Ranking the Top Signature Sneaker Lines by Sports Stars

Giancarlo Ferrari-King@@GiancarloKingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2017

Ranking the Top Signature Sneaker Lines by Sports Stars

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    Associated Press

    Now that Paul George has become Nike Basketball's latest signature athlete, per Nike News, hopping in a time machine and revisiting all of his contemporaries seemed fitting.

    The agenda here was to revisit and rank the top signature sneaker lines of all time by NBA athletes. Our calculations were based on duration of each line, the overall quality of kicks, innovation, popularity and, when applicable, sales.

    By revisiting the past we're able to properly honor the future. Check out the ultimate list of Nike's top signature lines below.

Honorable Mentions

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    There have been plenty of athletes to receive the signature-sneaker treatment. Check out a few names who barely missed the cut featured below before we climb into the top 21.

    • Vince Carter
    • Damian Lillard
    • Alonzo Mourning
    • Paul Pierce
    • Steve Nash
    • Amar'e Stoudemire
    • Chris Webber
    • Derrick Rose
    • Jamal Crawford
    • Tim Hardaway
    • Tracy McGrady

21. Jason Kidd

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Jason Kidd joined Nike's ranks during the 1990s. After sporting a host of various non-exclusive kicks, Kidd was rewarded for his loyalty. He was presented with the signature Nike Zoom Flight 5 in 1997.

    With a direct nod to his jersey number of choice, the Zoom Flight 5 came during Kidd's run with the Phoenix Suns. The shoe meshed with what Nike was doing at the time in many ways, incorporating the use of a metallic air bubble on the sidewall and jagged rubberized terrain on the foot for traction.

    Today the design may look dated, but at the time this sneaker was extremely forward-thinking. When you combine it with the Zoom Kidd 2—Kidd's last true individualized shoe—you start to appreciate what he quietly did for the empire.

    The '90s represented a wild time for guards getting their own footwear contracts, and Kidd was a catalyst of this movement. His unique Nike heritage remains a pivotal part of sneaker culture.

20. Tim Duncan

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    Tim Duncan endured a lengthy partnership with Nike fresh out of Wake Forest—from 1997 until 2003—but that relationship only produced two signature models.

    We saw the Nike Air Max Duncan and its successor, the Air Max Duncan 2. Both shoes were designed with lean grooves and to reflect Duncan's love for swimming, according to Complex's Russ Bengtson.

    When the original Air Max Duncan hit retailers in 2000, it looked like the start of something special.

    Despite giving his own sneaker, after the Air Max Duncan 2 emerged in 2002, the San Antonio Spurs big man decided to pull the plug and switch gears to Adidas. When he did, his line continued to shine, despite never getting a full-on marketing push.

    No matter where he wound up, Duncan always had a sneaker with him. Still, for nostalgia's sake, his tenure with Nike remains the best stop along his footwear journey.

19. Kevin Garnett

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Kevin Garnett was one of many Nike athletes to serve Team Swoosh in a universe void of Michael Jordan. The Big Ticket was a superstar with the Minnesota Timberwolves, so giving him his own sneaker was always in the cards.

    KG used the Nike moniker to build out three specific models, all dubbed the Nike Air Garnett. Robust layers of tumbled leather were abounding as these shoes served Garnett in an on-court capacity.

    His decision to leave Nike after the Air Garnett 3 came out was surprising. KG came to the conclusion his services were a better fit for the now-defunct And 1 brand. After a quick turnaround with And 1, Garnett left and found a more permanent home with Adidas.

    Throughout it all, Garnett's signature sneakers have always remained solid.

18. Kyrie Irving

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    The legacy of point guards receiving their own signature shoe is copious in Nike's world. When Kyrie Irving got his own offering in 2014, he successfully helped move the brand forward, while simultaneously walking down the same path as Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton and others.

    One thing everyone can appreciate about Irving's signature line—now three models in—is that the style of his shoes embrace all the subtleties we loved from the 1990s without sacrificing present-day technologies.

    Take the Kyrie 2 into consideration. A fastening strap, burrowed around the forefoot, gave way for additional support. It felt like a throwback element but still proved to be relevant today. Although it left the Kyrie 3, that strap is now part of the LeBron 14 and Paul George's PG1.

    Perhaps Irving's legacy will come down to influence. His sneakers may never carry all of the bells and whistles of, say, LeBron James' kicks, but the stylistic vision and continued support from Nike has already pivoted him into the upper echelon of basketball.

17. Dennis Rodman

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    Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    Dennis Rodman's relationship with sneakers was almost as tumultuous as his playing career. The Hall of Fame forward had various contracts with Reebok, Nike and Converse during his heyday.

    Checking back on his Nike tenure specifically, Rodman actually was part of two dope silhouettes: The Nike Air Worm Ndestrukt and Nike Air Shake Ndestrukt.

    The structure of Nike Basketball during the 1990s was interesting. We saw countless signature athletes deliver sneakers, but a lot of them faded away after one or two releases. Rodman was one of those guys.

    Perhaps dubbed outlandish at the time, the Air Worm and Air Shake were both rendered as low-top versions. At the time, athletes weren't all-in on the lows, which made these kicks as interesting as Rodman's hair.

    It's a shame he bailed on Nike for Converse in '97, but his brand managed to extend. His footwear ambitions were strong and that proved to be true no matter where he ended up.

16. Stephen Curry

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Stephen Curry has carried on the tradition of guiding unknown brands in the basketball world, giving them a soapbox to shout from.

    Curry's explosion in popularity, combined with two MVP awards and an NBA Finals win, catapulted him into a stratosphere of success. All of his Under Armour Curry series of kicks were boosted as well, turning the sportswear brand into a legitimate footwear contender.

    Today, the story is well-known. Curry left Nike for Under Armour, secured his own shoe and the rest is history. But as ESPN's Darren Rovell made note of heading into the 2016-17 season, Curry and UA have reached a critical juncture: "Now that Curry has helped build an annual $200 million business, the pressure is on. One out of every four dollars Under Armour makes comes from shoes, and expectations are high for another great year."

    Currently on shoe No. 3, Curry needs to find a way to sustain growth and popularity. His kicks already belong in the conversation of top signature lines. The only question left to answer is will he push the bar even further and climb near the top? Or, will he never surpass the initial hype of his early success?

15. Dwyane Wade

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    It's important to put Dwyane Wade on here because he proved to the world you don't need the backing of a major footwear label to succeed.

    Wade started his sneaker career with Converse straight out of the 2003 NBA draft. The veteran guard spent six seasons with Converse, helping put his signature dual-toned Converse 1 Wade on the map—a sneaker he wore during the 2006 NBA Finals.

    After a lengthy stint with Converse, Wade switched over to Jordan Brand, becoming the face of the company for a brief moment in time. He again was handed the keys to his very own sneaker, which became known as the Fly Wade 1 and 2. Both sneakers struggled to gain any traction in the marketplace.

    Wade's latest stop has been with the Chinese apparel company Li-Ning. The Way of Wade line has become a prominent fixture in his long and wide-ranging journey. There have been five models released, and as long as Wade continues to play in the NBA, there's little reason to believe we won't see additional versions.

    His decision to escape Jordan Brand and find a home with Li-Ning has set the tone for future NBA athletes. No longer do they have to rely on Nike or Adidas to take advantage of the market.

14. Carmelo Anthony

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    As an offshoot of Nike, Jordan Brand has had its fair share of signature athletes. Russell Westbrook currently sports the latest Air Jordan models, Chris Paul has been part of the team for years and, of course, there's Carmelo Anthony.

    Anthony has been a career-long supporter of Michael's empire. Almost immediately after he left Syracuse, Anthony was given a personalized sneaker treatment with the Melo 1.5, originally released in 2004. Since then there's been a steady wave of Melo kicks to grab at.

    It didn't matter if he was with the Denver Nuggets or New York Knicks. Anthony's tenure with Jordan Brand has remained part of the company's fabric. His shoes have been draped with smart tech choices and intricate designs.

    Due to his longevity with the brand, Anthony has engraved his name on the mantle of elite signature kicks.

13. Chris Paul

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Like his Jordan Brand counterpart, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul has been an enduring member of the company.

    The main differences you'll notice between Paul's line and Anthony's usually comes down to the cut of each shoe. As a guard, Paul has remained faithful to low-cut sneakers. He's leaned on Jordan Brand for enhanced technology and lighter fits to fuel his game.

    Paul has always been a household name, and because of that, his sneakers have constantly factored into the current landscape. It's hard to picture him leaving his post at Jordan Brand. CP3 may not be the most popular signature athlete around, but his kicks have always stood out.

12. Shaquille O'Neal

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    Lisa Lake/Getty Images

    Shaquille O'Neal was Reebok's version of Michael Jordan. When he signed with the brand in 1992, Nike and Reebok were duking it out for brand supremacy—a battle Nike would go on to win.

    O'Neal represented a fresh face for Reebok. He represented the company's first real opportunity to shake things up. Shaq was given his own shoe, a fresh logo and a chance to sit atop the mountain controlled by Jordan and other NBA sneaker icons.

    Two genuine hits emerged from O'Neal's time with Reebok. It started with the Shaq Attaq and ended with the Shaqnosis. Both models were popular and, design-wise, they held their own.

    His line may have veered off after those kicks—when O'Neal left for Los Angeles. But for a brief period of time, his influence and ability to challenge Jordan was enough to get people interested.

11. Gary Payton

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    Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    Gary Payton helped usher in an era of basketball when trash-talking and lockdown defense was considered cool. Nike went against the grain by giving Payton his very own signature series, and we're grateful for it.

    Nike Basketball has a bevy of retro basketball sneakers that still hold up today. Payton's kicks are near the top of the list. The Zoom Flight 98, or as people called it, The Glove, ripped into American living rooms and forced cash out of consumer's wallets.

    Payton's line was altered and changed as years passed, but one element stayed true: Each sneaker always had a secure fit.

    Payton set a tone for Nike guards past and present. Without his services to the footwear community, it's hard to imagine Kyrie Irving having his own personal shoe.

10. Grant Hill

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    The 1990s were an awesome time to be an NBA signature athlete. Sneaker companies were not only flourishing, but they were competing to knock each other off.

    Consider Fila, now relegated to tennis, as being a prominent player back then. The company's premier athlete was none other than former Duke great, Grant Hill.

    Hill carried the torch by himself for years, turning his signature line into a must-own commodity. His shoe, dubbed The Hill, was the first of five sneakers to be released—the name of his kicks eventually was tweaked to the Fila Grant Hill.

    This NBA All-Star deserves a lot of credit for helping usher in a competitive sneaker in a market dominated by Rebook and Nike. His place in history can be accredited to that movement.

9. Scottie Pippen

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    Scottie Pippen served as Michael Jordan's sidekick in more ways than one. Besides complementing his talents on the court, Pippen also became a Nike signature athlete during the 1990s.

    His line wasn't as aesthetically glamorous as the Air Jordan side of things, but it was incredibly impactful during a pivotal time for Nike's basketball operations. The initial Nike Air Pippen's use of air bubbles to cushion the sole and lend a pillow-like feel remains innovative. It was a sharp sneaker that managed to turn heads onto the product.

    Because of the Air Pippen's success, Pippen's tenure with Nike turned into five unique models during his playing days and one post-retirement version, which hit retailers in 2015, per Sneaker Bar Detroit.

    We remember Pippen mostly for his signature Air Pippen series. But let's not forget he helped turn the classic Air More Uptempo into a feverish success. Even as Jordan's partner in crime, Pippen's legacy stands on its own merit.

8. Kevin Durant

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    The 2007 NBA draft came down to a debate about Greg Oden versus Kevin Durant. We were in the process of dissecting two elite talents who were constructed to anchor a franchise for the foreseeable future.

    Nike, understanding the high ceiling each athlete possessed, inked both Oden and Durant to endorsement deals. Today, Durant stands alone as a Nike innovator.

    KD's personalized series with the Swoosh began producing the KD1 in 2009. Designed by Leo Chang—a man who has remained aligned with Durant—this shoe became a precursor to a tech-savvy, extensively popular line of sneakers that would help keep Nike atop the basketball community.

    Durant is one of those rare athletes who has ricocheted between the role of a babyface—a good guy—and a heel—someone who isn't as popular. His choice to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State has given his sneaker an additional storyline to accompany them.

    When you get down to the business aspect of sneakers, Durant's popularity and sales are close to the top of his class. Behind only LeBron James, Durant ranked second in kicks sold, registering $195 million worth of shoes in 2014 alone, per Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.

    The sheer combination of sales, technology and the lengthy tenure of his line puts KD in rare company when we're speaking about the NBA's signature stars.

7. Charles Barkley

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    Charles Barkley's contractual years with Nike remain super-underrated in the grand scheme of basketball. Yet his line helped the brand during Michael Jordan's first foray into retirement and still holds clout amongst today's consumers.

    The record shows that Barkley's first solo Nike effort came in 1994—this came at the peak of a post-Jordan universe. Nike printed Barkley's name onto the Air Force Max CB and started a legacy of genuine street-stompers.

    When time lurched forward, Barkley received countless shoes. His solo efforts were usually full of fierce direction, chunky soles and dense materials. When it was all over—Barkley's final pair of Nike kicks were the Nike Air CB4 2—the veteran forward had left his mark on the culture.

    To this day, we've seen various models from the line receive the coveted retro treatment.

6. Penny Hardaway

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    Image courtesy of Nike

    Penny Hardaway embodied everything Nike needed in order to succeed without Michael Jordan carrying the company. He had the swagger, was already established as a superstar and spent his prime years working alongside Shaquille O'Neal—this combination spent years shattering rims in Orlando Magic pinstripes.

    Nike jumped at the chance to give Hardaway his own shoe. So, in 1995, the Air Max Penny was born. This sneaker set the tone for what was to come next. Hardaway's popularity in the footwear landscape exploded, and Nike cashed in.

    There were five distinct models released with Penny's name attached to them. Hardaway wore four during his playing days and the fifth came long after he left the game, per Steve Jaconetta of Sole Collector.

    Each Air Max Penny iteration was jammed with Nike's most current technology and produced in a bevy of Magic colorways.

    What's crazy about Hardaway's time with Nike is that he also wore the Nike Air Foamposite when it first dropped. The sheer scope and influence he had in footwear was remarkable when you factor that tidbit in.

5. Allen Iverson

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    No disrespect to Shaquille O'Neal or any other Reebok athlete. But let's be clear about one thing: Allen Iverson will always be the ultimate brand ambassador.

    Iverson was a Jordan Brand guy when he was balling over at Georgetown. Leaving school for the amenities of the NBA turned the Answer into a Reebok man.

    What transpired from Iverson inking his name on the dotted line was the second-longest signature sneaker line in history, per Brandon Richard of Sole Collector. Starting out with The Question in '96—a direct nod to the Air Jordan XI—Reebok pushed Iverson as its poster child.

    If you dig through Richard's article, you'll notice plenty of variation from the Iverson line. Not a single element was ever deemed stagnant and no stone was left unturned.

    A beautiful element of Iverson's sneakers was the fact they always managed to match up with his personality. From the Reebok Answer series to the original Question silhouette, each model had its own distinct set of materials and features.

    Iverson never fled Reebok. He remained faithful to the product. That alone is a telling sign of his on-foot character.

4. Patrick Ewing

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    Patrick Ewing took his love for sneakers in a different direction than his peers. After aligning himself with Adidas during the early 1980s, Ewing bailed on the company and chose to start his own brand.

    In 1989, Ewing Athletics was born, forever altering sneaker culture.

    Jeff Vrabel of GQ explored the incredible backstory behind Ewing Athletics. His article detailed how popular the company was during the '90s. Speaking to Ewing's former agent, David Falk, Vrabel pulled out an astonishing piece of information. "If you took 1990 dollars and translated them to 2015, he’d have outsold LeBron and Kobe combined," Falk explained.

    Think about that. Not only did Ewing start his own brand, but the company performed so well, if you put him in today's world, he would have been the top sneaker salesman by a mile.

    Twenty models were made public in a six-year span, each one gaining shreds of popularity. Of all the people we've talked about, Ewing was the one guy who did it himself. And that alone is a tremendous, unwavering accomplishment.

3. Kobe Bryant

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Kobe Bryant didn't start out with a Swoosh emblem stitched onto his sneakers. Fresh out of Lower Merion High School, the Black Mamba inked a deal with Adidas in 1996.

    His relationship with Adidas lasted six years, before Bryant left the sneaker community in 2002. Around that time, he was sporting random Air Jordan and Nike models, perhaps dropping hints about a possible partnership with the Swoosh.

    In 2003, Bryant officially signed on with Nike, and what followed was a series of innovative, astonishingly tech-savvy shoes, starting in 2006. Partnered up with Eric Avar, Bryant's Nike line etched itself into history behind low-cut models, the use of Flyknit technology—unheard of at the time—and a keen eye for hyper-clean aesthetics.

    Bryant's on-foot popularity remained strong throughout his career, ranking second in sneakers sold in 2013 and third in 2015, according to Badenhausen.

    The reason Bryant ranks No. 3 on the all-time list of signature athletes comes down to strong sales numbers, staggering innovation and how dominant the Black Mamba was during his tenure with both brands.

    To really showcase the mark he made, even in a post-Bryant world, Nike has continued to release his kicks—check out the Nike Kobe A.D.

2. LeBron James

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The decision to rank LeBron James as the second-greatest signature athlete wasn't easy. He's accomplished so much since he first signed with Nike in 2003.

    James' financial reign with Nike includes an initial contract valued at $90 million and a recent lifetime deal—the first announced of its kind in company history. This move represented a staggering move by both James and his Nike counterpart.

    ESPN's Darren Rovell pointed out the impact James has had on the business. He explained how Nike's revenue leading up to signing James topped out at $10.3 billion. As recently as 2015, that total had skyrocketed to $30.6 billion.

    James has become a master salesman and his line of kicks has directly reflected this notion. In 2014 alone, the King dominated, pushing out $340 million worth of product, per Badenhasuen.

    When you total up the impact he had on the business and sneaker culture—from limited releases to technologic advancements—it's hard to top what James has done.

    However, one man did.

1. Michael Jordan

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    There will never be another Michael Jordan. The impact MJ had on the culture of basketball, from on-court theatrics to sneakers, helped shift the landscape of the game.

    Jordan's deal with Nike changed the direction of the company and the sneaker business as a whole. His Air Jordan I—famously marketed as being "banned" from the NBA—started a chain of events that reverberated throughout the league.

    You could point to any of Jordan's signature models and make a case for why it's the greatest basketball sneaker ever produced. What other line of kicks can stack up to that line of thinking?

    MJ brought style back to the sneaker world. When he signed with Nike in 1984, the Chicago Bulls star made sure to ask, "Who's my designer?" This wasn't about putting his name on a sneaker. It was a meticulous, Jordan-like approach to shattering boundaries.

    To this day, Jordan's sneaker line has helped Nike control the market. Even though Jordan Brand is now an offshoot of Nike, the two are forever linked. In 2015, Jordan Brand sneakers hit $3 billion in sales, per Badenhausen.

    Between 31 distinct Air Jordan models, a revolving repertoire of Team Jordan kicks and Jordan's financial impact on the industry, he's more than earned his place at the head of Nike Basketball's table.

    All production information and release dates via Nike News and Adidas News, unless noted otherwise. All applicable sales data was obtained firsthand via Matt Powell of the NPD Group.

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