Right Name/Wrong Name: Fixing the NBA’s team names for fun

I haven’t been formally diagnosed as of this writing, but I probably have ADHD. I identify with pretty much every symptom/characteristic I’ve seen, including things like “I can’t really focus on anything until I hit something I want to do, then I HYPER FOCUS.”

For instance, I had this thought the other day: There has been a lot of talk about sports teams with culturally offensive mascots changing their names, but what about all the teams where the name just flat out doesn’t fit the city/region the team is in, doesn’t match its personality, etc.? What if someone — someone with unquestioned power — went through the professional leagues and re-did the names that need re-doing?

I often think about a few examples of this kind of name/city/mood mismatch, but I never really thought about it as a whole exercise to rename as many teams as need it all at once. And once I had that idea, I fixated on it. Do I have other things I ought to be doing? Yes! But this is what I want to do. So I will.

I’m going to start with the NBA because it contains the most teams that make me think “man, they need a re-name really bad.” I don’t think EVERY team needs a re-name, so for those teams that don’t, I’ll say so, and offer a short explanation why. For the teams that do need a new name, I will use my unquestioned pretend power to bestow them a new name that fits their attitude or cultural context or history. I doubt I’ll get as deep as Cleveland did when it renamed the MLB’s Indians the Guardians after some cool-ass statues on a bridge just outside the stadium (and for what it’s worth, I’m totally cool with that name), but who knows?

Here we go, in alphabetical order by city name:

Right name: Atlanta Hawks
One thing I realized as I was going through the teams is that, in a lot of cases, the name itself isn’t like SUPER relevant to the city or its region, but it’s been around long enough that it’s got some deep history. And if it’s not glaringly wrong, why change it? In this case, the Hawks were once upon a time the Buffalo Bison (THERE’s an appropriate name!), then the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, then the Atlanta Hawks, then the St. Louis Hawks, then back to Atlanta. The “Hawks” no longer refer to the Blackhawk tribe of Native Americans, it’s just a bird. Are there hawks in northern Georgia? Sure! They’ve won titles with that name. They’ve got a long history with the name. It’s fine! Keep it!

Right name, sorta: Boston Celtics
The only request I have for the Celtics is that they change their pronunciation to the proper hard-K sound to start, instead of the soft-C. History, local cultural ties, NBA titles, it all works, just pronounce it right! It hasn’t been soft-C in a couple hundred years!

Right name: Brooklyn Nets
Starting off a little boring with so many teams whose names just work, but the Nets are an example of a name being important to a team’s heritage: The Nets are one of the last vestiges of the ABA. Dr. J was a Net. Plus, Nets are super important to the game of basketball. Ever play on a rim without a net? It sucks ass!

Right name: Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets are an example of how good team names should always find their way back home, even when teams move around. The Hornets are named for a British general’s Revolutionary War-era exclamation that the city in North Carolina was a “hornets nest of rebellion.” How cool is that? But when the original Hornets moved to New Orleans, they were the New Orleans … Hornets. It made no sense. And then a new team in Charlotte was named the Bobcats, mainly because the new owner’s name was Bob. Now, not ALL team names derived from an owner’s name are lame, but with the Hornets trapped in New Orleans, it felt like an injustice. Then, a few years ago, the New Orleans team changed its name to a more locally appropriate name (more on that later) and the Charlotte franchise was able to take back the Hornets. A win-win! Why can’t this always happen?

Right name: Chicago Bulls
One more good name before we start to have some quibbles: The Bulls are named for the concept of a “bull market” in honor of the Chicago Board of Exchange, but on top of that, bulls are generally just accepted as an intimidating animal. Bulls buck riders in rodeos, they gore matadors in Spain; they’re violent, strong, angry beasts! Plus, you know, with six world titles and the history of having Michael Jordan, changing the name now would be throwing a lot of history out the window.

Wrong name: Cleveland Cavaliers
Names you have to Google to figure out what they are generally are weaker than names that inherently make sense. Bulls? Got it. Nets? Yep. Cavaliers? Do you mean the Chevy compact car from the 1990s? Do you mean people who are careless? Cavaliers are swashbuckling seafarers, as it turns out, even though the team rarely incorporates any of that iconography in its logos (it added a saber in its LeBron James-era rebrand, at least). Was there much piracy in the waters of Lake Erie? It just doesn’t scan. Even with the LeBron-era history and championship in the mix, we need something better.
Right name: Cleveland Cagers
The city has a long basketball history ranging back to the 1940s and the very first professional leagues, but those previous teams (including the Rebels in 1946, which lasted one lone season and had a pretty nonsensical name considering the city) were as unsuccessful and hapless as the Cavs themselves were for a long time until LeBron’s emergence. With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, you might think the Cleveland Rockers would be a good choice, but that was the name of the now-defunct WNBA franchise in the city. It’s probably best, then, to just rebrand to something entirely new, and leave those legacies behind. Cager is an old-timey name for a basketball player, but it’s still super relevant in urban settings, where basketball courts are fenced in by chain-link walls resembling, well, cages. Add in the alliteration of two hard-Cs, and you’ve got a winner. You can even keep the uniforms basically the same, it’s not like there are any giant pirate ship logos you have to get rid of. It’s not super specific to Cleveland, but I like the basketball terminology tie-in along with the alliteration enough to choose this name over any others I could think of. You could potentially have some cool alternate uniforms with chain-link patterns involved, too.

Wrong name: Dallas Mavericks
Full disclosure: I’m a Mavs fan and have been for several years, stretching back to the Dirk Nowitzki/Steve Nash/Michael Finley team, through the 2011 title, and now into the nervy transition to what should be a long and glorious Luka Doncic era. But man, the name sucks, and the uniforms and logos REALLY suck. I don’t even want to buy Mavs apparel because that horse-head/basketball logo is so hideous. Plus, the name was stolen from the local University of Texas satellite school. Lame! Dumb! Unoriginal! What even is a Maverick? A wild horse, I guess? They probably can’t play basketball very well!
Right name: Dallas Mustangs
You know what, skip what I said about horses being bad at basketball, the Mustangs would be a big upgrade on the Mavericks. First of all, Mustang is a much more well-known wild-horse-related term than Maverick, which I’m now being told is a term for a motherless, unbranded baby range animal of any sort, including horses and cows. Depressing! Second of all, during World War II, Dallas was a major manufacturing hub for American war planes, including the P-51 Mustang. Double-entendre! Planes and horses! You could make a cool logo with a plane AND a horse, I bet! Call ’em the ‘Stangs if you’re lazy. It’s all such a layup, basketball pun intended.

Right name: Denver Nuggets
Denver isn’t much of a mining town anymore, but it sure as shit was, once upon a time. That history is a big reason this city even exists, so its basketball team being named for nuggets of precious metals seems pretty relevant. I resist the urge to just name all the professional teams in the Denver area after the amazing mountain range to its west and leave this perfectly acceptable, quirky, unique name alone. Plus, with Colorado’s booming legal weed industry, “nugget” takes on a whole second meaning.

Right name: Detroit Pistons
There aren’t many names in all of sports that fit so well as the Pistons of Detroit, the Motor City. This team moved around a bit in its early days, but every place it landed was ALSO an auto manufacturing town of some repute at the time, so Pistons has pretty much always been the perfect name for this team.

Wrong name: Golden State Warriors
I’m fully aware that the Warriors name has big, long history by the Bay, dating back to big, long (I assume) Wilt Chamberlain’s time with the team. It’s not exactly the Warriors part I have the biggest problem with, though: Why Golden State? It’s so strange! The MLB’s Angels were the California Angels for a while, not the Golden State Angels. The MLB’s Marlins were the Florida Marlins for a while, not the Sunshine State Marlins. Why the state nickname? Why does it represent the whole state to start with, given that there are three other California-based NBA teams?
Right name: San Francisco Warriors
As much as I want to tinker with the Warriors name, it’s fine. It’s got plenty of history and it’s not really offensive to any group (Warrior is a pretty generic term and the team doesn’t use native iconography). This team recently moved from its stadium from Oakland (where it probably still should be, in order to keep its rowdy home-court advantage) to a quiet stadium in San Francisco, which is where it was during the Wilt the Stilt era … when it was called the San Francisco Warriors. Extra history points! I think they’re already using throwback jerseys from this era, just make it official!

Right name: Houston Rockets
This name pulls on the history of NASA in Houston, which is cool. It has plenty of history unto itself with the Rockets having won titles and all the legendary players over the years. And the name itself is unique and fun. No notes.

Right name: Indiana Pacers
Pacers is another classic ABA heritage name, like the Nets, and another name that draws on the history and notoriety of the city itself as the host of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the world-famous Indy 500. You could argue Indiana Racers would be slightly better, but I don’t think that slight improvement is worth tossing the heritage and the history. They also could switch to the Indianapolis Pacers to be more specific, but really, it’s not like there’s much else the state of Indiana is widely known for beyond the Indy 500 race, so I think it’s fine for the whole state to share in its sole NBA team, named for its famous racing event. I can say that because I live there.

Wrong name: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are named for the tall sailing ships that can be seen off the shore in San Diego, where the team used to be based. It was a very good name for the team in that location, and it was a rebrand from “Braves,” a very early example of team owners realizing Native American iconography wasn’t super appropriate. The thing is, though, clipper ships don’t often visit Los Angeles, as far as I know.
Right name: Hollywood Stars
You have two Los Angeles-based NBA teams. One of them, the Clippers, is the “B-team.” They’ll never be the top team in L.A.’s heart, even if/when they start winning championships. It plays in the city best-known around the world for showbusiness, for Hollywood. The studios, the voluminous soundstages, the big-name actors and directors, the paparazzi, the glitz and glamour and red-carpet premieres: It’s a theme that ZERO Los Angeles-based major professional teams are taking advantage of. So why not the Clippers? True, the Staples Center is not in Hollywood, but there are several examples of home stadia not residing exactly in the city/suburb/area the team is named for. Just go for it, you can even keep the new black/red/blue color theme. The Stars are in town, baby!

Wrong name: Los Angeles Lakers
This is one of my top crazy-making team names in all of sports. The Lakers have loads of history — perhaps the most history of any team in the NBA — with that name. But the Lakers were only a relevant name when the team was based in Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When they moved to Los Angeles SIXTY YEARS AGO, the “Lakers” suddenly made zero sense. Which lake or lakes are we talking about, here? Are we talking about Big Bear Lake, way over in the San Bernardino National Forest? Irvine Lake is near Santiago Canyon, but it’s still pretty far from Los Angeles proper. The point is, lakes are not really part of the L.A. scene. The name is iconic due to the success of the team, but it makes no sense when you think about it for more than a second.
Right name: Los Angeles Showtime
If you’re going to do something absolutely insane like change the name of the NBA’s premier franchise, you’ve got to do it right. When the team was racking up championships in the 1980s, running an entertaining fast-break-based style of basketball, they were known as the Showtime Lakers. The team was exciting, electrifying, captivating. Celebrities flocked to the Forum to see the team and be seen sitting courtside. That Showtime name has stuck through the years, and any time the Lakers are good, inevitably people say things like “Showtime is BACK in L.A.!” So why not just embrace that history? It’s relevant to the team itself as well as the city. It highlights everything people love about well-played basketball. Keep the team colors, keep the iconic font, keep the uniforms, don’t change ANYTHING ELSE. Just put “Showtime” on those jerseys instead of “Lakers” and you’ve fixed it.

Wrong name: Memphis Grizzlies
Grizzly bears are native to the Vancouver, British Columbia region where this team was originally based, but they’re not real common in west Tennessee. In fact, you won’t find them anywhere in the United States outside of Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska. This is a borrowed name, like the Lakers, that never got corrected.
Right name: Memphis Blues
Memphis is known for blues music and BBQ, mainly. I don’t know how players would feel playing on a team named after food (Memphis Ribs? Memphis Brisket?), so the musical heritage makes for an easy, quickly identifiable hook. They already wear uniforms in several shades of the color blue, too. I know the NHL already has a Blues franchise in St. Louis, but come on, Memphis has it all over St. Louis in terms of Blues heritage. The St. Louis team is literally just named after a song. Seize the name. Nobody will confuse the two.

Wrong name: Miami Heat
Boy, I’m just going after all of LeBron’s teams, huh? Well, it’s not my fault they all have dumb names. Miami’s name has the unfortunate combination of being generic (it’s hot a lot of places, bro) and a non-plural name, which isn’t in itself always a bad thing, but does lead to awkwardness when people try to describe their affiliation with the team. Instead of saying something simple like “I’m a Chicago Bull,” they have to say something like “I’m part of the Miami Heat … or, I’m a member of the Heat team … I’m a Heatle? I don’t know, man.”
Right name: Miami Nights
There’s a lot to work with as far as things Miami is known for. If you’re going to go generic, Miami has an amazing and well-known skyline, what about the Miami Skyline? It connotes height, which is helpful for basketball players. It’s also still a non-plural! There have been a bunch of Floridian teams in various sports that have used the Tropics name, so that may not fly, but it would work if copyright issues could be worked out. What about Waves? Tides? Beachcombers? Sun Soakers? I am going a bit far afield here, so let’s get to my choice: The Nights. Miami’s nightlife is world-renowned. It’s one of a few cities that’s universally known as a party city, an endless strip of packed nightclubs and hedonism. The team already uses a lot of black and neon colors in their alternate jerseys, so why not just go all the way? “I’m a Miami Night. I’m a party on the court. My club is in the paint.” The marketing possibilities are endless!

Right name: Milwaukee Bucks
The reigning NBA champions have a unique name with a lot of history, a cool color scheme, a lot of cool logo and uniform options (including throwbacks, though they can keep those gross green and purple late 1990s joints in the attic forever). Don’t fix what ain’t broken.

Wrong name: Minnesota Timberwolves
I appreciate what they were trying to do with this name. It’s specific and unique. They’re not just wolves, they’re TIMBERwolves. It’s meant to evoke an image of snarling wolves circling their prey in the moonlit woods. I get it. But it’s maybe a bit TOO unique in that trendy 1990s way (Toronto Raptors? As in velociraptors? The dinosaur? We’ll get to that later). And since we just freed up a classic name that’s super relevant to Minnesota …
Right name: Minnesota Lakers
That’s right, baby, we’re taking it back! The old Minneapolis Lakers wore blue and bright yellow and white, instead of the flashy Los Angeles “forum blue and gold,” so they can go back to those marine-inspired colors. Those baby blue Lakers throwbacks sell like hotcakes anyway, so I think they’d be a hit as a team’s regular uniforms. And the name fits even better as the Minnesota Lakers, representing the WHOLE Land of 10,000 Lakes instead of just its largest city.

Wrong names: New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz
These are two names we have to do together because they’re inextricably linked. See, when the New Orleans Hornets decided to re-brand a few years ago, they put together a lot of name options with local flavor before landing on Pelicans. It’s a local bird that’s low-key pretty fierce and terrifying. It’s a very unique name; overall, they did a great job. The only problem is the perfect name for a New Orleans basketball franchise already exists, but it’s being used by the former New Orleans team that re-located to, of all places, Salt Lake City, Utah, and never changed their name: The Utah Jazz. Jazz. In Utah. It’s an absolute travesty. Whatever history the Jazz have in Utah can be dumpstered because their name is so laughably unfitting, and with a team currently active in New Orleans, it’s also actively enraging. This injustice must be solved with a name swap:
Right names: New Orleans Jazz and Utah Golden Spikes
The Jazz name, colors, iconography and everything should just go directly back to New Orleans. The green, yellow, and purple are New Orleans. The music note/basketball logo is New Orleans. The name, obviously, is New Orleans. And look out for that Blues/Jazz matchup on the NBA calendar from here on out: You’ve got a natural rivalry built in.

The Utah team, however, is a stickier pickle. This is the team and name I had the hardest time with.

My first thought was to try to incorporate the unavoidable, deep ties of the region with Mormonism. Utah is the heart of the Mormon faith. Why not rebrand as the Salt Lake City Saints, as a very alliterative and hip-sounding homage to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Pretty sticky, though, as it’s not like incorporating crosses or other overtly religious iconography would fly. And the Mormons themselves, obviously, have a complicated history that would surely draw a lot of scorn if tied to a sports franchise. It’s too bad, though, because the name just rolls off the tongue, and it would be a neat piece of parallel history to borrow another New Orleans name (the NFL team there is the Saints) to solve this New Orleans-related naming quandary.

What else is out there in Utah? A bunch of white people? Weak beer? Desert? Mountains? Coyotes? I considered the Utah Arches as an homage to the otherworldly beauty of the national park in Moab, but it sounds too McDonald’sy. Utah also has a history of mining, but we already have a mining-themed team in the Denver Nuggets. The Utah Gold?

Well, come to think of it, there is a golden item with huge historical importance to Utah: The golden spike driven into the ground to commemorate the completion of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Point, north of the Great Salt Lake, in 1869. It was a moment of global significance, a turning point in the hemisphere’s economic development, and it happened in Utah. The name of the national park at Promontory is Golden Spike National Historical Park.

You could go with Salt Lake City Golden Spikes but that seems like a mouthful. Utah Golden Spikes is certainly unique, certainly fits in the region’s context, and would lend to some cool uniform and logo concepts (I’m picturing white and gold — like shiny gold, not L.A. Laker gold — home uniforms with charcoal-gray outlines or pinstripes, for starters).

Right name: New York Knickerbockers
Nobody calls them the Knickerbockers anymore, just like nobody calls the MLB Mets the Metropolitans, but it’s still a cool name with a lot of history. I know technically Knickerbockers are just an old style of pants, but the name has a ton of history in New York: it was a term for Dutch settlers there (presumably because they all wore knickerbockers?) and later used as a general term for New Yorkers. The team name was voted on by a bunch of guys putting slips of paper in a hat in the 1940s. They were a charter member of the oldest professional basketball league in the world, along with the previously mentioned Cleveland team that folded quickly. Keep the name forever.

Wrong name: Oklahoma City Thunder
I just really hate almost everything about the Thunder (except the players, the players are frustratingly cool). The colors are lame, the uniforms are historically lame (though they have had a couple of cool jerseys the last few seasons), and the name is a non-plural, generic box of lame that has very little to do with the city or state of Oklahoma. It storms there a lot? Yeah, it does in Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, etc., etc., too. Get over it.
Right name: Seattle SuperSonics
LOL gotteem

Right name: Orlando Magic
I know this may seem hypocritical based on what I said about the Miami franchise, but I see one big difference between the Heat and the Magic: The Magic is unique and hyper-contextual to Orlando, the home of Disney World. Magic is a big part of the Disney experience, and although the team doesn’t have much of a relationship with Disney (outside of the league’s most appropriate and fitting jersey sponsorship deal), Orlando and Disney World are inextricably linked. The uniforms are great, the name works. Good going, Orlando.

Right name: Philadelphia 76ers
It’s one of the most iconic, proper, historical names in sports, as far as I’m concerned. The city is the cradle of American democracy, and the name’s reference to our year of independence, 1776, is hard to argue with, as is the beautiful red, white, and blue color scheme (after an unfortunate detour into black with gold and red and blue in the 1990s during the Iverson years). I wouldn’t change a thing.

Right name: Phoenix Suns
Like the Heat, it’s a little on the generic side, but it’s got more history, and while a lot of places can lay claim to heat and sunniness, Arizona sun is a bit of a different beast than it is most other places. The Suns make me think of Tom Chambers, Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Cedric Ceballos, Amare Stoudemire, prime Steve Nash, and now Devin Booker. It’s a good name and the uniforms are pretty solid, too.

Right name: Portland Trail Blazers
Growing up, I kinda always wanted a Clyde Drexler jersey. Or a Cliff Robinson one, but that seemed unlikely in the days before customized jerseys were a thing. I wasn’t even that big a fan of the Blazers at all, but damn, those uniforms were and still are amazing. I love this team, I love its name (who doesn’t know about the Oregon Trail?), I love its history, I love its simple yet sneakily meaningful logo, I love it all.

Right name: Sacramento Kings
This one feels a lot like the Atlanta Hawks to me. It’s an old name that has followed a franchise around through many stops. It has a lot of history, some legendary players, and while it isn’t particularly relevant to the place it currently exists, there’s nothing screaming out to me to replace it; nothing worth dumping that history for. It’s fine.

Right name: San Antonio Spurs
One more good name to end this run of agreement: The Spurs ARE San Antonio. It’s weird that a city the size of San Antonio has an NBA team at all, but it’s a great franchise, the fans are amazing, the city loves its team, and the iconography of a boot spur just wraps up all the Western-frontiersiness of the locale perfectly.

Wrong name: Toronto Raptors
Oh boy. Other than the NHL’s Mighty Ducks, named for a fictional team in a children’s movie (and now known just as the Ducks, for better or worse), there isn’t a more embarrassingly 1990s team name in sports than the Toronto Raptors, named by fan vote after the small, deadly dinosaurs made famous by the movie “Jurassic Park.” (Quick aside, the book was far more terrifying than the movie. I read that whole book as a boy in a single day, it was gripping stuff) I recognize that by now the Raptors have a fair amount of history and accomplishment with that name, from the exciting young years of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady to the actual NBA championship of just a few seasons ago, but the name is still super cringe.
Right name: Toronto Huskies
The answer has been there all along: The Toronto Huskies were a founding member, along with those New York Knickerbockers, of the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the NBA, in 1946. True, they only lasted one season before folding (like the Cleveland team), but dammit, they were founding members! A Canadian invented basketball! This shit runs deep up there! The Huskies was one of the names in the running back when the new team was established in 1995, so consider it a missed opportunity that can be corrected now. Even though they didn’t have much success, the Huskies is still a name with northern feel. Do it!

Wrong name: Washington Wizards
And finally, we come to the end of the NBA alphabet, the Wizards of Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital has had some good names (Senators, Capitals, Nationals) through the years, and a few all-time stinkers, and I’d put both of the names they’ve used for their NBA team — the Bullets and the Wizards — in that latter category. They changed from Bullets because, well, why were they Bullets in the first place? What do you think of when you think of bullets and the nation’s capital? Nothing good, I’ll tell you that. I’m assuming they landed on Wizards mainly for the alliteration with Washington, which I appreciate, but Wizards is just a super dumb name. Well, that may be too harsh, but it is clear that it’s pretty nonsensical in a city with as much history and importance as Washington. If it was the Utah Wizards or Sacramento Wizards, fine, but Washington Wizards when you can’t walk down a district block without hitting a historic landmark? That’s an airball.
Right name: Washington Monuments
I really think if the Monuments isn’t eventually taken by the currently nameless NFL team from Washington, the NBA team ought to snatch it up. I like Monuments as an obvious nod to all the monuments on the National Mall, as well as THE Washington Monument, the giant marble obelisk that’s nearly as iconic to Washington as the rotunda of the Capitol and the White House. I also like it because Monuments are big and hard to move, and whether you’re a football team or a basketball team, those are good attributes to associate oneself with. By the way, the name of the ownership group that currently runs the Wizards, NHL’s Capitals, and WNBA’s Mystics? Monumental Sports & Entertainment. It’s RIGHT THERE! Keep the beautiful uniforms. The logo already features the Washington Monument! It would be SO EASY!

In the end, I wound up renaming 13 of the 30 teams in the league. When I do the other leagues, I’ll be interested to see how that percentage compares, because I had a feeling when I started this that the NBA needed the most help in the name department. That said, there are an awful lot of baseball teams, for instance, with weird names, and more than a few football teams that need help. Hockey, eh, I can’t think of a lot of bad ones off the top of my head: The NHL may just have the best-named teams of any of the U.S. big four leagues.

What do you think? Are there any sports team names that just drive you nuts? Do you disagree with any/all of my proposed new names?

3 thoughts on “Right Name/Wrong Name: Fixing the NBA’s team names for fun

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