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Is 2016 the Greatest Year Ever for Basketball Performance Sneakers?

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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-Starsplayers 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.

nike zoom kd9 1

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.

  1. On-paper I’m loving it, all brands are delivering at least 1 great sneaker, on-foot I have a problem with how narrow everything is this year. The wide-footers are mostly ignored. 🙁

    1. It’s been more difficult than ever this year for me to find a shoe that has a wide enough toe box (and I size up 0.5 by default 100% of the time).

      1. JC also chose the brand with the best PERFORMANCE shit out right now. Ask NW what his top 5 for the year 2016 is, I’m guessing they ALL have 3 stripes on them. Love your business articles but when are you going to do a PERFORMANCE review?

    1. I think what happened to GRAF (Ice Hockey Company) might happen to brandblack. For what I know, GRAF had never ever endorsed any professionals. But GRAF Skates are very famous for their quality and comfort. Right now, we can see that a lot of players who are not under contract are wearing GRAF skates. I think for now, Brandblack only need to focus on improving what they have (which is amazing btw, loved the JC2 Low and the ethers). As time goes by, I am sure more and more NBA players will try the brand out, love their products and finally sign with the brand.

  2. Glad I took the time to read this in its entirety. I find myself more into sneakers (via WearTesters) more than ever before and branching out to non-Nike brands. Just bought the JC2 Lows for $100 and LOVIN IT! Keep up the awesome work, fellas!!

    1. I am in the same boat brother! Thanks, Weartesters for your hard work to help us out! Keep telling us how we can support!

  3. Never thought about it before, but I must say I agree. Maybe not this year specifically, but certainly this era of shoes is the best. With unlocked zoom and boost along with knits and jacquard, performance has been ridiculous the last couple of years. There are so many solid options these days, even among budget models, and with websites like these there is more information than ever to help you pick the right shoe.

    However, there are two trends I ain’t down with: narrow shoes(as Nene said), and not durable outsoles. Companies are losing a bunch of consumers simply because they can’t fit in the shoe. Keep them at a reasonable width and let laces do what they were meant to. As for outsoles, they are losing even more outdoor ballers with their bubble gum-soft outsoles lately. Keep it at least in the ballpark of medium durability, or better yet make some durable outsole on some cws. Give us the option. Don’t give people a reason not to buy your shoe.

    1. Great post. I agree with what you’ve said. I’m not a wide footer, but it really does suck for the guys that do have wide feet.

      One brand that actually does wide foot Basketball shoes is Asics, but unfortunately you pretty much have to buy their Basketball shoes directly from Japan.

      I’d really be interested in seeing what one of the Weartesters experts here thinks of their shoes and how they would stack up to the brands mentioned above.

      1. There are Asics basketball shoes here in Philippines but they priced it as high as the KD9. Hope weartesters will do a review. Really curious about their gel cushion for basketball

        1. What models? Curious on what you have available over there.

          You can buy most of their current models directly from Japan @ Rakuten online market place which has tons of individual stores within it. A lot of the stores do ship internationally. Usually the biggest size Asics Basketball shoes they have though is about an 11.5 to 12US. I guess Japanese people don’t really have big feet, so a lot of the models are around 11-12 US max.

      2. I played in Asics my junior year, MANY years ago, and loved them. The ones for Isaiah Thomas that retroed last year – the Highlight I believe. Would love to try them now (and believe it or not, I bought them in foot locker IN STORE).

        1. Hey Duke (or anyone else that might be interested), you can try some of their current models if you buy directly from Japan. Rakuten online marketplace has a lot of their models.

          If you go to the Japanese Asics website you can get the model names and numbers from there. Then just use either the model number or model name to search at Rakuten and it should come up stores that sell them.

          I should also mention sizing. They use cm/mm for sizing and it’s half a cm lower to Nike, UA etc. for the same US sizing equivalent.

          Nike, UA, Adidas 11.5US = 29.5cm Japanese

          Asics 11.5US = 29cm Japanese

        2. I think Isaiah’s shoes that retroed were called the Spotlyte. I like the looks of them, but never ended up buying a pair. Didn’t find a colorway that I liked.

  4. Really great article here. Congrats Duke, also I share your viewpoint, back in the day I use to buy Nike shoes because of their performance, nowadays I bought them because of my collection and have a pair of Roses to play in, love the Rose 6, even in the white colorway, there’s no knees or feet pain after the game and at 36 years old that’s a blessing.

  5. So I’m guessing the APL bros never showed u guys love? The guys who brought the modern day “banned” shoe with their guarantee of instant increased vertical? But regardless of whether it was marketing bull or not, I’ve heard some great stuff over on niketalk/blacklotus. That even if your vertical is not increased with the shoe, some people at least say that it makes jumping and sprinting easier.

    I know NW did the APL concept something back in the day. But I’ve been wondering why you guys never gave them a feature/performance review for those who actually can jump. (No offense NW ur the greatest man ;P)

    Esp cos of their new “knit” APL blade which looks pretty dope looks and performance-wise. Tho it may be 200 bucks, it would be a disservice I feel to the international following you guys have garnered, to not wear test them. Since u guys are like the go-to for basketball performance reviews.

    Thanks for all u guys do btw. Just my two cents please correct me if I got some facts wrong. Not trying to ruffle any feathers and shit. Peace.

    1. I’ll be honest, I have NEVER worn APL stuff, but I have heard good things. They make some nice looking shoes, but there wasn’t much noise from them this year around the US, so I left them off.

    2. I completely forgot about APL. The main reason I’ve never been interested in the shoes is because of the ‘banned’ aspect. If NBA players can’t wear them, then what’s the point?

      Also, I should ask, is it all their models that are banned or just a certain model from a year or two ago?

  6. Great article Duke, I really appreciate the time you put in to make good work like this. But, speaking of best years ever, can we just take a second and fellow Blue Devils fans to envision just how good we SHOULD be this year? Assuming Giles recovers from surgery well and we can stay relatively healthy, we could really be cutting down some nets!

  7. “take an American shoe and make it as close as you can with our logo.” – Peak had been ok with this, until the Delly’s.
    Here’s to hoping that this is just the start of all of these.

  8. I think this year has been that lucky combination of design advances, and competition. In the case of the latter, I feel like we experienced “bubble burst” as Adidas and UA held their ground in pricing, and Nike’s overcharging was beyond common knowledge — especially after mess that was the AJ30. They caved, and are projected to drop the prices of all lines it seems.

    Great write up. Only part I’m so-so about is the Chinese brands. While the WoW line took a stride, I don’t look at any of those shoes as appealing options because the pricing, wait, and being left to guess on sizing even after WT’s valuable first-hand input. At least for the US followers, there’s already a slew of better shoes readily available. The only advance I can really recognize, as you pointed out, is the bigger signings. I mean no offense but the Anta KT really isn’t anything special. Looks like a kids’ shoe and is perhaps a refined re-hash of the Hyperfuse. Allure is really just Klay himself, if you’re a fan. That’s not to say it, or any of the more prominent shoes from Chinese brands, are necessarily bad, just really not a big deal when they’re not as accessible outside of their markets.

  9. great read and insight ounce again. People have choices now and hopefully the consumer can experience the other offerings that are available by a company either than a swoosh. on the court experiences by fellow hoopsters with regards to nike are the fit and the sheer bang for buck nature their shoes now offer, i am now seriously considering trying out other options.

  10. Other people have already said it, but I just wanted to point out once again how AWESOME and WELL-WRITTEN this article is. Reading it was a pleasure and the knowledge gained from this, from both facts as well as Duke’s own experiences and opinions, is more than what I expected after being led here by the “click-bait” title lol. Weartesters proving once again that they’re not only the go-to for performance reviews but also wonderful reads. Here’s to hoping that more of these kinds of articles are published especially since they provide a great opportunity and platform to discuss everything sneakers.

  11. I really think Steph Curry has a huge role in this. Had he stayed with nike, they would still be rolling out 200usd sigs. Signature athletes drive the shoe game

        1. Sean Kilpatrick on the Nets – his shoe is actually the low top that Nightwing has right now. Check NW on IG and look for them.

  12. With some some exceptions, Nike has rested on their laurels the last 2-3 years and even backpedaled a bit. Unlocked zoom and flight plate were great. The KD9 and Hyperdunk are the only innovators. The CP3 X, Ultra fly, and Extra fly all using last year’s underwhelming CP3 IX midsole/zoom self is very disappointing.

    Loving Brandblack. I’d like to see a low top Ether, and more shoes with blackfoam.

      1. Haven’t tried blackfoam yet, but I know it’s one of nightwing’s top 3 cushions–boost, micro g are the other two. I wanted to try the rare metals, but no one carries a size 14. 13 is the largest. Do I ordered a pair of gray jc 2 for $100.

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