2016 is the GREATEST year ever for basketball sneakers.
There have been some great, great, years in basketball design over the last 30 years. 1991 through 1996 was an unprecedented era for innovation in design and technology, but was there a single year in that range that could be called the greatest? Perhaps 1996, which bore the Jordan XI, Air More Uptempo, Reebok Kamikaze and Question, and adidas Feet You Wear. 2001 was another groundbreaking year that gave us Shox technology, the Jordan XVI, and1 Mad Game and Tai Chi (still strong), adidas Kobe, and Reebok continued the Answer series with the iconic fourth iteration.
Before you lose your minds and call me names (most unprintable) stop and look back. Remember, most of us here at WearTesters have seen the greatest years over the past two decades, and some of us even played in them, so there may be some truth and years of experience in what you are about to read. Then again, it could be a made up title just to grab your attention — I believe it is called click-bait by the young folks — but you never know until you read.
This sneaker evolution has spanned the last five or so years. Smaller companies started pouring money into development and technology and actually producing shoes that performed instead of going for the dollars. NBA players took notice; players like Dwyane Wade, who left Jordan Brand for Li-Ning, and Dwight Howard, who left adidas for PEAK. Even fringe All-Stars, players like Chandler Parsons, Rajon Rondo, Lou Williams, and Tony Parker, to name a few, left the likes of Nike and adidas for Chinese companies like Anta, PEAK, and Li-Ning. But perhaps the most famous cases were Steph Curry and James Harden, who both left Nike and went to Under Armour and adidas, respectively.
To the general hypebeast and sneakerhead public the question was “Why would you ever leave Swoosh? It makes the greatest shoes!!” The answer: the smaller companies had, in a sense, caught up. For years, Nike has dominated the basketball landscape and there seemed to be no end in sight; it had the best cushioning, best designs, best traction, best materials. But as I mentioned, money spent is money earned, and to thrive in the basketball market it became apparent: develop your brand, innovate with your technology, and garner a reputation for performance — the success will come.
That was a long backstory but it gets us here, today, 2016. Why would I say this year could be the best ever over the past years? Years when so many classics were released, and it seemed even high-performance models had classic designs as well? Here goes:
#boostislife (and business)
Number 2 for most of Nike’s adult life, adidas dropped to the number three seat as recently as 2014 behind Under Armour in athletic dollars (adidas sales dropped to $1.1 billion in 2014 while Under Armour climbed to $1.2 billion the same year). So why is adidas now the number one reason this is the greatest year? One word: Boost. The game changing cushioning was almost a disaster in basketball when it debuted in the CrazyLight boost 2014, but the Rose 5 put the technology back on track and morphed into the CrazyLight Boost 2015 with Primeknit uppers. The two best technologies adidas ever developed in the same shoe? No brainer. Then adidas broke the mold with the Rose 6 Primeknit. adidas, long held by the general shoe buying public as having no ground-breaking “performance” signature technology now had two, and two that were freaking awesome. Most companies work for years and years to bring one technology to market and never see the end of the rainbow, but adidas brought two in the same year.
Now, in 2016, adidas has released what is widely thought of as the best “bang for your buck” line up with the Lillard 2, best lowtop in the CrazyLight Boost 2016, best traction on the market in the Rose 7, and best overall in the Crazy Explosive 2016. The best part is, the designs of these shoes depart completely from the adidas mold — no side branding, no 3-Stripe support cages, and an organic, free-flowing look that is good for the streets as well as courts. Forever, the crossover appeal was Nike’s alone, adidas may have finally caught up.
Tigger returns — Zoom cushioning bounces back
Not every Zoom shoe has great Zoom, but the KD9 may be the best Zoom ever produced (we at WearTesters have played in tons of Zoom shoes). When the cushioning was introduced in 1996 (under the original name Tensile Air in the Air Go LWP for Penny Hardaway), it was marketed as springy and responsive, making the athlete’s response time and steps quicker. For those of us around back then, it actually felt like you were three steps faster when that bounce kicked back into your foot and your next step — it felt like small trampolines.
Since around 2008, Zoom has been almost unnoticeable in most shoes. But now, the KD9 comes at us with a full-length articulated Zoom bag that feels responsive, soft, bouncy, and forgiving — exactly like the old Zoom most of us loved. But it wasn’t just the KD9; the HyperRev started the revolution in February 2016 and then the Hyperdunk 2016 followed the KD9 with springy, responsive Zoom underfoot. Even Jordan Brand got into the game of full-length Zoom with the XXXI (guess we do need heel cushioning).
Now, not every Zoom shoe is back to the good stuff, but there are at least enough models with bounce that anyone should be covered. Hopefully this means Nike realized that other cushions from other companies had caught up and were pushing the Swoosh in performance. Now, about those drop-in Lunar midsoles…
The Rise of Under Armour
What started out as an apparel company making moisture-wicking shirts for wearing under football pads (explains the name) has turned into a super-force in athletic equipment in just over 20 years. By making products that work as advertised, consumers have come into the UA fold knowing they will get quality and performance. But basketball? UA is a football company! Well, a small, quick-shooting, high-scoring point guard drafted in 2009 changed that perception. His name? You should know who we’re talking about…Brandon Jennings.
Yeah, really. Attitude, ability, mystery, 55 points as a rookie, a year in Europe instead of college, plus a company just like him, all added up to a GREAT debut shoe: the Black Ice. Other athletes saw the design and performance of both the player and the shoe and followed the piper to Under Armour over the next few years; Raymond Felton, Kemba Walker, the University of Maryland, Temple University, the Utah Utes, etc. Really, who are we kidding, it was Steph.
Under Armour has seen a Pike’s Peak spike in sales of basketball gear because of Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Stupid shooting displays, ridiculous team record and winning streaks, a title, double MVP trophies — it all adds up to sales and the adoration of kids everywhere who want to pull off-the-dribble 25 footers in the faces of players six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. It is why little kids challenge players twice as old with no fear and Curry 2s on their feet. Will the success continue if Curry drops off? No MVP award? No title? An injury? Who knows, but right now, Curry and Under Armour hold the under-18 market like no basketball player since Mike.
The Greatest to ever do it, until now
Where to begin? Retros are finally slowing down from a retail standpoint, at least on non-OG colorways. This year we saw multiple colorways of models I-XV sitting on shelves long after release date and in multiple size runs. Now, don’t get it wrong, the OG colorways sold out for the most part, but it just shows that Jordan can no longer put out anything with a Jumpman and have it move as it once did.
On the plus side, on those retros, we got very nice materials, close to, if not better, than the OG models. The Jordan V, in particular, got some very good leather, and the Jordan II Low (Chicago colorway) and I were amazing. For the most part, we the consumers, have no problem with a $160-$175 price tag but we at least want materials as good as the originals — not the cardboard midsoles and poly-leather of years past.
As for the performance models, well, the XXX was a disaster, both in sales and performance. Jordan even seemed to realize this, and released just four colorways to the masses only to pop the XXXI out a mere six months later. The CP3 line continues to strive for ultimate court control and low-profile fit but misses the cushioning for most of us. The Melo line is a seemingly uninspired design based on, well, who knows (we’d actually like to know). The Super.Fly 5 was a complete step back from all of the other Super.Fly models and felt more like a bargain team shoe.
Why is this good for 2016? Well, it opens up the market for the other brands. For years, if you asked a ball player, it was Jordan and then everyone else. Now, at least we have competition, and that can only do two things to Jordan Brand: motivate to innovate or stay complacent and pump out retros year after year.
team “creepin’ up on ya”
The Chinese companies have had a banner year in 2016, producing shoes like the WoW 4, Anta KT1, PEAK TP9-III and DH1, and 361° brought the Mazer. All of those models performed very well, some possibly making Top Ten lists in December (one will make mine). Why the improvements from these companies, none of whom is new to the game? Money was finally put into designers. For years it was “take an American shoe and make it as close as you can with our logo.” Now, some original designs are coming down and they are hitting the marks. Also, for years, Nike and adidas have produced shoes in the same factories in China, so material choices have been brought over to the Chinese brands.
NBA players are helping as well. For years, fringe players were getting shoe deals in China, including signature shoes. This actually turned out to be smart money for the companies. After a few years of seeing the shoes every day, on court, and seeing they perform, and this or that player could get his own shoe and flourish in the Chinese market, players began seriously considering Chinese brands. Wade is the obvious example, as is Klay Thompson, but Battier, Tony Parker, George Hill, Rondo, Scola — all of these players have signature models that sell very well overseas. As long as the money and recognition is there, look for even more players to jump overseas and get a piece of the pie, not just for a PE with their initial logo on the tongue.
Time to rise
Can’t leave Brandblack off, even though, as of the publishing of this piece, there is no player in the NBA wearing BB on court. Brandblack brought back a touch of elegance with added performance, an area where Jordan Brand used to have the market monopolized. Utilizing real leather and suede, ballistic meshes, organic designs with a very understated logo, and patterns not really seen on basketball courts, Brandblack hit a market long starving — as smooth off-court as on.
But if the shoes didn’t perform, it wouldn’t matter, and BB produces definite players. From the start, traction and cushioning have been high points and have only gotten better. The designs have calmed a little and found a nice pace. The materials aren’t all leather now, as we have seen woven and Jacquard uppers as well. Even without an NBA sig player, the market and public make almost every shoe Brandblack releases a hit. Sometimes, performance and design can go together.
There it is, the reason 2016 will be known as the greatest year for basketball shoes ever. There have been stretches of greatness — Nike from 1991-1996 was heat — but for a singular year, across the board, there has never been a year like this one. And what caused this year to happen? One word: competition.
As we have been saying for years, competition is a great thing for consumers and brands. Technology advances, designs break ground, and performance barriers are broken with every new season. But maybe, most importantly to all of us, competition brings prices into more reasonable territories (never thought I would say $140+ is reasonable). Bang-for-your-buck is an actual category to consider now, and all the brands are giving us models that would seem to outperform price — you just have to know where to look. But never fear, that’s why we are testers.