Adidas Over Nike: How James Harden Got Here

The story of James Harden leaving Nike and signing a $200 million contract with Adidas is well publicized, but the story of how he got here, isn’t.

James Harden entered this league with little to no expectation of a signature shoe. He came into the league as the 3rd overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. It wasn’t so much where he was drafted as it was the team he was being drafted to that limited his chances of a signature shoe. The Oklahoma City Thunder had already started to build its foundation drafting Kevin Durant in 2007, Russell Westbrook in 2008, and Serge Ibaka also in 2008. Head Coach Scott Brooks thought it was best for Harden to come off the bench which limited his exposure significantly.

Feb 14, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant and Houston Rockets guard James Harden during the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

He signed a deal with Nike for a measly 4 years/$1 million dollars in 2009. At the time, it didn’t look like Harden would amount to anything more than a nice sixth man which made it easy for Nike to low-ball him. However, in 2011-12 Harden exploded on to the scene winning NBA Sixth Man of the Year, helping the Thunder reach the 2012 NBA Finals, and making Team USA. Eyebrows were quickly rising around the league as Harden’s contract with Oklahoma City was soon to expire the following year.

This is where the roots for Adidas first began.

Harden reportedly refused to ink anything less than a maximum contract and was subsequently traded to the Houston Rockets where he would sign a max extension and join the young core in Houston. Harden saw something in himself that year that made him think he was much more than just a middling sixth man in this league. Boy was he right.

Harden averaged a monster 25.9 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.9 rebounds in his first year as a member of the Rockets.

Following that season, Harden had gained some leverage with Nike as his original 2009 contract ended that year. However, Nike still refused to give Harden the contract and signature shoe that he felt he rightly deserved. So, Harden bet on himself signing a short 2-year/$3 million deal.

The ball was on Nike’s court. Would they give him the signature shoe he worked so hard for?

The following year Harden put up similar numbers, shooting more efficiently as he and newly acquired star big man Dwight Howard managed to reach the 4th seed in the Western Conference and lead Houston to a 54-28 season. Over at Nike, still no signature shoe with Harden.

This is where things get interesting.

James Harden’s 2014-2015 MVP campaign is pretty well documented as he put up the best numbers of his career, reached the 2nd seed in the Western Conference and even lead Houston to the Conference Finals. Halfway through the season, Nike was put on its heels as they were in need of a new signature athlete.

On December 3rd, 2014, Nike unveiled 4th year guard Kyrie Irving as their new signature athlete.

This, in a lot of ways, could be interpreted as a slap in the face to James Harden. Instead of making Harden their new signature athlete, they chose a younger, flashier guard  in Irving. It made sense to Nike at the time as Kyrie’s game is indeed flashier with a repertoire of crossovers, dribble moves, fadeaways, and ridiculous shot-making. Combine that with LeBron James’ timely homecoming, it’s just good business. The logic behind the move made sense and the incentives for Nike were certainly there. However, the story was still the same.

Nike chose a younger, more unproven, injury-riddled guard who had never made it to the playoffs (at the time), over the guy halfway through an MVP season that has yet to miss the playoffs.

Luckily, Harden’s time was destined to come as he had gambled on himself by signing that 2-year deal. Following the ’14-’15 season, Harden was a sneaker free agent. Nike had to either open their checkbooks or watch one of their star athletes walk away and join another brand.

On August 4th, Adidas had submitted a massive $200 million bid on Harden. Nike could either match the massive offer or let Harden walk to Adidas. August 13th came and went and Harden was set to be on board with Adidas. On October 1st, Harden officially became an Adidas athlete as the company rolled out their “wait is over” campaign along with a truckload of sneakers to Harden’s front door.

Nike had opportunity after opportunity to prevent this from happening. Harden could have been easily attainable in 2013 for a much more affordable price when he clearly showed the makings of a superstar and a signature athlete, but Nike refused and essentially cheaped out. Then Harden made a power move by signing the short extension and put a clock on Nike to give him a signature shoe and most of all compensate him. Not only did Nike refuse but they gave a signature shoe to a “lesser” player on a small market team like Cleveland as opposed to the significantly better player in a large market like Houston.

The story of James Harden’s signature shoe is important because it shows how he got here. Harden didn’t just wake up one day and receive a $200 million offer from Adidas. The foundation of this contract was years in the making and it started with Harden gambling on himself not once, but twice.

James Harden believed he was worth more than what Nike valued him as and it turns out he was right.

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