As we prepare ourselves for another wild summer of LeBron James free agency rumors (if he opts out of his contract during the off-season), we should also be paying attention to another crop of free agents: the sneaker free agency class of 2014.
Both Kyrie Irving's and Kevin Durant's contracts with Nike expire this year. Ditto for Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins. STACK cover athlete Damian Lillard was set to hit the open market before he re-upped with adidas. And we have one of the most hyped draft classes in a long time, all ready to sign a shoe deal. Where will everyone end up, and what kind of impact will they have? We spoke with Matt Powell, resident sneakerologist for Sports One Source, to sort things out.
In his third year with Nike, and with Stephen Curry leaving for Under Armour, Irving becomes the bright, young face of the brand. Of course LeBron, KD and Kobe remain Nike mainstays, driving the company's sneaker game with their signature kicks. But Nike appears to be using Irving to appeal to younger fans. After receiving his own Nike Hyperdunk 2013 PE, Irving became the primary wearer of the Nike Zoom HyperRev, which was released in December 2013, and he received many PE versions of the shoe to wear from game to game. With all the love he's gotten from Nike of late, and as rumors of a signature shoe circulate, would Irving dare leave this off-season?
Matt Powell: "Nike would like to keep him, I think they regard him very highly. I think that Nike also says there is a finite amount of money we are going to spend, and we have a number in mind and that's all we're going to be able to spend. If the athlete is going to get more money somewhere else, then so be it. I have heard, though I have not confirmed this, that Nike is going to have a signature Irving shoe next year. That may be an attempt to keep him in the stable, by offering him a signature shoe, that he would want to stick around to be a part of that."
The soon-to-be MVP had his best regular season ever (though the same cannot be said of his post-season so far), and he's also in the midst of his best season of footwear. The KD VI quickly became one of the most popular on-court shoes in the NBA; and it never seemed to get old, as Nike released a cascade of colorways, a new one, it seemed, every week. Durant has been with Nike for his entire NBA career, and with his signature sneaker line gaining popularity, it's hard to imagine him bolting for another brand, unless he's offered an obscene amount of money.
Powell: "I think Nike is doing everything they can to set it up so that he stays with them. I think they put tremendous effort into the VI, and it's done very, very well. It's a great looking shoe, and it certainly has his personality and his name. It's going to come down to money. Certainly a tie probably goes to Nike but if adidas or Under Armour comes down and offers him twice the offer, I think you might see a move."
Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins
On the next rung down at Nike are Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins, though Cousins doesn't actually have a deal with the brand—he just loves their sneakers. George has been rocking the Nike Zoom Crusader of late, and he's received a few PEs to wear during Indiana's dismal first-round playoff series. Cousins has been wearing almost everything Nike has to offer, from retro Jordans to customized LeBron XIs. Don't be surprised to see either of these guys jump to greener pastures at another brand.
Powell: "Everybody is saying, "Where can I make more money?" So yeah, I think we'll see some of the lower guys move around. This marketplace is very fluid right now. The loyalty to a brand is going out the window. Even a loyalty to a city. With LeBron going to Miami, in the NBA its all about the player and every man for himself. You may not like it, but that's the way it is. I think there's going to be competition for players at every level."
The College Kids: Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, et al.
As the 2013 season began, the incoming crop of college freshman was hailed as one of the best the game had ever seen. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and others fueled college hoops with a new kind of star power. We even heard a report that adidas was planning to shower Wiggins with a $180 million deal as soon as he declared for the NBA Draft. Then the season happened, the hyperbole died down and we were left scratching our heads about the kinds of deals these youngsters might close. Powell doesn't foresee the major brands throwing big money at any of them.
Powell: "My guess is the brands are going to say the deal in today's market is a couple of million bucks and that's what we'll offer you, with the intention that the athlete will perform at a higher level and then they will pay them more money.
"[The incoming draft class] didn't really, in my opinion, shine in their freshman year in college. They weren't the dominant players that we were told they were going to be. They were certainly elite players, don't get me wrong, but they didn't come in and dominate the tournament and dominate the regular season. My gut is that when they get to the NBA, they won't be dominant players either, at least in the beginning. I think you'll see the brands sort of shy away. Had one of them really stepped up and averaged 35 points and 12 rebounds per game and took the team to the Final Four, I think it might have put them in a different position.
"I think we've already seen a pattern if you think about it—John Wall was a $5 million deal [with adidas in 2010]. What other rookie has received that kind of money since Wall? I do think the brands are recognizing they aren't getting the return on their investment."
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