough on the court. They made it through to the NBL-BAA merger. And then after just one season in the NBA, they folded in 1950.
So, the NBA’s expansion in the 1960s logically began with America’s great hub in the Midwest and the Chicago Packers were sensibly placed in the Western Division.
Of course it was a failure like all the other franchises.
The Packers went a horrific 18-62 their first season. Not surprising for an expansion team, but worrisome was the lack of fan support. And even more gruesome was the arena. The NBA had been out-muscled by Harlem Globetrotters impresario Abe Saperstein, who based his barnstormers in Chicago. Saperstein had started a new American Basketball League to briefly rival the NBA. The ABL’s Chicago Majors kept the elder league from using coveted Chicago Stadium. Thus the NBA was dumped in the International Ampitheatre.
(Don’t worry the Majors quickly failed like all Chicago basketball did.)
The Chicago Packers became the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962-63, but basically the same failures occurred once more. The NBA club again didn’t get access to Chicago Stadium, this time settling for the Chicago Coliseum. And their on court record was an improved-but-still-sucks 25-55.
The franchise owners threw in the towel and sold the franchise to an ownership group from Baltimore for the 1963-64 season. Eventually, they resurrected the Bullets moniker in the process.
But now the NBA had its geography problem.
Teams had moved from east to west before (Minneapolis to Los Angeles). And they had stayed essentially parallel (Fort Wayne to Detroit). But now a team was hopping from west to east by a fair margin. It’s no small move from Chicago to Baltimore.
The logical next step would have been to move the Bullets to the Eastern Division.
Except you have the Detroit and Cincy problem. Both clubs were in the Western Division, had arrived in the NBA at the same time, and were essentially equidistant from the Atlantic seaboard—although Cincinnati is just a bit further west. Hard to move one and not the other.
So, Baltimore stayed in the West. This would have hilarious competitive implications.
During this period from 1963-64 through 1965-66, the Bullets were essentially mediocre. Their best record was a 38-42 season. The Pistons were awful. Just awful. Seasons of 23, 31, and 22 wins.
The Royals? The Royals were pretty damn good! And thus got screwed.
This was their best stretch of basketball in Cincy with 55 wins in 1964, 48 wins in 1965, and 45 wins in 1966.
Just their luck, though, that they were stuck in the East and had to contend with the Boston Celtics (perennial champions) and Philadelphia 76ers (powerhouse on the rise).
The Pistons obviously never made the playoffs.
The Bullets, however, did reach the playoffs twice, despite never having a winning record. They even got to the Western Division Finals in 1965, where they nearly took down the 49-win Lakers. Los Angeles was missing Elgin Baylor that series and it took a performance straight out of basketball heaven for Jerry West to carry the ailing Lakers across the finish line.
I try not to play Alternate History too much, but I think it’s safe to say the 1965 Royals who won 48 games with Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Jack Twyman, Wayne Embry, Adrian Smith, and Tom Hawkins would have beaten the Bullets and smashed a Baylor-less Lakers, despite Jerry West’s brilliance.
Instead of being in the JV division, though, the Royals matched up with the 76ers who had Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Larry Costello, Luke Jackson, Red Kerr, Dave Gambee, and Al Bianchi. That shit’s just not fair.
It also stinks for the NBA.
In 1964, the Celtics (59 wins) and Royals (55 wins) easily had the best records in the league. Instead of having them potentially square off in the Finals, they met in the Eastern Division Finals. At least the West had a reputable team in the San Francisco Warriors (48 wins) come out the West.
The 1965 season was the real stink bomb full of deception. In the West, the Lakers had those 49 wins, but, as mentioned, they were missing Baylor in the playoffs. Clearly not as strong as they looked on paper. Meanwhile, in the East, the 76ers had 40 wins but had traded for Chamberlain midway through the season. Clearly stronger than they looked on paper.
If Cincinnati and Baltimore were swapped, the Royals likely reach the 1965 NBA Finals.
Don’t worry, the Royals were screwed again in 1966. Their 45 wins would have tied them with the Lakers for first place in the West. Every other team in the West was below .500. Meanwhile the East had 55-win Philly and 54-win Boston at the top. Instead of getting a fair shake with the Lakers out west, they were ousted by Boston 3-2 in the East’s semifinals.
This imbalance of geography and competitiveness was solved in 1966 when the NBA expanded once again to Chicago.
The graveyard of basketball got the Bulls for the 1966-67 season, which put the NBA back at an even number of teams (10) and allowed for an end to the geographic standoff.
Naturally, Chicago was going in the Western Division. Also natural was a potential Great Lakes rivalry between Chicago and Detroit. Cincinnati being closer to Baltimore made them a fitting pair. Now we can sort this mess out.
The sorry Detroit Pistons were moved to the Western Division to compete with the Chicago Bulls; the Cincinnati Royals stayed in the Eastern Division while the Baltimore Bullets were mercifully taken out of the West and put in the East.
Still, Oscar Robertson should be royally pissed cuz Cincinnati missed its best window for an NBA Finals appearance.