How James Harden's sneakers have fueled his MVP season

ByNick DePaula via ESPN logo
Monday, May 14, 2018
ESPN

In just his fourth game wearing his new sneakers, the league's likely Most Valuable Player gave the shoe a signature highlight.

Isolated on the perimeter, Clippers wing Wesley Johnson couldn't sense the force with which the step-back move -- and perhaps a forearm nudge -- would soon entirely rearrange his defensive stance.

James Harden stepped, stopped and stared for a full second after the helpless Johnson crumbled to the floor, and then he splashed a seemingly routine 3-pointer in a game on Feb. 28.

Harden shot 44.8 percent on step-back 3-pointers this season, a full 10 percent better than on his other 3-point attempts. His ability to keep his balance after such a sudden halt and jerk is a credit to his uncanny ability to create separation from his defender.

It was that ability that Adidas tapped into when designing Harden's second signature sneaker, the Harden Vol. 2, a model seen on endless social media clips as the next generation of players tries to emulate Harden's iconic step-back.

"I understand the responsibility of having a signature shoe," Harden said. "It's to inspire."

Harden's unique style of play is easy to identify on the court, but when Adidas began the process of designing the Harden Vol. 2, the company wanted to dive further into the science behind the talents that have made Harden a six-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate.

The first step of that process came at Peak Performance Project, a sports training facility in Santa Barbara, California, known simply as P3, for short. Adidas' product, design and marketing teams combed through a sequence of tests that Harden underwent last summer.

Initially, Harden's results were largely underwhelming, which didn't come as a surprise. According to the team tasked with building out his signature collection, Harden measured out in average terms by most metrics, ranking nowhere near the explosiveness of Andrew Wiggins or the speed of John Wall.

He did, however, raise eyebrows when the lab noticed a key trait of his that stood out ahead of some of the world's most gifted and fine-tuned athletes: his braking and deceleration. Harden ranked in the 99th percentile of athletes tested at P3 in how fast he could stop, then shift directions.

"James will tell you about change of direction, and naturally, we focused on three of his main signature moves," said Rashad Williams, Adidas Basketball product manager. "No. 1, the Eurostep; 2, his jab step; and 3, the evolution of his jab step, which is the step-back. It's a little bit unorthodox, especially with him being a lefty. We focused on those three areas and around how change of direction is incorporated into his game."

Harnessing and enhancing that change of direction is at the core of what Adidas has been working on perfecting with Harden's sneakers ever since signing him to an unprecedented 13-year deal in 2015.

In their first season together, the brand's "Futures" team marked dots on an all-white pair of Adidas Crazy Lights with a Sharpie and filled Portland's Moda Center rafters with high-speed motion cameras to track Harden's movements throughout a game. Harden ended up playing 46 minutes during that late February game against the Trail Blazers in 2016, pouring in 46 points, making eight assists, snagging five rebounds and giving Adidas samples of his actual game-speed jabs, Eurosteps and step-backs to work from.

Adidas used that data to design the ideal grip pattern for Harden's sneakers, offering up exact coverage where he stopped and halted most, with more relief in the area where he was looking to stop and shift.

"He's playing more on his toes and around the forefoot, so that's where the traction pattern provides him with the most grip," Williams said.

The new shoe, much like Harden's game and style, is unorthodox in some regards. The heel rubber veers uncomfortably high at first glance. The collar features a variable lacing method, allowing you to loop in and out of the lace grid holes at your own discretion for a unique look, while the clean toe aims to offer up an off-court balance with a mix of materials.

There's also even more cushioning than before, as the brand beefed up its Styrofoam-like Boost midsole by 15 percent.

"This is the most Boost ever in a basketball shoe," Williams says.

Throughout the process of designing his second sneaker with the brand, the way in which Harden and the team worked also shifted. Brooklyn Creator Farm, the brand's secretive design studio tucked away in a northern Williamsburg warehouse, where designers are currently working on concepts for 2020 and beyond, was brought in. Before long, Harden was meeting with representatives from Portland and Brooklyn around the country throughout the 2016-17 season and the following summer, to work through updates and upgrades to his first signature sneaker.

Denis Dekovic, the Adidas VP and creative director based at the Farm, worked with Williams to build Harden's shoe around his approach to the game and a vision of how his influence in the sport could impact the next generation.

"James said, 'At one point in my career, I started seeing things before they happened. I played with my mind, and didn't play with my body,'" Dekovic said. "He described how he could score 40 points every game, but that's not how he wants to approach the game. He wants to be a team player."

That heightened mental approach to the game has manifested itself in many ways on the court. There are the sequences where Harden singles out a defending big, switches onto him through a pick-and-roll, and then ruthlessly decides how to punish him, whether it be through a step-back jumper or a lob to a diving Clint Capela. Then there are the plays in which he drives the lane, specifically looking to draw contact for one of his league-leading 10.1 free throw attempts per game.

"The mind thing really struck me," Dekovic said. "He's using his mind to find different ways to win games."

As he has grown more familiar with the process, Harden has become more involved in the development of his signature shoe at a time when his play on the court is at its highest level.

"You have those visions [of greatness] when you're younger and you just don't know how to get to them," Harden said. "I was one of those kids who figured it out and didn't let anything stop me."

As the two sides have grown closer -- remember, they're just three years into the relationship, with a decade more on the books -- a few moments behind the scenes along the way still jump out for everyone involved at Adidas. For Williams, the product marketer tasked with framing the lineup and cadence of each season, it's the first session when they brought Harden to the Brooklyn Creator Farm.

"James is walking over to the meeting, but first he's going through his step motions and goes up and slaps the top of the staircase," said Williams, with a laugh.

Doorway dunking, as it's affectionately known, isn't something that leaves you as you get older. Certainly not once you can actually dunk, either.

"When you look at it, he was an All-American in high school and college, Sixth Man of the Year, perennial All-Star, but he's still in love with the game," Williams said.

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