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23 of the Best Air Jordans

According to our resident Sneakerhead

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Focus on Sport via Getty Images

It won’t be hard to find a ranking of the best Air Jordan sneakers and that’s because the brand’s comprehensive catalog of signature silhouettes is unparalleled in the world of sneakers. The Air Jordan started off as Nike’s first sneaker for Michael Jordan, the up and coming rookie out of the University of North Carolina who was destined for stardom before he ever laced up his first pair. Now, years later, the demand for retros and highly coveted colorways is a perpetual cycle that constantly pumps out sneakers to a point where the brand’s annual calendar releases have become a yearly tradition, subject to the commentary of the brand’s fans, its adversaries, and of course, the sneaker blogs. 

 

Some of those blogs, I’ve written for. Mostly covering sneaker news and lifestyle, studying and writing about sneakers has been my preferred occupation. Penning pieces for both Footwear News and Complex’s sneaker blogs Sole Collector and Complex Sneakers I can’t help but feel like a sneaker anthropologist, constantly internalizing releases, ranking them as a reflex, and considering the impact they might have on the subculture as a whole.

 

Whether you’ve just picked up your first pair or have been a collector for years, everybody has their own opinion on Air Jordans and more specifically which ones are the best. From the point of view of not only a tried and true sneakerhead but a true enthusiast, this is my calculated list of the 23 best Air Jordans of all time. 

1. Air Jordan I x Union LA “Blue Toe”

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I did my best to avoid collabs and instead focus on the iconic heritage of the brand but instead came faced with the easy choice of copping to the greatness of 2018’s sneaker of the year; the Union LA “Blue Toe.” One of two colorways released in partnership with the LA boutique, the execution on these was unlike what sneakerheads were used to seeing, I mean we’re talking about hand-painted edges here people. Even for a limited release, that level of craftsmanship is truly exceptional. Besides the hype, (finally spent on a worthy cause) what really gets me is the tongue in cheek antics of the brand before the release. Purely to fuck with sneakerheads, the brand set up a booth at LA’s famous vintage market, Rose Bowl, and let the hilarity ensue. Shoutout Union LA’s head, Chris Gibbs, for two perfectly executed concepts on the greatest basketball sneaker of all time. 

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2. Air Jordan XI “Bred”

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The Air Jordan XI “Bred” brings up a lot of thoughts. It’s reputation as the “murder shoe." It's a revolutionary combo of patent leather and top-level performance. The relentless hype that continues to dominate holiday releases and of course the time in 2012 when my Mom wouldn’t let a young me camp out to try and buy it. I’m not one for a grudge but when it comes to a sneaker this good, let’s just say I’m still waiting for an apology. 

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3. Air Jordan III “Black Cement”

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The Air Jordan III is a silhouette worth taking up two spots on this list on the pure strength of the “Black Cement” colorway alone. Just as famous and noteworthy as the line’s “Bred” aesthetic, the combo is a forever popular look that continues to sell out on drop day and grab headlines when rumors about a forthcoming release hit the internet. It was a hard choice to not slot the III in the number one spot but as a consolation, it's included here twice, my best effort to give an iconic silhouette the respect it so obviously deserves.

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4. Air Jordan 1 “Chicago”

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The catalyst for the most dynamic and famous line of sneakers ever, the Air Jordan I isn’t just a sneaker, it’s a movement. From Jordan on the court to Kanye West at Paris Fashion Week and Nigel Slyvester tearing up the streets of NYC, there’s not enough time or words to give this sneaker its proper due. The genesis of modern sneaker history, the AJ1 has seen countless collabs, iterations, and colorways. The OG “Chicago” is a grail unlike any other, coveted and sought after the I has essentially become a hieroglyph, a symbol that connotes greatness, understood by all who know its legacy and continue to feel its impact.

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5. Air Jordan XI “Concord”

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Of all the Air Jordans to pick from, there’s something especially eye-catching about the XI. Soaring to the heights of the line’s popularity, the touch of patent leather (first time for a basketball sneaker) to the stark mesh upper and icy sole on the bottom, the XI is a legend through and through. Perhaps the perfect hybrid between “formal” sneaker and performance model, the inspiration for the design was to give MJ something that paired well with a suit as well as his on-court performance. While some may disagree with this style choice, there’s plenty of advocates for the decision to dress up the Concord with a suit. The XI has seen numerous iterations with different design details like a “45” on the back for the 2018 retro and the clear sole on the 2013 release.

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6. Air Jordan IV “Bred”

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​​​​​​The Shot. Do The Right Thing. The Air Jordan IV is a certified classic. One of the more comfortable sneakers from the line, the 2019 retro of the “Bred” colorway had sneakerheads unflinchingly copping multiple pairs as a necessity rather than an opportunity to make some money. The IV also brought the brand to a higher plane as the first Jordan to have a global release. The “Bred” colorway is an Air Jordan calling card unlike any other and looks just about perfect on the IV. 

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7. Air Jordan V “Grape”

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Decked out in a purple and aqua color scheme, the “Grape” colorway was the first time those colors appeared on a performance silhouette. Furthering the ethos of shattering records and setting precedents, Michael’s fifth shoe, like his game, turned heads and captured the attention of a fan base hooked on the sheer celebrity and greatness they were witnessing. The V seems clunky, a Frankenstein of the past four sneakers with new details like the fat, sometimes reflective tongue, and a shark tooth design on the midsole that referenced the artwork of WWII fighter planes.

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8. Air Jordan VII “Olympic”

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What was once one of the lightest basketball sneakers of all time, the Air Jordan VII was a marvel. Keeping pace with Michael’s on-court excellence, behind the scenes, toiling hard to keep up with Jordan was Tinker Hatfield. The VII did away with the Nike Air branding and introduced a new era for the Jumpman logo. The VII is known for its American color scheme that pays homage to Jordan’s prominent position among one of the best athletes ever assembled, the 1992 “Dream Team” who stood tall on the podium in Barcelona after taking home the gold.

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9. Air Jordan VI “Carmine”

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The VI is synonymous with Jordan’s first championship in 1991, as he clutched the Larry O’Brien trophy in the locker room the sneaker he wore was an important part of his legacy. The “Carmine” colorway stands out with a bright red upper that really pops, separating it from the other toned-down reds like “University Red” and “Bred” that we saw from previous colorways. Fans of the VI also hold the sneaker to be special because it was the last of the Air Jordan line to bear the “Nike Air” logo, recent retros jump between the Jumpman and Nike Air stamp on the heel. After one championship, with several more to follow, the emphasis was now on the Jumpman, arm outreached soaring to the heights of greatness the basketball world had never seen before.

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10. Air Jordan III “White Cement”

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The year is 1988 and Tinker Hatfield, the iconic architect turned designer, debuted for Nike the Air Jordan III. Keeping with the bold move of going no Swoosh, the III was a smashing success. The minimalist and high-quality design was underlined with elephant print on the heel and toe rounding out the design and bringing the sneaker to the forefront of the Jordan product line. MJ was a sensation on the court back then and the III really came to life when Jordan dunked from the free-throw line, tongue hanging out, IIIs tied tight, ready for liftoff. The brand even commemorated the legendary moment with an outsole detail that showed exactly where Jordan planted his foot on the line and sprang into basketball lore forever. 

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11. Air Jordan XII “Flu Game”

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​​​​​​​As far as marketing goes, there's almost a lesson in every sneaker Air Jordan ever put out. Always capitalizing on current moments and iconic instances, there’s no better example than the history of the Air Jordan XII “Flu Game.” What started as a simple “Bred” colorway evolved into one of the brand’s most storied sneakers, all thanks to the Flu, or a hangover, or some bad Utah pizza, depends on what you want to believe. Despite the actual circumstance that brought Michael Jordan to that iconic moment, the Flu Game XIII was forged from Michael Jordan being Michael Jordan, giving us another example of greatness personified. 

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12. Air Jordan VIII “Bugs Bunny”

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Maybe one of the greatest marketing crossover events of all time is that of Jordan brand and Bugs Bunny. The advantageous partnership brought us Space Jam, this Air Jordan VIII colorway, and more. The “Bugs Bunny” colorway graces the silhouette from 1993 and brings a carpeted tongue (the first of its kind) to complete the color scheme of red, gray, and white. The iconic double velcro strap and booty sock insert take inspiration from Nike’s Huarache line and makes the VIII a standout both visually and technically. The sneaker’s only fault is its weight, slap a gray and white speckle on the upper and you’d have a true “Cement” colorway.

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13. Air Jordan XIII “He Got Game”

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The Air Jordan XIII was a legend in its own right, but the story goes far beyond MJ’s on-court feats with this sneaker. In 1998 Spike Lee released “He Got Game” a basketball film for all time that features Jordan athlete Ray Allen. The sneaker is almost a subplot in itself, I can still hear Denzel Washington questioning the $150 price tag in the sneaker store scene. The color scheme is all but masterful, a simple white and black with red accenting. A recent retro saw the famous colorway again in 2018, but if you’re looking to come down with a pair it’ll cost you much more than what Mr. Shuttleworth paid.

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14. Air Jordan IX “Cool Grey”

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The Air Jordan IX first hit stores in 1993, a strange year that saw Michael Jordan driving the ball to the outfield instead of through the lane and into the paint. Nevertheless, the Air Jordan IX was born with its nubuck construction, leather, and reflective accents on the heel; the bulky silhouette worked well for the cleats he wore and included some eye-catching colorways worn by athletes like Penny Hardaway, Kendall Gill, and B.J. Armstrong who ran the hardwood in the IX in MJ’s absence.

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15. Air Jordan II “White/Red”

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 The Air Jordan II had a similar job to the XII (or vice versa) – follow up an extremely popular and successful silhouette. A criminally underrated sneaker, the II had a full plate of continuing to bring the hype that the I had started. A bold move to go sans Swoosh, the II channeled the aesthetic of high-end luxury Italian boots and was the first performance basketball sneaker to be considered luxurious. The II was successful in its own right and laid the foundation for the III, a widely popular sneaker that is an easy Top 3 Jordan of all time.

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16. Air Jordan X “Steel”

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Like most Air Jordan models, students of art and design could learn a couple of things. With something as simple as a basketball sneaker, Jordan really set the tone for above and beyond design (obviously Tinker Hatfield is largely to credit). The Air Jordan X gives a free lesson in repetition, similar to Michael’s greatness, and the brand’s relentless retros, repeating something over and over again is a testament to the pattern of greatness the brand continues to perpetuate. “Steel” gives the sneaker a simple black and white colorway with the repeating colors on the tongue and outsole which also features the special detail of Michael’s numerous achievements engraved in the rubber.

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17. Air Jordan XII “Michigan”

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The predecessor of the iconic XI, the XII was a follow up of epic proportions. The sneaker quickly became a popular on-court model that’s widely regarded as one of the brand’s best performance models. The “Michigan” colorway is just another shining example of the perks of being a big-time Jordan sponsored school. The leather upper gets swapped out for a rich suede and features a bold yellow “M” branding hit on the tongue.

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18. Air Jordan VI “UNC”

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The Air Jordan VI is mainly important for it’s introduction to a two-hole pull system on the tongue and rear loop for Michael to put his sneakers on easier. The lacing system features a cinch for extra tightening but the sneaker’s real glory comes in the form of this colorway honoring his alma mater. As opposed to other bright powder blue and white colorways that reference the Tar Heels, the upper is drenched in black with baby blue on the silhouette’s accents instead of taking center stage. A delicate balance between bold and understated, the VI is a model that any fan of the brand has to have.

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19. Air Jordan XIII “Ray Allen PE”

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While trying to stay away from PEs and collabs for this list, I thought it would only be right to mention the Ray Allen PE when speaking on the XIII. A sneaker some point to as the end line of worthwhile Jordan models, it’s oddly luxurious and seemingly inflexible. Despite Jordan’s penchant for the model during his 1997-1998 season, the sneaker is sometimes hard to look at. It’s chunky design, small tongue, and weird marbled branding hit on the ankle collar are just some of the details leaving you both curious and confused. Overall it’s a sneaker that pushes boundaries and in this particular colorway comes with a hefty price tag.

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20. Air Jordan XIX “Flint Grey”

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Late-model Air Jordans were known for pushing the boundary of sneaker design. With some of the loudest and daring design aspects, what some would call “ugly” is what most now describe as “daring” and “brave.” The Air Jordan XIX kept up a long-running streak of bold design by introducing elements of patent leather (seriously take a look at that toe box), a velcro strap, and mesh screen on the upper covering the laces. Other strong technical elements made the sneaker a performance model, but as time goes on, and our definition of performance changes, the XIX looks more and more like something you’d see in a museum than on the foot of a basketball player. The 2019 retro brought the sneaker back into the headlines, this time loaded with nostalgia, a special “Melo” branded insole rings familiar to those following Carmelo Anthony’s career and relationship with the brand.

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21. Air Jordan XX “Laser”

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The Air Jordan XX is both simple and complex. The line’s 20th signature sneaker works in a creative ankle strap and lock-in system at the forefoot covering the laces (the latest of the past five sneakers to do so). The silhouette is decked out with important numbers and symbolic graffiti lasered onto the upper. The sneaker experimented with a new midsole technology called Independent Podular Suspension – I.P.S. for short which put pods on key parts of the foot for support.

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22. Air Jordan XX8 “Green Camo”

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The Air Jordan XX8 takes inspiration from military boots – their high and tight construction was ideal for performance, the key element was a zipper which almost spanned the entire sneaker. For a more casual look, the unzipped version revealed the tongue and ankle collar for a different type of wear. The sneaker gave a locked and loaded feel for performance and set a foundation for the next Air Jordan superstar, Russell Westbrook. The brand’s been picky with people not named Michael Jordan but with Westbrook’s OKC Thunder performance on the rise, the brand rewarded him with a sponsorship in 2012. The silhouette saw a wild variety of wacky colorways, some of which dressed in the blue, orange, and white, of the Thunder.

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23. Air Jordan XV “Obsidian”

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While some might argue that Air Jordan fell off after the XII, there’s something to be said for MJ’s late models. Taking a dip into the world of weird and experimental design, the XV is one of the better avant-garde performance models. Even though it looks more like a Parsons conceptual design project than a basketball sneaker, there’s something about this unique shape and concept that speaks to the bravery of the Nike designers responsible for MJ’s post-retirement sneakers. The XV took a giant leap into the unknown of the sneaker world and took fresh risks with design elements and materials, for better or worse.

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