This was one I wasn’t sure could be done when we started the year. Would gyms open? Would leagues start up again? Would we be living in plastic bubble suits (with swooshes, jumpmen and three stripe logos)? Well, here we are, going forward with the BEST basketball shoes money can buy (on the resell market mostly which is a whole other topic). This is Year 11 of my Best Performers list. Time for Duke4005’s 2021 performance picks. Let’s go…
Duke4005's 2021 Performance Picks
- Best Retro/Comeback Brand
- Biggest Dropoff
- Best Traction
- Best Cushioning
- Best Materials
- Best Fit
- Best Support
- 10th: Under Armour Spawn 3
- 9th: Adidas Dame 8
- 8th: Nike Zoom GT Cut
- 7th: Li Ning All City 9
- 6th: Under Armour Curry 9/Flow FUTR X
- 5th: 361 Zen 3
- 4th: Puma Melo MB.01
- 3rd: Air Jordan 36
- 2nd: New Balance Two Wxy
- 1st: Nike KD 14
First, some “fun” categories:
Best Retro/Comeback Brand
For a company to put out as much retro as Nike does and then not win this category, there must have been a shoe so crazy, so desired, so “asked for” by the public that this is a no-brainer. A shoe everyone wanted and has been asking for for years. A shoe like…the New Balance 550. Yeah, me either. I was around and playing in 1989 when this shoe released and even I don’t remember it, but NB threw a collab together with Aime Leon Dore and BOOM, we have a hidden gem. Riding on the “dad shoe” clunky retro craze that started a few years back, the 550 appeals to the Air Force 1 basketball crowd while being different and also the NB loyalist who wants something other than a grey 990 (although there is nothing wrong with those). Say what you will, New Balance hit the winning 3 with these. Couple this with the success on court and off of the Kawhi and Two Wxy lines, signing Jamal Murray and New Balance couldn’t have asked for a better year.
Last year, I picked the basketball sneaker market as the biggest dropoff. This year I will get a little more specific: Nike. This hurts, as I have worn and played in Nike above all else since 1989 (anotha summer). And no, it’s not the performance – its the availability. Granted, in a pandemic, things happen. However, I have the new Dame 8 in hand. I have the DON Issue 3 and have had it since release day. Got the new Curry 9 on release too (but they weren’t easy). I can order a shoe from New Balance and have it here next week (I know – I just did it last week). So why can’t Nike get shoes here for the release date? Lots of ideas and rumors out there, from the shoes are on ships to Nike using this as leverage to only sell at Nike retail stores, but whatever it is, they’re destroying their market.
Now, on to the awards…
With gyms opening and closing all year long, it was kind of hard to tell on some shoes how traction worked indoors and out. Luckily, in Texas, most gyms were open since February, if not earlier, so I got to test on hardwood and concrete with most of these. Taking into account durability and actual grip, it came down to two shoes for the top spot: the Peak Tai Chi Flash 3.0 and the Under Armour Curry 9.
Based on both indoor and outdoor play, I have to go with… the Tai Chi. It stuck to every floor I played on like Gorilla Glue and when I let a friend borrow them (a much quicker, athletic friend) he didn’t like them because the traction was too sticky. The rubber is thick and grooves are deep so outdoors it showed very little damage. While the Curry 9 is the best, maybe ever, on clean or even almost-clean courts, I found myself having to wipe more than the Tai Chi plus the foam wasn’t as durable on outdoor courts.
Two shoes really stood out over a really good and improved field. While it seemed the last couple of years Nike had cornered the market on great foams and Air, brands like Li Ning (BOOM), 361 (Qu!kfoam), Peak (Flash), Anta (3D Flow), and Puma with its Nitro all came back hard in 2021. And while I had great experiences in all of these, the two best cushioned shoes for me in 2021 were… the Nike KD 14 and the Air Jordan 36.
Both shoes showcase Zoom strobels in foam carriers, with the Jordan 36 also having a huge forefoot unit under the strobel unit. However, Nike shows the versatility of their foam packages with the contrast in these two midsoles. Where the KD 14 has a soft, smooth, pillowy ride, the Jordan 36 has a springy, responsive, pop-off feel under foot. Which one is better? It’s close, but most will prefer the KD 14, and I did too.
Normally I go for natural materials – leathers and suedes – but this year there are two uppers that completely drew me in: the aforementioned Air Jordan 36 and the Under Armour Havoc 4. The Jordan 36 is so freaking light and airy, using a Lenoweave upper to keep strength as high as possible but also improving ventilation and flexibility. Mission accomplished. And while some have bloody pinky toes from the roughness of the weave, I haven’t had issues. The Havoc 4 uses Clone technology in the upper, which is a weave of wide strands of leather or synthetic (they may all be synthetic – I can’t find any info) to hold under high-stress and loosen in normal conditions, kind of like finger cuffs. It may not be premium, but it does intrigue me from a fit angle.
Right behind traction in importance for me is fit. If my foot is swimming, I feel I have no control on my movements and I slow down, scared to move. I don’t want a shoe that I have to cinch hard either – my feet going numb is not my idea of fun. The three best shoes this year for me in the fit category have been the New Balance Two Wxy (mid and low), the Curry 9, and the Li-Ning All City 9. All are textile/mesh/woven uppers with one-to-one fit and serious flex and I had minimal movement in any direction inside the shoe. They all three fit my true size 10.5 like a glove for my feet (or a sock). I also felt like if the laces were removed I would still have some lockdown, but that would be stupid.
No brainer the Nike LeBron 19. Wide base, extra lace saddle in the midfoot, serious lacing system pulling you in to the super-wrapped ankle collar, and wiiiiiiide base (yes, it’s that wide). Normally I don’t think of Air Max shoes as being stable but the Lebron 19 is very stable because of the, you guessed it, wide base. Runner up? Surprise, surprise – the Puma Melo MB.01. Wide, flat base, thick internal padding and memory foam around the ankle, and a lacing system that does its job.
Alright – the prelims are out of the way. Here are the finals:
10th: Under Armour Spawn 3
A return to the beloved Micro G of old. A great cushioned shoe that gives nothing up in court feel or response, with a smooth rocker for transition and asymmetrical lacing over the foot. A lightweight foot rocket that you forget about when playing. Watch the full review.
9th: Adidas Dame 8
Yeah, I have only had a couple of wears in them but they are on the list. Bounce Pro cushioning is the best version of Bounce since the Dame 2. It’s cushioned and responsive. The fit is narrow but not painful, leaving no dead space, and the traction on anything but the nastiest of courts is screeching. See the full review.
8th: Nike Zoom GT Cut
Zoom strobel on top of a Zoom unit would seem to be a high-riding bulky forefoot but there is nothing else up there – just your foot, Zoom, and the floor. Well, the traction. And yeah, a little bit of foam. But it feels like nothing else, which makes the GT Cut one of the quickest feeling shoes around. Traction is solid indoors and the neoprene and textile upper fits great. Only complaint was the heel to toe drop gave me shin splints (like the adidas Harden Vol. 4). But if you can deal with it the Cut is an excellent shoe. See the full review.
7th: Li Ning All City 9
The first of a few surprises on my list, the All City 9 (and All City 9 v2 with the straps) is a great fitting, well cushioned, great traction, and great materials luxury ride. The “takedown” of the Way of Wade line, there is nothing short on performance here. If you can find a pair (Amazon has a Li Ning store!!!!!) grab them (true to size) and get ready. See the full review.
6th: Under Armour Curry 9/Flow FUTR X
Yep, together, because these shoes are so similar it’s crazy. Similar tooling (traction and cushioning) start the show and we all know how the Flow foam grabs the floor. Cushioning is not the softest but does a good job absorbing impact while keeping you quick. The upper is the difference, with the Curry 9 being a thicker weave while the the FUTR X depends on the integrated lacing strap for containment (and it actually works). If you can’t find the Curry 8 or 9 and are curious about the Flow, look at the FUTR X.
5th: 361 Zen 3
Now it get’s interesting – a Chinese brand in the top 5? Yeah, because for me, the Zen 3 is as close as you can get to a “do-it-all” shoe indoors and out. Built from a mesh/textile upper with abundant fuse overlays in the stress and wear areas, the Qu!kfoam is surprisingly bouncy (unless you’re already familiar with 361) the traction is beastly indoors and out (and thick enough to wear for long periods of time outdoors). The one downfall is the fit – when laced tight there is deadspace above the toes – but overall no limit to performance. See the full review.
4th: Puma Melo MB.01
In four years Puma went from bargain bin basketball shoes to the top of the game, signing rookie and established players alike and designing shoes like no one else. The MB.01 is the pinnacle of those four years – fantastic fit, bouncy and responsive Nitro cushioning, great traction on all but the worst courts, and damn… just look at it. Buy it if you can. See the full review.
3rd: Air Jordan 36
The flagship shoe continues to improve, this year being the lightest Jordan ever made. Don’t mistake that for weakness – the Lenoweave is some of the best containment material around and the cushioning is freaky-bouncy. Traction will get eaten alive outdoors so the 36 falls a couple of spots but make no mistake – Jordan and performance are still on the same team. See the full review.
2nd: New Balance Two Wxy
This may come as a surprise unless you follow me on Instagram, but the New Balance Two Wxy is a freaking awesome shoe. It’s so old school it became new again. Textile, mesh, and suede/synthetic upper that feels more like a high top than most with all the lacing, traction pattern that is thick enough for outdoors but plays great indoors, FuelCell foam that has just enough feedback to be responsive without getting in the way, and fit that, for me, is beyond great. I bought 6 pairs. See the full review.
1st: Nike KD 14
The do-it-all and more shoe of the year. The Nike KD 14 is a great evolution of the last three models – the excellent cushioning, the upper containment, and the traction, but this time containment and stability are on point. The Zoom strobel within the Cushlon carrier is pillows but springy in the middle (like Twinkies for your feet). The strap, well, the strap looks good on some colors. The fit is perfect. Traction is great indoors and out. Transition is so buttery for a shoe this “big”, and my feet never hurt when I am in them. For 2021, it gets no better. See the full review.
That’s all folks – my 11th Year in Review, and I am still hobbling to courts every week to try more. The one thing that keeps me going is new tech – what can companies POSSIBLY do to top this year (and the last, and the last)? I say it every year, and every year it seems to be true – there are so many GREAT shoes out there to play in. I left off 5-7 highly ranked performers that for most of you would be just as good as any of these, but they just weren’t for me. What does that mean? Get out there, try them, and argue with me. Let me know what I missed. It may be true and make my game better, in which case, they’re miracles. But most of all – wear what you like, play to have fun, and try new things in 2022.