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Examining the Current State of NBA Sneaker Culture

With the 2018-19 NBA season approaching, The Crossover paneled sneaker writers to get their opinions on the upcoming season, LeBron James and more.

The NBA season is approaching, which means there is a full slate of sneaker storylines to dissect. The Crossover put together a roundtable featuring prominent sneaker writers to get their thoughts on the current state of the culture. Topics include: Best signature sneaker line, LeBron in Los Angeles, the decline in basketball sneaker sales, Puma’s resurgence and the state of the Jordan Brand in 2018.

The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. Some of the following answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

The panel and their favorite sneakers

Jovan Buha - Reporter, The Athletic, The Air Jordan 1

Nick DePaula – Feature Writer, ESPN, Zoom Flight 95 (Black / Carbon Fiber / White)

• Aaron Dodson – Associate Editor, The Undefeated, Air Jordan XI"Space Jam"

Max Resetar - Associate Editor, SLAM MagazineNike Huarache 2K10

• Stanley Tse - Contributor, WearTesters, Air Jordan XI


Who has the best signature line right now in the NBA?

Tse: Kobe, Paul George, and Kyrie. Once Nike put out the Kobe Protro series, it was already a wrap. And majority of the players in the NBA and WNBA are wearing PG / Kyrie shoes. Not only do the shoes perform well, the ability for NIKEID and different colorways give players options to comply with team color rules.

Resetar: With much respect to no. 23 and the LeBron 15, Kyrie has the best in the league right now. The way he and his Nike squad play with colorways has never been seen before. They’ve stopped trying to match the sneakers to the jerseys, which has opened up a door to outrageous colorways. Plus his collabs with the cereal companies and the joints he did for the Uncle Drew movie were fire. And then you throw in what his sneakers have done for the WNBA since the Kyrie 2. There’s a huge majority of women in the WNBA that have been wearing Kyries for years and this season, with the “Power is Female” version, they blew that door off the hinges.

DePaula: Man, tough question. Out of the dozen or so guys that have their own shoe, I'd have to go with either Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard. I like how each guy has been layering in a variety of stories that give different insights into their own background, hobbies or inspirations. The shoes also perform really well, and were worn by a variety of players all around the league.

Last season, I thought PG and Stephen Curry had real strong years with the PG2 and Curry 4 too. I'm always a big fan of lines that can be impactful and tell great stories, while still staying somewhat affordable for their younger fans, and all those guys have been putting out great models at $130 and under.

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Dodson: Kyrie Irving, hands down. Last season, the Nike Kyrie 4 was the best sneaker in the NBA when it came to storytelling surrounding releases, and an array of unique designs. There’s no way you can overlook the impact the Nike LeBron 15 had —especially the “EQUALITY” edition of the shoe, which mean much more than basketball. But, if you think about it, Irving missed the majority of the year, including the entire playoffs, so we didn’t get to see him that much on the court wearing the Kyrie 4.

But with players across the league frequently rocking them—most notably his Celtics teammate Jayson Tatum—and all the different colorways and PEs Nike delivered, the conversation around Irving’s signature line kept going. Nike really had the Kyrie 4s in cereal boxes. And the Yellow Lobster PE was super dope. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for the Kyrie 5.

Buha: Kyrie Irving, though it’s splitting hairs between him and LeBron James. Ever since Irving debuted his signature sneaker in 2014, it’s not only consistently been a top-two selling signature shoe, but also one of the most worn shoes by his fellow NBA counterparts. Kyries are sleek, comfortable and come in awesome colorways and collaborations. Heck, he just collabed with cereal brands. The LeBron 15 might have turned the tide in LeBron’s favor longer term—we’ll see.


What are your expectations for the LeBron 16 with LeBron now in L.A.?

Tse: First –expect Laker colorways, without a doubt. Second, I expect an evolution from its predecessor 15. Meaning—the materials, the fit, and the structural stability improvement of the shoe. I believe also slight innovative tweaks to improve on what was already great to play in, but modified to handle 48 minutes, 94 feet, on one of the centuries greatest athletes of all time. When you have creative minds of Jason Petrie, Tim Day, and the Nike Basketball team, the possibilities are limitless.

Resetar: The LeBron 15 was an absolute monster, both in technology and in colorways. #LeBronWatch was a genius idea and I don’t expect that program to be done yet, especially now that he’s out in Hollywood. That preview he gave us to on IG looks like that Nike Air midsole is back and it looks like they’ve got a new upper on there too. That heel counter, the one with his logo, is gonna be prime real estate for when they bring those special editions out. And don’t sleep on some sort of Kobe x LeBron collab.

DePaula: I think it's going to be a ridiculously awesome season for LeBron and Nike. They're going to run back the #LeBronWatch program, and really channel back to some classic Nike themes and early stories from LeBron's line too, which should be fun for everyone to follow along with all year long. 'Bron wore 51 different versions of the 15 last season, and I know Nike is already planning to have close to a million looks of the 16 ready for him coming up. Every night at Staples is going to be electric and he's got endless potential with the blank slate design of the 16 to have some fun with it. I'm just hoping they actually release all of the best #LeBronWatch colors, since we couldn't get our hands on the “South Beach” or “BB4” versions of the 15 last year.

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Dodson: A lot of purple and gold. Nike and LeBron James put out a lot of quality product when he was in Cleveland—but the Cavs’ primary colors of wine and gold aren’t as appealing as what the Lakers wear in L.A. It’s a little reminiscent of when the King went to Miami in 2010, and we got the “South Beach” LeBron 8s and 9s.

It seems like a no-brainer that Nike will cook something up for the 16 tapping into a “Hollywood” theme, especially given that James has made an aggressive, and successful, push into the entertainment industry. With him in a new city, and with a team team, the drop of the LeBron 16 is going to be huge. But because LeBron is now a Laker, we gotta see him in some Kobes this season—at least for a few games.

Buha: My expectations are a lot of purple and gold colorways and probable collaborations with LA-based brands and/or themes. I’m excited at the possibility of both. There’s something about purple and gold—Lakers’ history aside—that is just so aesthetically pleasing together or individually. I think it’s given Kobe’s models a little extra juice. As for the LeBron 16 silhouette itself, it’s early, but I think it’s a slight downgrade from the LeBron 15.


It is no secret that basketball sneaker sales are on the decline. What do you think the industry is missing right now?

Tse: The industry is missing a consistent story and marketability of a proven winner. (3 peat championships, MVP, Defensive player of the year,) Also, the marketability of an athlete. With the heavy influence of social media, and platform for athletes to fire/clap back at haters—everything is under a microscope. So if an athlete comments back at a message he doesn’t like in some type of way—a media conglomerate can misconstrue the reply which can either create a negative and/pr positive reflect the athlete and the brand their signed too.

Resetar: It’s a new generation of kids out there, one that isn’t in love with the way basketball sneakers look with jeans. Flyknit and Primeknit are having their moment in the sun with lifestyle silhouettes. And, honestly, with the way that these basketball sneakers continue to evolve into highly technical footwear machines, straying further and further away from lifestyle looks; I don’t see the trend turning around anytime soon. That’s not even a bad thing; it’s just a different direction.

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DePaula: Basketball shoes go up and down in five or seven year cycles, so I think we're just in the lull zone right now, and then things will pick back up. Everyone is dressing far more casually, with sweats and joggers taking off the last few years, and Flyknit and Boost running shoes probably work better for that look. [I'm hoping sweats are still socially acceptable for a LONG TIME here...]

Now that jeans and baggier pants are probably on the horizon, I'm expecting for hoop shoes to come back around too. Wearing basketball shoes casually is a balance for a lot of folks and the latest clothing styles can really impact things. It's important for brands to keep shoes simplified and wearable too, versus how overbuilt a few of the more recent LeBron models had gotten before the 15.

With the return of Puma and some other known brands to the NBA space, I think we'll see a big push for new hoop silhouettes and some great designs. Olympic years are also always big launch points for basketball innovation too, and I could definitely see the 2020 Summer Games in Japan being just as impactful for the basketball world as the 2008 Olympics was for the resurgence of the industry.

Dodson: Lifestyle footwear is king right now. Seems like folks are more focused on which kicks they’ll wear to the game than what they’ll play in. It doesn’t really seem like it’s a question of whether the industry is missing anything. Brands are still creating great basketball sneakers. The mindset among consumers just seems to have shifted a bit.

Buha: The market is down because there are more options now than ever. Athleisure is on the rise, and most current basketball shoes don’t fit that bill aesthetically. Not to continue championing the LeBron 15, but I think the basketball sneaker industry needs more shoes like that—shoes you’d actually want to wear with normal, everyday outfits. Most basketball sneakers are too gaudy—not in the good way—and are off-putting when paired with jeans, chinos and/or joggers. Basketball shoes will always serve their purpose on the hardwood, but if they want to be worn off the court, I think brands need to rethink their approach.


Brands like Puma and New Balance are re-entering the basketball sneaker space. What are your thoughts on this? Will they succeed?

Tse: I think Puma and New Balance entering back into basketball is an interesting move due to the decline in basketball sales itself. I think it’s great for a consumer and a Wear Tester like myself and my team because it gives us all different varieties and also puts other brands on notice to step their game up (especially when brands create shoes that underperform with the assigned given value). It’s hard to jump to conclusions to see how to count success, because is it down to sales, collective influence, core athletes? The collection of success can’t be measured till about 3-5 years fully in fruition.

Resetar: Puma came in with a serious right hook. This isn’t some cute attempt to carve out a little spot in the market. They’re really trying to change the industry and knock UA, adidas and Nike off their spots. I can’t speak on the effectiveness of their on-court product because I haven’t worn it. But their marketing and their ability to draw attention have proven to be impressive. Their next real test is delivering on a sneaker that works in game and having it work for consumers as well. It’s been a good start. And it’s too early to even consider NB in the basketball space. There have been plenty of rumors but their hoops division ended with Matt Bonner’s personal BB 8026 Zip stash.

Can Puma Carve Out Space in the Basketball Sneaker Business?

DePaula: I love it! I'm a 90s kid that grew up idolizing a variety of signature level athletes at every brand. Back then, you had great players with Nike, Adidas, Fila, Reebok, Puma and AND1, and there were even some unexpected brands like Karl Kani and Nautica that got into the NBA mix. Now that we're seeing Puma, New Balance and AND1 reset and look to make a return, I think it'll make things more competitive to sign players and also hopefully more exciting to see what marketing campaigns and designs people come up with to try to stand out.

Early on, I've been a big fan of Puma's random and non-traditional approach, and I think they'll give their guys a lot of freedom to not feel like standard pitchmen and just do their own thing. We've seen that already with how Terry Rozier came on the scene with Puma, and I'm really looking forward to what they've got in store for this season. I gotta also mention Big Baller Brand too. I'm looking forward to what Lonzo will break out this year now that the group has had a full design window to work on his shoe, since the first ZO2 was fairly rushed. I'm big on his game and think he'll have a great opportunity alongside LeBron to really make his mark on the court too.

Dodson: For both brands, it’s pretty much a wait and see. In terms of Puma, the company is back in basketball for the first time in about 20 years, and has made a huge early splash by signing a strong collection of rookies and a couple quality veterans. Puma is also making traction in the WNBA, with an impressive upcoming leaguewide partnership and a face for women’s basketball in Skylar Diggins-Smith.

You just have to wonder what plan the brand has for product and design so that it can compete with the basketball sneaker giants like Nike and Adidas. It’s also worth noting that when Vince Carter left Puma in the late 1990s, he cited that the shoes made his feet hurt. So it wasn’t really a good look when Deandre Ayton, one of Puma’s biggest rookie signees, started wearing Nike Kobes during summer league, after hinting at similar problems that Carter experienced. Hopefully, it works out for both Puma and New Balance. Diverse footwear is something we should embrace in the NBA.

Buha: I’m going to refrain from speculating on New Balance since they have yet to debut a new basketball model or sign an NBA athlete. In general, I think it’s a daunting challenge to try to infiltrate the Nike/Adidas/Jordan Brand/Under Armour/Anta/Li-Ning vortex. But if you’re going to do so, you better take the approach of Puma. They signed young players with high upside, created “The Puma Jet” and have displayed a unique voice on social that doesn’t feel like a typical sneaker brand. Calling their strategy a success would be premature—they have yet to even officially release their first model since their relaunch, the Clyde Court Disrupt. But the process looks promising.


Which current NBA player deserves a signature model?

Tse: Giannis Antetokounmpo without a doubt (but that’s already coming soon). The other would be Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Ben Simmons. These listed athletes bring a different style of play with their size, strength, and creativity that the new age NBA game is played today. Their ability to connect with not only fans, but also their marketability is at an all-time high.

Resetar: Feels like Devin Booker’s next up. His game has that old-school gimme-the-ball-get-outta-the-way vibe. LA was showering him with love at All-Star Weekend this past season and his social media presence is A1. He’s engaged with his fans, his game is flashy, yet solid to the point that he’s not some gimmicky hooper. And people associate him with Kobe, which is rare air. That’s a good cocktail for a signature.

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DePaula: With Giannis’ first shoe already on the way next year, I think the next tier of signature guys  includes Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and possibly even Joel Embiid. Book's shoe deal will be up next fall in 2019, and literally every brand around the world is already circling him as their top priority to pitch. I think those offers and negotiations are going to get pretty crazy. He's clearly a great scorer already, but now that Phoenix is starting to put together a nice core around him, by the time he's hitting his mid-20s, I think he'll be the superstar of the next chapter of the league. Donovan Mitchell has a similar potential also, and Adidas already has him pegged as their next key guy.

I'm real high on the duo of Ben and Joel, and while they're both technically bigger dudes, they have so many variables that make them intriguing sneaker guys and not your typical big man. Ben's game is so fluid and exciting, that he can break the mold as more of a hybrid point-forward type. He's also a flashy kid and really likes to push materials and colors, so Nike should be able to do a lot with him.

For Embiid, who's going through all his shoe deal talks right now actually, I think he could move the needle for a brand based off of his social media dominance alone. He'll probably be an All-Star starter for awhile here, but I almost would compare his potential impact to what The Rock has been able to do for Under Armour early on. He's such a personality driven guy that can really tap in with his fans and potentially build out a sneaker or apparel business, similar to the way that The Rock has really expanded that part of his brand through his own social media prowess.

Dodson: Ben Simmons. He’s Australian and the reigning Rookie of the Year, who’s the size of a center but plays point guard. Marketing opportunities would be endless.

Buha: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the obvious choice, but he already has a signature model in the works (which looks dope based on the rumored mockups). After him, it’s a difficult decision, but I would say Donovan Mitchell. He developed a cultish following as a rookie and could replace Derrick Rose as the co-face of Adidas with James Harden. Outside of Mitchell, Anthony Davis, Devin Booker and Joel Embiid make the most sense as the next in line for signature sneakers.


What is the state of the Jordan Brand in 2018? Do you like what you have seen from the brand?

Tse: I think Jordan Brand has room for improvement, as do other brands. And this is not a knock on them one bit. However, I think they are on a different level in terms of story-telling while having the capital they have to do these things. With success with their retro line already, it would be great to see them bring the TEAM line back, and re-create the new GEN XYZ (when MJ stood ground—and had Mike Bibby, Michael Finley, Quentin Richardson, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker, Ray Allen, Derek Anderson, Derek Jeter, Roy Jones Jr, Randy Moss) and have the OG’s pass the torch to the new school in a brand new collective campaign for Team 2.0 (I’ll take a royalty check for this idea). The Jordan Why.Not Russ 1, and their Jordan 32 have been great performance wise, so I definitely expect to see more because they’re great shoes to play in. Hopefully, as a consumer, we see the brand take more risks/chances to apply more innovative steps rather than just relying on the past.

Resetar: Jordan is in a great spot. Their women’s line has given new life to the brand. They had a collab for Vogue Magazine. That was crazy. Travis Scott has been an amazing partner for them. They’ve had tons of fire drop this year, with either retro releases or brand new colorways on classic silhouettes. And they can always fall back on a high-performance basketball sneaker. You already know that when the Air Jordan XXX3 lands, it’s gonna be a beast.

DePaula: I often find myself frustrated with Jordan Brand, only because the expectation level has been so ridiculously high for so long. They've created the best sneaker designs, marketing campaigns and an aspirational aura that every brand could only dream of, but that also makes it tough to follow up on year after year.

I'm in my 30s now and have most of my favorite Jordans already, so seeing things get retroed for a fourth or fifth time doesn't really do much for me these days. I'd like to see them really push forward with some new industry-leading designs and tech, rather than look back 30 years to inform the newest Air Jordan models. They've got a bit of a transitioning roster of players too, now that CP and Melo are aging a bit, so they'll need to figure out who the next faces of the brand can be.

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Current high school kids were born after Michael played for the Wizards, let alone missed the entire Bulls era, so the brand is heading to an open slate era where they'll have to rely on more than just nostalgia to really make an imprint. Gentry Humphrey is back at the helm of the category after stints on campus with Nike Sportswear and Nike Golf, and I think he's going to figure it all out.

Dodson: Jordan Brand has had a HUGE year of releases. Air Jordan Retros are always going to be relevant. The Off-White 1s have been must-cops. Russell Westbrook made some noise with his signature shoe and apparel collection. And from a cultural standpoint, the brand has Travis Scott, one of the biggest musical geniuses on the planet right now. His Cactus Jack IVs are absolutely fire, and it appears that there are more colorways on the way. The crazy thing is there’s still four months in the year left. There’s no doubt that Jordan Brand will keep it coming.

Buha: Jordan Brand’s recent “demise” was always overstated. Had things gotten a bit stale? Sure. Has the signature line plateaued a bit? That’s probably fair to say. But they’ve bounced back this year. There have been fewer retro releases and drops have become more exclusive again. Arguably no one has had better collaborations this calendar year, from Virgil Abloh to Travis Scott to Levi’s. Jordan Brand is still Jordan Brand. As long as they continue to be creative and pump out variations of the first 13 models (and a few others), they’ll be fine.