In the NBA, the best pictures have a general recipe to them. They all contain a mix of historical significance, composition, and symbolism through the limitations of their frame. Tallying up the best pictures in NBA history is ultimately a subjective feat. Since NBA action has pretty much ceased, it is time to reflect on the great pictures the league has given us over the years.
NBA Museum: Ranking the Best Pictures Ever Taken
10. Game 7 ECF Kawhi Crouched, Waiting For Shot To Go In
— For The Win (@ForTheWin) May 13, 2019
The final shot of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Both these teams had their playoff lives on the line. Kawhi Leonard is tense in anticipation as he crouches on the baseline, but there’s a humble tone. He’s just a man, praying to the Basketball Gods that fate bounces his way. The moment before this shot rattled in felt like a lifetime.
It’s more than just an awesome split second captured at the perfect time. A miss right here could’ve triggered a butterfly effect in the NBA timeline. If it didn’t go in, then maybe the Philadelphia 76ers rally to take this playoff round in overtime. Toronto doesn’t make it to the NBA Finals, and who knows, maybe Kevin Durant isn’t rushed back after his team fell down 3-1. That leads to a Kevin Durant with an intact Achilles entering free agency, which also means his career isn’t in jeopardy. Perhaps he doesn’t join up with Kyrie Irving because he feels fit enough to shoulder the responsibility of doing the impossible – winning a ring for the New York Knicks. Not only that, but maybe other top free agent dominos fall different based on a healthy Kevin Durant’s decision. The photo represents the delicate line between what was, and what could’ve been.
9. Kobe Bryant Dunk Over Dwight Howard
#ThrowbackThursday: November 12, 2004
ORLANDO – NOVEMBER 12: Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) dunk on Dwight Howard
The Magic won 122-113. pic.twitter.com/SVxwh8lhDM
— Rair_Jordan (@RairJordan) October 11, 2018
This picture became hilarious in retrospect. Dwight Howard once remarked that this dunk by Kobe Bryant was his, “Welcome to the league” moment as a rookie. Everyone knows that Howard and Bryant went on to become teammates in a tumultuous 2012-13 season. This photo has come to represent the adversity between the two players as well as Bryant’s sheer dominance in the mid-2000’s.
Dwight Howard is absolutely helpless here. His arms were raised in a defensive stance, but the way he’s knocked back create an image of him being utterly destroyed. There are a plethora of disrespectful dunks in league history, but this is one of the best NBA pictures ever captured.
8. Magic Johnson And Larry Bird Jockeying For Position
Happy Birthday 60th Birthday to my good friend and former rival, Larry Bird! pic.twitter.com/WCRrUBMGfG
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) December 7, 2016
A photo as heavy on symbolism as they come. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ruled the NBA in the 1980’s. The dawn of their rivalry in the early decade drew interest from an American public that had waning interest in professional basketball. The NBA was on the verge of dying thanks to factors like a lack of televised games (Finals were on tape delay), player drug use, and two separate leagues (NBA and ABA). After the merger, Johnson and Bird’s dynamic rivalry brought eyes to televisions and butts in seats.
The two Hall-of-Famers are looking upward to snag a rebound, but on its own, it’s akin to an NBA Renaissance painting. Triangular Composition was a technique used in paintings of that era, and both players make a triangle shape with their bodies. It’s as if they’re looking up toward their ultimate goal. A championship? The distinction of, “Greatest Player Of All Time”? Each player is getting in the other’s way. There were other winners in the 1980s, but these two defined the decade.
7. Allen Iverson Step Over Tyronn Lue
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) June 6, 2017
Allen Iverson had the ball in the corner as the Sixers were up two points in overtime with less than a minute to go. Tyronn Lue had been doing an okay job defending that night him despite how great Iverson was. As Iverson faced him, he swung the ball low, jab stepping every which way to throw off Lue. The Philadelphia 76ers weren’t even supposed to be ahead against the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers, who just rattled off an undefeated Conference run to advance to the Finals. Yet Iverson drained the corner three and made a point to step over Lue who fell clumsily to the ground.
One of the funniest tidbits about Allen Iverson and Tyronn Lue is that they’re great friends in the present day. This all despite Lue’s playing career being remembered as, “The guy who Allen Iverson stepped over”. In the more vertical frames of this photo, Allen Iverson looks like a mix of Goliath and a God at a mere 6’1. It’s up there in the discussion of Most Disrespectful Picture In NBA History.
The photo carries lasting cultural significance. Aside from Iverson’s status as an NBA cultural icon, its come to represent an instance of one party dominating over another. Countless memes have been created which paste another person’s face over Iverson’s body as the conqueror over whoever the victim may be. One of brashest actions by one of the league’s most brash stars.
6. Jerry West Logo
Happy Birthday to Jerry West aka Mr. Clutch aka The Logo!
Did you know West doesn’t get royalties for being “the logo” because the NBA won’t admit the silhouette is him.
The photo on this magazine cover is also the real photo used in the NBA logo. pic.twitter.com/IyPQHHBT0p
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 28, 2019
This picture could make it onto the list based on sheer historical significance. Thanks to branding visionary Alan Siegel, this is the photo behind the NBA’s logo. Siegel was assigned by the Licensing Corporation of America to give the NBA a new logo. He later went on to create the logo for Major League Baseball based off the design of the NBA’s. It was all based on a picture of Jerry West driving to the hoop against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Funnily enough, Jerry West thinks the NBA should change the logo of him. This is mainly because he’s a modest man who doesn’t enjoy drawing attention to himself. An NBA logo change would be monumental, but people are already so familiar with it that it may not be necessary. All apologies to Mr. Clutch, but the logo is here to stay.
5. Shaquille O’Neal Point To His Son After The Alley-Oop
The play that preceded this was the moment that the Lakers locked in their Game 7 comeback in the 2000 Western Conference Finals over the Portland Trail Blazers. After being down by fifteen with less than five minutes to play, Kobe Bryant, a widely accused ball hog, threw it up to Shaquille O’Neal for the alley-oop to put the Lakers up by six with forty seconds left.
This photo is rich in historical significance. The game-sealing play also birthed a generation of Laker fans who just gained enough cognitive awareness to understand the stakes of NBA playoff basketball – including my seven-year-old self. It kickstarted the Lakers three-peat dynasty when it was on the verge of never starting. If they lost, the Trail Blazers would’ve executed a 3-1 comeback over the favored Lakers! This Lakers team is still the last team to three-peat since the Chicago Bulls in the nineties. The only other teams to three-peat are Bill Russell‘s 1959-67 Boston Celtics and the 1954-54 Minneapolis Lakers. This year’s Finals just reaffirmed how resilient and fortune with injury luck one must to be to win three championships in a row.
After the lob went down, this photo plastered the front pages of the Los Angeles Times and every other national news outlet. It was recently revealed that the person O’Neal was pointing to was his son in the stands. Shareef O’Neal went on to get a tattoo of this moment on his calf. It’s a poignant tidbit about a father and son behind a colossal moment in NBA history.
4. Ray Game 6 Three-Pointer
The Air Jordan XX8 Ray Allen wore for his iconic Game 6 shot: Allen’s shot in the 2013 Finals is one of the most indelible images in NBA history. Now Nike is re-releasing the shoe he was wearing when he made it. https://t.co/holSgwtjt2 pic.twitter.com/3dI99WR9dH
— Daily NBA Fantasy (@DailyNBAFantasy) May 12, 2018
The Miami Heat were on the edge of Judgment Day. The San Antonio Spurs were up 3-2 in the series against the Heat in the NBA Finals. Minutes before this play, Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw that would’ve put the Spurs up by four with twenty seconds to go. Along with being one of the most pivotal shots in league history, this moment gave us one of the most iconic sound clips in the last decade.
Multiple angles of this shot are available, all of which you can make arguments for. The diagonal angle at Ray Allen‘s back is the prettiest in terms of composition. Like the Larry Bird and Magic Johnson photo, it has dynamic, classical art qualities in its Triangle Composition and expressive movements. The mixture of historical significance, composition, and mindblowing nature of the moment make it one of the greatest NBA pictures ever captured.
3. Michael Jordan Game 6 Final Shot Over Jazz
— NiagaraU SMA (@niagarauSMA) September 18, 2016
It’s hard to argue otherwise – this is the most iconic game-winning shot in NBA History. A game-winner to win the championship in itself is the most climactic moment in sports. This was one that took place in an elimination game of the NBA Finals by the game’s most iconic player. One of the greatest parts of this photo is spotting the various Jazz fans with their mouths dropped in horror as they realize the inevitable is about to happen.
After that ball went in what followed was should’ve been a storybook ending. Michael Jordan completed his second three-peat to go a perfect 6 of 6 in the NBA Finals. Only it turned out not to be his final NBA play. He returned for an NBA comeback tour with the Washington Wizards that everyone pretends didn’t happen. When debating Michael Jordan’s greatness, this image encapsulates what people want to remember about his NBA career. “Your life is on the line. You have to pick one person to take one shot. Who’s it going to be?” Out of countless NBA pictures, this one is exhibit A.
2. Michael Jordan Free Throw Line Dunk In Dunk Contest
— Sneaker Bar Detroit (@SBDetroit) February 6, 2018
The picture does a better job of capturing Michael Jordan’s jumping ability than the video. On film, he makes it look too easy. Once he gets to the charity stripe, he just turns on the jets like a plane taking off. This is a 6’6 guy who jumped fifteen feet from the free-throw line to the hoop! That’s insane! Humans shouldn’t be able to elevate like that – but Jordan did it. For context, here is a Sports Science segment on an average human attempting it.
Dunks are a huge reason why the NBA is so enjoyable for spectators. This picture represents one of the most iconic dunks by the league’s most iconic player. It’s also symbolic of God-like way we view Michael Jordan. He’s captured flying far above the earthly planes, leaving us in a state of amazement. It’s what Jordan did best.
1. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade Alley-Oop
8⃣ years ago today #Lebron James and Dwayne #Wade. That’s maybe one of the coolest game time photos of all time. ➡️Place your bets with the highest odds at Tipbet #NBA #miami #heat #dunk #basketball #slamdunk pic.twitter.com/Gg06wYzQ8X
— Tipbet (@tipbet) December 7, 2018
The amazingness is self-evident. The lowered angle, the way LeBron James flies in the background, the dynamic direction of Dwyane Wade‘s body, the way he holds his arms as if to say, “behold”. All of that had to happen in the span of a split second. The world was lucky that photographer Morry Gash sat at the baseline that day. This tops the ranks as the greatest out of all NBA pictures in history.
The partnership between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat can be encapsulated in this picture. After they won their first championship, more of the public was able to appreciate the spectacle of Wade and James. These were two all-timers on the same team at the peak of their powers. Time spent hating them was just a missed opportunity at appreciating the show being put on.