No NBA player has seen his value debated more intensely in recent years than James Harden. The Thunder's refusal and Rockets' willingness to give Harden a max contract in 2012 was an NBA tipping point, the type of decision that veritably alerted the league's landscape for the next decade.
Fast forward three years and the $78 million Harden signed for not only makes him one of the league's biggest bargains, it also wouldn't even amount to 40 percent of the guaranteed money he has coming his way. With the announcement of a $200 million shoe deal that pays out Harden until his 39th birthday, Adidas has accomplished the unthinkable in making the money flowing through the NBA suddenly look like pocket change.
It isn't hard to spot the parallels between each situation. Nike, Harden's previous endorser, already has several big money stars on the roster and didn't want to pay him market value. Adidas, holding less than a five percent market share in the industry, felt like it had to make a splash to get competitive again. It's the same story with different corporate logos.
All of this simply makes Harden the latest beneficiary in the great Sneaker Wars arms race. You can jump back to 1992 when Michael Jordan draped himself in an American flag on the gold medal podium not so much out of patriotism, but because he didn't want the world to see the Reebok logo on his uniform while serving as Nike's signature pitchman.
In hindsight, MJ's Barcelona moment only served as the first warning shot. The Sneaker Wars seem to begin at earlier ages every year, with grassroots basketball now serving as the most common battle ground. Scott Phillips from NBC Sports joined me for a new podcast on exactly how Sneaker Wars affect recruiting in college basketball. Beneath, you'll find three recent examples of just how serious things can get.
Sneaker Wars start at the youth level
High level grassroots basketball -- commonly and incorrectly referred to as 'AAU' -- features three top circuits funded by shoe companies: Nike, Adidas and Under Armour. The structure of grassroots ball has improved greatly over the last five years with the birth of Nike's EYBL tour and Adidas' Uprising Gauntlet. The three companies essentially vie for players they hope will blossom into pros who can eventually sell shoes.
How competitive does it get between the companies? Consider the recent example of Under Armour's Elite 24 event. The Elite 24 has had a monopoly on the end of the summer calendar for a few years -- bringing every top player to New York City for what amounts to a televised outdoor All-Star game. At least that was the case until a few weeks ago when Nike decided it didn't want its kids seen in the UA logo.
Gary Parrish of CBS Sports first reported Nike created an event seemingly on a whim that overlapped with Elite 24 to keep kids away from Under Armour. Best yet, they put the event in the Bahamas. It worked: top recruits Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum are skipping Elite 24 to attend Nike's event, as are almost all of the other top prospects on the EYBL.
Sneaker Wars are not confined to American borders
NBA scouts flocked to Greece earlier this summer for a look at some of the best young players in the world at the FIBA U19 World Championship. That included a trio of high school talents playing on the gold medal-winning USA team. It also was supposed to include arguably the top international amateur player in the world until shoe company politics got in the way.
Croatian 7-footer Dragan Bender might be a top-five pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, but his country wouldn't let him compete in the U19 tournament over a shoe dispute. Bender, still just 17 years old, already has a personal endorsement deal with Adidas. The Croatian team is sponsored by Jordan Brand, a division of Nike. When neither side could reach a compromise, Bender was sent home.
The U.S. would go on to beat Croatia 79-71 in the gold medal game. Now imagine if Croatia had its best player.
Sneaker Wars may be influencing recruiting more than ever
In the 12 years I've been in this business, shoe company influence over recruits is greater (by a large margin) than I've ever seen it.— Jerry Meyer (@jerrymeyer247) August 1, 2015
The most seemingly transparent example of shoe company influence deciding where a top recruit would go happened earlier this year. Antonio Blakeney, one of the best shooting guards in the class of 2015, committed to Louisville (an adidas school) on his first official visit. Only 10 days later, he decommitted.
Blakeney came up on Nike's EYBL circuit, and there was plenty of speculation that he gently pushed away from committing to an Adidas school. A few months later, he picked LSU, a Nike school that also features his grassroots teammate and consensus No. 1 player, Ben Simmons.
None of this was lost on Rick Pitino, who became one of the few coaches to speak out against the influence of shoe companies after Blakeney's decision:
"What I personally don't like (is) I can't recruit a kid because he wears Nike on the AAU circuit," Pitino said. "I had never heard of such a thing and it's happening in our world. Or, he's on the Adidas circuit, so the Nike schools don't want him."
Months later, Louisville would get a commitment from one of the top players on the Nike tour in the class of 2016, wing V.J. King. It doesn't seem like he's going anywhere. Perhaps in the example of Blakeney, the pressure came from wanting Simmons to be in the best position to win NCAA tournament games. It's also possible he simply changed his mind. Teenagers and adults will both do that.