Whether it was a naming contest, superstition, or an admiration for a regional tradition, the 30 teams composing the NBA today accumulated their modern titles through a diverse range of methods. Going in order of each franchise to chronologically enter into the association, here is a history of every team’s name origins.
Boston Celtics (1946)
Between proposed names including the Whirlwinds, Olympians, and Unicorns, team owner Walter Brown opted for Celtics for Boston’s new NBA team mascot. Though one of his publicity staffers warned against choosing an Irish name, stating that, “No team with an Irish name has ever won a damned thing in Boston,” Brown drew inspiration from the success of the original New York Celtics, a franchise that dominated the then National Basketball League (NBL) during the 1920s.
New York Knickerbockers (1946)
The Knicks’ full name, Knickerbockers, refers to Dutch settlers during the 1600s with pants rolled up just below the knee. The first team to use such a precise term was the first organized baseball team in 1845, who became known as the Knickerbocker Nine. It wasn’t until 1946 (a full century later) when New York re-ignited Knickerbockers to tag its new basketball team. Reportedly, team founder Ned Irish decided upon this name after drawing it from a hat.
Golden State Warriors (1946)
Laying roots in Pennsylvania in 1920 as the Philadelphia Warriors, the former American Basketball Association (ABA) team would eventually move to San Francisco in 1962 while retaining its original name. After several seasons playing in the Bay area, the franchise moved a short distance away to Oakland where it would become the Golden State Warriors.
Detroit Pistons (1948)
Formerly known as the Zollner Pistons, the franchise assumed its mascot from team owner Fred Zollner’s personal piston manufacturing company. The current Detroit team was first established in Fort Wayne in 1948 where its full title was the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. Upon moving to Detroit in 1957, Zollner shortened the team’s name to just Pistons – a suitable match for the Motor City.
Los Angeles Lakers (1948)
After the former NBL team, Detroit Gems moved to Minneapolis prior to the start of the 1947 season, the franchise explored more appropriate mascot options. Known as “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” the name Lakers seemed fitting for Minnesota’s new NBA team. In 1960, the team relocated again, this time to Los Angeles. Given the tradition it founded in Minnesota the franchise opted to maintain its original title.
Sacramento Kings (1948)
The Kings’ regal ancestry traces back to the days of the Rochester Royals, founded in 1945. By 1957, the team would relocate to Cincinnati but preserve its original mascot. This changed in 1972 when the franchise bounced to Kansas City and became the Kansas City-Omaha (and later just Kansas City) Kings. The Kings moved once more in 1985 to settle in Sacramento, California.
Atlanta Hawks (1949)
In 1948, the Tri-Cities (consisting of Moline, Rock Island, and Davenport) was granted an NBA team. It adopted the same mascot as the hockey team, Chicago Blackhawks, in honor of Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk who occupied the land during the early 1800s. After relocating to Milwaukee in 1951, the team shortened its title to Hawks, which would stick for subsequent moves to St. Louis in 1955 and Atlanta in 1968 where it currently resides as the Atlanta Hawks.
Philadelphia 76ers (1949)
In 1963, the Nationals moved from Syracuse to Philadelphia. The name 76ers embodies the year 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Washington Wizards (1961)
Originally founded as the Chicago Packers in 1961, the franchise later became known as the Chicago Zephyrs then the Baltimore Bullets, followed by the Capital Bullets, and finally the Washington Bullets. By the early 1990s, team owner Abe Pollin wanted to dissociate the team’s name from gun violence. After holding a re-naming contest, Wizards was ultimately chosen over Sea Dogs, Dragons, Stallions, and Express. Despite criticism that the name was affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan it still stuck.
Chicago Bulls (1966)
Multiple theories arose regarding the true origins of the Chicago mascot. One idea suggests that team owner Richard Klein wanted a name to reflect Chicago’s title as the global meat capital. It is also speculated that Klein admired the power and spirit of bulls. Supposedly, Klein also contemplated the names Matadors and Toreadors, but his son scoffed, “Dad, that’s a bunch of bull!”
Houston Rockets (1967)
Founded in 1967, San Diego was the first home of the Rockets. Their mascot was elected in likeness to the city’s nickname, “A City In Motion.” San Diego was also manufacturing liquid-fueled Atlas rockets during this time. Upon relocating to Houston in 1971, the team retained the name Rockets, reasoning that because Houston housed a NASA space center, the mascot was still logical.
Oklahoma City Thunder (1967)
After starting out in 1967 as the Seattle SuperSonics (named after the Supersonic Transport project), the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008 where fans chose a new name from a list of 64 possible options. Thunder ultimately triumphed over Renegades, Twisters, and Barons.
Milwaukee Bucks (1968)
After Milwaukee was awarded an NBA franchise in 1968, a name contest was held to determine a mascot. Though Wisconsin is known for hunting, the most popular entry was Robins. The owners overruled the public’s decision in favor of a name that suggested strength and fearlessness. Skunks was another less intimidating entry that was also rejected.
Phoenix Suns (1968)
In a 1968 name contest that drew more than 28,000 entries, the name Suns was chosen for Phoenix’s expansion franchise over popular entries, Scorpions, Rattlers, and Thunderbirds. The contest also attracted a variety of dubious submissions such as Poobahs, White Wing Doves, Cactus Giants, and Sun Lovers.
Cleveland Cavaliers (1970)
In a 1970 poll sponsored by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, some of the names suggested for the city’s new NBA team included Cavaliers, Jays, Towers, Presidents, and Foresters. Presidents was most likely a nod to the state of Ohio as the birthplace of seven former U.S. Presidents, just trailing behind Virginia. However, Cavaliers prevailed. One participant in support of the mascot wrote, “Cavaliers represent a group of daring fearless men, whose life pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.”
Los Angeles Clippers (1970)
Originally founded as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, the modern-day Los Angeles Clippers moved from Buffalo to San Diego in 1978 before finally settling in Los Angeles in 1984. The name Clippers was chosen upon moving to San Diego and references a type of ship from the 19th century. Donald Sterling relocated the team and though he kept its new mascot, San Diego natives were far from forgiving.
Portland Trailblazers (1970)
Despite Pioneers being the most popular submission in a 1970 naming contest for Portland’s expansion franchise, local Lewis & Clark College already claimed the same title. Team officials instead chose another well-liked entry, Trail Blazers.
Utah Jazz (1974)
The Jazz laid roots in New Orleans in 1974. The name was chosen over Crescents, Knights, Pilots, Deltas, Blues, Cajuns, and Dukes. When the team relocated to Salt Lake City in 1979, it opted to maintain its original mascot. Ironically, Deltas would have translated nicely considering that Salt Lake City has a hub for an airline sharing the same name.
Brooklyn Nets (1967)
After entering the NBA in 1967, the New Jersey Americans moved to New York where the team was renamed the New York Nets. The city’s neighboring baseball and football teams were respectively named Mets and Jets, so the mascot Nets completed the rhyming trifecta. Just one season later, the Nets would return to their home state where they would operate for several decades. In 1994, rumors surfaced that the franchise was considering changing its name to Swamp Dragons, which would never come to fruition. By 2012, the Nets would once again make their way back to New York where they exist under their current title, the Brooklyn Nets.
Denver Nuggets (1976)
During the team’s transition from the ABA to the NBA in 1974, it played under the name Rockets. However, because Houston’s NBA team already claimed the same mascot, Denver was forced to consider new options. After a naming contest, the team settled on Nuggets, alluding to the Colorado Gold Rush and the city’s proud mining heritage.
Indiana Pacers (1976)
Indiana’s franchise name was decided by the team’s original investors in 1967. The term ‘pacing’ is used to describe the main gaits for harness racing and pace cars, two popular subsets of Indiana’s venerable racing legacy.
San Antonio Spurs (1976)
Former ABA team Dallas Chaparrals was purchased and relocated to San Antonio in 1973. That same year, the new owners held a naming contest, in which 5,000 participants submitted over 500 unique entries. After tentatively intending on the name Aztecs, the new owners ended up ruling in favor of Spurs. This is likely also due to the fact that Spur, Texas was the birthplace of one of the team’s primary investors, Red McCombs.
Dallas Mavericks (1980)
In 1980, a Dallas radio station sponsored a name contest for the city’s new NBA franchise. 41 fans suggested Mavericks, which would be chosen over Wranglers and Express. One fan who supported the mascot wrote, it “represents the independent, flamboyant style of the Dallas people.”
Charlotte Hornets (1988)
The Charlotte Hornets were originally founded in 1988, but discontinued operations in 2002. It wasn’t long, however, before the city was granted an expansion team. By 2004, the Hornets were active again but this time returned under the title, Charlotte Bobcats. The names Dragons and Flight had also been on the table. After some players criticized the name Bobcats, stating it sounded like a girls’ softball team, the franchise returned to its original name.
Miami Heat (1988)
Sharks, Beaches, Barracudas, and Tornadoes were all popular suggestions for Miami’s new expansion team acquired in 1986. After pondering over 20,000 entries, the owners ultimately chose Stephanie Freed’s submission for the name, Heat.
Minnesota Timberwolves (1989)
In 1986, Minnesota’s franchise owners sponsored a naming contest. Though Blizzard was the most popular entry, the vote ultimately came down to Polars and Timberwolves. Timberwolves won by a 2-1 margin. Upon announcing the newly decided mascot, one team official stated, “Minnesota is the only state in the lower 48 with free-roaming packs of timber wolves.”
Orlando Magic (1989)
In 1989, the Orlando Sentinel held a naming contest for the city’s expansion franchise. Among numerous entries including Floridians, Aquamen, Juice, Astronauts, Sentinels, and Orbits, Challengers (in honor of the space shuttle that crashed in 1986) was the most popular suggestion. However, team officials chose Magic over the other entries to encapsulate the spirit of Disney World, the city’s main tourist attraction.
Memphis Grizzlies (1995)
In 1994, Vancouver acquired an expansion franchise. Before settling on the name Grizzlies, team owners reluctantly planned to announce Mounties as the official mascot. Fans and the Royal Mounted Canadian Police were quick to object, forcing the franchise to scout a new title. Ultimately, team officials chose Grizzlies over Ravens in recognition of the species native to the area. After moving to Memphis in 2001, FedEx offered the franchise $100 million to change its name to Express, but the NBA declined.
Toronto Raptors (1995)
As Jurassic Park had just been released the year prior to Toronto’s expansion team’s inauguration, Raptors was easily the most popular choice for a mascot. The name beat out the other two finalists, Bobcats and Dragons.
New Orleans Pelicans (2002)
The New Orleans Hornets became the newest franchise to enter into the NBA in 2002. In 2012, Tom Benson purchased the team and announced a name change. He ultimately decided on Pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird. Other names considered included Krewe (in reference to groups of paraders wearing costumes in New Orleans’ annual Mardi Gras festival) and Brass.