Performance Review // Air Jordan XX8

Performance Review // Air Jordan XX8

words // Zac Dubasik

When the Air Jordan XX8 was unveiled to the public for the first time last December, it was introduced along with the concept of “stealth.” During the design process, when the theme was taken to MJ, he pulled no punches when explaining what the concept meant to him. “Stealth is like Black Cat. It’s an ultimate aircraft. You never hear it coming, but it’s deadly as hell. You don’t ‘F’ with stealth. My game is like that. When you see it, it’s too ‘F-ing’ late.” The concept of stealth could even be tied in to the fact that the shoe was the first Air Jordan of the blog-era to not leak beforehand.

Kicksology // Air Jordan XX8 Performance Review (2)But while “stealth” may have defined the shoe’s design aesthetic, and even the unveiling, beneath it all, this is basically a shoe you’ve seen before. A much better version than you’ve seen before, but still a shoe who’s lasting impression comes more from its refinements rather than breaking entirely new ground.

Since it’s impossible to look at the Air Jordan XX8 without taking note of it’s sky-high height, let’s start there. The Air Jordan line has been a pioneer in collar heights, dating back to the mid-cut of the III. “This time, instead of being the first one to be a mid-cut, this is going to be the first one to ever be an eight-inch tall basketball shoe,” explained Tinker Hatfield. “We’re using these super lightweight materials so we can make it still a very lightweight, high-performance shoe, but it’s eight inches tall. And it has the silhouette of a military boot – something that you’d see in battle.”

As tall as it may look though, the XX8 more or less plays like a low-top. You may feel a bit of proprioceptive reassurance when the collar is fully zipped, but it offers basically nothing in terms of support. And that’s just fine, because as we’ve learned over the past few years of low-tops becoming more widely accepted on the court, the real support comes from controlling the heel and cradling the midfoot, rather than collar height.

That means the majority of the support and control comes from what’s hidden under the shoe’s shroud, which is basically a low-top inner shoe. The dynamic fit inner system is composed of a heavy mesh sleeve, with five finger-like straps, which wrap up from the midsole, and provide a fit that’s both fully supportive, and extremely comfortable. With only five eyelets, it almost seems like there aren’t enough to provide the necessary lockdown, but it somehow works. It works so well, in fact, that the midfoot lockdown offers enough stability that it allows the toe area to have minimal support. That allows the toes to spread more naturally, which increases comfort and court feel, without sacrificing performance. When combined with the carbon fiber external heel and forefoot counters, I felt locked in at all the right places, yet unrestricted.

One important note here is that the shoe runs large. I’d recommend starting a half-size smaller than what you normally wear. Jordan Brand has stuck with the traditional, generally accommodating QF-8 last, which they’ve used on all recent Game shoes. This means the shoe will fit more people than the sleeker lasts used by Nike Basketball, but it won’t fit as close as say, a Kobe model. There’s a little more volume in the toe box and a slightly wider overall fit. And with the particular construction and method of support utilized by this shoe, the right fit is extremely important. A half size big will have your foot moving around too much for proper lockdown. So, if you have the luxury of trying a pair on first, take advantage of it.

One last note on the shoe’s upper, is the outer sleeve’s lack of breathability. The material itself may breath, but it’s adding a layer, which means the whole shoe gets that much hotter. I accepted a long time ago that regardless of a shoe’s breathability, my feet will be soaked by the time I get done playing. And that’s fine. I always look at breathability as a bonus for me. If it’s there, great. If not, it doesn’t affect how much I like a shoe.

But the Air Jordan XX8, with its extra layers, never seemed to dry out. Almost every time I put them on, they would still be wet from the day before. And that’s not a particularly pleasant experience – especially when the shoe is so comfortable otherwise. Faster drying materials would have been a major improvement, assuming they didn’t impact the shoe’s playability otherwise.

Kicksology // Air Jordan XX8 Performance Review (9)

It’s still Zoom Air, still the same reactive fibers embedded in an air unit, but thanks to a more holistic system, you are able to get more out of it than ever before. “The basic system is all around compression, deflection, and ultimately moderation,” explained the shoe’s developer, Josh Heard. “Zoom Air bags by themselves are extremely energy efficient. The problem was the way we had used Zoom Air bags in the past. We would encapsulate them in foam and what not, and it would lock up all the energy. So what we did was we unlocked the Zoom. We unleashed the Zoom. We’ve cored out foam all around the Zoom Air bags, so literally you are stepping directly on Zoom when you are getting that first, initial feel. The outsole also helps, as I said, piston that effect. And then we have a moderator plate on top, that eliminates any bumps or hot spots under the foot. So, it’s moderated all the way through, and you get that nice, comfortable smooth feel.”

The change may seem small, but the results were immediately noticeable. You can feel “more” Zoom, without the use of “bigger” Zoom, such as the full-length Max Zoom bag found in the LeBron X. That means more responsiveness, with better court feel. Cushioning and court feel typically have an inverse relationship. As one increases, the other deceases. But thanks to this new system, protection and flexibility increased simultaneously. When combined with an outstanding midfoot shank, the Air Jordan XX8 was simply one of the best playing experiences I’ve ever had. They flex where needed, support where needed, provide responsive cushioning where needed, and have zero break-in time. I can’t think of a performance shoe that’s ever felt as good right out of the box. With the only exception possibly coming from the traction improving over the first few wearings, the shoe was basically as good on my first run as the twentieth.

Other than the aforementioned breathability issues, price, and sizing, the only other negative I found with the Air Jordan XX8 was a potential durability issue. The first two pairs I played in were early sample runs, and I had separation issues with the shroud on both. I noticed some tearing right where the fuse layer met the shroud at the toe, which you can see in detail below.

My third pair was from the actual production run, and even after an extended testing period, I experienced no problems on that pair. It’s very possible that these issues were addressed, and that you will have no problems with retail pairs. I’d also like to see Jordan Brand move at some point to a sleeker last for their Game shoes. But thanks to the widespread appeal of the Jordan Brand name, I have doubts that they’ll ever switch to a more refined last shape, when that could mean it will fit less players.

Kicksology // Air Jordan XX8 Performance Review (4)

The good news is that through innovative fit systems like the one found here, you can still achieve a great fit – it just might take some experimenting with sizing. I eventually found a great fit when I put my orthotics directly over the standard insoles, rather than in place of the standard insoles, which I usually do. That gave me an effect similar to sizing down, and eliminated the slipping I initially felt.

The $250 price of the Air Jordan XX8 will probably be a deterrent to a lot of potential buyers. At one point in time, the $200 Air Jordan XVII seemed impossibly high, and at least it came in a metal briefcase. Calling the XX8 a “deal” would be inaccurate. There are exceptionally good performing shoes available for less than half the price. If you want the best shoe of the season, this is it. If price is no object, or only the best will do, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the XX8 for a second. If you are more sensitive to price, but still care about performance, I’d probably recommend skipping a retro or two, and still looking at these. I liked playing in them that much. I can’t think of another shoe I’ve played in that addressed both performance and comfort this equally. The Air Jordan XX8 isn’t perfect, but if you can find a size that fits, its imperfections are minimal.


designer: Tinker Hatfield

colorway tested: Electric Green / White

best for: most players other than larger forwards and centers

key tech: Flight Plate system with heel and forefoot Zoom Air, Carbon Fiber midfoot shank and heel counter, Dynamic Fit inner sleeve

pros: comfort; cushioning; transition; fit; zero break-in time

cons: breathability; durability; sizing

improvements: more breathable outer sleeve, more true sizing

buying advice: As shocking as the looks of the Air Jordan XX8 are, what makes it such a great shoe are refinements on tried and true principles. Zoom Air and a carbon fiber shank have never felt so effective. Excluding the Sport Pack editions of the LeBron X, which no one actually wanted for the Sport Pack integration, the Air Jordan XX8 is the most expensive shoe out this season. And while there are much better choices from a value standpoint, if you want the absolute best, regardless of cost, the XX8 is an easy recommendation. Also, if you are unable to try a pair on before buying, plan on going down at least a half size as a starting point.

Available: Air Jordan XX8

Kicksology // Air Jordan XX8 Performance Review (5)

Tinker Hatfield (left) and Josh Heard (right):

Kicksology // Air Jordan XX8 Performance Review (6)

Kicksology // Air Jordan XX8 Performance Review (7)

Kicksology // Air Jordan XX8 Performance Review (8)

Nike LeBron 9 Elite Performance Review

Nike LeBron 9 Elite Performance Review

words // Nick DePaula
images // Ryan Unruh & Justing Ji

As I’ve learned through the years, not every shoe is for every position. In the running world, specific running styles, gait motions and support needs can direct people to some very specialized options that are designed to meet a set criteria of performance demands. If your foot veers inward every time you hit the pavement during your stride, there are shoes available that help to offer up more support and perhaps even motion control. In hoops, pretty much none of those variables are ever factored into the equation at retail, and the average person often picks a shoe based on the player that wears it, the way it looks, or because of a familiar cushioning unit or technology incorporated into it.

Well, basketball sneakers aren’t all that unlike running shoes, in that some models work better for specific needs than others. As I found out while playing in the LeBron 9 Elite, this is simply a case where what could be a great shoe for someone else doesn’t quite line up with my wants, preferences or on-court musts.

That’s largely been the biggest downside of the LeBron James signature series up to this point. He’s an absolute beast that needs support at the expense of weight, and protection far beyond what the average consumer demands. In turn, his sneakers have oftentimes been less adoptable for players of all positions. In the grand scheme of things, it’s an impossible problem to balance for Nike Basketball, as they have to first meet the needs of the athlete himself, but don’t want to run the risk of alienating less physically gifted fans of a guy who’s so universally admired for his skills, power and speed. They could never approach things the other way around, either, and make a shoe accommodating for his fans that would never work on-court for James. It’s an odd reality and dilemma that’s plagued the series now for years.

The $250 LeBron 9 Elite, the category’s most expensive sneaker ever at retail, is a shoe that has all of the makings and specs to be a tremendous performance sneaker, but just not for me. I’m 6’-3” and around 185 pounds, and these days, I value light weight, traction, court feel, transition and low-to-the-ground, resilient cushioning — roughly in that order. As you can visibly tell, the 9 Elite is jam-packed with a long list of innovations and specs, like its heel Max Air unit, forefoot Zoom Air unit, abundance of carbon fiber everywhere and its Kevlar Flywire cables. There’s even Kevlar in the laces, which is literally unheard of.

While that might be awesome for LeBron’s needs – and from what I’ve heard, he’s been waiting all year to wear them and thinks they’re perfect – it’s simply too much shoe for me and for most other people. Just like how if you’re after a barefoot runner you wouldn’t pick up the Brooks Beast, if you’re after a lightweight sneaker that can glide through a full-court game, this isn’t the answer. In the category’s eyes, that’s the idea behind building a full product portfolio in the first place.

“A smaller guy that doesn’t need as much support is not going to wear the LeBron anyway,” says Leo Chang, Nike Basketball Design Director. “They would wear a Hyperdunk or a Kobe. That’s why we’ve created a spectrum of product from most supportive and protective to something very lightweight and accommodating for all.”

As you can probably tell, I’m a guy that would rather wear a Hyperdunk or a Kobe. (The Hyperdunk Elite is seriously, seriously good too. My favorite shoe of the year. Check back for that review next week.) They’re lighter, more nimble and flexible, and they emphasize court feel and transition over maximum protection and added materials. That’s not to say the LeBron 9 Elite isn’t a potentially great shoe if the right player has it on, it just isn’t a great shoe for me.

With the shoe’s $250 price tag, there is one very noticeable upgrade from the $170 LeBron 9 that stands out beyond the rest. There’s a HUGE carbon fiber wing that slopes along the lateral side, and it truthfully can lay claim to a good fraction of the price increase. It’s sizable, firm to the touch and clearly engineered, contoured and placed in a targeted zone, but when I really got to playing in it, I couldn’t really feel either a noticeable level of hold or any points of discomfort. Because it was neither impressive nor painful, that’s still disappointing. I was expecting it to feel more rigid when cutting and really enhance the shoe’s lockdown, unlike any standard material I’ve worn before, but it just wasn’t all that noticeable. Is it worth paying a huge jump in price for a component that is perhaps more looks than true performance? It’s hard to say from my experience, and it might take a player much more powerful and sizable to really feel the benefit of the carbon fiber wing. The most impressive element support-wise of the shoe was actually the, in this case, pink harness that you lace through right before moving into the collar’s eyelets. The placement and feel is outstanding, and it’s probably the single piece most responsible for locking the foot into place.

Above: An isolated look at the LeBron 9 Elite’s midfoot harness, which offered up quite a bit of lockdown.

While the carbon fiber was a bit of a disappointment right from the start, something else I was extremely curious about was the way in which the group, as designer Jason Petrie called it, just “flooded” the whole upper of the shoe with Pro Combat padding. It’s real impressive, and it evolves the story that began at the start of the season when we saw the plush padding system normally found in the Nike Training line incorporated into minor zones around the ankle bones of the launch LeBron 9. While the Pro Combat system fully engulfs your foot immediately as you slip the shoe on, which feels awesome to the touch, I did notice that it also worked to basically trap air in while you’re playing. The feel is great, but they need to take a look at how they can get the liner to manage moisture a bit better. The shoe heats up quickly, and only gets worse as the games continue on.

The sheer lack of breathability and the carbon fiber wing that doesn’t quite provide all of the value you’d expect from its spendy cost were two big downsides right away for the 9 Elite, and another is certainly its weight. At 15.6 ounces, it’s actually .6 ounces heavier than the launch version of the 9, and with great shoes now on the market in the 10- to 11-ounce range for the past year, you’ll feel each one of those additional ounces.

For a guy like LeBron, the 15.6 mark is actually fairly light in comparison to his earlier signature sneakers that once veered as high as 19 ounces. With his playing style and needs in mind all along, getting the weight down wasn’t much of a concern. “The goal here was more about protection,” explains Petrie. “We’ve tried to go that lightweight route with the last two PS models, and what we ended up having to do with the 8 PS was actually add more foam and protection into LeBron’s version because it had gotten a little bit too thin and light. We wanted to add in all of that protection here and not have him worry about the shoe at all. He has not stopped talking about it since we got them to him.”

There is absolutely quite a bit of protection, both in terms of traditional support and lockdown, as well as in the form of impact protection underfoot on landings. The cushioning is a huge bright spot of the shoe, giving you a ride far more tuned for performance than most shoes that are focusing more on lighter and lighter weights. With a huge Max Air unit in the heel that really softens your landings and an 8-millimeter Zoom Air unit – two more than most other embedded forefoot units – for unparalleled responsiveness up front, the cushioning package is top notch. Many shoes on the market are getting lighter and lighter as they thin out the tooling and rely more on pure foam for cushioning. This isn’t that shoe, and if weight doesn’t mean much to you, it might be worth taking a look at the 9 Elite’s on the merits of its substantially robust cushioning setup alone.

Another upgrade that I also happened to like was the shoe’s traction. For the past few years, one of the worst trends to happen in footwear was a reliance on “design storytelling” in traction patterns. The Kobe IV’s herringbone pattern worked better than the traction stories found in the V and VI, just as the herringbone in the KD II and III worked far better than the lightning bolt pattern on the KD IV. I thought the LeBron 9, too, fell victim to some classic over-thinking, and luckily, Jason Petrie looked to re-design the forefoot pod of rubber here where you make the most ground contact. While it still tells a story of sorts – you’ll notice the rubber is actually an interlocking “6” and “9” that was inspired by one of LeBron’s doodles during a meeting – the traction is far improved right out of the box. It’s not the best traction ever, but it’s much improved and definitely reliable.

If you’re keeping score at home, the traction, cushioning and overall plush feel of the shoe are all great, while the weight, breathability and price of entry are definitely drawbacks that should be taken into account before buying. To some, the weight and price might each be enough of a factor to force you to look elsewhere. The LeBron 9 Elite is a fine shoe to play in when you take into account its total package of support and comfort, but at $250, I would assume most people are looking for the absolute best of all elements. It’s just such a lofty and outrageous price point for a hoop shoe that I couldn’t help but feel let down when the shoe played well, but wasn’t out-of-this-world impressive. Things like Kevlar laces, an upgraded and beefed up anatomic insole and that much real carbon fiber really do cost money, but is it all necessary if you just want to get in some runs at the gym? I’ll leave that up to you.

If you’re an active larger player that really puts a pounding on his shoes and needs an extreme level of support and impact protection, then they’re worth a look and might be one of the better shoes you’ve played in lately. Much like most experts at your nearby running specialty store who recommend exact models for exact needs, it’s just hard to recommend the LeBron 9 Elite unless your game and your wallet are a perfect match for it.

Grade Breakout //

designed by: Jason Petrie

best for: bigger forwards

colorway tested: Wolf Grey/New Green/Flash Pink

key tech: Carbon fiber support wing, heel Max Air unit, 8 mm forefoot Zoom Air unit, Pro Combat tongue sleeve, Kevlar Flywire cables, carbon fiber midfoot shank, Kevlar threaded lacing, anatomic upgraded insole

pros: outstanding cushioning and step-in comfort thanks to Max Air/Zoom Air combo and plush-feeling Pro Combat liner; build quality is impressive and materials are exceptional

cons: expensive; has seriously bad breathability; is far heavier than many options available; stiff to start and needs break-in period

improvements: Improve breathability and perhaps reduce weight from tooling.

buying advice: At $250, the LeBron 9 Elite is simply a tough recommendation. There are tons of shoes at more than half its price (like the Hyperenforcer, for example) that are definitely capable and enjoyable options for everyday playing. If you’re a guard that places a premium on light weight and court feel, forget it. Take a look at them if you’re a larger forward that values impact protection, plush and padded comfort throughout, and doesn’t mind a shoe on the heavier and expensive side.

Available Now: Nike LeBron 9 Elite

Performance Review: adiZero Rose 2.5

Performance Review: adiZero Rose 2.5

Adidas adiZero Rose 2.5 Performance Review | Dialing Things In For The Home Stretch
words & images // Nick DePaula

There’s nothing that I hate more in sneakers than signature lines that don’t evolve. In theory, as a series moves from season to season, year to year and model to model, there should be a progression of all that is so expertly crafted into it. Better performance, improved storytelling and in some cases, correcting the missteps of the past are all a must.

Derrick Rose’s adiZero Rose 2.5 is the only signature shoe of this year that I thought accomplished that. While other new models on the market took on convoluted modularity stories at the expense of true performance, got a bit fussy in design or took steps backward in fit and comfort, the Rose 2.5 truly took all of the best attributes and traits of DRose’s start-of-season model, the Rose 2, and improved on everything from the ground up. You could argue that the Rose 2 is a better-looking shoe, and you might be right, but where it counts most – on the hardwood – the Rose 2.5 really begins to dial in all of the performance cues that the Rose 2 fell short on.

The very first thing you’ll notice, both by simply looking at the shoe and by trying it on, is that the collar is exceptionally more plush and built up than the Rose 2. While the luxe-driven elastic gore bands along the collar of the 2 looked pretty damn cool and hinted to the best-kept secret Y-3 line’s Kazuhiri, it certainly didn’t offer exacting lockdown for all shapes, sizes and styles of play. The collar is just one of many areas where there’s a huge jump in performance, and the added comfort right away from the memory foam-like fit around your ankle is a great improvement. I thought the Rose 2 laced up just fine, but the gore bands stretched and frayed after just a few weeks of play. The 2.5 should hold up much longer, and the padding and sheer softness of the collar feels awesome to the foot. If you, like Derrick Rose, also wear an ankle brace, you’ll definitely appreciate the more traditional and accommodating closure here, too.

Coupled with that increase in comfort comes some exceptional lockdown. As designer Robbie Fuller explained it, there’s a subtle nod to the brand’s iconic three stripes in the collar design, and there’re three points of lockdown along the throat that’ll really hold you in. You’ll notice two triangles along the sides of both ankles and another along the tongue, and when laced tightly, you’re firmly locked right into place. The shoe’s modified SPRINTWEB quarter panel through the midfoot allows the body of the upper to cinch up and hug the foot well, and with a bolstered and enlarged SPRINTFRAME chassis seeping further up along the heel, there’s lockdown galore. I’m not exactly quite as fast as Derrick Rose, but on cuts and jabs, I was precisely where I wanted to be for every step.

A lot of times in a basketball shoe, impressive midfoot fit and heel lockdown can be practically worthless if the shoe has poor traction. While the Rose 2 took Derrick’s line to a new space for both on-court appeal and off-court versatility, the shoe’s huge backstory had one huge drawback. The volcano-inspired traction pattern that began along the medial side of the heel and flowed into the lateral side of the forefoot never quite cut it. Gone is the storytelling splatter traction pattern for the Rose 2.5, in favor of a fully grooved rubber outsole. Along with the difference in collar comfort, the upgrade in pure traction is something that’s immediately noticeable. It’s not quite as good as the industry-leading Crazy Light, but it’s right up there at the very top. Because the grooves are a bit more shallow than the Crazy Light, you’ll have to swipe a bit more from time to time, but keep the outsole clean and you’re completely set for sudden stops and changes of direction all night long. One of my main complaints on the Rose 2 was its lack of hold, and I loved the traction here.
What made the Crazy Light such a great shoe was, of course, its feathery weight and all-new modernized design, but there was a distinct difference in the way the shoe was actually constructed that I most appreciated. The shoe went from synthetic upper to SPRINTFRAME plate and straight to tooling, and the lack of a more traditional midsole meant you were sitting directly on a slab of, according to Fuller, what he so often calls “premium-sourced foam.” That subtle difference on the Crazy Light resulted in the best out-of-box comfort ever from adidas Basketball. The Rose 2 didn’t follow that same approach and was more firm to start, and thankfully, the 2.5 goes back to the upper-plate-foam construction that made the Crazy Light such a big hit. It’s something you might never be able to immediately notice just by glancing at a shoe, and it certainly will take a far more sophisticated consumer to be able to gather that this setup offers more cushioning and performance than an oft-duping visible technology like Air Max, but it’s greatly welcomed here in the Rose 2.5

Aside from the shoe’s improved cushioning, collar lockdown and traction, something I didn’t care for on the Rose 2.5 was the slightly roomy toe box. I have a pretty standard-width foot, but there’s some extra volume both above the foot and from side to side. If you lace your shoes a bit tighter, you’ll be fine thanks to some sweet heel and midfoot lockdown, but if you like a relaxed fit through the body of the shoe, you might find your forefoot sliding around a bit on cuts.

Another pretty noticeable issue was how slick the top of the shoe’s sockliner was. On top of the added volume in the toe, the insole doesn’t exactly keep your foot in place either. One solution I went to after just the third wearing was replacing the Rose 2.5’s sockliner with the “Crazy Comfort” insole from the Crazy Light. I felt immediately more secure, but that might not be an option for everyone, of course. The 2.5’s volume and slick stock sockliner are the only real issue in the shoe, and a good reason to possibly look into sizing down a half size. Otherwise, I didn’t notcie any hot spots or problems areas of note worth pointing out.

All in all, the Rose 2.5 carries on the quickly emerging Derrick Rose signature line with several great and targeted improvements from his first-half shoe. If you play the point guard position or consider yourself an active player, you should definitely like the great traction, lockdown, court feel and transition. If you have a narrow foot, the shoe might be a bit roomy up front and you might want to look at sizing down a half size. At “just” $110, the Rose 2.5 is a great value at the signature level and also a real durable buy. The slight toe rubber wrap and balanced foam cushioning setup will give the shoe a great lifespan over a full season of use, and unlike the fraying and decaying gore bands found on the Rose 2, the 2.5’s upper and collar foam package are definitely in for the long haul. The Rose 2 had some clear flaws that needed addressing, and it’s impressive that within the same NBA season, the Rose 2.5 is exactly the upgraded model I had in mind.

Grade Breakout & Details:

designed by: Robbie Fuller

best for: guards and forwards

colorway tested: Black / White / Scarlet

key tech: full-length premium-sourced EVA foam midsole, SPRINTWEB midfoot panel, SPRINTFRAME full-length chassis, plush memory foam-like collar padding, targeted grooved traction pattern, miCoach cell technology

pros: outstanding lockdown and support, solid traction, lightweight, outstanding court feel and control, real durable

cons: forefoot is a bit roomy and could hold the foot over the footbed better; miCoach compatibility is inconsequential

improvements: Work on fit from midfoot through the forefoot and tighten volume throughout toe.

buying advice: If you’re after court feel, transition, traction and lockdown, the Rose 2.5 is a great option. With improvements on literally every downside of the Rose 2, the 2.5 offers better hold on hardwood, a more comfortable collar and sheds weight in what is the lightest Rose shoe yet.

Available Now: adidas adiZero Rose 2.5

Performance Review: Air Jordan 2012 Deluxe

Performance Review: Air Jordan 2012 Deluxe

Air Jordan 2012 | Six Different Paths to Performance

words & images // Zac Dubasik

“We always start with performance. We always start with trying to make a better basketball shoe. We are always trying to improve performance for the best basketball players in the world, knowing that if we can achieve that, then of course people at all levels in the world of basketball will get a better shoe.” – Tinker Hatfield

Jordan Brand may be best known these days for their frantic, riot-inducing Retro releases, but even those shoes were the performers of their day. So it’s always refreshing to hear that the direction of their modern on-court shoes has kept that performance focus. But while modularity certainly has performance potential, it still feels like a bit of a gimmick. In practice, though, does it actually offer performance options that are as good as its non-modular competition? Because if not, is there really any point in being able to switch out a single shoe when you could buy two different shoes for the same price? It doesn’t matter if it’s simply a good modular shoe when there are such outstanding standard shoes out there.

When rumors and leaks started, indicating that Jordan Brand would take their dual-midsole Air Jordan 2011 to a whole new level of modularity, I’ll admit I was skeptical. As details started to emerge that there would be six different combinations rather than two, it just seemed like a bit much. Who really needs all those options on a single shoe? The basketball world has been surviving on single-option shoes forever, and I can’t really recall an outcry of complaints from players about their lack of modular choices. In fact, most of the previous attempts at modularity have either been shunned (Nike MORF), or short lived (Air Jordans XX1 and XX2). But that doesn’t mean options are a bad thing. If it could be done right, it’s easy to see potential. But again – these shoes can’t be judged on the fact that they are modular. They have to play as well as their competitors. And from my very first run, all that skepticism was put to rest. The only thing that reminded me that they were modular was the fact that I was excited to try out more combinations and options.

The initial setup I chose was the low-cut bootie combined with the Fly Over midsole. This was the closest to my usual preferences, and seemed like a natural starting point. The first thing to note, though, is how impressively made this shoe is. Materials, construction and finishing are all top-notch. It is an essential element of this shoe, though, because that kind of precision is an absolute necessity with all of these loose parts. If everything didn’t fit perfectly together, it would be an unacceptable performance compromise. Not only do things fit perfectly together, though, they are relatively easy to switch in and out. What that meant, for me at least, is that I was more likely to switch out from game to game and try more options.

Before I look at the individual options, though, I’ll comment on the constants. Beginning with the outsole, I found solid traction and outstanding flex. The grooves mimic your foot’s natural motion, as designed. Jordan Brand’s Tom Luedecke explained that, “it’s zonally engineered to actually match a footprint. We are looking at a footprint and where abrasion happens the most, and [we] place just the right amount of traction pattern there – taking rubber out wherever we can.” What also aids in transition is the shoe’s outstanding Flight Carbon shank. The proprietary weave developed by Jordan Brand doesn’t necessarily function any differently than standard carbon fiber, but the size and shape are as good as it gets. It offers just the right amount of rigidity, while still allowing the foot to flex naturally. The flex and court feel are so good, actually, (regardless of which insole is selected) that the shoe plays and feels much lighter than its weight would imply.

Moving to the shoe’s main upper, Flywire provides the primary support. Regardless of which bootie is selected, I found that the shoe cinched up perfectly and provided excellent fit despite its modularity. Lockdown was excellent, just as it would be on a well-fitting standard shoe. My only real complaint was that I felt the shoe needed a more rigid heel counter. I’d guess that ease of use when switching components in and out led to this softer heel, but it wasn’t a major issue. When fully laced, my heel was secure – just not as secure as the best examples out there.

The booties themselves were where I found the most pronounced effects of the shoe’s modularity. Sure, there were noticeable differences between the midsoles  – more on that later – but those didn’t give the feel of an entirely different shoe like switching booties did. Between the low-cut bootie and the thin collar of the main shoe, I experienced range of motion much more similar to a low-top when using that setup. It was my preference between the two, and once again, felt just like any other shoe as far as not suffering any ill effects due to being modular. But when I switched to the hi-top version, I was shocked. I almost expected it to feel like I had a glorified higher-cut sock on.

But instead, it truly gave the impression that I’d switched out to a hi-top. Increased padding, as well as a taller stance and strap, produced a very perceivable difference in support. We all know at this point that a low-top can provide just as much ankle stability as a hi-top by controlling the heel. But the higher cut provides that extra level of padding and reassurance that some players prefer regardless. And while it wasn’t my first choice, I thoroughly enjoyed playing in the higher bootie. Even though range of motion in the ankle may have been limited in comparison to the lower version, you still get all of the excellent transition and court feel from the main shoe.

Moving on to the cushioning, I’ll first mention that each midsole took a run or two to break in. But once they did, it allowed the flex of the main shoe to shine even more. While I initially chose the Fly Over (heel Air, forefoot Zoom) midsole, I found that it wasn’t my favorite option. As much as I like forefoot Zoom, the articulation used in this particular bag, coupled with the fact that it just had such low volume, made for an uneven feel. I’ve personally never had a complaint about a standard Zoom bag not flexing well enough, and I would have liked to have seen one used here.

The Fly Through option (full-length Air) provided, as expected, the most protective ride and was probably my personal preference. The Fly Around was a close second, though, whose heel Zoom and forefoot foam I found to be very smooth and soft once broken in. One note on all of the midsoles is that this season the Air units are bottom loaded, as opposed to how they were top loaded on the AJ2011. I preferred last year’s as far as cushioning, but Luedecke explained that by bottom loading the units, “you can control the contour a little bit better. … We were about [getting] better contour around the foot, which makes for better fit.”

I would agree that the 2012 fit better than the 2011, but I definitely miss the cushioning of last year’s shoe. At certain times, and on harsh cuts, I could feel the edge of the midsole not quite being tight enough to the inside main shoe. It didn’t produce any stability issues, and probably is a result of ease of use once again. I wouldn’t call it a major issue, but it is worth noting. It will probably be mostly noticeable only to players with wider feet.

So there you have it. The Air Jordan 2012 not only has six different options, but six different usable options. As I said at the beginning, the modularity is a moot point if I can get a better playing experience out of a standard shoe – especially when you could buy two standard shoes for the price of this. But once you’ve made your choices, it’s really a matter of lacing up and going about your business as usual. Sure, there were traces of modularity that leaked into the shoe’s playability, but nothing that materially harmed the experience.

Thanks to the overall comfort and supportive-yet-natural flex, it’s become one of my favorite shoes of the season. At $223 for the complete system, this is easily the most expensive Air Jordan yet. The biggest question will be one you have to ask yourself: Do I need all these options? If not, the single-option versions are available for $180. That’s still on the pricey side, but there’s always a premium to be paid to wear an Air Jordan. While it may not be the best value out there, it’s an excellent performer and an easy recommendation for almost any player.

Grade Breakout:

A (94/100)

comfort & fit: 5/5

cushioning: 4/5

ankle support: 4.5/5

breathability: 4/5

heel-toe transition: 5/5

traction: 4.5/5

weight: 4/5 (15.5-17.4)

best for: Most players will find some combination that works.

colorway tested: Wolf Grey/Black/Ice Silver/White

key tech: Interchangeable booties and midsoles that include Air and Zoom; Flywire; Flight Carbon midfoot shank

pros: Comfort, transition, adaptability, traction, plays lighter than it weighs

cons: Heel counter too soft; articulated Zoom in Fly Over forefoot felt lumpy

improvements: Add rigidity to heel counter even at the expense of ease of use for switching out parts; use standard Zoom unit rather than articulated.

buying advice: Just because modularity may be a bit gimmicky doesn’t meant it isn’t entirely effective. I was pleasantly surprised at how switching booties and cushionings yielded such different results – all of which were usable depending on your playing style and personal preferences. If you don’t need modularity, single options of the Air Jordan 2012 are available, and are excellent choices. But if modularity is of use to you, the AJ2012 Deluxe is the “System” to go for.

Available: Air Jordan 2012 Deluxe

Performance Review: Reebok Zig Encore

Performance Review: Reebok Zig Encore

words & images // Zac Dubasik

On paper, there is not really anything that stands out about the Zig Encore. If you look at each individual aspect of the shoe (which we will), nothing is really outstanding. And that makes this a hard shoe to grade, because I somehow ended up really enjoying playing in it. Make no mistake – the Encore is a decade behind a lot of the season’s best performers – some of which are much cheaper. But everything that the Encore does right came together pretty well, and made for a satisfying playing experience.

My biggest gripe with last year’s Zig Slash was its awful traction. It did have a herringbone pattern, but unfortunately, most of it was grooved into the tooling foam. Much more rubber was used on the Encore though, which resulted in solid traction. Unfortunately, the rubber compound used is a little on the firm side, and doesn’t grip as well as I’d like. But overall, and especially compared to last year’s, it’s dependable when clean.

The Zig Slash featured a sky-high cut that wasn’t very comfortable, but was supportive. The Encore has a much more modern cut, and offers far greater range of motion. Combined with the improved traction, it is a much faster and more mobile shoe. The collar lockdown isn’t perfect – I would have liked to have seen more molded padding to keep the heel in place better. Thankfully though, a solid internal heel counter kept things in place when I was laced tightly.

As for the rest of the upper, the patent leather-based colorway I played in was stable, yet flexed well. And despite how busy it is, I had no rubbing or hotspots where the many layers come together. It also held my foot securely over the footbed. The shape of the upper, on the other hand, is puzzling to put it frankly, and one of my bigger issues with the Encore. The shoe fits great through the midfoot, but the toe has far too much room at the tip. This is an extreme comparison, and an exaggeration, but it helps illustrate my point. Imagine a pair of men’s dress shoes with a pointed toe. The shoe fits close through the midfoot, but then has empty space in the toe to accommodate the pointy shape. While this may create a pleasing aesthetic in certain situations (I guess), I am lost as to why a similar last shape would be used on a performance shoe.

The Encore isn’t nearly as bad as that example, but any amount of excess toe room in a performance hoops shoe is just unnecessary. I don’t feel that it’s a matter of sizing up or down either, because if your foot is narrow enough to fill the midfoot, the shoe will be far too wide and roomy across the ball of the foot. The last shape wasn’t a deal breaker when it comes to playability, but it did make for a sloppier fit than what would be ideal. That excess toe length doesn’t work in its favor.

Moving on to the tooling, the revamped ZigNano midsole is much more basketball friendly than the original. This sleekened out version is lower to the ground, resulting in better court feel, and it also has better flex. What’s interesting is that this new version has more foam through the forefoot than the original. The platform’s exaggerated wavy midsole is filled in for more stability and a consistent ride up front. While the shoe’s Zig technology itself was of course adapted over from Reebok’s Running division after the instant success it experienced, the Reebok Basketball team did a nice job improving on the sport-specific needs of a Zig concept this time around.

Cushioning wise, I found the heel to be much softer than the dead-feeling Zig Slash. It’s not particularly responsive by industry standards, but very good when it comes to impact protection. The forefoot on the other hand, is firm. This is often the tradeoff when you get lower to the ground, and upgrade court feel. If court feel ranks highly among your preferences, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I found myself wanting a little more protection up front though after long runs.

The single biggest issue I have with the Zig Encore though is its price. At $115, it just doesn’t offer the quality, innovation and playability that we’ve come to expect at that price range in today’s market. It didn’t seem to cause any durability issues, but the construction is downright shoddy. There are crooked stitch lines and excess threads throughout the upper. The bonded seams and smooth lines of its competitors make the Zig Encore feel dated in comparison. And it just doesn’t offer enough from a performance standpoint to make up for it, and justify the price.

That doesn’t mean it’s a bad shoe – just not a good value. It’s hard to recommend at $115 over the competition, but I did enjoy playing in it from a sum-of-its-parts perspective. If you are a Reebok or John Wall fan, the Zig Encore is a perfectly capable on-court performer. If you’re after exact fit, great cushioning or modern construction, you may want to look elsewhere.

Grade Breakout:

best for: casual players who like the aesthetic of Zig-based shoes

colorway tested: White/Black/Red

key tech: ZigNano midsole

pros: transition, heel cushioning

cons: last shape, build quality, price

improvements: refined last shape, more attention to detain in construction of a $115 shoe

buying advice: The Zig Encore is a major step forward compared to last season’s Zig Slash. Nothing about the shoe stands out as amazing, but I thoroughly enjoyed playing in it. At $115 though, it there are better playing options from almost every competing brand. But if you like the aesthetic of the Zig tooling, and are looking for an alternative to the bigger names, the Encore does play well.

Available Now: Reebok Zig Encore