Basketball is a great sport, with many exciting and charismatic athletes. Still, among professional sports, it has by far the lamest team names. By my reckoning, only eight of the 29 teams in the league have a decent name, with the others ranging from the geographically inappropriate (Utah Jazz) to just plain weak (Indiana Pacers). The only thing close as bad as the team names is the postgame player interviews, and even then, it's close.
It really isn't that difficult. Team names just need to have a few of the following qualities:
1. Name of an animal:
The tougher the animal, the better. Not surprisingly, most teams opt for carnivores. Cats and birds of prey are widespread; slow, herbivorous animals less so. Half of the teams in any given NCAA Tournament field will be named "Wildcats." Granted, the Buffalo Bills have a buffalo as their mascot, but their name doesn't make any goddamn sense anyway.
1a. Job-based human name, or sufficiently ancient tribal name:
By "job-based human name," I mean that having "Buccaneers" as a mascot is fine, while having "Redskins" or "Indians" really is not. It seems very clear to me that "Dallas Cowboys" is acceptable in a way that "Dallas Whiteboys" would not be. "Minnesota Vikings" is OK because they lived so long ago, and because Vikings kick ass, bro.
2. Geographic appropriateness and/or illiteration:
There has been a trend recently to select animal mascots that correspond to a region's indigenous wildlife. The Florida Marlins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Arizona Diamondbacks are all recent examples of this trend. I don't think this is necessary. An alliterative name is a lot more effective than one that's been geographically determined; there may not have been a lot of pirates based in Pittsburgh, but the name works due to the double-P.
Still, a name shouldn't contrast glaringly with its region. It would ahve looked stupid if the Dallas hockey team had retained the "North Stars" moniker after leaving Minnesota. Similarly, the Washington Senators became the "Twins" upon moving to Minneapolis, and the second incarnation became the "Rangers" when they relocated to Texas. The Colorado Avalanche would look like jackasses if they were still called the "Nordiques."
3. Inanimate objects, but only if they're really cool:
This is where the NBA really runs into trouble. The only inanimate objects that work as team names are ones with cool qualities, that bring to mind victory-type metaphors. The New York "Jets" fly, they're fast. they're cool, that's an acceptable name. For the flip side of this, see below.
Doesn't seem that tough, does it? And yet, there's just seven teams with quality names: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, New York Knicks. Four animals, two peoples from yesteryear, and a super-cool inanimate object ("Maverick" is used in the unbranded animal sense of the word). Every other team has flaws of varying degrees of seriousness, which are categorized below.
The geographically inappropriate: Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, New Orleans Hornets
The LA teams moved from other places; the City of Angels isn't known for its shipbuilding or its lakes. The Kings inherited their name from the Kansas City Kings, who themselves were descended from the Rochester Royals. The first two names were questionable - what does it mean to be the King of Kansas City? - but at least they were alliterative. It seems like Sacramento "Squires" is closer to the level of royalty implied by the city itself. The "Grizzlies" moved to Memphis and changed their colors to blue and orange upon being purchased by Federal Express. Though the grizzly bear isn't normally associated with the Deep South, at least that beats them changing names to the "Express."
The Utah Jazz play in the least jazzy city in the United States, if not the entire world. Part of that is because the only African-Americans in the entire state play for the Jazz themselves. The Jazz used to play in New Orleans, and the name has hung on, even in the land of Mormons and green Jell-o. Meanwhile, the New Orleans basketball team is called the Hornets, even though Utah, through some weird Latter-Day animal symbology, goes nuts over bees and beehives. Could they maybe trade names? Could we stop associating the word "Jazz" with point guard John Stockton, the whitest man in NBA history?
The geographically cowardly: Golden State Warriors
They play in Oakland. Oakland, California. What, the NBA's worst franchise is too good to be associated with Oakland? Alameda County renovates their arena, and there's no love from the team? The California Angels finally owned up to their Orange County roots and became "Anaheim." Five years later, they were world champions. It should be a lesson to the Warriors. Embrace O-town.
The nearly-respectable: Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors
"Timberwolves" is too long a name, so everyone calls the team the "T-Wolves," which only exacerbates the horrible public nickname trend towards "First initial-plus-First syllable of last name." Some write it as "T'Wolves," which would be pronounced like "T'was," or "train," if the speaker was an eight year-old Sean Keane. "Pistons" fits in with Detroit, and the auto industry, and makes one think of motion, but... a piston isn't even really one of the cooler parts of an engine, and it sounds a lot like part of a flower's reproductive system. "Raptors" might be acceptable if it weren't such a transparent attempt to sell team merchandise by glomming onto the "Jurassic Park" phenomenon.
The Abstract Non-Pluralizable Concept: Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz (again!)
Both Florida teams, both piss-poor names. One determining factor a team should look at when selecting a team name is, "OK, what will an individual player on our team be referred to as?" Even the teams with the lamest names can at least say, "We're the Devil Rays. One individual player is a Devil Ray. We understand the need to refer to individuals using a singular form of a noun."
But in Miami, Orlando, and Salt Lake City, that's impossible. One Jazz player is... still a "Jazz"? A "Note"? Both "Heat" and "Magic" could have been dreamed up by lazy headline writers in the sports section, just to facilitate lame puns. Pick a name that ends in "s," people.
Inanimate and uncool: Denver Nuggets, New Jersey Nets, Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Seattle Supersonics
Let's just agree right away that "Nuggets" and "Nets" are undeniably lame. The sun is a good star and all, but suggesting a team of multiple "Suns" is a little bit sci-fi freaky-deaky for me. "Spurs" are basically jagged pieces of metal. How inspiring.
"Supersonics" does refer to planes, which I earlier stated was a legitimate team mascot. However, no one uses "supersonic" as a noun anymore. It's been primarily an adjective since at least the '70s, if not the '20s.
Lame: Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Portland Trailblazers
"Cavaliers" means "knights," so it seems decent. Except, it's always shortened to "Cavs," which to me means, baby cows. Ooh, look out for Cleveland! They're as tough as veal! A "Pacer" is either a mediocre horse, or one of the worst-received automobiles of all time. I think "Trailblazer" is some kind of Lewis and Clark bullshit. It's always shortened to "Blazers," which is quite appropriate given their players' current proclivity for marijuana abuse. Either way, unless I get to shoot at poorly animated buffalo and squirrels, I want no part of this Oregon Trail business.