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Is New Balance Basketball the Sneaker Brand To Watch in 2021?

Patience is a virtue.

In 2018 New Balance announced its proper return to the world of basketball. The American sneaker brand had largely stepped away from hoops for a while after a period of relevance in the ‘80s and ‘90s when shoes like the NB 450 and 550 could be spotted on the court regularly. But over the last two years, New Balance’s endeavors in the field of getting buckets have defied the norm at every turn. The result is a basketball brand that has managed to balance exclusivity with accessibility and has a firm footing in its identity—something many of its direct competitors can’t claim. And it all starts with Kawhi Leonard.

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Leonard, a former NBA Champion/Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs and Jordan Brand athlete (at the time), was coming off of a season spent largely off the court with rumors circulating that he wanted a trade to his native L.A. Instead, he found himself traded to the Toronto Raptors, a team hot on the brink of title contention looking for the missing piece that would bring them the championship glory that had so long evaded them. Leonard joined the Raptors as a sneaker free agent, having declined an extension with Jordan, and in November, news broke that he had signed with New Balance as the face of their revamped hoops brand.

It was a match made in heaven. New Balance’s brand has always been distinctly understated and quiet. Kawhi Leonard was, and still is, one of the more iconoclastic NBA superstars specifically due to his incredibly reserved nature.

Still, staking an entire brand relaunch on one athlete felt like a bold move. Around the same time, Puma was making a re-entry into the basketball space and took the opposite approach, signing several reliable B-list stars like Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, and Terry Rozier. It felt like the savvier move at the time—getting Puma kicks on as many visible players as possible.


New Balance OMN1S | $140

Illustration for article titled Is New Balance Basketball the Sneaker Brand To Watch in 2021?
Graphic: Tres Dean

That all changed during All-Star Weekend 2019. Leonard debuted the first New Balance basketball sneaker in ages, the OMN1S (pronounced “ohm-niss”), during the game. The high-top silhouette was strange, simultaneously distinguished and subtle. Featuring a tight-knit fabric on the upper and a rock-solid sole primed with the brand’s Fuel Cell technology, fans seemed anxious to get their hands on the shoe and get some buckets for themselves.

The catch? They couldn’t. The OMN1S didn’t see any sort of wide release after All-Star Weekend, despite Leonard rocking them on the court for the rest of the season and up through the playoff run. It proved a remarkably intelligent move—here was one of the hottest players of the season wearing a new pair of signature sneakers that nobody could get their hands on.

New Balance OMN1S 2-Way | Prices Vary

Illustration for article titled Is New Balance Basketball the Sneaker Brand To Watch in 2021?
Graphic: Tres Dean
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Then May 12th, 2019 came along. In a moment now cemented in basketball legend, Kawhi Leonard hit a genuinely insane buzzer-beater that bounced on the rim FOUR TIMES before going in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, sending the Raptors to the conference finals.

Kawhi hit that shot wearing the “2-Way” colorway of the OMN1S, which had gone on sale for the first time in a hyper-limited drop a week before. The shoe sold out fast as it was said to be the only time it would go on sale before a general release scheduled for the fall. But suddenly it wasn’t just a shoe. It was THE shoe, the shoe Kawhi hit The Shot in (and eventually wore when leading the Raptors to their first-ever NBA Championship a few weeks later). The hype was real.

That following July Kawhi signed to the Los Angeles Clippers and New Balance capitalized with another hyper-limited drop of a commemorative colorway. Shortly into his first season with the team, the shoe was launched more widely, though colorways still sold out fast. For a while, it was nearly impossible to get a pair. New Balance’s plan had worked. The OMN1S was one of the hottest shoes in basketball.

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New Balance Kawhi | $160

Illustration for article titled Is New Balance Basketball the Sneaker Brand To Watch in 2021?
Graphic: Tres Dean

If it ain’t broke, why fix it? During All-Star Weekend 2020, New Balance had Kawhi debut his first signature sneaker with the brand, the aptly named New Balance Kawhi, during the big game. Like the OMN1S before it, the shoe wasn’t made available after its on-court debut, with the brand instead holding off for a limited drop in August of 2020 (in a colorway modeled after the original 2-Way OMN1S from the year before).

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The Kawhi is a tank of a shoe, a heavy, sturdy brick-built for power and endurance. It’s a far cry from many other signature basketball sneakers today like the Kyrie 7, which seem to prioritize cutting as much weight as possible to make for better maneuverability. The Kawhi isn’t setting any weight records in that sense, but it’s still a rock-solid hooping shoe great for players with larger frames and imposing, physical styles of play.

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New Balance 550 | Prices Vary

Illustration for article titled Is New Balance Basketball the Sneaker Brand To Watch in 2021?
Graphic: Tres Dean

The basis of a good basketball brand is largely in performance, sure. And hey, New Balance has that covered in a big way right now between the OMN1S and the Kawhi. But it isn’t the end-all-be-all of it. Hoops shoes have just as much stake in the lifestyle space and while there’s nothing stopping you from wearing either of those shoes out and about (they look great off-court, especially the Kawhi which comes in a variety of flashy colorways) it definitely felt as though something was missing.

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No more. 2021 marks the year the final piece falls into place for New Balance Hoops to fully take off. It comes in the form, not of the new, but the old—the New Balance 550 is making its return. While it might not have the iconic old-school lineup that Nike and Adidas do, New Balance was a force in basketball in a big way. It’s got plenty of legacy silhouettes that might not play great on the court today but still look killer with a pair of jeans or chic sweats.

New Balance 550 “Aime Leon Dore” | Prices Vary

Illustration for article titled Is New Balance Basketball the Sneaker Brand To Watch in 2021?
Graphic: Tres Dean
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As with the OMN1S and Kawhi, New Balance reintroduced the silhouette with a limited drop-in collaboration with fashion juggernaut Aimé Leon Dore. The colorways feature a beautiful off-white tone that accentuates the vintage vibes the shoe comes with. After that came a handful of basic colorways, which also sold out quickly. More drops are on the way as we speak, paving the way for the 550 to be one of the hottest shoes of 2021.

The sneaker brand is a crowded space and often it feels like the only way to get attention is to make as much noise as possible all at once. Two years since its official on-court return, New Balance Basketball stands as a testament to the alternative. Sometimes what you need isn’t noise so much as patience. You need to find the right athlete or brand ambassador at the right time, make one great shoe rather than a dozen, and hope one of them makes an impression. You need to understand the power of silence in a noisy field and know when to make your voice heard. Two years in and it seems like 2021 is going to be the year New Balance Basketball has been building toward. Let’s see where it takes them.

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