Kicks Fix: The top five 2016 sneaker free agents

Nick DePaula
·The Vertical

Every summer, July 1 kicks off the start of NBA free agency, opening a window in which players and their agents can begin negotiating contracts with teams around the league. For the sneaker industry, the key date each year is Sept. 30. That's typically when a player's shoe deal expires, freeing him to sign a new endorsement deal with a different brand.

Kristaps Porzingis is in the right market and has the right game. (Getty Images)
Kristaps Porzingis is in the right market and has the right game. (Getty Images)

As fall nears, agents already will have been discussing terms, figures and clauses for months with a variety of brands for the game's biggest sneaker free agents. With the emergence of Under Armour and the momentum of adidas, the sneaker industry is becoming increasingly competitive following a decade of complete dominance from Nike.

One wrinkle that has helped propel the value of some shoe deals is a simple “match clause” that an incumbent brand will often hold. The clause works in much the same way that an NBA team can match a player's competing contract offer in restricted free agency.

Last fall's top sneaker free agent, James Harden, singlehandedly shifted the landscape of shoe deals when he left Nike for an unprecedented, incentive-laden $200 million, 13-year deal from adidas. It's worth noting the inflated number includes performance bonuses for each time Harden leads the league in scoring, makes the All-Star Game or wins NBA Finals MVP. So it’s not entirely likely, of course. “Hey, we'd be more than happy to pay that though,” an adidas executive told The Vertical.

While there isn't a shoe free agent in this year's class expected to command a deal like Harden’s, there are still several top-tier, All-Star-level players who could bring a brand great visibility and awareness through an endorsement deal. With established and emerging players such as DeMarcus Cousins, Mike Conley, C.J. McCollum, Jordan Clarkson and Ricky Rubio narrowly missing the cut, here are the top five sneaker free agents of 2016.

Kristaps Porzingis
Current brand: Nike
When I texted a sneaker executive last week to gauge his favorites from this summer's class, it only took him a matter of seconds to respond: “PORZINGIS.”

Kristaps Porzingis' high-top Nike Kobe X sneakers. (Getty)
Kristaps Porzingis' high-top Nike Kobe X sneakers. (Getty)

Everything about New York Knicks rookie sensation is unique. At 7-foot-3, he's taken players of all sizes out on the perimeter and showcased a variety of step-back jumpers, face-up shots and jab moves. He's also had a number of emphatic putback dunks and deft hook shots. After being relentlessly booed on draft night in New York, he entered the season looking to squash the perception of being another long-shot European project.

Not only are his game, frame and style of play uniquely different, the structure of his existing shoe deal is, too. He initially signed a four-year deal with Nike as a teenager when he began playing professionally overseas that paid him just $25,000 per year. That means his shoe deal expires this summer, after just one year in the NBA, which is entirely unheard of.

“What made it unique was that it wasn't over by the time he was drafted,” explained Chris Brantley, vice president of marketing at ASM Sports, which represents Porzingis. “Normally, a rookie will get drafted and you'll work on his shoe deal before that first year. He still had one year to go, and we had him play out this year and bet on him. We bet that he would have a good season and put himself in position to get a nice contract when it expired.”

That bet will most definitely pay off. Before the draft, Porzingis was a “man of mystery” who wowed execs with his fluid skills in a one-on-none workout in Las Vegas. To the greater public, he was completely unknown. Just one calendar year later, he's a franchise cornerstone for the New York Knicks who has endorsement deals with Body Armour, Shifman Mattress, Steiner Sports and Delta Airlines. Porzingis also had the fourth-best-selling jersey in the league, behind only Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

“One of the things that he said that night [of the draft] was that he understands that people don't really know him, but he just wants the opportunity to change their perception of who he is as a player, coming from Europe,” Brantley said. “I think he's done that. We're thinking it'll be the same thing with his shoe deal.”

Porzingis will be looking to be featured in regional, out-of-home marketing and nationwide ad campaigns. He is hoping fans can learn more about his story and his quest to become a transcendent player in the league.

“Whatever shoe he's wearing, or whatever marketing plan is behind it, it will be something that supports someone who is a game changer and a perception changer,” Brantley said. “He's not your typical big man. He's a crossover player and a guard in a big man's body.”

On that note, he prefers wearing more agile and swift shoes, opting for the high-top Nike Kobe X sneaker. For the second half of the season, Nike has been providing Kristaps with custom size 16 editions of the shoe in Knicks colors. Come this summer, he'll have every brand across the industry interested in making him a multi-million-dollar-per-year offer.

“He's someone that needs a light shoe in a high-top that'll give him the support he needs as a big man,” Brantley said. “Because his game is not like your typical big man, he wants a light and quick shoe that still lets him make the cuts he wants to and is very mobile. He doesn't want to be wearing a clunky shoe and wants to be light on his feet, with the right support.”

The early expectation from industry sources is that Porzingis will be looking for a long-term shoe deal with a brand already entrenched in the U.S. market such as Nike, adidas or Under Armour. The trio of top Chinese brands, Peak, Li-Ning and Anta, can all make strong cash offers, but have still struggled to elevate players in stateside marketing campaigns.

John Wall
Current brand: adidas
After failing to agree on a shoe-deal extension just before the start of the season, the Washington Wizards All-Star point guard will part ways with adidas this summer after just three seasons together. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft began his career with Reebok, signing a five-year deal that paid him $2.5 million per year as a rookie. That deal was later transferred to Reebok's parent company, adidas, in January 2013, because Reebok was looking to divest from basketball and more aggressively focus on the training and fitness market.

John Wall passed on an excellent shoe deal last fall. (Getty)
John Wall passed on an excellent shoe deal last fall. (Getty)

While Wall's game has evolved and he’s become a three-time All-Star, he hasn't had a strong track record in the footwear industry. His signature shoes with Reebok and adidas underperformed at retail, leaving him with little leverage for a major offer last fall from other sneaker companies.

Regardless, adidas made Wall and his agent at the time, Dan Fegan, what many around the industry considered to be an incredibly generous final offer: $7.5 million per year and the continuation of his signature shoe and apparel collection. Wall simply passed on the deal.

“He wanted Harden money,” a source told The Vertical.

Without a new landmark sneaker deal, Wall chose to fire Fegan as his agent and hire Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Paul is LeBron James’ childhood friend and took over James' agent duties four years ago. Eleven of Paul’s 12 clients have shoe deals with Nike. Paul client Ben McLemore wears adidas, but his shoe deal was negotiated by his previous agent.

For Wall's next shoe deal, the expectation is that Paul will lead him to Nike or possibly its subsidiary Jordan Brand. Washington is a priority market for Jordan Brand, the home of Michael Jordan's final team and is also home to partner school Georgetown. While Under Armour and a China-based brand may still make offers, many around the industry expect Wall to receive between $2 million-3.5 million and sign with Jordan Brand, with no guarantees of his own signature shoe.

DeMar DeRozan
Current brand: Nike
DeRozan has improved each year since entering the league in 2009 and helped turn the Toronto Raptors around. He's now a two-time All-Star and one of the league's best scorers, headed to unrestricted free agency this summer once his rookie extension with the Raptors expires.

DeMar DeRozan's Nike Kobe sneakers. (Getty)
DeMar DeRozan's Nike Kobe sneakers. (Getty)

Toronto can offer him a five-year max deal, but there is the possibility that DeRozan could join his hometown Los Angeles Lakers and succeed Kobe Bryant. If he were to land in L.A. or another major market, DeRozan could expect to get shoe-deal offers worth three times the current range of less than half a million dollars that he's earning from Nike.

DeRozan is represented by Goodwin Sports, founded by twin brothers Aaron and Eric Goodwin, long considered some of the most creative and best shoe-deal negotiators in the industry. The Goodwins brokered James’ and Kevin Durant's historic rookie shoe deals with Nike, and more recently leveraged Portland point guard Damian Lillard's early All-Star-level play into a mammoth adidas signature shoe-deal extension.

DeRozan has routinely played in Nike's Kobe sneakers, and with the brand looking to continue releasing new editions of Kobe models, DeRozan, 26, could become the face of that series after Bryant retires from the league.

Bradley Beal
Current brand: Nike
In much the same way NBA general managers are hesitant to offer the oft-injured Beal a near-max extension when he enters restricted free agency later this summer, shoe companies are equally intrigued and hesitant. In just four seasons, Beal has become one of the league's best perimeter shooters and a potential staple of the Wizards explosive backcourt. Yet he's missed 54 games in his first three years and was inactive for 21 of the Wizards’ first 45 games this season.

Bradley Beal could be a long-term sneaker bargain. (NBAE/Getty Images)
Bradley Beal could be a long-term sneaker bargain. (NBAE/Getty Images)

Beal's shoe deal is up at the same time he's due for a new team deal, and many brands still see him as a gamble worth taking. He'll be only 23 when his shoe deal expires, and scoring guards are the most valuable players in the league from a shoe company's perspective.

Teams will likely have to offer a max-level deal to have any chance of signing Beal away from the Wizards, but it's expected that it won't take as much on a shoe deal for a sneaker brand to pry him from Nike. From a market standpoint, Washington is considered strong, and most around the league are expecting him to remain with the Wizards.

His current Nike deal is paying him around $250,000 a year, and early expectations are that he can demand a new deal of roughly three times that should he remain in Washington or a comparable market. If he looks to sign with another brand, Beal and his agent, Mark Bartelstein, are expected to receive offers of more than of a million dollars a year from a U.S. brand in order to deter Nike from matching. It he remains healthy, Beal could end up being a long-term sneaker bargain.

Harrison Barnes
Current brand: adidas
Of the players topping this year’s shoe free-agent list, Barnes is by far the biggest wild card. By the time his shoe deal expires in September, the restricted free agent could be in a different market looking to lead a new team with a near-max contract. As a Warrior, Barnes' marketability is mostly regional, with a sneaker brand looking to activate him for local appearances and create custom color ways of its team shoes for him to wear on court.

If Barnes were to end up on the Lakers, Thunder or another big market or elite team, all of that changes. Many around the industry think he could blossom into a 20-point scorer and team focal point, making his potential as an endorser difficult to predict. From a corporate sense, he's been great to work with and is very conscious of his personal brand. He's been known to be fairly specific about the shoes he wears, opting for more sturdy support at the expense of weight.

Before Barnes left North Carolina to turn pro, there was a short-lived rift with Michael Jordan because Harrison mostly wore Kobe sneakers instead of Air Jordans like the rest of his Tar Heel teammates. Jordan famously teased Barnes after a practice, saying on video, “Hey dude, next time I see you in those Kobe Bryants, I'm going to cut you right off. I don't care if your feet kill you, you're going to wear Jordans." Barnes continued wearing Kobe shoes at UNC.

Many people around the brand said Jordan didn't want to offer Barnes a shoe deal once he turned pro because of that perceived slight. Under Amour and Nike were said to be interested in signing him, but he ultimately agreed to a four-year shoe deal with adidas, which made the highest offer at $300,000 per year. Barnes should expect his new shoe deal offers to be for at least twice as much.

Barnes recently switched agents, hiring Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports. While some execs feel Barnes is “too stiff” from a marketing perspective, every brand will be watching to see where Harrison lands. Should he end up in Los Angeles or as the focal point of a rising team, you can expect to see China-based brands like Anta and Peak emerge and make strong offers. Despite the early uneasiness with Jordan, Barnes is still expected to have the interest of Nike and Jordan Brand, should he decide to move on from adidas.

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