NBA Team Names: A Scientific Classification

@BreakTheHuddle goes into the laboratory to painstakingly study each of the NBA’s franchise nicknames.

On January 24th, the New Orleans NBA franchise unveiled plans to change their team nickname from the Hornets to the Louisiana-inspired “Pelicans”. Reactions from around the league were decidedly mixed; some players derisively chided the switch, commentators scratched their heads, and uniform-aesthetics junkies lamented the all-too-common blue, red, and gold color scheme that will soon adorn the Bayou ballers.

A week and a half has passed now, and slowly, it seems, people have started warming up to the new monicker.  The Pelican is the state bird of Louisiana and is known for its fierceness, and the people of New Orleans, provincial and proud as they are, understandably struggled to relate to the “Hornets” nickname, a carpetbagger that arrived with the Charlotte franchise when it moved to The Big Easy.  Additionally, whoever designed the new Pelicans logos knocked them out of the park:

If the back story and the visual aids don’t convince you that the switch to “Pelicans” is in fact a good idea, consider the following scientific classification of NBA team nicknames. They are labeled in a manner that is roughly (though not exactly) in descending order of sensibility and legitimacy, ranging from local animals to random non sequiturs to the hopelessly stupid. Once you’ve considered what’s already in place and how we’ve come to accept some seemingly-ridiculous names, you’ll probably come to the conclusion that the Pelicans really aren’t so bad.

Animals with Legitimate Geographic Relevance

Latin: bonus locus bestia

Atlanta Hawks: There are many raptors (the technical name for predator birds with sharp talons) indigenous to the southeastern portion of the United States.  However, due to the generic nature of the nickname “Hawks,” it could have been classified as a rota galea traba (random non sequitur). There is still debate in the scientific sports classification community as to their proper label, but at this publishing, they are bonus locus bestia.

Charlotte Bobcats: The Carolinas are home to many subspecies of Bobcats — solitary, fierce animals exhibiting crepuscular (dawn and dusk) activity. Allegedly, they can jump ten feet from a standstill, which makes them more athletic than anyone on Charlotte’s current roster. There’s an apocryphal story that the name derived from the original owner of the team, BET founder Bob Johnson, but that cannot be confirmed.

Chicago Bulls: Chosen primarily as a denotation of strength and power, the “Bulls” (or tauros) were also given the name due to Chicago’s important role as a meat-packing hub of the Midwest.

Milwaukee Bucks: There are a lot of deer in Wisconsin. That’s as analytical as I can get about this one.

Minnesota Timberwolves: A caveat: There is no such thing as a “timberwolf.” Why didn’t the team simply call themselves “the Wolves?” This poor decision aside, you might be surprised to learn that as recently as 2008 there were more gray wolves in Minnesota than there were in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming combined. Canis lupus reigns supreme in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

New Orleans Pelicans: As stated in the introduction, “the Pelicans” make much more sense than “the Hornets” for a New Orleans-based sports team. Some of the options on the table were truly horrendous, such as “the Bounce,” “the Spirit,” “the Angels,” and “the Creoles.” The one name in contention that would’ve been potentially acceptable, “the Brass,” was only considered because the Utah Jazz refused to give that sweet nickname back to the city of New Orleans. More on the Jazz later.

Somewhat Absurd, but Historically Ingrained and Therefore Valid

Latin: inconcinnus tamen fortis nomen

Nothing binds a city to its team like a caricatured representation of the largest demographic in the populace, am I right?

Boston Celtics: The name itself is fine – Boston is, after all, a predominantly Irish city – but the pronunciation has always driven me nuts. It’s supposed to be pronounced like “Keltic” rather than “Seltic,” but at this point it’s as much a part of the basketball lexicon as “dribble,” “dunk,” or “alley-oop,” so it has to stand.

New York Knicks: “Knickerbocker” was a common surname among the Dutch settlers of New Netherland. In time, the word came to refer to any New Yorker, especially a member of the Manhattan aristocratic elite. Save for former Pacer Rik Smits, the Knickerbocker nickname is the extent of all Dutch contributions to the game of basketball.

Philadelphia 76ers: It may seem silly to name a team after a specific year, but if the city of Philadelphia were to get a new team they’d end up being called something abstract and absurd like the ”Liberty” or “Freedom” or “Justice.” In comparison, Sixers doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

The ‘Sociologically Relevant to Locale’ Family

Latin: loci nomen

Subspecies A: Sociologically Relevant to Locale, Intelligent

Latin: oportet locus

Detroit Pistons: Time to let Wikipedia do the talking: “The piston of an internal combustion engine is acted upon by the pressure of the expanding combustion gases in the combustion chamber space at the top of the cylinder.” In my overly simplistic understanding, the Piston is the part of an engine that does the most work. And because ‘car manufacturing’ and ‘Detroit’ are as intertwined as ‘poverty’ and… well, ‘Detroit’, it makes perfect sense.

Houston Rockets: You might be surprised to learn that the home of NASA didn’t give the team its name.  The franchise actually originated in San Diego, where the name “Rockets” was inspired by a space-related boom in the aeronautics industry in southern California. When the franchise up and moved to Texas, it was still relevant, so it stuck.

Portland Trail Blazers: The name “Trail Blazers” beat out “Pioneers” in a name-the-team contest held by team management shortly after the NBA awarded Portland a franchise. The name is derived from the efforts of settlers moving west in the late 1800s. A little quirky? Sure, but if you know anything about Portland, the quirkiness makes sense. It works on both historical and sociological levels.

Subspecies B: Sociologically Relevant to Locale, Neutral

Latin: quietus locus

Denver Nuggets: Founded as a mining town, Denver pays homage to its forebears by calling its basketball squad “the Nuggets,” which is all well and good, but does it really make sense?  Why not “the Miners?”  It simply doesn’t make sense that they’re named after chunks of metal that come out of the ground rather than the people who retrieve said chunks of metal. It’d be like calling a team “the Viscous Liquids” instead of “the Oilers.” Perhaps I’m over-thinking this.

The pinwheel-looking thingy in the back of the boot? That's a Spur.

Los Angeles Clippers: Another San Diego expatriate, the Clippers derive their name from the sailing ships that passed through America’s Finest City. When the team moved to Los Angeles in 1984, the name stuck, and since Los Angeles is still relatively close to the ocean, it’s passable.

San Antonio Spurs: With the Texas-based football team owning the most obvious nickname to represent the state (the Cowboys), every other sports franchise was left to find its own creative way to cope. “Spurs” is a fine choice, so long as you can get over the fact that the name derives from part of a shoe — the part that was designed (in essence) to torture a horse into running faster.

Subspecies C: Sociologically Relevant to Locale, Stupid

Latin: bardus locus

Dallas Mavericks: Named under the partial influence of a television show that ran from 1957-1962, “the Mavericks” has a fine ring to it but falls flat once you start doing any critical thinking.  A Maverick denotes a person who “is independent in thoughts and actions.” Doesn’t sound much like a team player, never mind the fact that the technical definition for a Maverick is “an unbranded farm animal.” The Dallas Unbranded Farm Animals?  Yeah, they should’ve gone with that — would’ve been a real maverick move.

Indiana Pacers: Indiana is a state known for racing and basketball, so blending the two topics in a franchise’s nickname is a great idea… but instead of calling themselves “the Racers”, they went with “the Pacers”, which pays homage to the one car on the track THAT DOESN’T EVEN TRY TO WIN THE RACE.

100% Random Non Sequiturs

Latin: rota galea traba

Cleveland Cavaliers: The result of a contest held by The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Boring.

Golden State Warriors: Name came with the team from Philadelphia in 1962. The Philadelphia team was named after an even older Philadelphia team. Boring.

If the Sonics return to the NBA, they'll be classified as oportet locus as well. In case you were wondering.

Sacramento Kings: The franchise started as the Rochester Royals, then became the Cincinnati Royals, then became the Kansas City Kings because Kansas City already had a baseball team called the Royals, then became the Sacramento Kings. It’s like someone decided to take the franchise on a tour of the four lamest cities on this continent. Boring.

Washington Wizards: Used to be “the Bullets”, and if they still were, they’d be classified as oportet locus (Sociologically Relevant to Locale, Intelligent) because D.C. is the murder capital of North America. Instead, they’re the Wizards — another result of a contest, this one held by the team. Boring.


Latin: alienus

Los Angeles Lakers: Originally the Minneapolis Lakers, the team kept its name when it was moved to Los Angeles in the early ’60s because the Lakers had already won five titles during a 15-year run in Minnesota. For branding reasons, it was excusable. That said, the absurdity level is still high; there are just 200 lakes in California, and only 10 in the Greater L.A. area (all of which are entirely toxic).

The dark green is the modern-day range of the Grizzly bear... notice its (lack of) proximity to Memphis.

Memphis Grizzlies: Originally the Vancouver Grizzlies, the franchise clung to the name despite the fact that they compiled an atrocious record of 142-318 during their time in the Pacific Northwest. Absurdity level?  Very high, and on multiple fronts. Rebranding was clearly the best option in this particular move — Memphis has rich traditions from which to derive a nickname (Blues, anyone?) and there’s no evidence that any grizzly bears (other than Marc Gasol) ever inhabited Tennessee. Ever.

Utah Jazz: Originally the New Orleans Jazz,the franchise kept its name when it moved to a place that embodies the antithesis of jazz culture.  Absurdity level?  Astronomically high.  I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone thought it was a good idea to keep this team’s name when they moved to Salt Lake City.  As if anyone in Utah had ever listened to jazz…


Latin: tempestas mysterium

Subspecies A: Weather, counting nouns

Latin: tempestas plures

Phoenix Suns: A long list of names was assembled for the Phoenix franchise to choose from in 1968, and they settled on “Suns.”  Because, you know, it’s hot in Arizona. It’s a perfectly fine nickname, and it’s not like the other finalist (“the Firebirds”) was a slam dunk, but it feels as though it lacks imagination.

Subspecies B: Weather, non-counting nouns

Latin: tempestas unum

This is what "the Thunder" are stuck with: a generic, text-based logo, because they picked an abstract team nickname. Well done!

Miami Heat: The result of a name-the-team contest held by the ownership group. One of the four non-counting nouns in the NBA, and all of them drive me bananas. Yes, Miami is hot. Yes, the symbols and uniforms look cool. But no, they certainly did not exhaust the creative process.

Oklahoma City Thunder: “Thunder” isn’t exactly “weather,” but it’s weather-related. It’s also a terribly stupid nickname for a sports franchise. They’ve backed themselves into a permanent corner by choosing an ineffable abstraction for a name.  At least “Heat” can be signified by flames. How does one “show” Thunder, exactly? And don’t you dare say, “a lightning bolt.” If you want to use a lightning bolt, then name yourselves “the Lightning Bolts,” you stupid Oklahomans.

Shameless, Nonsensical Marketing Hokum

Latin: macula venalicum ars

Orlando Magic: The names considered for the Orlando basketball team: “Heat,” “Juice,” “Tropics,” “Magic.”  Um… yikes. Allegedly, inaugural GM Pat Williams’ daughter sealed the deal when she said (of visiting Orlando) “this place is like magic.” Cynically, it comes off as an attempt to partner with Disney World (AKA, “The Magic Kingdom”), which also happens to be located in Orlando. Also a non-counting noun. Also a dumb name for a professional, male sports team.

Toronto Raptors: Got the nickname because they were being formed at approximately the same time “Jurassic Park” was popular. I wish I were kidding. What kind of a short-sighted fool would go along with… Oh, it was Isiah Thomas. Makes sense. Nothing left to be said.

Just Plain Stupid

Latin: plumbeus

Simple elegance, ruined by a stupid name.

Brooklyn Nets: Imagine a football team named “The Pittsburgh Pylons.” Now, imagine a hockey team named “The Boston Blue Lines.” Next, imagine a baseball team named “The Phoenix Foul Poles.” See why “the Brooklyn Nets” is so abominable? Why name a team after a part of the field of play? Did New Jersey have nothing more distinguishable than that? Jay-Z and his business partners moved the team to Brooklyn after the ’11/12 season and missed out on a golden opportunity to fix this grave problem by rebranding. Fortunately, I suppose they can still make a change. So come on, Mr. Knowles-Carter, slap “the Knights” on the jerseys, repaint the floor, and rid our great sport of this insipid name. You can keep the black-and-white color scheme — that’s grown on me — but at least get rid of the name.

In conclusion:

I count at least eight team names that are more nonsensical than “the Pelicans” and a few others that are damn close. “The Hornets” never fit the city of New Orleans, and the way it sounds, it’s possible Charlotte will scoop the name back up in the coming years anyway. A win-win.

In time, the new name will surely grow on basketball fans. Until then, we just need to hope common sense prevails — that the Jazz relinquish their name, that the Grizzlies come up with something that actually relates to Memphis, that the Pacers alter the “P” to an “R”, that the Heat and Thunder start over with a ‘counting noun’ for a name, that the Magic and Raptors have changes of heart, and that the Kings, Cavaliers, Warriors, and Wizards add a little pizzazz to their brand. But I wouldn’t count on it.

The “Nets” to “Knights”  thing really needs to happen, though. We’re all counting on you, Jay-Z.

I've got 99 problems, and all of them involve your poorly named sports franchise, JAY-Z!!!

BreakTheHuddle primarily covers the MASH-unit otherwise known as the Minnesota Timberwolves. Leave a comment below, follow him on Twitter @BreakTheHuddle or email him


Sources / useful references:’s “Behind the Name” series:

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One Response to NBA Team Names: A Scientific Classification

  1. Stavrogin says:

    Very nice article.
    Just a note: the Pistons don’t have their name because of Detroit’s industry. They were founded in Fort Wayne buy a guy who a ran a foundry in which pistons were manufactured. So it’s kinda like for the Rockets – the name is good for the city, but just by chance.

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