The cushioning setup of basketball sneakers can differ wildly. There are shoes like the Kyrie 3 that make you feel like walking on a slab of concrete while others (Lebron 18) provide cushion that feels like a soft pillow.
Not everybody needs soft and comfortably-cushioned basketball shoes, but there are a lot of reasons why basketball shoes with a lot of impact protection might make sense for you:
You are a big and heavy guy
Large players put a lot more stress on their joints and profit the most from well-cushioned shoes
You experience a lot of knee pain
If your knees are hurting after every game you should look for more impact protection!
You play a lot
If you are absolutely crazy about basketball and play hours every day it might make sense to get a second pair that provides additional cushioning to relieve the stress on your joints
To help you find the best cushioned basketball sneaker I am constantly checking out the latest shoe releases and record the ratings of every honest and qualified performance review I can find. So far I have summed up the findings of 745 reviews of 164 different performance basketball shoes.
The following overview shows the top ten sneakers, ranked by the average score they received for their cushioning. This list was last updated on Apr 02, 2021. Scroll down further to see a more detailed summary of each shoe, or click on the links to see quotes and ratings from every review I gathered for each shoe.
The Nike UNVRS does some things really well but can't convince critics overall.
Cushioning is by far the best thing about this sneaker: the full-length Zoom Air Strobel board is comfortable, bouncy, and a favorite among all critics.
The traction was disappointing to most testers. Even on clean courts, the rubber doesn't provide hard stops and slides out too often.
The Flyknit upper materials are comfortable but not supportive enough for explosive basketball moves. The FlyEase lacing system is easy to use but has some issues with heel slippage.
Overall, the Nike Air Zoom UNVRS is a very comfortable shoe for casual use, but not well suited for explosive basketball play.
The traction on the Jordan 35 is similar to the 34 and performs just as well. You will get consistently great grip and stopping power - just don't ruin them playing outdoors.
The addition of a large volume Zoom Air unit in the heel makes the cushion of this shoe even more comfortable and responsive.
The materials are premium and have a good mix of old school and new textile materials. They are breathable and don't need breaking in.
The support is even better than the 34 and has nice lateral containment, stability, and ankle support.
Overall the Jordan 35 is an awesome performer that lives up to the hype and the expensive retail price!
The traction of the Lebron 18 is good on clean courts, but inconsistent on dusty courts. The rubber of the outsole is durable enough for outdoor use.
The cushion is one of the best setups you can buy today! The combination of full-length Zoom Air, Cushlon, and Max Air offers top of the line comfort with solid responsiveness.
The $200 retail price is justified by materials that feel premium and durable, but some reviewers had issues with the tongue rubbing at the top of the foot.
The Lebron 18 fits true to size, but the Batleknit materials take a little to break-in.
The support is the low point of the shoe as reviewers had issues with lateral stability and containment due to the soft and high-off-the ground outsole.
Overall the LeBron 18 is a comfortable shoe that is more suitable for big guys who can take advantage of the cushioning and don't make a lot of hard cuts.
The KD12 is a huge step up from the disappointing predecessors.
The full-length Zoom sits directly beneath the feet and provides a ton of response and bounce.
The cushioning is a bit divisive, some reviewers are raving about it, others found it to be a bit too inconsistent on dusty courts.
The look and feel of the materials aren't very premium, but the performance of the flywire upper is top-notch.
The fit should work for most basketball players as it isn't as long and narrow as we are used too from the KD line.
Overall, the KD12 is a great performer with outstanding cushioning and no real weaknesses!
The nicest part of the KD 13 is the full-length Zoom Strobel which provides one of the best cushioning setups in basketball.
The traction pattern does a good job in all directions and is tough and thick enough to last outdoors.
The materials are thin, lightweight, and perform well but the quality doesn't feel premium in-hand.
Support comes from the wide base and good fit however the minimal upper doesn't provide as much lockdown as previous KD models.
As for most KD models, the fit of the KD13 is very comfortable if you have regular or narrow feet, wide-footers should go up half a size or look elsewhere.
Overall, the KD 13 is a great basketball shoe with outstanding cushioning.
The Lebron 17 is one of the most expensive basketball shoes on the market, does it justify it's $200 retail price?
Reviewers' opinions on the traction were split: the Solebrother called it "god-levels" especially on a translucent rubber pair while Nightwing2303 didn't like the white solid rubber, even on clean courts.
The cushioning, however, was loved by everyone. A huge Max Air unit in the heel is combined with Zoom in the forefoot and they provide a ton of impact protection and bounce.
The new Knitposite upper material is thick, soft and comfortable - but it gets pretty hot after a while.
Overall, the Lebron 17 is a great performer, especially you are a heavier player looking for a comfortable and supportive shoe.
The 4th edition of Paul George's signature sneaker changes things up a little.
A Nike Air strobel board that sits directly under your feet replaces the Nike Zoom Air cushioning. This setup gives you a softer and super comfortable, cloud-like feeling.
The circular traction pattern works well in all directions and keeps performing solidly even on dusty courts.
The biggest weaknesses of the PG4 are the support and lockdown: most critics reported sliding out off the footbed on sharp lateral cuts and some experienced mild heel slippage.
Overall, the PG4 is a solid performer that works best for lighter players who don't rely on explosive lateral cuts.
The Nike Cosmic Unity is part of Nike's sustainability push and made from at least 25% trash. Is the performance on the court trash as well?
The traction features a traditional herringbone pattern that performs well on clean courts but struggles a little on dusty surfaces.
The cushion setup uses the same Zoom Air Strobel as the KD 12 and 13 and provides nice impact protection and responsiveness. The midsole is very low to the ground and gives your great court feel.
The knit materials are nice to the touch and very durable. Performance-wise you'll have no issues!
The support provides everything you've come to expect from performance basketball shoes with solid lateral stability and containment.
Overall the Nike Cosmic Unity is a solid performer in every category. Just watch out if you play on dusty courts often.
With the Air Zoom BB NXT, Nike included a lot of new technology focused on providing the most responsive basketball shoe ever.
The traction is insane and the multi-directional pattern works well on clean and dusty courts.
The cushioning setup is the highlight of the shoe with full-length double-stacked React and Zoom Air in the forefoot creating a super comfortable ride.
The materials give good support and breathability but could be a little more premium considering the price point.
The lockdown is nice, but the support suffers at times because of the high ride and plush cushioning setup.
Overall, the Nike Air Zoom BB NXT provides great cushioning and traction with next-gen technology.
The Nike Zoom Rize is a new medium-priced Team model and a takedown version of the more expensive Nike AlphaDunk.
The traction works very well on clean courts, but on dusty courts, you will need to wipe from time to time.
The huge 10mm Nike Zoom unit in the forefoot is super bouncy and comfortable but doesn't give you a ton of court feel.
The materials start off a little stiff, but they provide a lot of lockdown and loosen up quicky.
The support is great in the heel and midfoot but multiple reviewers mentioned slight issues on quick lateral cuts.
Overall, the Nike Zoom Rize is a very versatile basketball shoe that performs well in all categories.
Frequently asked questions about cushion in basketball shoes
What types of cushioning are there? And which cushion is the best?
It is impossible to say which type of cushioning setup is the best because they each cater to different needs and styles of play.
There are firm cushions like pure Phylon that provide great court feel and responsiveness which are perfect for light and quick guards. Other types of cushion like Nike Zoom Air provide a lot more impact protection and are better suited for heavy players or older athletes that want to go easy on their joints.
These are some of the most popular cushioning systems often used in basketball sneakers:
Nike Zoom Air
Zoom Air was first released in 1995 and is one of the oldest and most popular cushioning systems. It is made of tightly stretched tensile fibers in a pressurized “Air” unit. It is most often used in high-end basketball shoes and expensive signature lines like the Lebron or KD shoes.
Nike Zoom Air is a very bouncy cushioning that provides great energy returns through the way the fibers expand back to their initial state after every impact. It is also very versatile and can be used in different ways: from small Air units like in the heel of the Kyrie 4 to one huge full-length Zoom unit like in the Jordan Why Not Zero.1
Adidas Boost is still relatively new and was first used in basketball shoes for the Adidas Crazylight Boost in 2014. Since then it has taken the sneaker world by storm because of the incredible comfort it provides and is used in popular lifestyle models like the NMD or the Yeezy Boost
Boost outsoles are made of hundreds of tiny thermoplastic urethane pellets that are fused together using hot steam. What makes these pellets unique is that they are incredibly soft while still remaining springy enough to provide great energy return. This allows Adidas to make shoes that are insanely comfortable but still provide enough responsiveness to be used in quick sports like basketball.
Boost is used in most of Adidas’ high end basketball sneakers like the Crazy Explosive, D Rose 8 or the Harden Vol. 2. Check out this video to learn more about the Boost technology:
Other foam-based cushioning
Every shoe brand has multiple versions of foam cushionings usually made of EVA which is a mixture of two plastics (Ethylene and Vinyl Acetate). EVA is a foam that includes a lot of tiny air bubbles which provide the intended bounciness and comfort.
A well-know example of a simple EVA cushioning is Phylon which is used in a lot of Nike sneakers. Other more advanced forms of cushioning like Nike Lunarlon, Adidas Bounce or Under Armour Micro G use a mix of EVA and other rubbers to create lighter and more comfortable foam.
While the characteristics of foam cushioning can vary wildly, they are usually very responsive and provide great court feel but lack elite impact protection.