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NBA Basics

 The National Basketball Association (NBA) consists of 30 teams which are divided into two Conferences (Eastern and Western) consisting of three divisions each.  While there are a lot of teams, really there are only a few that matter.  The good folks in Oklahoma City don’t really think that the “Thunder” are going to win an NBA championship anytime soon.  The bottom-feeders like Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Memphis serve as the cannon fodder for some of the league’s better teams like the Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics. 

Eastern Conference




Boston Celtics

Chicago Bulls

Orlando Magic

New Jersey Nets

Indiana Pacers

Atlanta Hawks

New York Knicks

Cleveland Cavaliers

Miami Heat

Toronto Raptors

Milwaukee Bucks

Charlotte Bobcats

Philadelphia 76ers

Detroit Pistons

Washington Wizards

Western Conference




Utah Jazz

Los Angeles Lakers

New Orleans Hornets

Oklahoma City Thunder

Golden State Warriors

San Antonio Spurs

Portland Trailblazers

Phoenix Suns

Dallas Mavericks

Denver Nuggets

Sacramento Kings

Memphis Grizzlies

Minnesota Timberwolves

Los Angeles Clippers

Houston Rockets

How the Game is Played

This isn’t rocket science folks.  You put the ball in the basket.  The game is divided into four quarters, each 15 minutes long.  After two quarters, there is a halftime that lasts about 20 minutes.  The team that has the most points at the end wins.  Most shots count for two points.  Foul shots count for one point (explained later).  There is a big arch on the basketball court called the “3-point line.”  Shots from behind this arch are worth—you guessed it—3 points because of the difficulty of hitting from that distance.

Granted, there are a few rules and terms that you will hear getting tossed around.  Check the terminology section of this article for the buzzwords you may hear in conversations about basketball.  There are really only a few key rules to remember.  A player has to constantly move the ball, a process called “dribbling,” whenever he is moving.  If he holds the ball for too long while moving, he is called for “traveling.”  In professional basketball, once a team gets possession of the ball, they have 24 seconds to make a shot.  If they don’t shoot during that time, they are called for a “shot clock violation” and the ball goes to the other team.  Another common term you will hear tossed around is “foul.”  A player commits a foul in numerous ways, but most common is interfering with a player’s ability to make a shot.  A player cannot impede a player physically from taking a shot, ie hitting his arms, excessively bumping his body, etc.  There are different rules for when the fouled player can go to the free throw line and take a free shot, so just know that especially early in a game, every foul does not equal a trip to the free throw line for the fouled player.

For non-basketball fans, the last few seconds of a game can be very, very annoying.  Say the Houston Rockets are beating the LA Clippers 95-90 with about 40 seconds left.  Why do Clippers’ players constantly foul Rockets’ players when they get the ball?  The answer is actually pretty simple.  Since the Rockets want to waste as much time as possible, they will pass the ball around and milk the 24-second shot clock.  Instead, the Clippers will foul a Rocket player that has the ball in order to make him go to the free throw line.  The Clippers hope that the Rocket player will miss a free throw and will give them the opportunity to get the ball back.  Depending on how badly a team is trailing, this strategy could work.  However, it makes the game painfully slow during those last few seconds.

As you can see below, basketball games are played on a “court.”  The horizontal lines inside the small circles are the foul, or free throw lines (the terms are interchangeable).  Notice that the free throw lines are one side of a rectangle.  Along the top and bottom of the rectangle, players from both sides will gather along the line when a player is attempting a free throw in hopes that they can catch a missed shot (called a rebound).  The large arcs on either end of the court are the 3-point lines.  The circle in the middle of the court is where the “tip off” occurs.  To determine who will get the first possession, the referee throws the ball in the air and each team tries to “tip” the ball to one of their players gathered around the circle. 

NBA Basketball court and lines

Regular season

The 82 game regular season begins the first week of November and ends at the end of April.  Much like baseball, no one really cares about the regular season unless it involves some traditional rivals (Los Angeles Lakers vs. Boston Celtics is the current gold standard).  The networks that cover NBA games are ESPN, ABC, and TNT.  TNT typically has games on Thursday night while ESPN airs games on Friday night.  ABC typically has games on Sundays and during the final playoff rounds.


The NBA post-season is played from the end of April to mid June. In each conference there are eight (8) teams vying for their respective championship in a best of seven series playoff.  There are three rounds of playoffs to determine the conference winners.  The winners of the Conference finals meet in the NBA finals.   The length of the playoffs is one facet of the NBA that annoys non-basketball fans.  Since 8 of 15 teams in each conference get into the playoffs, the regular season does not matter as much as it does in baseball where only 4 of 16 teams make the playoffs.


The most famous NBA player of all time is undoubtedly Michael Jordan.  He won 6 NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and 5 MVP (Most Valuable Player) awards.  You may have seen him on Nike shoes, Gatorade, or Hanes underwear commercials.  Other famous players from years past include Larry Bird from the Boston Celtics and Earvin “Magic” Johnson from the LA Lakers.  These two battled it out for years and were great rivals in the 1980s.  A bit farther back, Wilt Chamberlain is a famous player from the 1960s.  He is the only player to average 40 points in a single season and score 100 points in a single game.  My favorite stat from Wilt Chamberlain?  20,000.  That’s how many women Wilt claimed to have slept with over the course of his lifetime.  For that stat to be true, he would have had to average 1.37 sexual partners a day from the time he was 15 to the biography’s publishing date.  That’s a stat that isn’t likely to be broken!

Current Stars

Lebron James:  Unless you really, really tune out sports, you probably have heard of Lebron James.  He is widely acknowledged as the league’s best player.  He has turned into a controversial figure after his decision in 2010 to leave his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, to sign with the Miami Heat.  He did so because he thought the Heat had the best chance of winning a championship (they also have stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosch).  Lebron did not win a championship in Cleveland and was labeled a “sell-out” by Cleveland fans for turning his back on his hometown team.

Dwyane Wade:  Wade stars for the Miami Heat.  He has won an NBA championship and MVP award and is a 6-time all star.

Kobe Bryant:  Bryant is the star of the Los Angeles Lakers.  He is a 5-time NBA champion.

Notable Teams and Rivalries

In basketball, it’s all about the Boston Celtics versus the Los Angeles Lakers.  These two teams have historically dominated the basketball postseason.  They have combined for 33 of the 64 NBA championships.  The Celtics currently hold a narrow 17-16 lead in total titles over the Lakers.


Air Ball:  a shot that does not hit any part of the goal.  Air balls are uncommon in professional basketball.

Assist: When a player gives the basketball to another player who then immediately scores.

Brick:  a bad shot the bounces off the backboard or rim that does not have a chance of going in the basket.

Charge:  an offensive foul in which a player with the ball runs into a defensive player that clearly established his defensive position and is standing still.

Conference: A group of teams, usually geographically associated.  In the case of the NBA, there are the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Dribble:  the process of bouncing the ball on the floor when a player is moving

Fast break: a play in basketball in which a team moves quickly down the court in an attempt to score before the opposing defense can get set up.

Foul:  a term that generally applies to any disruptive physical contact that impedes a player’s ability.

Nothing but net:  a shot that does not even touch the rim, but instead is so perfect that it only touches the net.

Rebound: After an attempted shot that does not go in the basket, the act of retrieving the ball after the miss is called rebounding.  The player that retrieves the ball gets a rebound in that statistic column.

Technical Foul:  A foul resulting from conduct not directly related to play on the court.  It could be for inappropriate behavior, striking another player when not in play, or other such nefarious conduct.

Travel:  an infraction in which a player takes too many steps without dribbling the ball.  The infraction results in the ball being turned over to the other team.

Triple Double: When a player achieves double digits in three of five statistical categories (points, assists, rebounds, blocked shots, and steals).  For example a player with, 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists in a single game would have attained triple double.