Welcome to the latest installment in an (extremely) occasional, and occasionally controversial, series ranking the best team names in pro sports. Earlier editions ranked the best names in baseball and the NFL. This time, we’re doing the NBA. As before, I’m using three basic criteria:
- Originality. How unusual or creative is the name? Is it unique, or a generic name used by other teams?
- Geographic specificity. Does the name reflect or honor the team’s city or region? Would it sound weird if the team was relocated (a major problem in the NBA – stay tuned)?
- Unmaketability. I like names that aren’t designed to sell merchandise. The more off-beat or quirky the name, the better.
And for the NBA, I’m adding a fourth category:
- Basketballishness. Basically, how well does the name fit the sport? Basketball names should evoke action and movement. The Fairbanks Glaciers would not be a good basketball name.
Lastly, this is not science. I’m ranking them according to my preferences. I’ll weigh some categories differently depending on the team. Disagree with my choices? Cool. Leave a comment, or even better, compile your own list and I’ll run it here. On to the rankings:
30, Toronto Raptors
The NBA has a lot of generically bad team names, but only one objectively awful one. The Raptors came into existence in 1994, hot on the heels of Jurassic Park, the Steven Spielberg blockbuster featuring velociraptors, a nasty sort of dinosaur. Naming your team after the flavor-of-the-month movie means selling out your long-term identity for a quick marketing boost, and should be beneath an NBA team. A worse option would be the Toronto Terminators, but not by much. It’s too bad, because Toronto otherwise has interesting team names: the whimsical Blue Jays, the strangely spelled Maple Leafs and even the CFL’s Argonauts (which is actually a great name). Maybe some enlightened future owner will see the light and change it.
29, Brooklyn Nets
It’s not a horrible name so much as a deeply peculiar one. Naming your team after a piece of equipment suggests either a profound lack of imagination or misunderstanding the purpose of a name. A team name should create an identity, forge a bond with your fans and inspire them and your players. Naming your team after string does none of those things. It’s like naming a team after furniture.
28, Washington Wizards
This feels a bit unfair, since the Washington Bullets, under owner Abe Pollin, changed their name for the noblest of purposes, to disassociate the team from the gun violence that plagued their city. But did he have to pick a new one that was so lame? There’s something particularly pathetic about the name, as if it was selected by a panel of kindergartners. Wizards cast spells and recruit hobbits to find rings. They have nothing to do with basketball or Washington. Here’s a hint for would-be team namers: Alliteration is rarely your friend.
27, Sacramento Kings
The first in a string of inoffensive, yet totally boring and nondescript team names. The Kings have bounced around from city to city, and their name hasn’t made sense in any of them. Since when is monarchy a good thing? Why did we fight a revolution?
26, Atlanta Hawks
The NBA doesn’t have as many bird names as baseball and football, but Hawks may be the worse of all of them. Completely generic, the Hawks could play in any sport in any city.
25, Golden State Warriors
Another bland name with no distinguishing characteristics. The “Golden State” part is at least interesting; maybe more teams should adopt the state’s nickname. The Empire State Yankees has nice ring to it.
24, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers, if I remember my history, were English nobility loyal to King Charles I during the English Civil War of 1642 -1651. What this has to do with basketball in Cleveland, I have no idea. I’d give them points for creativity except the University of Virginia beat them to the moniker. A naming choice driven mostly, it seems, by alliteration.
23, Milwaukee Bucks
Another name chosen pretty much at random (team records say it was the result of a contest, with R.D. Trebilcox of Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, the winning entrant). I’m not aware of any other Bucks out there, so it’s modestly original, but I’m also not aware of any other teams named for animals celebrated for getting shot, decapitated and their heads hung on the walls of redneck bars.
22, Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers used to be in San Diego, where the name at least made some sense: a clipper is a sailing ship, and San Diego is a nautical sort of city. But like a lot of NBA names, it became an oddity after the team moved. (Yes, I know LA is also on the ocean, but yachting is hardly the first thing you think of). And unfortunately for the historically inept franchise, the name lends itself to various “clip joint” jokes. But it’s still better than the Buffalo Braves, the team’s first name.
21, Los Angeles Lakers
One of the NBA’s most decorated teams, the Lakers have labored under one of pro sports’ geographically weirdest names. Los Angeles is literally lake-less, unless you want to count the Silver Lake Reservoir (or the La Brea Tar Pits). The name traveled with the team from Minneapolis, Land of 10,000 Lakes, in 1960. Do they deserve credit for not changing it? Maybe, because the alternative could have been far worse. But even if they were still in Minneapolis, it’s not a particularly rousing name. I award one bonus point for rhyming with “fast-break makers,” as per the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
20, Orlando Magic
The Magic isn’t as bad as it first appears. The name nods at Orlando’s Disney empire, and Magic Johnson gives it some basketball cred. I don’t even object to using a singular noun to describe a team. But Magic is just so cheesy.
19, Memphis Grizzlies
Yet another misplaced team. The Grizzlies began life as the Vancouver Grizzlies before they moved in 2001. In a strange twist, they’re actually the second iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies; the first was a short-lived pro football team. Since there is some history, and because Grizzlies once could be found on the plains, the name isn’t quite as out of place as others.
18, Phoenix Suns
Sure, it’s hot and sunny in Phoenix, but lots of cities get sunshine. The bigger problem is the ponderous nature of the sun. It’s a massive ball of burning gas hanging in the sky, which is not very basketballish. Technically, the sun is moving through the galaxy at 500,000 mph, but it can’t exactly turn on a dime. (It’s also unclear why the name is plural – what other suns are they talking about? Alpha centauri?) Phoenix’s WNBA team, the Mercury, has a much better name.
17, Denver Nuggets
It’s hard to imagine a team willingly naming themselves the Nuggets, so they get credit for being creative, original and, in the context of Colorado’s gold mines, regionally specific. But maybe the only object less mobile than a sun is a lump of rock. Wikipedia tells me the franchise began life as the Denver Larks, before changing their name to Rockets. It pains me to say it, but Nuggets is an upgrade over those.
16, Dallas Mavericks
I’ll admit to my inconsistency here: the Mavericks name, chosen in a 1980 fan contest, was at least partially influenced by the TV show (and James Garner had an ownership stake). So what makes it so much better than Raptors? Maverick, at least, has some regional meaning – a maverick is cowboy-speak for an unbranded calf – and a maverick personality fits basketball better than, you know, a dinosaur. And the name just sounds better. This is not an exact science.
15, Utah Jazz
I wrestled with what to do with the Jazz. If the team was still in New Orleans, it might be at the top these rankings. “New Orleans Jazz” has everything: regional specificity, originality and basketball flair (does any art form suggest basketball, with its improvisational energy, more than jazz?). But they’ve been in Salt Lake City since 1979, and the name, as someone once quipped, makes as much sense as the New Orleans Tabernacle Choir. It’s hard to think of a city less jazzy than SLC, making the name not just strange but wrong. I have them ranked in the middle tier, but not with a lot of confidence.
14, Indiana Pacers
Not terrible, but not great either. Evoking Indianapolis 500 pace cars, and the local harness racing industry, the name ticks the right boxes, and it at least suggests movement. Maybe it’s the association with the hideous AMC hatchback, but Pacers falls flat for me.
13, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are a perfectly satisfactory name. The name draws from Chicago’s stockyards, and sounds right. Bulls aren’t the most nimble animals, but they’re more mobile than the team’s Chinese translation, the Red Oxen.
12, Houston Rockets
Another solid name. It’s got a local connection – “Houston, we have a problem” – and Rockets are fast and dangerous. A bit generic, but not bad.
11, Charlotte Hornets
Taking their name from a bit of Revolutionary War lore (Lord Cornwallis allegedly referred to the city as “a veritable hornet’s nest of rebellion”), Hornets are quick, fierce and have a sharp sting, all good basketballish qualities. It’s a much better name than the unfortunate Bobcats, which the city was saddled with for a few years.
10, San Antonio Spurs
I give the Spurs lots of credit for originality. It’s not an obvious choice – it does fall into the equipment category – yet fits the region, and as a verb, contains a lot of action. And like a lot of good sports names, is short enough to fit nicely into a headline. The team started life as the Dallas Chaparrals, which also wasn’t bad, although a bit obscure.
9, Miami Heat
Another singular name, and much better than its upstate rival, the Magic. Yes, lots of places are hot, but the short name packs a lot of punch. It suggests both temperature and attitude, which fits Miami well. It also suggests intensity, which is maybe not a Mimi trait, but good to have in a basketball team. And while I’m not grading logos, theirs is one the the best marriages between name and image in all of sports.
T7, New York Knicks and Boston Celtics
Two names that just go together. They’re both TNEEG-SDANAs (Teams Named for a European Ethnic Group that Settled in Defined Areas of North America, like the Vikings), they’re either hard to pronounce (Kanicks?) or mispronounced (ask someone in Ireland to say Celtic) and have nothing to do with basketball. Yet they’re historic, colorful and have persisted for decades, long after their region’s denizens stopped being identified by their Dutch or Irish roots. Needless to say, no one was thinking about selling jerseys when they chose these names.
6, New Orleans Pelicans
Another bird, but instead of a sharp-beaked raptor (ahem), New Orleans went out of the box with pelicans, a big, dopey looking bird with a goofy bill. It’s very local. The team says it chose the name because “it represents the culture and resolve of the Gulf Coast region while also symbolizing Louisiana’s most pressing initiative of coastal restoration and wildlife conservation.” That sounds like a lot to ask for in a team name, but its still interesting and colorful. Pelicans also have a wingspan up to 12 feet, a very useful trait in basketball.
5, Minnesota Timberwolves
A classically good name. Wolves are relentless and can run forever, and adding “timber” attaches it to the woods of northern Minnesota. And a much better choice than its predecessor Lakers.
4, Oklahoma City Thunder
I was tempted to punish the Thunder for erasing the name of one of sports’s great names, the Seattle Supersonics. But this ranking doesn’t have an ethics component, so I can’t dock them for their trickery and deceit. And it is a great name: it evokes big storms rolling across the prairie, and thunderous dunks. Yeah, it’s a bit commercial, but I can live with it.
3, Portland Trailblazers
Trailblazers suggests pioneers, creativity and Lewis & Clark; ‘Blazers, it’s shortened version, evokes speed and dash. An excellent name.
2, Philadelphia 76ers
76ers combines a name that’s distinctly local, completely unmarketable, and a lot of fun. Like the San Francisco 49ers, it’s a name that’s perfect in Philly, and would make no sense elsewhere. And while it’s not overtly basketballish, I’d argue the patriotic red, white and blue color scheme is reminiscent of the ABA’s old circus ball, and “Sixers” just sounds fast.
1, Detroit Pistons
This one has it all, a near-perfect synthesis of originality, regional specificity and basketballish action. Yes, the team was born in Ft. Wayne, but Pistons have an even stronger connection to Detroit’s auto industry, and are an inspired alternative to something like coupes or hotrods. And the fast, driving power of a piston is an exact match for the speed of basketball. Even the motion evokes dribbling. Pistons does pretty much everything a team name should, and does it with panache.