Throughout the 2017-18 season, sneakers became more than just another piece of equipment. Whether it was the league's biggest names promoting social messages, up-and-coming stars showing off their creativity or role players breaking out surprising vintage pairs, this season saw more incredible footwear than ever before.
Truth be told, if this were simply a ranking of the most sought-after pairs, Houston Rockets wing PJ Tucker and LA Clippers big man Montrezl Harrell could've easily filled every spot. But for the sake of variance, each player is eligible for one top sneaker on our season-ending list. That makes room for coveted collabs from signature athletes like Damian Lillard and Paul George, to exceptional player exclusives from DeMar DeRozan, Kristaps Porzingis and Nick Young, who lived up to his "Swaggy P" nickname.
After becoming the buzz of summer league by changing sneakers every game, Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball stuck to just a handful of mostly solid color pairs of his debut Big Baller Brand ZO2 signature shoe, leaving room to build on his rookie campaign and the massive early attention that the brand was able to generate.
Venturing east to Washington, the nation's capital became a platform for message-laden sneakers. Stephen Curry championed his past work with former President Barack Obama's "My Brother's Keeper Alliance" when the Warriors visited the Wizards -- but not the White House. His Curry 4s featured the MBK Alliance logo along the collar with gold accents, and he later auctioned off the game-worn pair to raise money for the foundation.
"We're continuing to raise awareness on supporting young men and boys of color in their pursuit of achievement and the highest success in life," Curry said.
LeBron James had his own message when the Cavaliers headed to D.C., wearing a mismatched white and black pair of the LeBron 15 model, with the word "EQUALITY" stitched into the back of each shoe, along with tonal embroidery of the same word in fifteen languages, representing the diversity of the country.
"Us as Americans, no matter the skin color, no matter the race, no matter who you are, I think we all have to understand that having equal rights and being able to stand for something and speak for something and keeping the conversation going [is important]," James said.
Both Langston Galloway and Stanley Johnson sported pink-hued Nikes in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month at the start of the season. Johnson's pair of the Nike Kyrie 3 was an unreleased edition originally made for the EYBL summer-basketball AAU circuit. The message held extra meaning for the third-year forward, as Johnson lost his mother, Karen Taylor, to breast cancer just before his rookie season in August 2015.
Galloway looked for a special edition for the occasion, breaking out a rare white-and-pink colorway of James' debut Nike shoe, the Air Zoom Generation, originally made in 2004. The pink colorway is simply dubbed the "Gloria" edition. Fewer than 100 pairs were made more than a decade ago for friends at the request of LeBron's mom, Gloria James, making it one of the rarest sneakers of the season.
"I knew we had a Breast Cancer Awareness game coming up, and I have a few family members that have been affected by breast cancer," Galloway told ESPN. "I had to do something special for them, but I wanted to find something different that I haven't seen. I went on eBay trying to find some rare samples and ran across the AZG 'Gloria.' I knew they were something special!"
Other players kept things light with custom hand-painted pairs. L.A.-based artist Sal Amezcua, aka Kickstradomis, saw his work on the feet of more than 20 players, including Harrell and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns.
Harrell often could be seen switching between a mix of retro Jordans and rare Kobes and LeBrons, with several customized versions highlighting some of his favorite cartoon characters. After a SpongeBob Squarepants sighting early in the year, it was his Homer Simpson-etched pair of the Air Jordan 29 that caught the most attention.
Towns circulated Amezcua's work around the league, first drawing attention with his themed size 20s and eventually putting other players in touch with the artist to coordinate their own pairs. Just before the All-Star break, Towns organized a teamwide showcase honoring late Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, as players wore Kickstradomis-crafted sneakers that were each auctioned for charity.
Last but not least, Tucker, Jimmy Butler, Patrick McCaw and several others kept social media buzzing in real time, as they unveiled rarely seen and highly valued pairs. Butler wore an Air Jordan IV exclusive originally made in limited quantities for rapper Eminem and his inner circle -- the shoes have been listed online for as much as $20,000.
Tucker shut down the internet on a near-weekly basis, breaking out several pairs valued over $1,000, including everything from 15-year-old player editions, to Kanye West's iconic Nike Air Yeezy series and current exclusive Jordans made only for brand-sponsored programs like Marquette, Georgetown and Michigan.
Among the players who just missed the cut for our final rundown of the season were Russell Westbrook, Lauri Markkanen, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Lance Stephenson, Malik Beasley, Malcolm Delaney, Isaiah Thomas and Taurean Prince.
Check out our picks for the best 18 sneakers of the season below, and be sure to vote on your favorite pair.