Despite his selection at No. 3 overall in 2009, James Harden took the road less traveled to NBA stardom. Beginning as the explosive sixth man supporting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Harden is now a frontline face of the league, a consensus top-10 player capable of pushing a team to contention.
Hoping that Harden can be the face of their basketball division, adidas inked the Houston Rockets guard to a massive 13-year, $200 million contract to represent their sneaker line.
In many ways, this ascent mirrors that of his rise on the court. Harden was something of a sneaker bench player before this move. Much like Daryl Morey in Houston, adidas saw an opportunity to turn a stud role player into their franchise guy. With adidas not renewing the league’s on-court apparel deal in 2017-18 and freeing up a boatload of cash to throw around, locking up a premier player for the rest of his playing career was a no-brainer.
The first order of business for adidas will be outfitting Harden with a stylish signature shoe. While it might be tempting to create a truly off-the-wall first offering to garner attention for the line, the smarter money should be on keeping Harden’s first sig clean and elegant.
Looking back at signature sneakers all the way back to the Air Jordan I, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Go down the list of players who launched successful shoe brands, from LeBron to Allen Iverson, and most of the ones that took off didn’t try to do too much. Simple will get it done, provided the player endorsing the shoes inspires civilians to wear them with his play on the court.
That last part is the reason Harden is getting a nine-figure payday. Since Derrick Rose’s career was interrupted by a slew of injuries, adidas has been missing the MVP-caliber headliner to stand toe-to-toe with its competitors. With Harden coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance and a runner-up in the MVP race, they have their man. Harden can be “the guy” that adidas envisioned Rose being for the brand, flanked by a strong cast of supporting stars, such as Portland’s Damian Lillard and Washington’s John Wall.
What separates Harden from Rose is his demeanor and life off the court. Chicago’s point guard has always been more of the strong, silent type, content to do his talking with his game while avoiding the limelight. The Rockets frontman is bombastic in contrast, dating Kardashians and beefing with Lil’ B in addition to shredding dudes on the hardwood.
Harden’s current connection with the Kardashian empire–by way of his relationship with Khloe–gives him access (and appeal) to an audience that exists well outside the basketball sphere. Given that part of his new contract involves “off-court signature footwear and apparel collections,” crossover marketability was a major factor in adidas breaking the bank to acquire him. His input on gear and on-court success is valuable, but his ability to reach into multiple spheres is what adidas is counting on.
That might not always play in his favor, but it can be an asset for the Harden-adidas partnership on multiple levels. Even if the connection turns off a small percentage of potential buyers–the Kardashians are an oft-divisive subject–they help differentiate him from a crowded field of sneaker endorsers.
He doesn’t need to be a typical brand ambassador by seeking the approval of everyone; instead, adidas should play up the fact that he is far from your average shoe-seller. That doesn’t necessarily mean he needs to be promoted as an anti-hero, but being unafraid to be himself should be at the core of the partnership. Everything about Harden stands out from his peers, from his signature beard to his herky-jerk, chopped-and-screwed movement getting to the rim.
If there’s anything adidas has shown over the last couple years, it’s that they’re not afraid to be different. Behind the scenes, the sneaker giants have been pushing sneakers forward with the introduction of their patented Boost tech. Recent collaborations with rap superstar Kanye West–including the mega-hyped adidas Yeezy 350 Boost that’s dropping at Champs Sports this Saturday–combined that advancement with attempts to push the limits of traditional sneakers.
The aim should be similar here, allowing Harden to add some signature touches and express himself while relying on tried-and-true design staples. Maybe that means including a defining characteristic that would set his shoe apart from his peers–one example could be implementing a cross-strap–or maybe it comes in the form of ad campaigns. Harden has shown a flair for comedy and dry humor in the past, and adidas should capitalize on that.
We’re a long way off from knowing what they have in store, but it’s a collaboration that seemingly works for both parties. Brought off the bench into a starring role for the second time in his professional career, Harden is poised to help adidas break through.
Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck