Over the years, the National Basketball Association (NBA) has seen several teams change their names, either due to relocation or rebranding efforts. Some teams have undergone multiple name changes throughout their history, while others have only made minor adjustments.
Whether you’re a die-hard fan or just starting to follow the NBA, understanding the league’s team name history can help you appreciate its evolution over time. With that in mind, what NBA teams have changed their names?
What is Behind NBA Team Names?
NBA team names are often marketing tools that match the moniker and the city or location they are playing.
For example, Minnesota is home to the largest population of Timberwolves in the 48 mainland states, with around 2,700 animals. The Knicks, or Knickerbockers, is a term used for the Dutch settlers who lived in New York in the 1600s. This is the origin of the orange and blue colors of the New York Knicks, which are all associated with the Dutch royal family.
It’s the same thing with the Boston Celtics. Boston is known for having a large Irish population, many of whom have roots in Ireland and identify with the Celtics, a group of ancient Celtic tribes. The Bulls are named that way because Chicago once had a prominent livestock market.
But there is definitely more to NBA team names than meets the eye. Sometimes, teams change locations but retain the team monikers for whatever reason. For example, the Lakers originated in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where many lakes exist. When the team moved to Los Angeles, they kept the name, despite the lack of lakes in the area.
It’s the same thing with the Warriors. The team was originally located in Philadelphia and was known as the “Philadelphia Warriors.” The name was changed to San Francisco and then Golden State when the team moved to California, retaining the nickname.
Others are much more interesting. The Miami Heat is so named because of South Beach’s humid climate. The Raptors, an expansion team in 1985, was a name chosen in a fan contest, primarily because Toronto was where the Jurassic Park franchise was filmed.
Here is more history of NBA team names:
- The Rockets were originally located in San Diego and named after the city’s aerospace industry. When the team moved to Houston, they kept the name.
- The name “Grizzlies” was chosen in a fan contest and reflects the fact that grizzly bears are native to the Vancouver area. The franchise kept the name when they moved to Memphis.
- The team was originally located in Kansas City and named after the city’s famous jazz musician, Charlie “Bird” Parker, who was known as the “Kansas City King.” When the team moved to Sacramento, they kept the name.
- The Portland Trail Blazers’ team name reflects the pioneering spirit of the settlers who traveled west on the Oregon Trail in the 1800s.
- The Philadelphia 76ers’ name and logo reflect the city’s role in the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Hence, the “76.”
NBA Team Names: Then and Now
As the previous section showed, most NBA franchises relocated from one city to another, except the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, and Cleveland Cavaliers. Some even did it multiple times.
So, what NBA teams have changed names? Here is the list:
- The Washington Wizards franchise came into the league in 1961 as the Chicago Packers, whose name changed to Zephyrs a season after. Then, in 1963 they became the Baltimore Bullets, a name they kept until 1995, when they relocated to Washington. The Wizards has been the official name of the franchise until now since 1997.
- The Atlanta Hawks is one of the league’s oldest city and team name combos. They were known as the Atlanta Hawks since 1968 but were called the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Milwaukee Hawks, and St. Louis Hawks before that.
- Speaking of the oldest NBA teams, the Sacramento Kings also have that distinction. They were known as the Rochester Royals in 1948 and transferred to Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Sacramento.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder was once known as the Seattle Supersonics from 1967 until 2008.
- The San Antonio Spurs kept their name after the merger, but they were also known as the Chaparrals of Dallas and Texas in the ABA.
- The Los Angeles Clippers were originally known as the Buffalo Braves in 1970. Eight years later, they became the San Diego Clippers, followed by a relocation to Los Angeles in 1984.
- The Houston Rockets was originally based in San Diego in 1967. There was also another Rockets team in the ABA at that time, the Denver Rockets, which then became the Nuggets. They kept the team name intact after the ABA-NBA merger.
- The Golden State Warriors franchise was once located in Philadelphia and San Francisco. Speaking of Philly, the current 76ers were once known as the Syracuse Nationals.
- The Detroit Pistons have kept their name since 1957. Before that, they were known as the Fort Wayne Pistons.
Why Do NBA Teams Change Their Names?
There could be many reasons why NBA teams change names, the foremost of which is relocation. When a team moves to a new city, it may change its name to reflect the new location or to avoid confusion with another team in the area. However, it may also be about rebranding to update its image or appeal to a different demographic. This may include changes to the team’s logo, color scheme, and overall identity.
Other possible reasons are changes in ownership and legal and cultural sensitivity issues. For example, Donald Sterling bought the San Diego Clippers in 1981 and moved the team to his home city in Los Angeles by 1984.
The Washington Wizards were known as the Bullets but changed their name because of the prevalence of gun violence. The Oklahoma City Thunder could not have retained the SuperSonics because the city of Seattle has the legal rights to the nickname.
What NBA Teams Have Relocated?
There are quite a lot of NBA teams that moved from one city to another. Here is the list:
- The Hawks moved from Illinois (Tri-Cities), Milwaukee, and St. Louis before settling in Atlanta.
- The Pistons moved from Fort Wayne to Detroit.
- The Sacramento Kings were once based in Rochester, Cincinnati, and Kansas City.
- The Los Angeles Lakers relocated from Minneapolis.
- The Golden State Warriors were originally located in Philadelphia.
- The Utah Jazz were once based in New Orleans.
- The Los Angeles Clippers were in Buffalo and San Diego before moving to LA.
- The Memphis Grizzles were based in Vancouver from 1995 to 2001.
- The New Jersey Nets are known as the Brooklyn Nets since 2012.
- The Rockets were based in San Diego before moving to Houston.
- Before becoming the Washington Wizards, the franchise was originally known as the Chicago Zephyrs. It then became the Baltimore Bullets, Capital Bullets (Landover, Maryland), Washington Bullets, and the Wizards.
A much more curious case was the current Hornets and Pelicans franchise. The Pelicans were actually the original Charlotte Hornets from 1988 to 2002. The team then moved to New Orleans, retained the Hornets for a while, and renamed the Pelicans in 2013.
The current Charlotte Hornets is an entirely different franchise that originated as the Charlotte Bobcats. The Bobcats were an expansion team in 2004 and rebranded as the Hornets in 2014.
Wrapping Things Up: What NBA Teams Have Changed Names?
The NBA has been around for nearly eight decades and has experienced ups and downs before reaching success. Part of the journey was various relocations, team name changes, and everything in between. There were also old NBA teams that don’t exist anymore style=”font-weight: 400;”>, such as the Detroit Falcons, St. Louis Bombers, and dozens of others.
So, what NBA teams have changed names? Most have actually done so except for a few, such as the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, and the Miami Heat. The Los Angeles Lakers were once the Minneapolis Lakers, the Philadelphia 76ers were once the Syracuse Nationals, the Detroit Pistons were once based in Fort Wayne and the Sacramento Kings were once named the Cincinnati Royals, just to name a few.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.