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ABA vs NBA: What’s the Difference?

The world of professional basketball has witnessed incredible growth and transformation over the years. Two significant leagues, the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), have played pivotal roles in shaping the sport’s history and popularity. Despite sharing the same sport, these leagues differ in various aspects, such as their origins, rules, teams, and contributions to basketball’s evolution. This article aims to provide an in-depth comparison of ABA and NBA, highlighting their unique features, historical significance, and lasting impact on the game of basketball.


Historical Background

1. American Basketball Association (ABA)

The ABA was established in 1967 as an alternative professional basketball league to compete with the well-established NBA. It sought to attract top talents by offering innovative rules and higher salaries. The ABA introduced the three-point line, a red, white, and blue basketball, and a faster-paced game, which were all departures from traditional NBA practices. During its nine-year existence, the ABA showcased several legendary players, such as Julius Erving (Dr. J) and George Gervin, who went on to become iconic figures in basketball history.


2. National Basketball Association (NBA)

The NBA, on the other hand, has a longer and more storied history. It was founded in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and later merged with the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1949 to form the NBA. The league has seen tremendous growth, adding teams over the years and attracting some of the most renowned basketball stars, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.


Key Differences in Rules and Gameplay

1. Rules Unique to ABA

The ABA was known for its experimental rule changes aimed at making the game more exciting and engaging for fans. One of the most significant innovations was the introduction of the three-point line in the 1967-68 season, a feature that was not adopted by the NBA until the 1979-80 season. Additionally, the ABA’s colorful red, white, and blue basketball added a unique touch to the game. The league also implemented a rule that allowed players to sign with any team once their college eligibility was over, which sometimes led to intense bidding wars for top talents.


2. NBA’s Influence on Rule Standardization

As the NBA grew in popularity, some of the ABA’s experimental rules began to be adopted by the more established league. The three-point line proved to be a game-changer, leading to a higher-scoring and more exciting brand of basketball. The NBA finally integrated the three-point line in the 1979-80 season, a move that further solidified its status as a leading basketball league.

See Also: The American Basketball Association (ABA): A Pioneering Tour

Impact on Professional Basketball Landscape

1. Merger between ABA and NBA

The ABA faced financial challenges throughout its existence, which eventually led to its merger with the NBA in 1976. The merger allowed some ABA teams to join the NBA, including the Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets. This consolidation brought talented players from the ABA into the NBA, enhancing the overall level of competition in the league. Notably, Julius Erving’s transition to the Philadelphia 76ers had a profound impact on the NBA’s popularity, as Dr. J’s style of play became an influential factor in how basketball was perceived and enjoyed by fans.

2. ABA’s Lasting Impact

Though the ABA no longer exists as an independent league, its influence on the sport remains significant. The three-point line has become an integral part of basketball strategy, and players with strong three-point shooting skills are highly sought after. The ABA’s legacy also lives on through its players, many of whom are celebrated Hall of Famers and whose contributions have left an indelible mark on the game.

See Also: NBA Team Pass: A Complete Look at Its Value, Benefits, & Cost

Franchise Histories and Legacies

1. NBA Franchise Histories

The NBA’s franchises have a rich history, and many of them have been part of the league since its inception. Teams like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks have become synonymous with basketball greatness. These franchises have won numerous championships and boast a loyal fan base that spans generations.

2. ABA Franchise Legacies

While the ABA’s existence was relatively short-lived, some of its former franchises have thrived in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs, led by stars like George Gervin, went on to become one of the most successful NBA teams, winning multiple championships. The Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, and Brooklyn Nets (formerly New Jersey Nets) are also notable ABA teams that have had a lasting impact on the NBA landscape.

See Also: The Triple Double Masterclass: the Pretty Show in NBA History

Player Contributions and Legacy

1. ABA Player Legacy

The ABA was a breeding ground for exceptional basketball talent. Legendary players like Julius Erving, George Gervin, Moses Malone, and Rick Barry emerged from the ABA and made significant contributions to the sport. Their unique playing styles and highlight-reel performances left an indelible mark on the game, influencing future generations of players.

2. NBA Player Legacy

The NBA’s long history has produced a plethora of iconic players who have transcended the sport. Michael Jordan’s impact on basketball and popular culture is immeasurable, while players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Kobe Bryant elevated the game’s global appeal. Modern stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry continue to shape the NBA’s narrative, captivating fans worldwide with their incredible skills and competitiveness.

Evolution of the Modern NBA

The merger between the ABA and NBA played a crucial role in shaping the modern NBA. The influx of ABA talent, combined with the adoption of some of the ABA’s rules, infused the NBA with fresh ideas and a more dynamic playing style. The integration of three-point shooting into the NBA transformed the game, leading to an increased emphasis on perimeter scoring and strategic team play.

What ABA teams did not join the NBA?

The American Basketball Association (ABA) was a professional basketball league that operated from 1967 to 1976. When the ABA merged with the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1976, four teams from the ABA did not join the NBA. These teams were:

1. Kentucky Colonels:

The Kentucky Colonels were one of the original ABA teams and had a successful run in the league. However, they did not make the transition to the NBA due to financial and legal issues. The Colonels had some notable players, including Artis Gilmore and Dan Issel.

2. Spirits of St. Louis:

The Spirits of St. Louis were based in St. Louis, Missouri, and were known for their colorful team and successful on-court performances. When the ABA-NBA merger took place, the Spirits opted not to join the NBA, and their franchise was dissolved. As part of the merger agreement, the Spirits’ owners were given a portion of the NBA’s television revenue, which turned out to be a very lucrative deal for them.

3. San Diego Sails:

The San Diego Sails had a brief existence in the ABA and faced financial difficulties. After the ABA-NBA merger, they were not included in the NBA, and the franchise was disbanded.

4. Virginia Squires:

The Virginia Squires were another original ABA team that did not transition to the NBA. The Squires faced financial struggles, and attempts to merge with the NBA failed. As a result, the team folded following the 1975-1976 season.

It’s worth noting that some ABA players and personnel from these teams found their way to the NBA after the merger. For example, Artis Gilmore, who played for the Kentucky Colonels, had a successful NBA career with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. Likewise, George Gervin, who played for the Virginia Squires, became a Hall of Fame player with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA.

Who is the only ABA team to win the NBA title?

The only ABA team to win the NBA title after the ABA-NBA merger is the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were one of the four ABA teams (along with the Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, and New York Nets) that were absorbed into the NBA following the merger in 1976.

The San Antonio Spurs were originally established as an ABA franchise in 1967. They were initially known as the Dallas Chaparrals before relocating to San Antonio in 1973 and adopting their current name. The team had some success in the ABA, but it wasn’t until they joined the NBA that they truly became a dominant force in professional basketball.

After joining the NBA, the Spurs experienced ups and downs before eventually establishing themselves as one of the most successful franchises in the league. In the 1998-1999 NBA season, under the leadership of coach Gregg Popovich and with star player Tim Duncan, the Spurs won their first NBA championship by defeating the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals. This victory marked the first time an ABA team won the NBA title after the merger, and it solidified the Spurs’ place among the elite teams in the league.

Since their first NBA championship, the San Antonio Spurs have continued to be a powerhouse in the NBA, winning additional titles in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2014. Their sustained success has made them one of the most respected and accomplished franchises in basketball history.


In conclusion, the ABA and NBA are two vital components of basketball’s rich history, each leaving a unique and lasting impact on the sport. While the ABA’s existence was relatively short-lived, its innovative rule changes and talented players significantly influenced the evolution of professional basketball. The NBA, with its longstanding legacy, has become a global sports phenomenon, attracting some of the best players from around the world.

The merger between the ABA and NBA served as a turning point in basketball history, leading to a more exciting, dynamic, and globally appealing game. The ABA’s experimental spirit and the NBA’s tradition and stability complemented each other, elevating basketball to unprecedented heights.

As basketball continues to evolve, it is essential to remember and appreciate the contributions of both the ABA and NBA, recognizing that their collective legacies have shaped the game we know and love today.


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