It’s that time of the summer again. After going way too deep ranking names and court designs, we’re back to hit perhaps the most important piece of art associated with a team: its primary logo, which defines both its on-court look and marketing reach.
• This is subjective, though I’ve consulted experts who understand the process behind the images.
• I’ve focused almost entirely on primary marks; things get unwieldy if you factor in the half-dozen secondary and partial logos that teams conjure to sell more stuff. That said, a killer secondary logo can nudge a team up the rankings — or make you wonder how they could hide it behind some dull central mark.
30. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Like, what is this? Thunder higher-ups hoped fans would think of two things when they heard the name — storms and rampaging bison — but they didn’t want to commit visually in either direction. A stormy logo might marginalize the bison, a key symbol for local Native Americans, and the staid Thunder thought it would be silly to have mature adults wear jerseys with animals on them. “We didn’t feel like having professional players represented by [an] animal was where we wanted to be,” says Brian Byrnes, the team’s senior vice-president for sales and marketing. Besides, Byrnes says, “the bull was already taken.”
Straddling the fence resulted in this vanilla mishmash. “It might be the best D-League logo ever made,” says Tom O’Grady, who served as the NBA’s first creative director before leaving to found Gameplan Creative, a Chicago-based branding consultancy. Team officials say the shield hints at a leader charging into battle, and that the upward rising “bolts,” which don’t look like bolts at all, symbolize a young franchise growing up.
No team has worse art, top to bottom, and Nike will push for an overhaul once it replaces Adidas as the league’s apparel partner in 2017. Nike and the Thunder are already talking, and the Thunder “haven’t ruled out” a more explicit weather-related secondary mark, Byrnes says.
Bad news: Oklahoma City seems locked into the shield motif and likely won’t replace it with a bison — or anything else. “To some extent, we are committed to the idea we have,” Byrnes says. “But we would not dismiss good feedback, particularly from Nike. We’re open to modernizing the logo, but we don’t have an appetite to overhaul it.”
They already have plenty of nice bison illustrations, courtesy of Dick Sakahara, a California designer who consulted with the Thunder during the team’s creation.
“I have a lot of bison that never got to be,” Sakahara says.
29. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
It takes about two years for teams to create new artwork, which means we’re probably at least a half-decade away from the Clippers scrapping this — and pretending it never happened. They tried some cool stuff with the monogram and the curved lines, meant to suggest undulating waves, but the only thing you notice is the giant CLIPPERS word in a color the team had never featured.
“It just doesn’t work,” says Mark Fox, a Bay Area designer who has worked on several team logos over the last two decades.
“What a missed opportunity to do something tasty,” Sakahara says.
28. DETROIT PISTONS
The name is all churning Motor City dynamism, but the team tosses out a blinding red basketball with “Detroit Pistons” written across it. With so many energetic, car-related images available, how do you end up in the least inspired place?
“The default NBA logo is a basketball with the name typed across it,” Fox says. “If you end up there, you aren’t working very hard.”
© 1991 Mark Fox / BlackDogThe league contracted Fox to design a new Pistons logo in the 1990s, when they eventually settled on a flaming horse head perched above exhaust pipes. Fox drew a lug nut atop crisscrossing wrenches, meant to evoke a skull-and-crossbones flag, and placed them within a circular saw blade. I don’t love the jagged, arcade-style font, but this could have evolved into a badass logo.
“I think it might have scared the league,” Fox says, laughing.
An old version of the red ball carries some Bad Boys–era nostalgia, but I’d take the flaming horse or the original Fort Wayne Pistons robot man over the current version.
27. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Simplicity plays better than noise, for purposes of both art and commerce. The NBA shrinks logos onto patches and tiny slices of real estate, and jumbled marks become indecipherable on a miniature scale.
There is just too much going on here for a team that already has to fit 21 letters into this mark — too many trees, too many colors, and too much dramatic shading on the wolf’s face. The Clips and Pacers got away with not including their full city/state in their primary marks, and the Wolves should push to join them upon their inevitable redesign.
The easiest solution: shift a revised version of their gorgeous secondary logo, featuring a wolf howling into the night sky, onto center stage.
26. NEW YORK KNICKS
New York is the greatest city in the world, and there is nothing New York about this logo. There are only vague allusions. The giant block letters, leaning a few degrees backward, are meant to mimic skyscrapers as seen from below. The triangular shield is a nod to the emblems Gotham superheroes wear upon their chests.
Whatever. You could transfer the same combination of triangle, basketball, and font to any team.The logo wasn’t supposed to be this bland. The league hired Michael Doret, a noted lettering expert, to craft a majestic mark centered on the Empire State Building. Doret integrated the building seamlessly, so that it didn’t subsume the other elements of the logo. The sketches screamed New York without screaming.
The Knicks retreated into mediocrity, in part because they ran into issues acquiring the rights to the building’s image. A team stealing money from the city via a massive tax break on Madison Square Garden should pay, within reason, for a logo that reflects its grandiose place in the NBA universe.
“It was so close to being perfect,” O’Grady says.
“It’s just boring,” Fox says. “And Doret’s work is never boring. If it is, that means something terrible has happened.”
At least Doret’s subway token mark, with a stylized”NYK,” lives on as a secondary logo. That thing rocks.
25. DENVER NUGGETS
The snow-capped mountain is subtle, and that’s the problem: You barely notice it behind the monstrous, balloony font spelling out “Nuggets.” The golden lettering nods at the team’s name and calls back to classic Old West signage. “You could see it hanging on a saloon,” Fox says.
It’s just hard to get by the bubbly font, which also infects an otherwise pristine court design. The Nuggets have already shifted the superior pickax secondary logo into the precious center-court real estate, and they should just bump it into the top spot.
It describes the origins of the name with more clarity than the blah mountainscape and without smacking you over the head like the coked-up Maxie the Miner cartoon Denver used in the 1970s.
24. SACRAMENTO KINGS
You almost have to squint at this mess for 30 seconds, like one of those Magic Eye puzzles, to figure out what the hell is going on. There are swords,1 maybe some crown-like spikes at the top, and, wait, is there a shield in there someplace? It resembles a prop from a bad tiki bar.
Technically, they are lances.
“It looks like you walked into someone’s kitchen, took out a big magnet, sucked all the pots and pans toward it, and then concluded, ‘There’s your logo,’” Fox says. The “K” and “S” in “Kings” are weirdly larger than the middle three letters.
The purple-and-black combination is nice, and unique in the NBA,2 but there’s not quite enough black here. There is entirely too much gray.
And also something of a happy accident. The Kings wanted to use burgundy but concluded it was too close to the shade the 49ers use.
The Kings need something cleaner, and they have good starting points in the vault. Their current secondary logo, a purple crown, is pleasing, and the crown atop a yin-yanged “S” and “K” could lead them someplace special.
23. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Points for trying something different, but the stylized horse within a basketball has never done it for me. It reminds me of a marble with swirling colors inside of it. Everything the Mavs do artistically — the jerseys, the logo, the court, the team name — leaves me unmoved.
Three interlocking shapes making up one logo feels busy.
22. UTAH JAZZ
You understand the impulse to create a more artful version of Denver’s logo. The franchise knows how incongruent it is to have the Jazz in Utah, but it also understands how perfect the name is. The basketball-as-jazz metaphor is a cliché now, but it’s a cliché because there is truth at the heart of it.
The Jazz split the difference by keeping the name but replacing any reference to actual jazz music with something representative of the region. League officials in the 1990s recommended working the classic Jazz note into the team’s new mountainy look, O’Grady says, but they just couldn’t mold the two disparate elements together.
This is classic overthinking. The original Jazz logo, with the “J” rendered as a musical note and a tricolored basketball as the note head, is one of the greatest pieces of art in sports history. Just use that and demote the mountain nonsense to the background.
Good news: Utah is on track for an official return to the note logo as its primary mark for the 2016-17 season. They might crack the top five here next time around.
21. WASHINGTON WIZARDS
Washington punted on the two-dimensional leaping wizard, but it’s politically difficult — maybe impossible — for them to revisit any of the beloved Bullets imagery. They’ve avoided both by marketing the team around Washington, D.C., itself, vaporizing any whiff of the wizard.
The new primary logo, debuting this season, is an interesting start, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Washington modified it before 2020. The Wiz have squeezed in a bunch of cool local iconography, but all the stripes, stars,3 and monuments distract the eye from what should be a simple reading: There’s a basketball in the middle! Exquisite detailing on both the outside and inside of a circular logo may be too much, and I’m torn on the Washington Monument as a super-thick lace on the ball.
Meant to reference the D.C. city flag.
Overall, the secondary “dc” logo is better:
I’m not ashamed to admit that I kinda miss that levitating wizard guy. The Wiz excised him from all levels of the logo scheme, and that’s just cold — a cruel memory charm aimed at the minority of fans who enjoyed him.
20. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
The boring name and ugly color scheme make for rough parameters, but this is a solid result. The sword is threatening, and having the sharp end slice through the opening underneath the big “C” was smart. So was letting one team color — the wine shade — dominate the mark, instead of trying to mix two strong ones.
It’s just hard to construct something beautiful from the Cavs’ underlying foundation. The logo can also look huge on the horizontal plane, since the sword juts out at either end, and the Cavs shoehorn in their complete 18-letter team name.
19. ORLANDO MAGIC
Here’s a challenge: create a visual representation for the concept of “magic,” incorporate basketball, and somehow avoid making it corny. The Magic have done that with the comet ball, which flies downward as if it were about to drop through the net. I’ve always liked that mark.
The straight font, unveiled in 2010, is almost too serious to back such a joyful image. The old stylized font, which used stars for the “a” in Magic and the dot of the “i,” trod toward camp, but it made for a better fit with that starry ball.
18. PHOENIX SUNS
I will never understand the Suns’ recent determination to be Team Halloween, pushing black over that classic purplish blue as the companion to orange. The sunburst should be a no-brainer top-10 mark, but the Suns have imprisoned it within a black jail cell. Either let that baby soar without boundaries, or go back to the purple-blue background that set the league on fire in the mid-1990s:
“That mark literally changed the way logos were done,” O’Grady remembers. “You can see what they were trying to do with the update, but they’ve screwed it up.”
Just having the words underneath the purple-blue block made that old mark feel less oppressive — like it could breathe a bit. The Suns must know what’s up on some level, because they’ve kept the blue as the basis for their secondary flaming-ball logo, which adorned center court for much of the Steve Nash era. That’s a better mark than the current sunburst, but it’s also similar to Miami’s primary logo.
17. BROOKLYN NETS
The groundbreaking use of black-and-white sets a tone of minimalist cool, and the Nets doubled down by taking their old 3-D shield logo and flattening it into a smooth 2-D mark.
But let’s not go crazy. This is basically a Thunder-style shield with a basketball inside it — one that almost resembles the negative image of an eight ball. The NBA’s worst team name doesn’t present a ton of options, so this is a nice first shot for the Brooklyn era. The Nets toyed around with other color schemes as they prepped for the Brooklyn move, and it will be interesting to see if they revisit any for future logos.
16. HOUSTON ROCKETS
This is an underrated logo, especially considering the garish monstrosity it replaced. The “R,” crafted by Eiko Ishioka, an Academy Award–winning4 designer, has two pitch-perfect hints of rocketry: the nose cone atop the left brushstroke and the two streams of exhaust fuming from the bottom as the rocket takes off. That is subdued beauty.
For Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.
The Rockets took the “subdued” thing too far, with perhaps the league’s plainest court design and a basic red-and-white color scheme. They break out the old McDonald’s red-and-yellow look several times per season, and there seems to be a groundswell for a return to that early-1990s style.
Houston decided to ditch that look around 1993, because the team’s owner, Leslie Alexander, thought it had become synonymous with losing, O’Grady remembers. Alexander wanted to start fresh and incorporate an actual rocket ship. And then, bam: Houston won back-to-back titles in their yellow-and-red duds, shattering their alleged connection with loserdom. The Rockets asked to reverse the branding change, but it was too late; the league sent them a seven-figure bill for all the merchandise they had already commissioned, and Houston relented, O’Grady says.
And so the world met one of the most ridiculous logos in league history — a sneering rocket with a red tip on his nose:
The original version wasn’t so cartoonish, but Alexander liked how the toothy glare recalled nose art on World War II–era bombers, O’Grady says. Houston used the logo as a springboard into insanity. They placed it in the middle of hideous pinstriped jerseys and depicted it flying across the most cacophonous court design in pro hoops history.
Remarkably, the angry rocket was in lockstep with creative trends, O’Grady says. Teams envied the popularity of Charlotte’s dribbling hornet, Hugo, and rushed to draw their own goofy characters. This was the era of purple dinosaurs, flaming horses, muscle-bound blue warriors, and hockey’s mighty ducks. “Charlotte started it, and then the barn door was open,” O’Grady says.
Sophisticated designers cautioned the league against over-illustrated marks. “Nike knocked us up and down Fifth Avenue about how cartoonish the logos were getting,” O’Grady says. “They were the anti-cartoon police.” Fox and other outside consultants joined the chorus, but team and league officials were hell-bent on duplicating the Hugo effect.
The Rockets have since veered to the opposite pole, and perhaps they oversimplified. If they redo their art, I hope they find a spot for that “R.”
15. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
It’s impossible to untangle the quality of a piece of art from the emotional connections we build around it over time.
We all love this logo, but we probably love it because it has been associated over five decades with some of the greatest teams in sports history. Unless you’re a raging Laker-hater, when you see this logo, some happy signal fires inside you.
“The nostalgia of that mark is unquestionable,” says Rodney Richardson, owner of RARE Design in Mississippi, which has consulted with several NBA teams. “But if someone designed that today, would people say, ‘That’s a great logo’? I doubt it. Is it timeless because it’s timeless, or because it never changed?”
It is just the team’s name superimposed on a basketball — the dull template teams fall back on when they can’t think of anything else. But the “forum blue” and gold color scheme is so soft and inviting, and the streaking letters give the impression of a team flying down the court — perfect for the Showtime era. The only adjustment the Lakers should even entertain would be adding the circle of 16 stars, one for each championship, that glitters around the logo at center court.
This is a basic mark that has gathered greater significance for reasons beyond artistry. Slotting it in the middle feels right.
14. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Everyone expected this to be a bust — even Richardson, the guy who designed it. “It was like, ‘Good grief, why would you ever name a team the Pelicans?'” Richardson says, laughing. “And we were told, ‘Well, that’s what Mr. [Tom] Benson wants.’”
“When they announced they would be the Pelicans, every designer I knew said, ‘Oh my god, that is going to be hard to do,'” says Jason Lim, the Warriors’ director of creative services.
Richardson made it work. The bird is immediately identifiable as a pelican, and the menacing stare and blood-red beak provide appropriate aggressiveness for an attacking NBA mascot. This is one of only two logos in which the city name is rendered in larger type than the team name, and Richardson drew “New Orleans” atop the wings to create the effect of a pelican — the symbol of the city’s survival after the Deepwater Horizon spill — lifting the city into a rebirth.
“I was surprised and impressed,” Lim says. The fleur-de-lis atop the logo is a perfect capper, and the team was smart to choose locally relevant colors over a brighter Mardi Gras theme that might have resonated more with casual fans outside New Orleans. Everything in here sends the same message: This team belongs to the city.
It’s just a little busy. Even the ball is two different colors. The logo collapses in on itself when you shrink it for patches. That’s where the secondary logos come in, Richardson says, and they are all great — especially the “bird-de-lis.”
13. INDIANA PACERS
The Pacers’ art is all no-frills, and that works in a state where the quiet choreography of the game has always been more important than the noise around it. The Pacers have the league’s smallest center-court logo, and this primary mark is so clean, it doesn’t even include the state’s name. It doesn’t have to. The ball flying over the word “Pacers” guides us to all the associations we’re supposed to make — speed, pace cars, the Indy 500, and the state of Indiana.
It’s nothing spectacular, but it fits the franchise.
12. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Design experts would rank this one much higher, and using a spur for the “u” in the team’s name is effortless genius. They tilted that spur “u” a few degrees upright after scrapping the famous fiesta logo, where it was slanted almost horizontally — a jarring look that didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the word.
I like the way that new spur drops below the word mark, and its starry outline pops against a white background. Silver and black is objectively cool, and though the fiesta look is much-loved among some fans, it was too loud for me.
Rectangular logos can get distended on the longer plane, and this mark vacuumed up a ton of real estate on the Spurs’ old court. San Antonio has centered more of its marketing on the stand-alone spur logo, and it wouldn’t shock anyone at the league office if they eventually used a version of it as their primary mark.
11. ATLANTA HAWKS
We’re into elite territory now. Sakahara’s hawk clutching a basketball was the best of the mid-1990s cartoon boom, probably because it was the least cartoony of that bunch. But it will be gone next season, after a pile of research pointed to the obvious: Fans just love the Pac-Man.
“We had just become so disconnected from fans, emotionally,” says Peter Sorckoff, the team’s chief creative officer.
“It had a great run,” Sakahara says of his old hawk.
The league prohibits reusing “legacy marks” as primary logos, since that would cannibalize a separate revenue stream for vintage goods, so the Hawks had the thorny task of updating a beloved logo so subtly no one would notice. “I was terrified to screw up the original logo,” Sorckoff says. “If we did this wrong, I’d never get over it personally, let alone what it would have done to my career.”
They sharpened the beak, added a little cleft around its chin, and tilted its head downward, so that the bird looks like it’s swooping down on prey. “We did this thinking about Bud’s [Mike Budenholzer’s] style of play, and he’s all about attack, attack, attack,” Sorckoff says.
Budenholzer had some degree of say-so on the biggest change: the “Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club” ringing the hawk. The team was concerned about aping European soccer, but Budenholzer liked the idea that the franchise was larger than any particular group of players. Higher-ups also wanted an inclusive message after a racism scandal engulfed both ownership and the front office one year ago.
“What we went through last September was horrible,” Sorckoff says. “The meaning really is that anyone can join this club. Just raise your hand and say, ‘I dig the Hawks.’”
Designers played around with grays and the team’s new “Volt Green,” but team officials decided the primary mark should only feature red and white — now and forever. The team can use the new colors in other spots, and Sorckoff says they plan to produce merchandise soon with some Native American–themed art linked to the team’s original iteration as the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
10. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Design experts scoff at this, but I don’t really care: blue and yellow make gorgeous love in the middle, and slotting the silhouette of the Bay Bridge off-center gives the logo — and the Golden State jerseys — a quirky style no one else has.
That was an accident. The team experimented with marks closer to the famous “City” logo, and with straight-on views that mimicked what drivers see as they get on the bridge. But the Warriors wanted to slap the logo onto the front of the jersey, and Adidas reminded them that they needed space for numbers. Moving the bridge left cleared that space, though the numbers are technically smaller than league-mandated standards.
This is a nice, understated move away from the blue warrior dude, especially since Golden State had only a year to redesign all of its art. The mascot version of the blue warrior was called Thunder, and when Oklahoma City’s owners swiped that name, the Warriors had limited time for a makeover.
Unfortunately, you can’t really tell it’s the Bay Bridge, and people often mistakenly assume it’s the more famous Golden Gate, Lim says. Even TV production teams have produced animations in which the Golden Gate fades into an image of the logo.
The font is also a universally available standard called Copperplate, and using a public font is a mark of shame among designers. The league blames the Warriors, and the Warriors blame the league. “I wish we had pushed back more,” Lim says. The off-center look might violate some design principles, since it draws your eye toward the empty blue space, but something about it hits.
“It’s charming in that it almost feels a bit varsity — like college ball,” says Tom Koukodimos, a partner at Sid Lee, a leading design firm. “I’d hate to lose that. Everyone is trying for something unique, and the Warriors have that.”
9. PHILADELPHIA 76ers
The best of the “words over ball” genre, and proof that starting with an evocative name — no. 2 on my name rankings — can transform a ho-hum logo scheme into something greater. The name offers up all kinds of historical details, including the ring of 13 stars, one for each of the original colonies, that has almost always been a key part of Philly’s art. The small white “Philadelphia” within a blue circle, a new feature, has a throwback feel that meshes with Philly’s traditional marks. The juxtaposition of the maroon “7” and blue “6” has always worked, in part because neither shade is too loud.
And, holy cow, welcome Dribblin’ Ben Franklin into the secondary-logo universe!
Who cares if there is debate about whether Franklin was actually left-handed? If Ben freaking Franklin set his mind to dribbling with his weak hand, he’d have mastered it.
8. TORONTO RAPTORS
Prediction: This logo ages well after a rocky start. Some fans miss the dinosaur, and the Raptors first leaked a black-and-white version that had the lunatic fringe of Brooklyn fans accusing Toronto of stealing its motif. “If they think that, hopefully it fans the flames of our rivalry,” says David Freeman, the head of brand marketing at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Toronto has focused its new image around “We The North,” a slogan that captures the feeling of being outcasts in a league where every other team plays in the U.S. “It’s our way of embracing everything people say is crappy about us,” Freeman says. “That it’s cold here, that you need your passport, all of it.”
You could argue this is just another name-on-ball job, but I love the integration of the Raptor claw into the lacing of the ball — a touch that suggests the damage a dinosaur can do without actually showing the dinosaur. Aren’t movie monsters scarier offscreen? “Most teams with animal names just illustrate what the team is,” says Koukodimos, who helped design the logo. “We wanted to break from that.” Outsiders need to be different, after all.
The Raptor name fits that image, and the team plans to keep it in perpetuity, despite regular cries to switch to Huskies — or something else, Freeman says. Husky dogs are everywhere; almost no one else uses a dinosaur mascot. The Raptors will produce a new Husky uniform for 2016 to honor the 70th anniversary of the Toronto Huskies from the defunct Basketball Association of America, but that’s as far as they plan to go, Freeman says. There are also some new secondary marks coming.
This logo is a nifty way to keep the Raptor name while distancing the team from Jurassic Park, the 1993 film that inspired the mascot. “There is a generation of people who loved that film,” Koukodimos says. “And then there are people who say, ‘Why the heck are we named after a freaking movie from 1993?’”
7. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Long live the pinwheel, one of the few purely abstract logos in sports. The 10 swirling stripes, five red and five white, are meant to represent two teams crisscrossing the court in a blur, and dammit if that doesn’t move me at the very core.
Breaking news: Design experts almost universally pan it. “It feels so dated, so 1970s,” Fox says.
“It has no personality,” O’Grady adds.
“It’s very corporate — like something from an airline,” Sakahara piles on.
HOW DARE YOU. This is me, plugging my ears and screaming, “Nah-nah, nah-nah, can’t hear you.” Even the Blazers have flirted with a different look; they retained Richardson’s firm several years ago for a rework but ultimately got cold feet about moving away from the pinwheel, Richardson says. STAY STRONG, BLAZERS.
This should be higher than no. 7, but the current pinwheel is drowning in a black mass. Set that baby free, Portland. Let it fly and spin. Some folks prefer the old straight up-and-down version, but the slanted edition gets at the sport’s fast pace.
6. BOSTON CELTICS
The title of “most famous logo in sports history” comes down to the Celtics and Yankees, so it seems sacrilegious to place Boston’s leprechaun5 here at no. 6. But there has to be some penalty for the “Would this even fly today?” question. Touchy sorts could find it offensive, and design snobs characterize it as an amateurish cartoon with a busy color scheme of green, white, black, orange-brown, and gold.
Drawn by Red Auerbach’s brother Zang.
“It may be loved by fans,” Fox says, “but it is derived from embarrassing clichés.”
“If you took out the history, people would question it,” says Koukodimos.
But you can’t take out the history — the championships, the logo’s placement at the center of the parquet, and Boston’s legacy as a hub for the Irish. The shade of green is iconic, and the winking leprechaun captures the impish obnoxiousness of a coach so confident that he lit up victory cigars before games were over. If you think this should be no. 1, I wouldn’t argue too strongly against you.
5. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
This is perhaps the favorite logo among design wonks, and when you look closely, you notice how special it is. The franchise arrived from Vancouver with a snarling, swiping cartoon that felt even more overwrought after designers researched the grizzly. “That is not the character of this animal,” says Richardson, who designed the current mark. “It’s stoic and stalwart. He’s not a badger. He doesn’t have to run around growling.”
Richardson landed on a bear that is calm and fierce. The laser-focused golden eyes emit aggression, and the team colored them gold to hint at Egyptian royalty — a nod to the famous Memphis Pyramid. The blues obviously refer to both Beale Street and local music history, but they also tie into local Native American mythologies that linked the grizzly to the sky, Richardson says.
Conveying so much with just an animal head rendered the rest of the bear body unnecessary, and that’s good, because full-bodied animal illustrations almost inevitably become semi-cartoonish. The team understood that the grizzly mark would never fit Memphis as snugly as it did Vancouver, but they decided it already carried too deep an NBA legacy to scrap it. “It may have been the worst team in the league,” Richardson says, “but the name had equity. And people in Memphis just didn’t want them to be the blue suede shoes, or the hound dogs.”
Richardson drew “Memphis” in much larger lettering than “Grizzlies,” a wink-wink way to indicate the team belonged to its new city, even with the incongruous name.
4. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
Paul Lukas of Uni Watch went deep on Milwaukee’s new design, so let’s be brief: The Bucks nailed this. This is their best logo since the original happy scamp spinning the ball on his hoof, and the team was right to deemphasize the reds and blues that dominated Milwaukee’s forest green. That color is rare in sports, and fused with the buck mascot, it has strong connotations of nature and trees. That’s your color. Own it.
The circle has more natural ties to basketball than the old triangular structure, and as Lukas pointed out, the design team snuck in two tasty optical tricks: the inside antlers that hint at the laces of a basketball, and the buck’s collar, which doubles as the team’s new “M” mark. A couple of designers argued that the team should make those hints more obvious, but I like how they fade so smoothly into the logo. The mark works regardless of whether you even notice those details.
3. MIAMI HEAT
I can hear the screeching: It’s too simple! Too basic! So obvious!
Yes, yes, and yes — and that’s what makes it great. The name “Heat” doesn’t lead many productive places, but the franchise landed in the right one: tying the name to the “on fire” parlance Marv Albert, Dan Patrick, and NBA Jam turned into an integral part of the hoops lexicon.
There is also a cheerleader-like feel in the way the logo freezes the action at a happy moment: when the flaming ball, presumably just out of the hands of a Heat player, flies clean through the rim.
That rim is plain, and the Heat might play with livelier designs — a singed net, melting iron, or a backboard with a burn mark. But that risks cluttering up a crisp logo. The Heat contracted Richardson several years ago to draw a new secondary logo in Florida Art Deco style, but they scrapped it because it didn’t complement the flaming ball. “That’s how strong that mark is,” Richardson says.
Negative points for the font, which looks like one of five “party” options from a 1991 computer.
2. CHARLOTTE HORNETS
Jordan Brand reached out to Richardson’s firm for this landmark rebrand, and the target was simple, Richardson recalls: “This is not your father’s Hugo.” The Hornets couldn’t resurrect the original Hugo; the league had classified it a legacy mark, meaning it was off-limits.
The Hornets wanted a dangerous, aggressive update, and holy cow, did Richardson deliver. That squinty-eyed bugger looks angry, with stingers on every side. There is a lot of white, but that amps up the contrast with the teal sections. They are easy to see, and the sharp tension makes the logo crackle. There isn’t another one shaped quite like it, with the accented wings soaring above the bug’s body. There are separate, jagged shapes pulsing throughout, but they meld together.
“It feels awake and energetic,” Fox says. “Like if you aren’t paying attention, it will sting you in the ass.” Indeed.
1. CHICAGO BULLS
This was never going to end anywhere else. This thing is perfect, right down to the red on the tips of the horns, which suggests that this mean motherfucker just gored some poor sap. Look at that glare, and those flaring nostrils! The most enjoyable forms of entertainment tiptoe to the border of kitsch without crossing over, and that’s right where this logo stops. Add another color, and that blaring red might lose 5 percent of its power. Depict a full head-to-toe bull, and you’ll end up with a children’s cartoon character.
This is a cartoon, but it’s not quite cartoonish. It’s simple and clear, and it depicts exactly what the team wants to be: a tough group about to shove the ball down your throat. Thank god the franchise didn’t pollute it with the awful balloon letter font that tars the court design.
The Bulls know what they have. Chicago is the only team that has never changed its primary mark, and the only partial or secondary logo it has used is this exact bull head without the wording above it.
Maybe the best part of this project was listening to graphics experts nitpick this. They’d start on about all the minor things “wrong” with it from a design perspective, cut themselves off, and slip into giddy whispers about how much they love it.
There could be some residual Jordan-era nostalgia at work, just as the marks for the Celtics and Lakers carry more heft than they should based on artistry alone. That is how our brains work. But this red menace would hold up without the six titles, snorting animations, and pregame JumboTron montages showing a bull trampling through cityscapes. This guy deserves the top spot.