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The Definitive Guide to NBA Team Names, Part 1

The Definitive Guide to NBA Team Names, Part 2

The thrilling conclusion to a very important basketball matter

In Part 1, we traced the etymology of the Lakers, Magic, Wizards who perform magic, Suns, the Heat created by the sun, and more NBA iconography. Without further ado, here are nos. 15 through 1 in the NBA names power rankings.

15. Atlanta Hawks

A “blah” name for a franchise that hasn’t advanced to the conference finals since moving to Atlanta in 1968. Hawks are vaguely dangerous — they’ll swoop down and snap up your Chihuahua in Central Park if you’re not careful — and they move in coordinated patterns, like basketball players. The “hawk” name has also allowed Atlanta’s game operations team to use a jarring “screech” sound effect and create a fun mascot — Harry the Hawk, seen here randomly riding a motorcycle down the street, to the delight of some Atlanta-area residents who may or may not be stoned.

But the sports landscape is littered with generic bird nicknames, and there’s nothing particularly localized about this one. The franchise began as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, a nod to the Native American legacy in Illinois, and switched to the more general “Hawks” name while bouncing from Milwaukee to St. Louis and finally to Atlanta. Carrying on a piece of nickname tradition is nice, but “Hawks” is a dull remainder.

14. Golden State Warriors

It’s a muscular, athletic mascot that works well for sports teams, but it’s also frustratingly nonspecific. The Dubs get points, though, for keeping “Warriors” as a way of highlighting the franchise’s roots as the Philadelphia Warriors, one of the NBA’s charter teams.

But that evolution underscores the generic nature of the term. The Philadelphia Warriors used a Native American logo that would be considered blatantly racist today, while the most recent iteration of a Warriors mascot was a faceless brute with no discernible personality. It is perhaps the least interesting thing about a franchise with a beautiful color scheme, a pleasing court design, and several different knockout jerseys.1

13. San Antonio Spurs

It’s a catchy, alliterative name that invokes the team’s Texas roots, works well graphically (those spiky, silvery Spurs pop off the page), and doubles as an active verb.

But it’s also a bit of a missed opportunity. The Spurs were the Dallas Chaparrals before a new ownership group purchased them in 1973 and moved them to San Antonio. A chaparral is a fancy name for a roadrunner, and the original Chaps tried to incorporate a “beep-beep” sound effect whenever the team made a 3-pointer. (It didn’t work, since nothing worked as planned in the ABA. The team also had a “mascot” that was literally just a very tall woman — a 6-foot-7 lady named Brenda who went by “Miss Tall Texan.” The ABA must have been so great.) The Chaparrals would still be a totally unique name choice today, and “Chaps” also works as a handy Texan shorthand.

And Spurs wasn’t even the team’s first choice upon switching cities! They were known briefly as the San Antonio Gunslingers, considerably more badass than “Spurs,” but switched before the team played even one game in San Antonio.

This concludes the most muddled portion of the list. You could order the teams from no. 21 to no. 13 in almost any way you like and I wouldn’t have too strong an objection. These are just mediocre names.

12. Memphis Grizzlies

Franchises have been moving around and doing funky things with nicknames — sometimes changing them, sometimes keeping them — since the invention of professional basketball. There are no grizzly bears in Memphis, but it doesn’t matter all that much; a cool nickname can overcome geographic incongruities.

The team began in 1995 in Vancouver, where there are so many grizzlies you sometimes see them hanging out next to well-trafficked streets in the region. The original owners nearly chose Mounties instead, a name that would have carried an aura of authority and presented Michael Heisley with a thornier choice upon his decision to buy the team and move it to Memphis. You can get away with the Memphis Grizzlies; I’m not sure you can get away with the Memphis Mounties.

A grizzly will rip your face off, and it’s so much more fun to say and write — with those two Z’s, so unusual — than the more general “bears.” It’s the most intimidating animal mascot in the NBA, and in a happy coincidence, it has been perfect for this most successful iteration of the franchise. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are basically human grizzly bears, and the team plays with a bulky, deliberate violence that fits the name. Bonus points for their mascot, Grizz the Bear, who does all sorts of crazy things with a heavy-metal edge.

This would be in the top 10 if not for the dissonance between city and animal.

The Upper Echelon

11. Sacramento Kings

That the team has been terrible outside the Chris Webber–Rick Adelman heyday of the early 2000s shouldn’t take away from the basic power of the “Kings” name. Sacto also gets credit for always featuring purple, a color traditionally associated with royalty. Bonus points for choosing the king of the jungle, a lion named Slamson, as the team’s mascot.

The name also draws a neat line across the franchise’s history in Kansas City and Cincinnati, and all the way to its original home in Rochester, New York, as the Royals — an early powerhouse in both the NBA and a predecessor league, born out of the barnstorming days of the 1920s and 1930s.

It’s not a unique name, and it doesn’t bring a jolt of entertainment value on the page or verbally. But it’s rock solid.

10. New Orleans Pelicans

I’ve been onboard since day one, and I almost can’t believe a segment of fans thinks this is a stupid mascot. On a basic level, no other prominent sports team, college or pro, goes by this name. The local lineage is clear; the brown pelican became the region’s preeminent symbol during the sadness of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, and a minor league baseball team in New Orleans used the name for several decades.

Also: Have you ever seen a pelican? It is a supremely cool bird, and it attacks its prey with a ruthless efficiency — and in very visually pleasing fashion, dive-bombing straight down into the water from hundreds of feet above.

The Pellies could push for a top-five spot once we see how the organization uses it — how the logo and uniforms evolve, what vernacular develops, and whether the team’s in-arena mascot is as spectacular as it should be.

9. Chicago Bulls

Our highest-ranking animal, and one that strikes even me as surprisingly high. I mean, there’s nothing super creative about this, even though there are no other “bulls” among the four major U.S. sports. It’s possible the Michael Jordan years have tricked my brain into thinking this is a cooler name than it really is.

But maybe not. The name does have local ties, even beyond the one-syllable thing Chicago seems to like in Cubs and Bears, and it works with Bears to complete the stock-market circle. Chicago was the nation’s first big meatpacking hub — an earlier Chicago hoops franchise went by “Packers” — and the team’s ownership considered other bull-related names (Matadors, for instance) before settling on just plain Bulls. The story goes that they landed on Bulls after the young son of one owner expressed his distaste for another potential name by proclaiming “That’s a bunch of bull!”

It’s a great one-syllable word, with some onomatopoeic qualities. A “bull” sounds like what it is — a big thing that lands with a single, decisive thud. It birthed a cool logo, which the Bulls have sprinkled liberally around their very cool floor, and a kick-ass pregame video montage featuring animated Bulls rumbling through the city like players on a fast break.

And we cannot overlook the furry red brilliance of Benny the Bull, a top-five overall mascot who has scared the crap out of me at games by suddenly appearing at my side, all bug-eyed, and participated in this super-fun skit with our friends at the Basketball Jones.

8. Houston Rockets

The second-highest “inanimate object” on this list, though rockets work with such power, speed, and wonder as to reach into a different category than nets, nuggets, or spurs. If a “thing” can be athletic, inspiring images beyond human flight and achievement, this is the thing. The Space Age motif has allowed Houston’s in-house design team to experiment with all sorts of funky, forward-looking court designs, jersey looks, and logos — including perhaps the most polarizing floor design in NBA history.

Houston has ties to NASA and the space-exploration industry, so the name remains locally relevant even though the Rox are a transplant from San Diego. The lack of an obvious mascot doppelgänger could have been a problem, but the Rockets have made do — first with the bizarrely popular Turbo (just a guy in a nylon suit), and now with Clutch the Bear. Clutch might look soft and jolly, with his round belly and friendly disposition, but he’s not above slamming a cake in the face of some hapless enemy fan or dropping his pants when the occasion calls for it.

7. Indiana Pacers

I get that this suffers, in theory, from the same problem as “Lakers” — i.e., the question of what in the hell a “Pacer” actually is. The team would probably answer that a Pacer is simply a man who plays for the professional basketball team in Indianapolis.

And that’s good enough for me, because the Pacers, maybe the preeminent ABA franchise, ditched the whole “let the fans name the team” concept and came up with something wholly unique, regional, and resonant of basketball on their own.

The name is meant to evoke both the Indianapolis 500 (the “pace car” terminology), the fast back-and-forth nature of basketball, and the state’s deep tradition of harness racing. The Laker-Pacer caveat is real, and keeps Indy from a higher ranking, but this is a damn good team name.

The Very Best

6. Utah Jazz

You don’t have to shout the history at me. We all know it. Without even getting into demographics, race, and religion, we can just say Salt Lake City has never been a hotbed of jazz music. The franchise started as the New Orleans Jazz, a seamless marriage of name and city. Ownership held on to the name upon moving to Salt Lake City, even though just about any other name would have made more sense.

It matters only a little. The Jazz is a very nearly perfect name for a basketball team. The basketball-as-jazz thing has been a bit overdone, but it still works. Both involve ensembles playing off each other in sequences that fall in the large gray area between “totally scripted” and “100 percent improvised.”2 Players/musicians make reads based on feel in the moment, and they allow each member of the group to thrive at the right time. The goal is to develop deep connections between teammates, push the boundaries of creativity, and raise the collective to a higher spiritual level than any member could reach on his or her own.

And drawing the “J” in “Jazz” as a musical note, with a multicolored basketball where the circle in the note would be? That might be the nicest bit of logo art in the NBA. That’s a grace note.

If you think this ranking is high based on the ridiculousness of naming a team in Utah the “Jazz,” think about where it might be without that cognitive dissonance.

5. New York Knickerbockers

What’s about to be revealed: I’m a sucker for names that double as descriptors, in some local dialect, for a group of people from that particular locality or tribe. Naming a sports team after the residents of its city binds players and fans in common cause, a unity of civic pride that seems almost impossible to achieve today with constant player movement and massive salaries that shift players onto a different plane of existence. The “band of brothers” effect of a Knickerbocker-type name is cool, even if we all know it’s false.

It’s true that “Knickerbocker” was originally a term for a pair of pants, rolled up at the ankles, that the 17th-century Dutch settlers of Manhattan apparently liked very much.3 But the term developed into something like an earlier version of “New Yorkers” — a collective term for the residents of what is now the world’s greatest city.

Washington Irving popularized it by using Diedrich Knickerbocker as a nom de plume in his history of the city; a cartoonish “Father Knickerbocker” became a popular character; and a local baseball team adopted the name in the mid-1800s. No NBA team name has a longer, prouder tradition.

The common shorthand, Knicks, works beautifully, and has the nice symmetry of the two K‘s. Problem: It’s hard to derive a mascot from a name that basically means “person from this region”; the Knicks don’t have an in-arena mascot. And what would it be? A Wall Street trader being led to minimum-security prison in handcuffs and a $10,000 suit? A walking yellow cab? An angry subway rider, furious that PEOPLE WON’T STEP INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE FREAKING TRAIN and that some jackass is playing his iPod so loudly the whole car can hear? A life-size rat? A person trying to fit a bed in a closet and yet somehow paying $1,000 per month for the privilege?

Sorry, I lost control for a minute there. The Knicks have a great name!

4. Detroit Pistons

The best of the “inanimate object” genre, and it’s not close, in part because the piston is not your average inanimate object. It helps power an engine, breathing high-speed life into a contraption that would be useless without it. It churns, back and forth, up and down, like a basketball team expending energy to change sides and reach an end point. It brings to mind a lot of qualities we associate with sports — motion, speed, repetitive effort, workmanlike resolve to continue on when it would be easier to stop. Maybe each member of the team is a piston and the team is the car. Or something like that. Mechanic types, please weigh in.

The match with Detroit is obvious, even though the team began life as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, named for owner Fred Zollner, whose foundry manufactured pistons. Small negative points for the corporate marketing origins, but the connections to Zollner and Fort Wayne have been long forgotten; the team moved to Detroit in 1957, and Zollner sold it in 1974.

Nonhuman/animal objects can make for tough mascot choices, but the Pistons have found a middle way with Hooper the Horse, a stand-in for vehicular horsepower.

3. Boston Celtics

Damn near perfect, especially considering Boston Unicorns was seriously in play, along with Whirlwinds and Olympics. The only downside is really almost a plus: The franchise ripped this name off from the original New York Celtics, a barnstorming powerhouse in the 1920s that was essentially too good for any of the available competition — so good that the Original Celtics entered the Hall of Fame as a team in 1959, by which time the Boston/NBA version was working on its second title. Stealing is a form of homage, and if you’re going to pay homage to anyone, you might as well choose the historical standard-bearers for your sport — especially since the Original C’s had been defunct since the early 1940s.

The name jibes with Boston’s history4 as a hot spot for Irish immigrants and their descendants. The name helped birth an all-time great color scheme and logo, with Red Auerbach’s brother, Zang, responsible for that frisky leprechaun at center court. The only problem: a pretty weak mascot in Lucky the Leprechaun, the only NBA character without a mask to cover the face of the man playing the role. Again: This is a problem common to teams that name themselves after a group of people with a shared identity. But it’s not an insurmountable problem …

2. Philadelphia 76ers

What a magical nickname — a combination of numbers and letters that sounds so nice, with all those “S” sounds. It carries a shorthand in “Sixers” that is just as good, evokes the city’s monumental place in U.S. history, and stands out as one of the great creative nicknames in sports.

The name is obviously a reference to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776, an event worth loud and proud commemoration, and “Seventy-Sixer” has the Knickerbocker effect of working as a shorthand for people from Philadelphia. Most major highways that run through and around the city include the number “76,” the Liberty Bell is there, the Founders signed the Constitution there, and the city served as the nation’s capital at times during and after the American Revolution.

In other words: Go crazy with the kick-ass historical references, Philly. You deserve it. The inherent patriotism of the name has allowed the Sixers to play with red, white, and blue color schemes and to toss some flag elements into their logo designs. The minimalist white basketball with blue trim, a red “7,” and a circle consisting of 13 stars (for the original 13 colonies) is high basketball art.

Alas, the Sixers have struggled to come up with a workable mascot — the downside of the Knickerbocker-style name. The team mercy-killed Hip-Hop the sunglasses-wearing rabbit after the lockout, sending out a bogus press release indicating Hip-Hop had “fallen in love” and left the franchise — not all that different from the time Poochie died on the way back to his home planet. They then asked fans to choose a new mascot form three options — a generic goofy dog (Poochie II?), a basketball-playing moose (getting warmer), and a hooping Ben Franklin (ding!), but the franchise ultimately chose none of the above. Get this right, and the Sixers may ascend to the throne.

1. Portland Trail Blazers

What a wonderful name for a team, even if it wasn’t close to the most popular choice in the “name the team” contest Portland held upon the birth of the franchise as part of the NBA’s 1970 expansion. Fans overwhelmingly voted for “Pioneers,” which evokes the settlement of the region, the Oregon Trail, and the brave struggles of those who staked early claim to the land.

But a local college, Lewis & Clark, was already using “Pioneers,” and the new Portland franchise was aiming for something both original and without potential intellectual property baggage. They settled upon “Trail Blazers,” a suggestion nearly 200 fans sent in during the contest, and, holy cow, did they make the right call. The name serves as a historical callback in the fashion of “Pioneers,” but it’s unique within the major sports landscape, it’s fun to say, it carries an easy shorthand in “Blazers,” and it recalls basketball and sports more readily than “Pioneers.”

“Blazers” implies speed, perfect for a fast sport, and the full name pegs the franchise as one seeking both stylistic originality on the court and a trailblazing impact (along with the Seattle SuperSonics, founded three years earlier) in spreading NBA hoops to a new region. The 1977 title team famously played with a progressive unselfishness, using big man Bill Walton as its passing fulcrum, and the use of a “Knickerbocker”-style collective term works especially well for this franchise. The Blazers were long the only major pro sport in town, and there is a unique closeness here among fans, players, and team.

The Trail Blazers name also inspired the team’s pinwheel logo, one of the rare abstract logos in all of sports. The red and white stripes (five of each) blazing in opposite directions, but coming together at the center, are meant to represent the blur of two opposing basketball teams working against each other while moving back and forth across center court. That’s beautiful.

The full name is a bit of a mouthful, and the team’s choice of mascot — Blaze the Trail Cat — is a clunky fit. But everything else is poetic. Portland wins.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, NBA, Sports

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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