The Surprisingly Good One Season ABA Team: The Minnesota Muskies


Mel Daniels in a Minnesota Muskies Jersey

Credit: NASL Jerseys


Joining the ABA in the 1967-68 season, the Minnesota Muskies were one of the first 11 teams that joined the league. It is not a surprise that there was a team located in Minnesota, considering that the ABA's then Commissioner, George Mikan, played for the Minneapolis Lakers during the entirety of his NBA career. The team was named the Muskies because it is a popular fish in the region.


Despite the owners, L.P. Shields and Fred Jefferson only having to pay $30,000 as a franchise fee, only 100 season tickets were sold, and the Muskies only averaged 2,800 people per game. In comparison, the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2021-22 NBA season have an average attendance of 15,630, 5.6x as much as the Muskies' attendance.

 

Head Coach: Jim Pollard

Even though the Minnesota Muskies did not have the best year when it came to finances, the team was terrific when it came to basketball. However, that does not mean everything was sunshine and rainbows for the Muskies. The team's head coach was Jim Pollard. Before becoming a coach, Pollard played in the NBA for seven seasons alongside George Mikan on the Minneapolis Lakers.


Pollard was the team's second-best player for most of those seven seasons. He averaged 13/8/3 (points, rebounds, assists) while shooting 36.0% from the field and 75.0% from the free-throw line. He was also a 4x All-Star, selected to 4x All-NBA Teams, won the NBA Championship five times, and is a Hall of Famer!


Despite all his accomplishments as a player, he was not the best coach. Pollard was a coach for five seasons. In those five seasons, his record was 130-165 (44.1 W/L%). His best season was actually with the Muskies, 50-28 (64.1 W/L%)! However, there was only one other season where he coached a team to a positive regular-season record; the 1968-69 Miami Floridians, 43-35 (55.1 W/L%). Every other season, Pollard had a negative regular-season record:

  • 1959-60 Minneapolis Lakers: 14-25 (35.9 W/L%)

  • 1961-62 Chicago Packers: 18-62 (22.5 W/L%)

  • 1969-70 Miami Floridians: 5-15 (25.0 W/L%)


The Big 3: Mel Daniels, Les Hunter, and Donnie Freeman

The Minnesota Muskies Big 3 consisted of Mel Daniels, Les Hunter, and Donnie Freeman. Mel Daniels, a 6'9" center, was by far the best player of the three. Daniels was also the one that stayed with the team for the least amount of time, only staying for his rookie season. Once the Muskies relocated to Miami and renamed themselves the Floridians the season after (1968-69), the team lost Daniels to the Indiana Pacers. He ended up winning two MVPs and three Championships with the Pacers.


Going back to Daniels' time on the Muskies, he averaged 22/16/1 while shooting 40.8 FG% from the field and 57.5% from the free-throw line. Besides his free-throw shooting, Daniels was elite. Although Daniels left the team after a season, the Muskies are lucky they even drafted him as he was also selected as the ninth pick in the 1967 NBA draft by the Cinncinati Royals (Sacramento Kings). Thankfully, Daniels chose the Muskies over the Royals.


By the end of the 1967-68 season, Daniels led the league eleven stats: total rebounds, rebounds per game, offensive rebounds per game, defensive rebounds per game, field goals, field goal attempts, two-point field goals, two-point field goal attempts, defensive win shares, usage percentage, and total rebound percentage.


He was also selected as an All-Star and into the All-ABA First Team while being the Rookie of the Year. In his first all-star appearance, he put up 22 points and 15 rebounds while shooting 50.0% from the field and 36.4% from the free-throw line.


Daniels' best game this season was on February 10th, 1968, against the New Orleans Buccaneers. The Muskies would lose, 100-126, but Daniels would put up:


37 Points and 25 Rebounds

15/28 FG and 7/11 FT

(Minutes Unknown)


The second-best player was Les Hunter. He was nowhere near as good as Mel Daniels but was still great. Hunter was a 6'7" power forward drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the 1964 NBA draft as the ninth pick. However, he would get traded to the Baltimore Bullets. He only played 24 games with the Bullets before playing in the North American Basketball League for two seasons with the Twin City Sailors.


After his short stint with the Bullets and two seasons with the Sailors, Hunter would find himself with the Minnesota Muskies in the 1967 season. In his season with the Muskies, Hunter averaged 18/10/2 while shooting 42.5% from the field and 62.0% from the free-throw line. This was his best season in the NBA, as his stats progressively decreased after this season.


Like Daniels, Hunter would be selected as an All-Star. Unlike Daniels, Hunter's All-Star game performance was not as good. He put up 7/8/1 while shooting 28.6% from the field and 60.0% from the free-throw line.


His best game this season was on February 8th, 1968, against the New Jersey Americans. He scored 41 points while shooting 17/30 from the field and 7/10 from the free-throw line.


Finally, the third-best player was Donnie Freeman. Career-wise, Freeman was much better than Hunter. Freeman ended his career with five All-Stars, 4x All-ABA teams, a Championship, and was selected to the ABA All-Time Team. On the other hand, the only awards Hunter received were two All-Star selections. This was the only season that Freeman was very slightly worse than Hunter.


Freeman was a 6'3" shooting guard that in a similar situation to Daniels, was selected in the NBA draft (1966) by a team (Philadelphia 76ers) but ended up going with the Muskies. In his season with the Muskies, Freeman averaged 16/5/3 while shooting 40.9% from the field and 71.5% from the free-throw line.


Freeman would also be selected as an All-Star, adding to the All-Star list. He played surprisingly well, considering that he was the second-worst player on the team and only played 24 minutes. He put up 20/4/2 while shooting 61.5% from the field and 66.7% from the free-throw line. I'm not going to include Freeman's best performance because his game log is missing a lot of stats. However, his highest-scoring game with the Muskies was 32.


Regular Season + Playoffs

In the 1967-68 ABA season, the Minnesota Muskies only season, they went 50-28 (64.1 W/L%) and finished second in the Eastern Division. Although the team had the fifth-worst offensive rating (100.4), they also had the best defensive rating (96.7). 8/11 of the Muskies' players were in the Top 20 for defensive win shares. Mel Daniels, Les Hunter, and Donnie Freeman were ranked first, second, and third in defensive win shares!

In the 78 game regular season, the Minnesota Muskies' best win was on November 14th, 1967, against the Kentucky Colonels. The Muskies would win 125-75! Although the Colonels were missing their best player, Louie Dampier, it is shocking that they lost by 50 since they weren't even that bad of a team.


Interestingly, the best player in this game was not Daniels, Hunter, or Freeman, but Ron Perry. Perry scored 22 points and grabbed four rebounds while shooting 57.1% from the field, 75.0% from the three-point line, and 75.0% from the free-throw line. During the regular season, Perry only averaged 12.8 points. Everybody on the Muskies besides Gary Keller scored more than ten points while shooting more than 41.0% from the field!

On the other hand, the Colonels only scored 32.3% from the field. Bill Bradley, an end of the bench player for the Colonels, shot 0/7 from the field. He wasn't the only player that scored horrifically. Kendall Rhine shot 4/14, and Stew Johnson shot 5/18. However, at least Rhine and Johnson scored and grabbed rebounds. Bradley didn't record a single stat! He was just doing cardio.


Funnily enough, the Minnesota Muskies' worst loss was against the Kentucky Colonels. It was on February 2nd, 1968. The Muskies lost by 36 points, 84-120. This time, the roles were reversed. The Muskies shot horribly, only shooting 30.4% from the field, while the Colonels shot 44.8% from the field. No one on the Muskies shot more than 40.0% except Mel Daniels (42.9%) and Sam Smith (40.0%).

The only player that played well on the Muskies was Daniels. Freeman ended with 14 points and one rebound but shot the ball horribly (33.3 FG%). Skip Thoren, a backup center for the Muskies, went 0/9 from the field, while Ervin Inniger, a backup shooting guard, went 2/10 from the field. In the Muskies' defense, they were missing Les Hunter.

As for the Colonels, they played how they typically played. They just won by 36 points because the Muskies were awful. The top scorers for the Colonels were Darel Carrier (31), Randolph Mahaffey (28), and Goose Ligon (19). The Colonels had their best player back in this game, Louie Dampier. Funnily enough, he was their worst player this game. Although he scored 14 points, he shot 28.6% from the field.


The Minnesota Muskies and Kentucky Colonels must have been bitter rivals in the 1967-68 ABA season since not only were the Muskies' best and worst game against the Colonels, but the first team they went against in the playoffs were also the Colonels. Although the Muskies would win the series, it was a close matchup, only winning by one game, 3-2.

Every game was also very close. The largest margin of victory was in Game 1, 115-102 (13). To no surprise, the best player for the Muskies in the first round was Mel Daniels, and for the Colonels, it was Louie Dampier. Daniels averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds while shooting 41.0% from the field, while Dampier averaged 27 points and five rebounds while shooting 44.2% from the field.


In Game 1, Daniels scored 44 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while shooting 48.% from the field and 75.0% from the free-throw line!


Instead of Mel Daniels, Les Hunter, and Donnie Freeman being the best three players in this series, Sam Smith stepped up and replaced Freeman as the third-best player. Smith averaged 16 points and seven rebounds while shooting 39.2% from the field and 72.4% from the free-throw line. In Game 4, Smith scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds while shooting 37.0% from the field and 66.7% from the free-throw line. Not a very efficient game, but still pretty good!


However, the Minnesota Muskies playoff run would stop in the second round against the Pittsburgh Pipers. The Muskies would lose, 1-4. The Pipers' top four scorers all averaged more than 20 points:

  • Connie Hawkins: 29.4 Points

  • Charles Williams: 24.8 Points

  • Art Heyman: 22.0 Points

  • Chicago Vaugh: 21.0 Points

On the other hand, the Muskies only had two players that averaged more than 20 points. Daniels averaged 25.2 points, and Hunter averaged 21.4 points.

It's not a surprise that the Pipers would easily beat the Muskies since the team was stacked. Hawkins was the 1967-68 MVP, and Williams and Vaugh were All-Stars. Heyman was having a fantastic breakout year, going from averaging 14/4/2 in the previous season to averaging 20/8/4 this season. The Pipers were also the eventual ABA Champions.

In the one game that the Minnesota Muskies did win, Daniels and Hunter had to carry the team on their back. Daniels scored 38 points and grabbed 27 rebounds while shooting 50.0% from the field, while Hunter also scored 38 points and grabbed nine rebounds while shooting 57.1% from the field. What's crazy is that Daniels didn't even grab the most rebounds this game. Trooper Washington, the fifth-best player on the Pipers, grabbed 35 rebounds!

Going back to the start, although the Minnesota Muskies were successful basketball-wise, they were suffering financially. As a result, the Muskies would relocate to Miami and rename themselves the Floridians. However, after four seasons as the Floridians, the team would be no more.



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