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How Kawhi Leonard’s New Balance shoe deal started with Jordan Brand

Jordan Brand may have lowballed one of the best players in the game. So Leonard took his talents to New Balance.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard is no longer a sneaker free agent, but the endorsement deal he signed might not be from the shoe giant you expected. Leonard signed a multi-year shoe deal not with Nike, Adidas, or Under Armour, but to become the new face of New Balance’s basketball brand. It’s a giant step off the court for Leonard, even if it’s a step in a direction few saw coming.

That’s because the Raptors’ all-star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and former NBA Finals MVP had an endorsement partnership with Jordan Brand that looked secure for the remainder of his career. That wasn’t the case, though, and Leonard became a sneaker free agent this summer. Now, he’ll be championing New Balance, as it ventures back into the basketball scene.

Leonard and Jordan Brand fell out

Leonard signed with the Nike subsidiary after he was drafted and his deal paid him less than $500,000 a year. He and Jordan Brand were “close” to completing a four-year deal worth more than $20 million, according to ESPN’s Michael C. Wright and Ramona Shelburne. The deal was reportedly similar to Jordan Brand’s current contract with Pistons all-star Blake Griffin.

But contract negotiations reportedly broke down at the last minute after Leonard’s reps felt Jordan’s offer wasn’t representative of his standing as one of the top players in the NBA. When healthy, he was a perennial lock as a candidate for both Most Valuable Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He also only played nine games last season while battling a lingering quadriceps injury in San Antonio.

Jordan Brand does not pay any of its athletes more than $10 million per year, but it recently signed Russell Westbrook to a 10-year deal that was reported as the most lucrative shoe deal in Jordan Brand history. Nike pays LeBron James more than $20 million annually as part of his lifetime contract. Kevin Durant also makes around $20 million in sneaker money from Nike, while Stephen Curry and James Harden each make more than $15 million from Under Armour and Adidas, respectively.

Then there was Leonard, who was set to make a fraction over $5 million a year, while his top-tier peers made two or three times as much. Jordan Brand also did not offer Leonard a signature shoe, though it has given one to Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Paul over the years.

Enter New Balance

According to ESPN’s Nick DePaula, New Balance offered “significantly more” than $5 million per season, an amount that would put Leonard among the top-15 shoe endorsement deal earners in the league. It is unclear if he will have a signature shoe, but he will be the highest-profile player New Balance has on its roster.

The shoe company also pitched to Joel Embiid (Under Armour), Gordon Hayward (ANTA), and Kelly Oubre Jr., who signed a deal with Converse. New Balance also hired top 2019 NBA Draft prospect Darius Bazley, who will intern with the company for $1 million while training this year for the draft and potentially another $13 million if he reaches his potential on the court.

Leonard is the biggest New Balance basketball athlete since James Worthy launched a signature shoe in the 1980s. Leonard and his team have reportedly “been vetting potential creative agencies to launch and manage his social media accounts.”

Shortly after Puma re-joined the basketball shoescape, New Balance followed suit. Now, we’ll watch and see if Leonard gets his first signature sneaker.

And if he does, we’ll watch even closer to see how he markets it.