It’s August, the NBA’s dead time, and having spilled untold thousands of words on the Bobcats, the Pistons, the Thunder, second-round draft picks, and other NBA esoterica, it’s time to have some freaking fun. In a recent podcast, the boss and I got into a Pellies-inspired discussion about team names — our favorites, our least favorites, and which ones should be subject to almost immediate change. At some point, one of us suggested that this would make a fun offseason column.
And so here we go — one NBA writer’s ranking of the 30 team names in reverse order. This is entirely a subjective exercise. I considered the impact a nickname can have beyond itself — on the team’s color scheme, mascot choice, and other gimmickry. I factored in several criteria related to the nickname alone — the way it rolls off the tongue; the power of alliteration; its fit within local culture; its history and the history of the broader franchise; its method of selection and possible alternatives; its existence in the real world as a person, animal, inanimate object, or weather phenomenon; and other variables I weighed in whatever way I felt like.
30. Brooklyn Nets
The franchise with aspirations of unmatched hipness, sporting killer black jerseys and a sleek new arena in the coolest borough of the coolest city, is named for an assemblage of string that hangs lifelessly below the rim. You might as well call them the Basketballs, or the Shoes, or the Wood-Paneled Floors.
The intentions weren’t bad. The Nets began life in the ABA as the New Jersey Americans, and, really, they should have just stopped there. The Americans — that’s a cool name, even better than the “Freighters” nickname the owner, Arthur Brown, originally suggested, according to Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s must-read history of the ABA. (Brown owned a freight trucking company.)
But when the team moved to Long Island, ownership switched to “Nets” in order to line up with the Jets and Mets. The “Nets” name has some residual cool, based mostly upon potent images of Jason Kidd fast breaks and an Afroed young Dr. J doing crazy stuff in those classic red-white-and-blue jerseys. But the Doctor retired a long time ago, and the interim has mostly featured sad failure — plus a very serious move in the mid-1990s to change the name to Swamp Dragons, a bid that drew opposition from local political elites sensitive to Joisey’s image as a disgusting swamp.1
The impulse to change was correct, and should grow stronger now that the team is relevant and in Brooklyn. A name switch might also kill the BrooklyKnight mascot, a death that would increase worldwide joy levels by at least 2 percent.
29. Cleveland Cavaliers
It’s so boring, with zero connection to the city of Cleveland. The word “cavalier,” as an adjective, amounts to a lazy arrogance — as in, “There is something cavalier about the way Dion Waiters breaks sets to launch 20-foot jumpers.”
That’s not the intent of the name, of course. The name “Cavaliers” is meant to bring up images of swashbuckling swordsmen embarking on some heroic task, probably wearing ridiculous puffy shirts and flowing pants. It was the winning entrant in a fan contest the team’s owners organized when the franchise came into existence in 1970; other finalists included Jays, Towers, Foresters, and the potentially very fun Presidents — an apparent reference to the unusually high number of U.S. presidents born and/or raised in the Cleveland area.
Cavaliers won a fan vote in the local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, though it’s unclear if anyone actually counted the votes.2 Swashbucklers aren’t uncool, though they are a little effete. The extended swordfight between Inigo Montoya and Westley from The Princess Bride is pretty badass. But everything about them is dated, and swords haven’t felt quite as threatening since that famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The double-C alliteration doesn’t do enough to lift “Cavaliers” above this spot.
28. Charlotte Bobcats
If you’re starting a basketball team in North Carolina and you’re leaning toward another freaking cat nickname, at least go with Cougars, in honor of the successful ABA franchise the Carolina Cougars, which at various times involved Larry Brown (as coach), Doug Moe (assistant coach), Roger Brown, Billy Cunningham, Steve “Snapper” Jones, and other notables.3
Nope. The franchise went with Bobcats, an unsubtle nod to the first name of its original owner, Robert Johnson. Negative points for self-aggrandizement. The bobcat is apparently indigenous to the region, but it’s a generic name, one Johnson actually tried to defend by saying, “No one wants to meet up with a bobcat in the woods, and that’s the feeling we intend to create on the court with our team’s new identity.” Yeah, that didn’t turn out.
The color scheme doesn’t help; the orange makes me long for a Creamsicle. All hail the return of the Hornets.
27. Phoenix Suns
The sun is hot, and it’s hot in Phoenix. That’s the whole concept here.
This is another name-the-team contest gone bad, and would you look at some of the suggestions this everyday celestial object somehow beat out: Firebirds, Flamethrowers, Fireballs, Jumping Beans (!), Tarantulas, Whirlwinds, and the very catchy Phoenix Phantoms.4 The team nearly chose Firebirds, which offered a number of different design and mascot possibilities, before Jerry Colangelo, then the general manager, choose the ho-hum “Suns.”
It’s hard to make a mascot out of the sun, and so the team has long used the famous gorilla as its in-arena entertainment. The gorilla is awesome, an innovator in his field, but the total disconnect between a gorilla and the sun is a constant reminder of the name’s banality.
26. Orlando Magic
Something about the amorphous-entity-as-nickname trend just doesn’t work. What kind of magic is this? Some deadly Harry Potter or Voldemort stuff the team can use on enemies — Avada Kedavra or Sectumsempra, maybe? Birthday party magic, involving playing cards and rabbits, perhaps intended to distract opponents while Anthony Bowie tries to sneak in a triple-double? Gandalf standing in the lane, bellowing, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS”?5
As you probably know, it’s something even more sinister — a clunky marketing ploy designed to siphon some of Disney’s “magic” and transfer it to the local team. “Magic” was perhaps the least-inspiring nickname among a group of nominations that included Challengers (in honor of the doomed shuttle), Orbits, Floridians (another ABA homage), Aquamen, Tropics, Heat, and Juice.
“Magic” won out when the daughter of Pat Williams, the team’s first GM, spent a day visiting local attractions and, awestruck afterward, told him, “This place is magic!” Ugh. Challengers was probably too dark, and Juice would have been accidentally hilarious amid today’s obsession over PEDs; could you imagine the Twitter explosion after Rashard Lewis’s positive test leaked in 2009? The team opted against “Juice” in part because a deep freeze in Florida devastated that season’s citrus crop. If crop production had been normal that year, we may well have had “Rashard Lewis of the Orlando Juice has been accused of using banned substances.” Stupid winter.
The name has brought along a few nice touches: the spell-casting sound effect the team plays after made free throws, and Stuff the (Magic) Dragon, a good-natured beast who shoots streamers through his nostrils.
25. Toronto Raptors
The name carries no (recent) local ties, and, even worse, it was a blatant attempt to capitalize upon those terrifying velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
The team’s new management is open to a name change, and when that process begins, Huskies should emerge as the runaway favorite. The Toronto Huskies played one season in the Basketball Association of America, a 1940s NBA precursor league, and the Raptors have worn “Huskies” jerseys on throwback nights. Other cool suggestions at the time of the franchise’s birth included Terriers, Beavers, and Dragons (which seems to have been a close runner-up in every “choose the name” contest from the past 20 years).
The only downside: losing the in-arena Raptor, a top-five overall mascot who does it all at an “A” level — video skits, in-arena comedy high jinks, stunts, and the use of an INFLATABLE! version of himself to ingest cheerleaders. (Ian Eagle, as usual, just nails the commentary there.) But that skill set should transfer across species in the event of a name change.
24. Miami Heat
“Heat” beats out “Suns” only because the name signals some danger for opponents unaccustomed to Miami’s tropical conditions; cold-weather teams might wilt under the stifling pressure of Miami’s always-stout defense. The sun produces heat, making it a higher-level entity, but sunshine is a happy thing that can make for pleasing weather. Heat is always hot, miserable, and awful to endure, and it can exist without visible sunlight. My personal version of hell, for instance, involves waiting on a New York City subway platform in August for a train that will never come.
But the Heat is still only a thing, nearly invisible, difficult to represent anthropomorphically (have you seen the Heat’s mascot, a human flame called Burnie?) or to pluralize. “Oh no, here comes a group of Heat!” is something no one would ever say.
Strong options in the “name the team” contest included Barracudas, Floridians (again), and for sheer comedy potential, Flamingos and Suntan. There would have been something poetic about thousands of overtanned fans cheering for “Your Miami Suntan!” DOS MINUTOS, SUNTAN FANS!!!!!
Inoffensive But Uninspiring
23. Minnesota Timberwolves
The rare three-syllable nickname, almost unnecessary here, since only animal experts know precisely what a timberwolf is. As you might expect, it’s a rare species of wolf found in Minnesota — and almost nowhere else in the U.S., giving the name a cool local currency. Wolves are both scary and stealthy, fitting for a team that now sports the sneaky Ricky Rubio and a block of muscles named Nikola Pekovic. The local relevancy makes it perhaps a more fitting nickname than Polar Bears, a popular suggestion at the time, or Polars, the runner-up behind Timberwolves.
But it feels boring and standard in a way that plagues canine and feline nicknames, even the original ones like Timberwolves and Lynx (another suggested choice, later adopted for the local WNBA team). There were plenty of other solid animal and weather-related suggestions, including Icebox, Sturgeons, Fighting Pike, Chillers, Huskies, Icebergs (“Run into us and see what happens!”), and Moose, which offers both alliteration and the possibility of a fantastic in-arena mascot.6 Regardless: “Timberwolves” is reasonable but punchless.
22. Oklahoma City Thunder
The top-rated weather-related nickname, only because thunder can be legitimately scary and brings at least some vague sensory connection to the on-court product. A Russell Westbrook–Kevin Durant fast break creates a rumbling tremor of inevitable ferocity and lasts only a couple of seconds.
But, man, look at the alternatives — some from fans, some among the half-dozen names the franchise trademarked before choosing “Thunder”: Thunderbirds (both military and animal connotations), Roughriders, Renegades, Outlaws, Barons, Bison, Marshalls, and Twisters — the last probably too close to home at this point for residents of Tornado Alley. They’re all better than “Thunder.”
21. Denver Nuggets
This is the second concrete, non-celestial thing on the list — not a person, animal, or weather-related phenomenon, but a tangible non-living thing we can touch. The other is “Nets,” but unlike a sad, useless net, a “nugget” is at least something cool — a chunk of gold that works as both a reference to Colorado’s place within the mid–19th century gold rush and an homage to the Denver Nuggets team that played one sad 11-51 season in the NBA in 1950.
The current Denver franchise was in a bit of a pickle as it pushed to be one of the ABA franchises to survive the merger with the NBA. They were the Denver Rockets then, but the NBA already had a Rockets in San Diego.
Management resurrected “Nuggets” in 1974 to preemptively quash any conflict with the NBA and the Rockets. The Denver team had been known as the Rockets only because one of its early owners, Bill Ringsby, owned a company called Rocket Truck Lines. “Rockets” is a fine nickname, but any name is less savory when its origins are so nakedly linked to the fortunes of the person overseeing it. Nuggets was almost a sideways step, but it’s still just a lump of (expensive) metallic mineral.
20. Los Angeles Lakers
This should probably be even lower. I trust everyone knows the story: The franchise began life as the Minneapolis Lakers, which made sense, because there are lakes — 10,000 of them, at least! — in Minnesota. The team decided to keep the name upon moving in 1960 to Los Angeles, which, according to extensive research, is not in fact known for an abundance of lakes.
Also: What is a “Laker”? The “-er” at the end would seem to indicate it is a person, in line with “player” or “dunker” or “hogger of the basketball late in close games.” But what exactly is it? Someone who swims in lakes? Lives underwater in one? Fishes in them? Visits them often? You can’t make a mascot from this, which is why the Lakers have not done so.
It’s a nonsensical name. But, holy cow, does it roll off the tongue — those three “L” sounds spaced out perfectly, the words ordered in a 1-3-2 syllable structure that just comes out easily. The long “a” sound in Lakers has a Fonz-like casual cool to it — “Heeeeyyyy” — if you stretch it out, fitting for a franchise that has won 16 titles and come through in just about every clutch opportunity since Bill Russell retired. The “Lake Show” is a fun sub-nickname, and there’s something noble about keeping the name of a team that won five rings in Minneapolis — even if the geographic connection vanished upon the move West.
The intangibles raise “Lakers” higher than it probably should be, but no higher than this.
19. Washington Wizards
Wizards slips ahead of Magic for one basic reason: Wizards do magic. Without wizards, magic is just a concept waiting for someone to learn and execute it. The Wizards name has some agency.
It’s not an unthreatening nickname, either, despite the soft associations critics might draw — the flowing robes, thin stature, and meager physical strength. Wizards are dangerous, and they can strike from anywhere, at any time. If any Washington player actually knew the Imperius curse, their opponents would never score a basket.
However, you lose major points when the most-trafficked blog covering your team chooses its URL based entirely around the concept of switching back to the old name — Bullets, a moniker with roots deep into the franchise’s Baltimore days. The original Bullets were named for a local foundry and promoted the slogan “Faster than a speeding bullet.” New owners revived the name when the league’s Chicago-based franchise relocated to Baltimore after the 1963 season.
Abe Pollin, the team’s late owner, famously switched to Wizards in 1997 in order to avoid any association with the gun violence that plagued the D.C. area in the late 1980s and early 1990s.7 It was a shaky choice for a franchise with so many patriotic and political choices at its fingertips — Nationals, Monuments, Senators, or even Generals. The latter would have carried some intellectual property costs and created confusion with the Globetrotters’ hopeless victim (he’s spinning the ball on his finger! Just take it!), but it would have been cool for Washington to co-opt that name and turn it into a winner.
Actually, considering the last 20 years in Wizards history, maybe the Generals thing would have turned out badly. “With the no. 1 pick in the draft, the Washington Generals select … Kwame Brown! How’s it feel to take your place in the Generals tradition, Kwame? Kwame? Are you OK?”
18. Milwaukee Bucks
There’s nothing wrong here. The Bucks have been the Bucks since their founding in 1968, and the franchise chose the name because there are a lot of bucks throughout Wisconsin’s hunting-rich landscape.8 Bucks are springy and athletic, and though they might not be fearsome in every context, it’d sure scare the crap out of me if I happened along a group of these big-antlered bad boys in the wild. They can do some damage.
The name has also produced Bango the Buck, one of the league’s most daring mascots.
It’s just a little … boring. It’s the “striving for the eighth seed” of team names.
17. Dallas Mavericks
Unremarkable, even though the Mavs have been randomly maverick-y through much of their history — with heapings of Don Nelson, and cornerstone pieces in Dirk Nowitzki and Sam Perkins who carried skill sets the league hadn’t really seen before. But the connection between a “maverick” identity and athleticism is tenuous, especially compared to the two other finalists in the team’s nickname contest — Express and Wranglers, the latter of which is excellent.
The franchise wanted a unique nickname, but they ended up choosing one already taken as the mascot of a local college and the name of a popular television show — the classic Maverick, starring James Garner. Spoiler alert: Garner was a member of the original Mavs ownership group.
As we’ll get to later, the Mavs had a much easier route to a nickname that ticked every box — unique, cool, and with local roots: reviving the name of the old Dallas ABA franchise.
16. Los Angeles Clippers
We’d regard this name with higher esteem had it not become so singularly synonymous with incompetence and ownership sleaze. This also marks the third “thing” nickname on this list, and the best one yet. A clipper ship carries both majesty and clear local ties to the franchise’s first West Coast outpost, in San Diego.
The name might not make quite as much sense in Los Angeles as it did in the more naval-based whale’s vagina, but it’s not nearly as out of place as Lakers or Jazz.
It’s also a cool word, and allows for the usage of the verb “clip” in fun ways: “They’ve clipped eight points off the lead in just under two minutes!” Or for the more randy among you: “Chris Paul is so ruthless, he’ll just clip your balls off.” And this was clearly a case where changing the name upon relocation from Buffalo was the right move, despite the history. There would not have been much to like about “Los Angeles Braves.”
FOR PART 2 OF THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO NBA TEAM NAMES, CLICK HERE.