Sneaker Wars returns for 2016, presenting a sneaker-centric way of predicting the round-by-round matchups of the NBA Playoffs. Forget shooting percentages, rebounding prowess and assist-to-turnover ratios and focus just on sneakers.
As we move the playoffs, SI.com will pick winners for each series based footwear dominance, intrigue and style, with a one-on-one matchup (we’ve selected a top player from each team) in the first round growing all the way into a top-six versus top-six for the Finals.
Golden State vs. Houston
Stephen Curry is setting records and serving as the face of his franchise. And, yes, we’re still talking sneakers. The Curry Two signature shoe, released by Under Armour before the current season after a quick turnaround from the debut of the Curry One in early 2015, has given the Baltimore-based brand plenty to hang its hat on. Sneaker sales for Under Armour have skyrocketed behind the success of the Curry Two, now full of multiple colorways. While still not the most stylish of sneakers on the market, the Curry Two offers a counterpoint option proving popular. Curry has played most recently in the Curry 2.5, an update on his second signature shoe. On the other side sits James Harden, the man with a massive Adidas shoe deal. Harden switched to the three stripes over the off-season amidst much Adidas-led fanfare. While his first-ever signature shoe remains in the works, Harden has been wearing player edition Crazylight Boost 2.5 sneakers, debuting multiple colorways for the German-based brand all season.
The Sneaker Wars winner: The Warriors win this based on the popularity of Curry’s signature and Harden’s lack of a signature.
San Antonio vs. Memphis
There’s no signature sneakers or mind-numbing shoe contracts to speak of in this matchup between Kawhi Leonard against Marc Gasol, but both guys still have some sneaker style behind them. The Spurs’ Leonard wears the latest Air Jordan from Jordan Brand, the AJXXX. On the other side, Gasol, who will miss this series due to injury, runs in the Nike Hyperdunk line, having his own player editions.
The Sneaker Wars winner: Having your own player edition helps, but sporting the latest in Air Jordan technology and style gives the slightest of edges in this longer-than-it-should-be sneaker series to Leonard and the Spurs.
Oklahoma City vs. Dallas
First off, do you pick Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook for your top Thunder player (we chose Westbrook for sneaker reasons)? With Westbrook you not only have a man that serves as Jordan Brand’s lead athlete on the latest in Air Jordans, but you also have a player with an off-court signature sneaker, the Westbrook 0, from Jordan. Westbrook plays in the AJXXX, but can be seen strapping on not just old-school Jordans, but old-school Jordans in player edition makeups, maybe none better than the navy AJIIIs he wore the final week of the season. For Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki has been a Nike man for over 20 years, ever since he was wearing the Swoosh in Germany. Dirk plays in the little-known Air Max Body line, but works in older Hyperdunks along the way.
The Sneaker Wars winner: In all reality, only a few players can even compete with Westbrook when it comes to fashion or sneakers and there isn’t a player on the Mavericks who makes that list.
Los Angeles vs. Portland
Chris Paul knows signature shoes, having rolled out his ninth signature on-court sneaker from Jordan, the CP3.IX, before this season. Paul stays intricately involved in the design process of his shoe, lending a hand in everything from technology to design. Each of his sneakers tells a personal tale, stories embellished over the season with multiple colorways. And while Damian Lillard may only have two signatures to his name, as Adidas launched the D Lillard 2 this season, the Portland star knows telling stories. There may be no other Adidas shoe with more colorways and stories than the D Lillard 2. And now that Adidas has added Boost into the Lillard line for the playoffs, the technology matches the style.
The Sneaker Wars winner: There may be no series more hotly contested than this. We appreciate what Adidas has done with the Lillard line, but Paul’s involvement in his long-lasting signature with Jordan has staying power—and his own sense of style—that can’t be overlooked.
Cleveland vs. Detroit
LeBron James has 13 shoes with Nike, the second-most signature sneakers with the same brand of any athlete ever (following only Michael Jordan). While the initial release of the LeBron 13 in fall 2015 has been vastly improved with the LeBron 13 Elite release this year, there’s no denying that the LeBron line has proven powerful in the sneaker industry as the top-selling signature line across all brands. For the Pistons, Andre Drummond signed with the Jordan Brand in 2014, and has put a retro style on the court ever since. While Drummond traditionally laces up the Jordan Dub Zero, he’s pulled out his fair share of retro styles over the years.
The Sneaker Wars winner: While we appreciate Drummond’s mix of modern and retro, it simply isn’t enough to oust James's top-selling sneaker line.
Toronto vs. Indiana
Kyle Lowry tried his hand with a non-mainstream sneaker brand and has since returned to Adidas, a brand he’s been with in the past. The Portland-based basketball design team for Adidas has welcomed Lowry with open arms, planning player editions of the Crazylight Boost 2.5 for the All-Star while designing for his future. Paul George plays in Nike, opting for a low version of the Hyperdunk line, a nice change of pace from all the Hyperdunk highs we’re accustomed to seeing.
The Sneaker Wars winner: We like the freshness of what Adidas has done with Lowry.
Miami vs. Charlotte
Dwayne Wade introduced his fourth Way of Wade signature this season, giving the Chinese brand Li-Ning an impressive sneaker to lead its stable of NBA athletes. The Way of Wade has Dwayne’s personal style and input—the sneaker is designed out of Li-Ning’s Portland office—and has come in nearly countless colorways this season. Facing off against Wade is Charlotte’s Kemba Walker. Once a lead athlete for Under Armour, Walker switched to Jordan Brand before this season, wearing the Jordan Super.Fly 4.
The Sneaker Wars winner: Wade’s involvement in his own signature shoe and one with quality comfort and technology give him the nod.
Atlanta vs Boston
Choosing Paul Millsap over Jeff Teague as the top athlete for Atlanta, even though Teague has his own impressive collection of footwear, gives us our first look in Sneaker Wars at the Nike Hyperchase. Millsap wears this low top shoe in a variety of player editions, allowing him the freedom to lead a line once tied to Harden. Isaiah Thomas was once a wearer of crazy-cool retro Jordans, but he never did sign with the brand, instead hooking on with Nike in September. While Thomas has laced up a number of different Kobe sneakers over the season, he’s most recently been wearing a mixture of the Kobe 11 line, such as when he switched to Kobe 11 All-Stars at halftime of Boston’s recent win against Golden State.
The Sneaker Wars winner: We love Thomas’s sneaker game, but Millsap is no slouch either in the Hyperchase. And while the Kobe line has a little more style than the Hyperchase, we have to give this nod to Millsap’s player editions.
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.