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The Top 5 Team Names in the NBA

NBA franchises are named after all sorts of things, from spaceships to dinosaurs to warm climates. But which one has the best nickname? The Ringer staff weighs in.

Ringer illustration

Basketball is (maybe, hopefully) on the horizon. To help reintegrate us to a life of Giannis hammer dunks, James Harden dribbling for 24 seconds, and 76ers fans yelling at you for some reason, we’re rolling out top-five rankings in 20 different categories. All rankings were voted on by The Ringer staff unless noted.

Below, our very definitive and scientific ranking of the best team names in the league.

5. Warriors

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure why my colleagues voted the Warriors in the top five. (Over the Suns? Multiple 432,690 mile-long balls of hot plasma?) The name has no bearing to Northern California specifically, and wasn’t theirs originally—it was carried over when the team moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco in 1962. Philly chose the name when it joined the NBA in 1946 because its ABL team in the 1920s was nicknamed the Warriors.

I’ll play devil’s advocate to myself: The name is good because “warrior” is a nobler word for “fighter,” and makes me think of bravery, persistence, that red mohawk thing on top of a Spartan helmet, valor, and heroism. All important traits for basketball. Even the red thing. Spartans used those to look taller. Height is important in the NBA. But also … imagine the uniforms for the Golden State Fighters. That, my friends, is a top-five name.

4. Rockets

The history of how this team became the Rockets is often mistaken because it fits the city so well. (I’m going to tell my kids it’s a tribute to Houston-native Beyonce’s “Rocket.”) Before the franchise was in Texas, it was the San Diego Rockets—chosen because of its own Southern California space operation at the time. By 1971, when the team moved, Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center (renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in 1973) had already made the city a national hub for the space field.

It’s miraculous that a nickname chosen to honor a hyper-specific industry in one city should so perfectly apply to its next home some 1,500 miles away. Jazz, an incredibly popular style of music, doesn’t even kind-of fit Utah. All Los Angeles needed was a small body of water. Neither could come through! On top of the innovation that it represents (and the fact that it’s the only mascot besides the Suns that can travel in space), the Rockets were excellent in transition.

3. Heat

“Heat” is literal to Miami while also able to be left open to interpretation. You don’t often get a mascot that takes on as much historical symbolism as Miami’s flame logo can with fire. At the time, I’m not sure they were thinking past it being hot in Florida. Other entries included the Beaches, the Floridians, and the Suntan.

2. Trail Blazers

The 172 fans who submitted “Trail Blazers” in Portland’s 1970 name-the-team contest were paying homage to the Oregon Trail. On top of being an actual reference to Portland, which is more than we can say for some of the relocated franchises today, the team chose a compliment as a mascot. We call certain cherished historical figures in basketball trail blazers of the game; every Portland player—all of them, even LaRue Martin—is technically, nominally, the same. “Blazers” is also the best shorthand mascot in the NBA—the 76ers lose a full 70-count when they become the Sixers; the Knickerbockers go from a term used for Dutch settlers in New York to trousers you’d see in Peaky Blinders; “Wolves” is fine on its own, but not as good as Blazers.

1. Raptors

Finding inspiration in Jurassic Park is a product of being founded in the ’90s, but the Raptor is—in this instance and this instance only—timeless. Nothing looks better on a vintage jersey than a creature so vintage it can no longer be found on this earth. The Raptors cartoon is the difference between thousands of Vince Carter jerseys at a music festival and none; Toronto’s other top-10 fan submissions included—and understand that I’m not making these up, which my editor originally thought I was—the Beavers (missed opportunity for “dam” headlines), the Dragons, the T. rexes, the Tarantulas, the Terriers, and the Hogs. (Toronto’s nickname is Hogtown.)

Others receiving multiple votes: 76ers, Magic, Knicks, Suns, Hornets, Mavericks, Bulls, Bucks