The Mystery of the Original NBA Teams

I’ve become a little bit obsessed with the historical evolution of the NBA. And if you’re into NBA history, there are few moments more compelling than the beginning. So here we’re digging into the original NBA teams and the birth of the NBA.

Nailing down the original NBA teams takes some investigation. In fact, it requires an examination of 2 separate seasons…

The National Basketball Association (NBA) was founded in 1946 as the Basketball Association of America (BAA). This league would later merge with the National Basketball League (NBL) in 1949, forming the NBA proper. But the NBA generally regards the BAA as its source of origin, accepting the history and statistics of the BAA as its own.

This means that the inaugural season of the NBA is at least a little bit uncertain. The NBA itself will point to the 1946 BAA season as it’s inaugural season. But the NBA did not exist under the actual NBA nomenclature until 1949, and the 1946 and 1949 seasons presented two very different rosters of teams.

So we’ll first take a look at 1946 (the official inaugural season). But we’ll also cover the 1949 NBA season (the first true season of the NBA) for good measure. You can chose for yourself which season you feel more accurately represents the birth of the NBA.

The 11 Original NBA Teams from 1946

This was the inaugural season of the BAA, there’s no debate about that. It’s also the beginning of NBA accepted stats.

Never mind that there’s a fair point to be made that the NBL was better stacked with talent at the time. The NBA doesn’t acknowledge that, so this would be the official list if you ask Adam Silver.

The 11 original teams that participated in the inaugural season of the BAA in 1946 were:

  1. Boston Celtics
  2. New York Knickerbockers
  3. Detroit Falcons – Defunct
  4. Philadelphia Warriors – Now the Golden State Warriors
  5. Chicago Stags – Defunct
  6. Cleveland Rebels – Defunct
  7. Pittsburgh Ironmen – Defunct
  8. Washington Capitols – Defunct
  9. Providence Steamrollers – Defunct
  10. St. Louis Bombers – Defunct
  11. Toronto Huskies – Defunct

Only two are still active in the same form today, the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks. The Warriors remain active in the NBA of course, but they left Philadelphia. Every other team on the list has since dissolved.

Many of those defunct teams folded within a few years. Several NBL teams jumped over to the BAA in the years leading up to the merger. Looking at the 1949 lineup, just 3 seasons in, this early tumultuousness is evident.

The 17 Original NBA Teams from 1949

In 1949, the NBL (a competing pro basketball league) was merged into the BAA. The resulting league was officially re-branded as the NBA.

The 1949 NBA featured 17 teams:

  1. Boston Celtics (BAA origin)
  2. New York Knickerbockers (BAA origin)
  3. Philadelphia Warriors (BAA origin) – Now the Golden State Warriors
  4. Minneapolis Lakers (NBL origin) – Currently the Los Angeles Lakers
  5. Rochester Royals (NBL origin) – Currently the Sacramento Kings
  6. Fort Wayne Pistons (NBL origin) – Currently the Detroit Pistons
  7. Syracuse Nationals (NBL origin) – Currently the Philadelphia 76ers
  8. Tri-Cities Blackhawks (NBL origin) – Currently the Atlanta Hawks
  9. Baltimore Bullets (ABL origin -> BAA in 1947) – Defunct
  10. Washington Capitols (BAA origin) – Defunct
  11. Chicago Stags (BAA origin)- Defunct
  12. St. Louis Bombers (BAA origin) – Defunct
  13. Indianapolis Olympians (NBL, formerly Kautskys) – Defunct
  14. Anderson Packers (NBL origin) – Defunct
  15. Waterloo Hawks (NBL origin) – Defunct
  16. Sheboygan Red Skins (NBL origin) – Defunct
  17. Denver Nuggets (NBL origin) – Defunct

You should see a few more familiar names here. Five modern teams trace their origins to the NBL teams that joined the NBA in the merger. Still, the only 2 teams that haven’t at least changed towns since 1949 are the Celtics and the Knicks. Every NBL team has changed cities, names or both since 1949.

Interestingly, some of the teams on this list share names with more modern teams, and yet are not associated with those teams.

These original Denver Nuggets are not associated with the current Denver Nuggets. The original Nuggets started as an NBL team, played one season before merging over into the NBA, and folded after that first NBA season. The name would be resurrected as a re-branding of the ABA Denver Rockets in 1974.

The Waterloo Hawks are not associated with the modern Atlanta Hawks. Rather, the modern Hawks evolved from the Tri-Cities BlackHawks, also of NBL origin.

And the Baltimore Bullets are not associated with the later Baltimore Bullets of the 60’s which would eventually become the modern Washington Wizards.

To recap, from the BAA side, 5 teams had already folded by the merger:

  1. Cleveland Rebels
  2. Pittsburgh Ironmen
  3. Providence Steamrollers
  4. Toronto Huskies
  5. Detroit Falcons

And from the NBL side, 3 teams fell apart on the road into the merger:

  1. Hammond Calumet Buccaneers
  2. Oshkosh All-Stars
  3. Dayton Rens

The Buccaneers struggled to raise the NBA franchise fee and their players were reassigned o the Waterloo Hawks.

The NBA wasn’t much interested in the small market All-Stars, though they were a favorite of the NBL and the only team to play in all 12 seasons of the league’s existence. Their

The Dayton Rens are a story unto themselves. An all-black barnstorming team from New York, they slipped into the franchise spot vacated when the Detroit Vagabond Kings folded halfway through the final NBL season.

The Rens were not invited to join the NBA, which did not technically integrate until 1950.


One thing that has been far from permanent over the years since the NBA was founded, are the participating teams. Sure, we haven’t seen a ton of changes in recent years. The Nets jumped about 14 miles from Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012. In 2008, the Seattle Supersonics made a more dramatic leap, becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder. Still, in the many many years since the birth of the NBA, we’ve seen plenty of teams come and go.

However, there are 3 original NBA teams from 1946 still playing and 8 original NBA teams from 1946 still playing. From 1946, the inaugural year of the BAA, we have the Celtics, Knicks and Warriors. Looking at 1949, the first year of existence of the fully merged and re-branded NBA, we add the Pistons, Hawks, Lakers, Kings and 76ers. Eight teams out of 30 is still pretty incredible. And we already had 3 teams that would ultimately go on to form some of the greatest NBA dynasties in history